Exploring Exhaustion and Energy Loss

I’ve been particularly exhausted, as is so often the case at the end of each school year. I often feel that the further I get into spring semester, the more I become tired, grumpy, and on edge. It’s as though my brain becomes over-worked, my body under-utilized, and my balance thrown totally off.

This year I’ve also been experiencing exhaustion as more than regular semester stress, and I feel certain it’s due to the routinization of daily assaults on personhood. It’s now routine to open social media and see violence, hate speech, and seemingly benign but still-hurtful comments indicating that the world isn’t burning up. Yet, my internal compass (and external thermostat) indicate that the world is on fire.

 Just a few examples: This week I confront anew campus shootings and stabbings across the United States—direct, physical violence resulting in serious injury and death. These occur within campus rape culture in which students are writing to process sexual assault. Even as I hold final class sessions, I’m aware that others aren’t able to—blocked by the threats of physical harm and literal fear of assembling as a group. And my final classes take place against the backdrop of fifteen-year-old Jordan Edward killed by police this week and Congress now acting to further restrict access to healthcare. Assaults on personhood feel more immediate than ever.

I feel very much like I did in November when about all I could write for my first blog post was “Arrrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!”

aaargh_bw

Today, alongside this clear embodied anger, I feel a new weariness, an exhaustion that’s clouding my head. So, I want to listen more carefully and kindly to my heart, knowing it can help me figure out how to use my hands.

As a way to listen to my heart, body, and soul, I’ve been tracking this week where I’m losing energy. Whenever I notice a new heaviness or tiredness, I’m asking with curiosity:

What might be the source of this energy loss?

Using the RAIN meditation practice I learned through mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, I’m working to recognize and allow feelings of exhaustion in order to investigate them through a gentle non-judging stance.

As a contemplative practice, RAIN suggests four actions or steps that help with exploring, questioning, and (un)learning the conditions of everyday life. These four steps are:

  • R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
  • A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
  • I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
  • N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).

While there is an implied sequence or order, RAIN can be practiced again and again, so that later steps like investigating and non-judging create space for new recognizing and allowing.

Tracking energy loss this week, I’ve come to some new awareness and, more importantly, new lovingkindness toward myself. Rather than being down or disappointed that I’m exhausted, I’m working to let this experience be. Exhaustion can characterize this time in my life, and it can lead to new discoveries, possibilities, and even activism.

Here’s a view into my current work with RAIN:

  • Recognition: I am frequently, daily experiencing a sense of tiredness, depleted energy, and even exhaustion. Though I’m also noticing occasions of energetic gain, excitement, and joy, my overall energy reserves are running low.
  • Allowing: Rather than ignoring, silencing, or pushing down these tired feelings, I honor them. I allow myself to name that I’m running on fumes. Through allowing this experience, I also receive what information it delivers—like reminders to take care of myself lovingly and to dedicate even more time to rest and refuel.
  • Investigation: As I investigate energy loss, I’m also noticing how much my emotions and overall energy are linked to interactions. I’m losing energy, for example, (1) when focusing on others’ reactions instead of my own actions, (2) when holding back or perceiving that others are holding back in conversation, and (3) when not knowing what’s mine versus what’s someone else’s. I’m working to name these and other sorts of energy loss. In doing so, I hope to find patterns and themes as I record each instance. Like the qualitative research I conduct and teach in school, this process invites me into the role of investigator. And as an investigator, I assume a more active and action-oriented stance toward understanding my exhaustion.
  • Non-judgement: With curiosity instead of judgement, I notice guilt and shame as they arise around exhaustion, noting underlying expectations that I should be able to catch and prevent burnout before it occurs. The more that I shift gently toward non-judgement and non-identification, the more I feel and experience exhaustion without being exhausted.  I can recognize, allow, and investigate this state without defining myself according to it. It simply is part of my life right now.

Exhaustion and energy loss are friends right now, friends who are helping me pay better attention to my emotions, to my heart. And my heart is heavy with grief, anger, and frustration. It’s no wonder that I’m feeling tired when carrying this extra weight.

Still, I believe in both/and: I can be both getting depleted from energy loss and learning to better shore up my energy reserves. I can be both disheartened by the assaults on personhood and wholeheartedly encouraged by people articulating and acting on commitments to justice. I can both launch a sharp critique of current injustices and soften into the introspective practice of RAIN. I can track both energy loss and energy gain.

To this last both/and—exploring energy loss alongside gain—I’ll share Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address, “Make Good Art” (an address I love sharing at this time of year, a time of exhaustion and also euphoria on college campuses):

Whenever I’m down, whenever I’m experiencing energy loss, I like to re-watch Gaiman’s address and his reminder to make good art:

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

So, here I am attempting to “make good art,” identifying as an artist, and following Toni Morrison’s call to “go to work.”

I am tired. I am experiencing energy loss. I am also learning and unlearning what’s causing this loss. And I’m hopeful that more contemplative, introspective practices like RAIN can bring us all home to ourselves and to more humanizing and harmonizing orientations.

Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

2017-04-15 09.10.47

As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.

Refueling with Feminists of Color

My last post shared blogs I love—blogs by feminists and womanists of color. I was motivated to write this post while working on a related one for the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin:

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 6.22.57 PM

Refueling with Feminists of Color” shares books, blogs, and events to refuel the activist fire or to get fired up. Especially at this time of ever-increasing violence (symbolic, cultural, structural, and direct violence), I seek ways to keep commitments alight, to keep visions burning brightly.

I find much inspiration among feminists and womanists of color—in the books highlighted in this post for the YWCA, in the blogs I read on a daily basis, and in the events that allow me to connect with and learn from others.

I’m also returning this week from a professional conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Powerful presentations reminded me, yet again, of how much I have to learn from feminist and womanist scholars, particularly women of color and indigenous women. Scholar-activists are enacting, modeling, and sharing with us (white folks, able-bodied folks, cis-gender folks—those of us who have much to learn) what it means to do feminism.

To do feminism as an act of love. To do feminism for racial and social justice. To do feminism toward humanizing, recognizing, and valuing all people. To do feminism that rewrites the world as it is and imagines the world as it “ought to be.”

At this moment (a moment when words feel far away and hard to find), I say simply: thank you!

Thank you to the many feminists and womanists of color who teach through words, through actions, and through lives on fire. Thank you for sharing fuel for the fire. And I commit again—today and as a daily practice—to listening, learning, and striving to live a life for justice.

Finding Love, Fueling Justice

“The search for love continues even in the face of great odds.”
—graffiti message shared by bell hooks (All About Love xv)

I’ve written previously about the roller coaster of emotions I’m currently riding—fired up one minute and laid low the next. My guess is this up-down, high-low rhythm will be my norm for some time to come.

At one point, I’m knocked down by the force of historic, mounting injustice; the next I’m connecting with and inspired by others truly committed to racial justice. One day I’m literally curled up from the HURT of this era of dehumanizing pain; the next I’m filled up with HOPE from seeing people show up in persistent and powerful ways.

This morning I’ve riding high and want to share why, as I hope these resources might help with finding love, fueling justice:

  • I’m truly inspired after seeing activist Shaun King speak last night here in Milwaukee. I’m deeply grateful for his reporting and calls to action via social media.
  • I’m learning so much from working with America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM). I really appreciate their “Breaking News” and online collections.
  • I’m feeling unbridled by reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/LaFrontera and planning an experiential gallery walk for class today. I’m committing (again) to working against all forms of injustice, including linguistic prejudice.
  • I’m lit by sharing bell hooks’s All About Love: New Visions—the perfect book for Valentine’s Day—through “love notes” to students and colleagues.

2017-02-14-09-22-04

Today is a day when so many of us celebrate love. May we search for love in the face of great odds. May we work to understand love better—to truly know and create it in our lives. May we build the emotional literacies, stamina, and resiliency needed for addressing our own complicity in injustice. May we seek to enact love, as we make actionable commitments to justice.

“To truly love we must learn to mix ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”
—bell hooks (All About Love 5)

Banana, Chocolate, and Peanut-Butter Mash: Changing My Relationship with Sugar and Rethinking Self-Care

The Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 banana mashed
  • 1 tablespoon of raw cacao or unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of peanut butter

Process:

  • Mash the banana; then mix in the cacao and peanut butter (or other nut butter).
  • Enjoy for breakfast, snack, or whenever a boost is needed throughout the day.

Rationales:

  • This recipe has just three straight-up ingredients: ground peanuts, cacao/cocoa, and banana. Unlike many sweets, this one is exactly as described (no hidden sugar or artificial ingredients).
  • It’s full of iron, potassium, and other anti-inflammatory and mood-boosting vitamins and minerals that I often crave, especially whenever feeling low.
  • It allows me to feel that I’ve had a “sweet” without eating sugar, and the protein keeps me feeling full for a few hours after eating.
  • This snack helps with my ongoing struggle with sugar addiction. I now notice when I’m craving sugar and ask myself to reflect on “why?” while still enjoying this sweet.

Changing My Relationship with Sugar

SUGAR! Sugar. sugar …

Growing up, I loved Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and identified with this character whose key personality trait was an endless appetite for sugar. Like Cookie Monster, I could easily down more than a handful of cookies (or other sweets) and would readily binge-eat.

Growing up, sugar of various sorts (cookies, ice cream, cake) became associated with holidays, seasons, and special events. I’ve found myself eating sugar to recreate feelings associated with these memories—feelings tied to a sense that “everything is ok.”

Growing up, sugar became my addiction of choice (especially as I don’t drink alcohol or coffee), and I’ve found that it’s taken a toll on my body. Now when I over-eat sugar, I often get sick and end up with derailed plans. It’s like sugar has become a coach taking me out of the game when I don’t recognize or act on my desire/need to cut back.

I’m still very much in the middle of figuring out my relationship with sugar and how I use it to harm (rather than heal) myself. Yet, these memories of “growing up” give me important clues into this troubled relationship—a relationship I want to better understand and to change so that I can fully show up in everyday and ongoing work for justice.

I’m noticing that I use sugar at different times to purge or hold onto, to comfort or disrupt, to numb or feel, to decompress or energize, to forget or remember …  Sometimes I use sugar to “fill me up,” as though feeling full and sweetly satisfied will take the edge off vulnerability. Other times I use sugar to punctuate (like a period at the end of the sentence)—to mark the end of an interaction, encounter, or period of time. Still other times, I find sugar sweetening (like softening) what’s hard about getting through the day.

The more I become aware of these patterns with sugar, the more I find myself asking: Why am I using sugar in these ways? What emotions underlie and lead to these habits? How might I heal what’s unresolved in my relationship to sugar—and to what it’s representing in my life?

Changing My Relationship with Sugar as an Act of Self-Care?

I understand changing my relationship with sugar (and I’m still far away from an actual changed relationship) as an act of self-care linked with self-love. And self-love linked with love for others. And love linked with justice.

That said, I’ve really struggled to write about self-care, because it’s so often watered down, meaning everything and nothing at once. It’s also really problematic when used to shame (e.g., fat-shame or body-shame). And because talk about food or movement is wrapped up with embodied experience, histories of body-shaming always linger around the discussion. Additionally, self-care (like pretty much everything else) is racialized so that a quick Internet search shows images of white women meditating or smiling, alongside images of outdoor and spa-like spaces. Even the images that just convey mantras (e.g., “keep calm and practice self-care”) invoke histories and contexts wound up with whiteness (in this case, motivational posters used in Great Britain during World War II).

So, self-care is nothing, if not tricky, and yet it’s absolutely essential to building resilience and resistance, particularly when under attack. As Audre Lorde wrote, when speaking from her positionality as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. - Audre Lorde

Lorde’s quote is so widely cited, so ubiquitous that it has deeply shaped how I understand self-care, even as I’m differently positioned as a white, heterosexual woman. Lorde names the importance of self-care as both an individual and collective, personal and political act. By naming self-care an “act,” Lorde ties it explicitly to activism.

Other feminists and womanists of color also name self-care as a “radical act—especially for black women,” noting the link between caring for and valuing one’s self (see the interview Evette Dionne). Similarly, Adrienne Maree Brown names the importance of “self-determined care,” which generates abundance for both self-determination and community-determination, naming the importance and interconnectedness of both types of care.

In reconsidering Lorde’s powerful quote, “feminist killjoy” Sarah Ahmed explains that self-care is an act of “warfare” because some bodies are always already under attack. To care for these bodies is to say that they matter. To quote Ahmed at length:

“Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.”

So, self-care signals mattering. Through self-care, we not only express our value or worth to ourselves, but we also invest in reassembling ourselves and our activist communities. In this way, self-care is related to “caretaking the collective” (part of community organizing) and other movement-building work that invests in relations, resources, and resiliency. It also invites attention to positionality and investment in making sure that every person has access to the time-space for self-care.

Certainly, self-care is differently experienced and differently needed because our positionality and attacks on bodies differ. Rather than flattening self-care, we can do more to think about inequities. Think, for example, about how leisure time, disposable income, and many other factors amplify both privilege and access to self-care. Think about how women, people of color, queer folks, and others are bombarded by everyday microaggressions, experiencing a greater need of self-care. Thinking along these lines, it becomes apparent that there’s a mismatch between access to and need for self-care—and this mismatch signals compounding oppressions (along the lines of double or triple jeopardy).

To address these inequities, we all need self-care, especially to build self-worth. And self-worth is needed in order to stop playing small. Self-worth is needed to stand TALL, to stand up for what’s right and what matters.

Practicing Self-Care as Engaged Refueling, Reassembling, and Resisting

The most powerful ideas I’ve encountered around self-care have come from feminists and womanists of color—like Lorde, Dionne, Brown, and Ahmed. I see that their understandings of self-care invest in bringing about a more just world. They also articulate a life-giving version of self-care, one that feels very different (and more consequential) than dropping in (and dropping out) of spas, yoga classes, or meditation retreats. Here I’m thinking about how dropping-in and dropping-out (and images of self-care associated with whiteness and white women) also invite dropping-in/dropping-out of one’s alignment with purpose, attunement with the body, and attention to emotional intelligence.

In fact, as I work to understand self-care and its importance, I realize that many of the ideas I’ve inherited around self-care actually run counter to refueling, reassembling, or resisting. Think of an image like curling up on the couch to binge-watch TV, while also binge-eating chocolate … Or of winding down the week through “happy hour” or other activities associated with alcohol … Or of over-working many weeks in a row followed by total collapse (characteristic of hectic semesters and long-desired breaks). So many images of “unwinding” or “winding down” are associated with binging (of one kind or another) and replace the goal of care with goals like immediate release, mindless retreat, or much-needed recovery. Self-care easily crosses into self-sabotage. Instead of being refueled, we can become further depleted.

Certainly, my relationship with sugar has been more about self-sabotage than self-care. So often, the short-term boost I get from sugar is replaced by long-term regret, guilt, shame, and other negative emotions. So often, the time spend eating sugar in front of the TV leaves me still feeling drained, still in need of refueling. So often, I end up questioning my own worth (a condition linked to all sorts of negative reactions, including white fragility and entitlement), instead of validating that I matter.

So, in changing my relationship with sugar, I’m working to understand self-care as truly showing myself that I’m of worth and, therefore, worthy to speak and act up. How might I invest in loving myself better? How might I listen to what my body’s really asking for, whether that be reflective silence, more engaged time with others, or something else? How might I learn more about the emotions or memories that sugar cravings are triggering? How might I befriend sugar?

In talking about and rethinking my relationship with sugar, I’m consciously engaged in loving myself and, in loving myself, opening myself to vulnerability, accountability, and responsibility to act. Self-care isn’t an out or a way to remove one’s self from the everyday life and activism; rather, it’s needed to fuel showing up with love within activist spaces.

These days, when I feel that I’m really gearing up for what’s to come, I need a version of self-care that lights self-love. May this simple recipe of banana, chocolate, and peanut-butter mash be one that energizes the work ahead.

Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing

In the past week, I’ve experienced some new/renewed lower back pain. And the pain has brought me back to my yoga mat and specifically to this gentle yoga practice:

I appreciate this video for the s-l-o-w movement, the focus on breath, and the ways my body responds. With each day’s practice, I’m feeling a little less pain, a little more openness, and a little more myself. This practice also invites a quietness for me, allowing me to listen—and not only to my body and myself, but also to the messages I’m receiving (and not really recognizing or processing) throughout the day.

Such a process helps enormously with healing—and not just with physical pain, but also with legacies of personal and collective trauma and injustice.

Healing the Mind-Body Split and Valuing Yoga as Spiritual Practice

I found yoga (or it found me?) in 2008. Both friends and physical therapists advised me to “try a class” and recommended Main Street Yoga, where I luckily connected with a few instructors and found some relief for back pain (when coupled with acupuncture and a range of other healing methods, which I’m sure to write about in future posts :-)).

At first, I understood yoga as asana practice—the movement, breathing, and meditation I did in classes. This focus on the body was empowering to me, as I had become so cut off from my embodied being that I remember asking questions like:

  • “You mean that I can actively change my breathing? … How?”
  • “What’s the pelvic floor? How do I feel it? How do I engage it?”
  • “How do I rotate some muscles in and others out—and at the same time?”
  • “Why do my wrists hurt so much?”
  • “My body—as in MY BODY—can go upside down? … No, really?”

Over time, I could actively feel in my body that tension in my shoulders was connected down my back, through my legs, and into my feet. I could tell that when my calf muscles were tight, my neck would also hurt. I could feel my breath and began to see how it was shrinking (becoming only a gasp) when I was nervous. I could recognize the link between pulling at my toenail cuticles (so that I’d soak my feet in Espom salt) and doing so at times when I needed grounding or courage. I could see that my body was desperately trying to communicate with me, if only I would pay attention.

In this way, yoga practice was helping me value my body and embodied knowledge, which I’d become cut off from. In the United States—and western, individualistic contexts, more generally—we tend to de-value the body, intuition, and feelings, while over-valuing the mind, logic, and rationale thinking. This is especially true in higher education, where I spend much of my life.

My introduction to yoga countered this problem of disembodiment. Still, I faced another problem, which I’m coming to understand as the flip side of the same coin: by focusing on asana/movement, yoga practice became entirely about the body. Again, in the United States—and western/individualistic contexts—yoga is associated with exercise rather than spiritual practice. Rather than seeing the body as connected with one’s mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual lives (as giving insights into and helping us experience our spiritual selves), popular notions of yoga treat the body as the end goal. In this way, yoga = exercise; yoga = muscle strengthening and toning; yoga = de-stressing the body; yoga = physical healing …

Over time (and I’m still very much learning today), I’ve come to understand yoga as a larger spiritually-focused and culturally-grounded practice, a practice that aligns with ecofeminism, veganism, and decoloniality. Through studying the Yoga Sūtras (alongside other spiritual teachings and Reiki practice), I now come to embodied-movement-based asana as a spiritual practice, as prayer.

Even when returning to my yoga mat because of back pain, I ask throughout asana practice: What is this pain trying to tell me? What does my body have to teach me about myself and what I’m not consciously acknowledging? How is my body expressing my emotions, and why am I feeling those emotions? I listen closely, planning to take action as guided.

Healing from Whiteness and Practicing Yoga for Justice

The post can’t end here—with my valuing of yoga as spiritual practice—because I can’t write about yoga without thinking about whiteness. Deeply troubling, in the United States, yoga is raced, classed, and gendered so that it’s associated with middle-/upper-class white women. Yoga magazines, websites, and advertisements feature not only white women, but images of whiteness (the social construct). Similarly, yoga studios manifest whiteness through spa-like environments, unspoken codes related to respectability politics, and other features of this social construct.

I’m a middle-/upper-class white woman. This means that when I look for yoga instructors or videos online (like the one I share above), I typically find people who not only look like me, but who also share much of my background and beliefs. Such common ground goes deeper—and is more insidious, still—as numerous privileges associated with my identity allowed me to stumble my way into my first yoga class and, from there, into a meaningful yoga practice. Even the ability (time-space-mobility-access) to practice yoga asana represents layers of privilege.

Such privileges call on me to consider cultural appropriation and the problematics of yoga in the U.S. (western/individualistic) context. There’s much work to be done toward changing the ways we [read: “we” in the United States, particularly white people, people in the yoga community, and people with privilege/power] understand, construct space around, talk about, and otherwise “do” yoga.

I think that yoga—particularly the 8 limbs of yoga (with asana being just 1 of 8)—has much to offer on the long haul toward justice. Concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana), and careful study (svadhyaya) are all absolutely necessary for self-work. Similarly, nonviolence (ahimsa) motivates anti-racism and other movements for social justice, including current work to decolonize yoga. Here I think especially about the resources Decolonizing Yoga and Sistah Vegan Project (both of which offer extensive content—and blogs I follow). Following the spiritual practice of yoga should help us uncover systems of inequity and injustice and to develop the resilience and insights needed for intervention.

For me, such work—striving toward the “ought to be”—brings me back to my yoga mat and includes asana practice. With the larger spiritual and justice-oriented practice in mind/heart, I need the time-space for quiet, slow movement. Currently, it matters to me that the practice is gentle, as the gentleness toward myself (non-judging lovingkindness) allows for gentleness more broadly (non-judging toward uncovering internalized prejudice, developing bias literacy, and kindly correcting myself for the harm/wrongs I do).

Too often, I realize after-the-fact that I’m back in a spiral of beating myself up for the crap I inevitably do as a white person (as whiteness itself is a pathology that means always messing up and living in mess). To choose differently—to humbly acknowledge the mess and to step out of pathological hurt—I need gentle practice. This gentleness is not to excuse, explain away, or allow for white supremacy. Instead, it is to work on healing the wounds and white fragility that manifest as back pain.

With hands (and feet!), I’m working to ground myself and to heal not only my recent flare-up of back pain but also the pain underlying this physical pain. I’m also “taking it easy”—practicing slowly, mindfully, even cautiously—and using my favorite gentle yoga video to do so.

Going forward, I’d like to think more about yoga during illness, as too often it’s illness (or physical pain) that brings me back to asana practice. I’d like to honor my body’s wisdom when it speaks to me in whispers (and to hear the quiet whispers and not just the screams of pain). I’d also like to explore the links between spiritual practice and resiliency. I’d like to commit now—today and every day—to embodied self-care for justice.