Your magical healthy bodies
What's so great about wellness anyway?
I’m a yoga teacher. :) Yeah I know! I never thought I would become one either.
When I first went to a yoga class, it was as a student at Douglass College in Rutgers University. It was an Iyengar class. The class was probably 90 or so minutes long, and it was NOT a vinyasa class. In fact, we spent most of the class stopping and starting, talking about the poses, sitting down and watching the teacher demonstrate with the other students. The teacher was an older (to me, at the time) woman (she was probably 40 something, so yeah, NOT OLD!), she was very kind, soft spoken, her hair was naturally grey, she smelled like patchouli (I had no idea what that was at the time, but I really liked it), and she was, to me at the time, the epitome of a yoga teacher. She was healthy (or looked it), well-rested (or looked it), kind, and soothing. I was instantly drawn to yoga, and to how I felt after her class. This was the beginning of my love affair with yoga, although I had tried various iterations of movement medicine before: gymnastics, ballet, Pilates, yogilates (yoga and Pilates combined), tai chi, (synchronized) swimming.
I eventually moved to the East Village and practiced at the donation-based studio there, Yoga to the People, where I found vinyasa. These yoga teachers were also really calm, focused, special, balanced, clearly not like me. I wanted what they had—they were centered, not anxious, perfect bodies, healthy lifestyles. It was hard to find a place where I fit in, though. I was really different from a lot of yoga teachers: I am disabled, anxious, moody, irritable, suspicious, skeptical, I didn’t have a yoga body. I saw myself as pretty much the opposite of everything that yoga embodied.
I bounced around from studio to studio, all vinyasa. I eventually got certified, thinking to myself, how is it that I am a yoga teacher? There must be a mistake. I can’t be, I’m sick, I have mental health issues. I’m disabled. A yoga teacher I studied with said to me, with great surprise, that I seemed to be surprisingly pleasant for a person with chronic pain and illness. Of course a person with chronic pain and illness couldn’t be truly happy with themselves.
You see, the thing about the wellness industry is that you’re always trying to fix yourself, and the wellness industry is always more than willing to take your money so you can fix yourself. It’s funny, because that seems to be counter-intuitive with the teachings of yoga, which (from my limited understanding, since neither of my yoga teacher trainings actually got into the traditional yoga teachings very much) is to be present and in the moment, and to not be tied to material wealth. (Of course, there are many other interpretations, not dissimilar to Prosperity Gospel interpretations of Christian teachings.) But, ultimately, how the west interprets yoga is to turn it into one of the many possible cures. The west wants to find cures for the human condition. Ultimately, we all must be able to find happiness, cure disease, stop dying. That’s got to be what’s best, right? That’s also going to be extremely lucrative. Who wouldn’t pay whatever they could to live forever?
The narrative I was taught, subliminally, through structures of ableism, about yoga teachers, is that they have to be able-bodied, perfect, balanced, special, beautiful. These are the people who are the pictures of health. I think ableism, along with greed, unfortunately, corrupt many of the teachings of yoga. It doesn’t have to do that, and yoga doesn’t have to bring a cure. Yoga can also be a wonderful compliment to a person’s life who has a disability: it doesn’t have to be synonymous with cure narratives.
The reason why I emphasize not focusing on cure narratives is because for some of us, there are no cures, and that is okay. You are perfect just the way you are, and you don’t need to be any other way. We’re all just on a march towards death anyway. No-one is going to escape it. It’s part of the circle of life, and anyone who is able-bodied isn’t better than anyone who is disabled (even though they want you to think they are better than you). This is the freeing message of disability activism and disability studies. For myself, with fibromyalgia and borderline personality disorder, for example (just two of my conditions), I can’t take a cure or a magic pill or potion or tincture to rid myself of these conditions. I could spend a lot of money seeing a lot of different practitioners to try and minimise my symptoms, yes (and I have). It has been a long journey to learn about myself and what is best for my individual conditions to make me happiest and the most symptom free at different times in my life.
Yoga is poisoned by ableism and greed when people use it to enrich themselves and to make themselves better than others. It’s a horrible shame, because people with disabilities, especially those with mental health issues and chronic pain, can really use yoga as a tool. But they are often discouraged by the ableism (as I was and still am). It makes me very angry, actually. But we can’t let them win, okay? We have to claim this practice for ourselves. It’s a really important practice in our toolkit of managing our symptoms and living our best life, and teaching people that disability is beautiful.