Monday, July 21, 2008

Eating Habits: Response to Comments

Oh dear: I have just read the comments posted for the entry on Eating Habits. I had been hoping people would start participating in a dialogue around this blog—I have received some kind responses in personal emails to me, but maybe it takes a different sort of sentiment to motivate one to stand up in a public forum. Either way, I do believe that all voices should be heard, and I greet each of yours with gratitude.

What was shared has given me much to think about and write about, and I thank you all for illuminating some issues that I might focus my practice on. Some of you said things that are mean, but many of you said thoughtful and well-articulated ideas that I take to heart.

I will write this next entry on how I feel about my body and why I have chosen yoga as a way of life, not just to practice but to teach; and not just to teach, but as a set of values in honour of the body and the selves they create, that I have deemed important enough to dedicate my time and resources to building an institution and a community around.

First of all, though, we are talking in cyberspace—I know none of you personally; or if I do, your identities are disguised to me—so let me begin by introducing to you my body so that we may remember that despite the computer interface, we are speaking amongst humans.

I am 5’11 and weigh anywhere between 71 and 75 kilos, depending on my levels of stress. I am not of slender build, and have a body that I consider heavier than what one expects of a yoga teacher. I am also gay, many would call me butch and I am often mistaken for a man. Being mistaken for a man is no longer affronting to me; what has been a much greater challenge has been living in a woman’s body and being treated in a way that does not correspond to who I feel myself to be. In short, my body has caused me much anxiety in my life, and while not the whole reason, it is a significant part of why I take yoga so seriously. [And yes, I anticipate given the previous responses, that these confessions will also be taken as offensive to people with similar insecurities. Fire away, and maybe we can make some headway together.]

I am quite a shy person, and get very nervous standing in front of people; when I teach, I put people in a meditative or restorative pose if I am going to go on for any length of time because it freaks me out to be watched as I speak. When I am, I shake and hope nobody notices. And yet I stand there, sometimes up to twenty times a week including private sessions (which are considerably less scary), in little shorts and tight tops so that people can see my body so that they might better understand theirs. When I began teaching, I assured myself that it was comforting for people to see someone without a Vata body-type who was still healthy, fit and maintained a serious practice. I am interested to hear from other yoga teachers who feel that there is an expectation to have a tight ass and six-pack in order to call yourself an authority on the practice; and who prefer instead to demonstrate a standard of health that clashes with social standards of beauty.

And yet, despite my anxieties and the pressures I take on based on social expectations, I value this body. I spend many hours a day being overtly looked at, and many more hours where I am not on stage but just by virtue of who I am and how I dress and look, fall short of what is a social ideal and often what is socially accepted. I cannot change my body type or my sexual orientation; I will not change my gender; and I refuse to shackle myself with insecurities. There is only one solution then, and that is learning to love the material that makes me who I am so that I can proceed in my life motivated by what I believe in, and not what I am afraid of. This doesn't mean attacking those that make me uncomfortable, but regarding my defensiveness as insecurities, and resolving them within myself.

The practice of yoga is my way of living on the inside of my body and looking from here to the outside, instead of standing in a sea of opinions and emotions, looking back at what I am through the waves. From the outside, the idea of my body may make me uncomfortable, but from the inside it is healthy, it is strong, it is kind, creative and competent; I love it, I move it, and it feels like me. The practice of living from the inside out is a lifelong commitment that requires constant attention, and it is my pleasure and my responsibility to maintain.
My practice is also about clearing paths of awareness through layers of impressions, tendencies and expectations that otherwise steer my thoughts into inauthentic manifestations. I believe consciousness begins in the body as emotions; we have the choice to recognize those emotions and desires for what they are and grant them honest expression; but through our lifetime, we layer grids and cutouts over the body so that an intention has to travel a long and obscured path through anxieties, norms, aversions, defenses, back over itself and around, distorting the beauty of its initial impulse, rendering it something that is socially acceptable and safe to pronounce, but has the effect of silencing our true intention. My practice is being unafraid to articulate what is inside, whilst maintaining the openness to see what comes out so that I may cherish it, heal it, dig deeper with it, or articulate it better. This is honesty; crafting sentences and identity that will put other people at ease, is not. This is my own practice.
As a yoga teacher, my practice is different; it is putting my self to the side and creating a space and an energy that invites people to discover the vocabulary of their own bodies and minds. I use words in my classes in attempt to bring people’s awareness to parts of themselves that they may not feel comfortable exploring on their own, or wouldn’t have known was there to explore; and I invite those parts to voice themselves so that they may be heard and either owned or healed. I do not create an easy, comfortable space; I create a space that challenges people to look into themselves so that they may see what is there, so that they may observe their own reactions to certain ideas or movements and gather insight into their own defenses. I read the angry comments that have been posted as expressions of anxiety, and embrace them as opportunities to learn—I learn about myself based on my reaction to you, I learn about you and how you have chosen to present yourself; and hopefully you learn about yourself by seeing your words in context and being open enough to think of how they sound from the outside, and to the minds that receive them. I see between ourselves a place to practice.

I do not take offense at what you have said and accept or reject your claims with equal humility, but I will take a firm stand at the doors of our yoga studio and refute any suggestion that the yoga space I am responsible for is anything less than sacred. Every body who enters the studio, I greet with love and openness—overweight people, underweight people, happy people, stiff people, bendy people, people who smell like cigarettes or alcohol or perfume, noisy people, sexual people, reserved people, suspicious people, chatty people, nervous people. Our yoga space is not a place for egos to develop, is it a place of humility and hard work, and trust is the most important element in maintaining that space. As a teacher, I cannot do what I do if that space is not real. To indulge my own ego and give any credence at all to the possibility of my own judgments in this space is to sabotage my own project and deny my own values. And, if my intentions are not genuine, then all the hallmark philosophy about love and kindness that can be presented in bite-sized catchphrases and dotted through the practice, will not convince the bodies that enter this space that they are safe. For me to be self-indulgent in this shared space is to close off my ability to see, and to contaminate the very openings that I encourage people to receive and inhabit.
To some people, a yoga teacher is someone who teaches exercise class; there are those of us who see yoga as something quite different and I take my responsibilities to lead a clean and non-violent life very seriously, for my own sake and that of my students. I invite anyone who has felt undermined in my classes or at my studio to address me in person, so that your discomfort may be resolved through mutually honest and courageous dialogue.

I have had much to apologize for in my past, and, as a writer, an adventurer and an honest yogi, I will certainly be called upon to apologize in the future. Saorla, you read something in my entry that I did not intend, you have inferred an opinion that I cannot own, and you have all painted me in colours to match these opinions and judgments that I don’t recognize as mine. But, it is true that I chose the words I did, regardless of the meanings you have given them; I put these words in public and that leaves me vulnerable to the will of my readers such as yourselves. I can only accept responsibility for what my words have become, and so for manifesting in this blog such dark and shrunken opinions, I apologize.


saorla said...

Isabelle, does it make it better that you did not intend to be discriminatory? If I was sexually harassed would it be better if it was unintentional? If someone made a racist or homophobic remark, does it make it better if it was unintentional? I don't think so.

Do you reject your statement saying that people in the west are fat because they eat junk food? Being fat is not a choice. There is no safe medical procedure to make a thin person fat or a fat person thin. There is ample proof that being fat does not mean unhealthy. Maybe you are a victim of the "Obesity Epidemic" scare and believe the propaganda.

I would just like to add that I have never written to you under a pseudonym. I have attended your classes, was friends with Sophie and have had a drink with you, so you'll forgive me if I reject your implication of anonymous internet attacks.

Isabelle Skaburskis said...

Hello Saorla,

You're right: hurtful and destructive remarks or actions cannot be excused on the basis of being unintentional. And yes, I certainly reject the statement that people in the West are fat because they eat junk food. No question.

Saorla, I do apologize for offending you. I would like to go back to the passage you highlighted in your initial comment and clarify what I meant.

“We also talked about how some people in Western countries can be very fat, but because all they eat is processed and refined foods, they are actually suffering from hunger; that is, nutrient deficiency.”

I expressed myself badly; what I meant was that there are SOME people who CAN be very fat because all they eat is junk food. I was talking about a particular demographic that does exist. I certainly did not mean to imply that all fat people are nutrient starved or that people are fat because they eat only junk food.

I would like to explain to you is that my writing is honest, and while insulting someone unintentionally is not excusable, genuinely unintentional harm done is an opportunity for forgiveness. I write to reveal my beliefs and prejudices, not celebrate them; but if my only outlet was a journal, certainly, i wouldn't offend anybody but I would be my only lens for scrutiny and would have limited opportunity for growth. If I write in public, there are people like you to point out what I might otherwise overlook or dismiss as “well, I know what I mean, so i don't need to think about it any more.” In this case, I feel that you inferred something that I did not write, which means that A. I have to improve my writing skills, and B. there is obviously something that I am not taking into account when I speak on this topic. Your feedback is a great way for me to see this.

Saorla, I apologize for hurting you. I ask you to understand that I am not closed-minded or opinionated on the matter; I ask you to forgive my carelessness and grant me the kindness of believing me when I tell you about what lies behind these words. I also assure you that I have been duly kicked in the ass and taken note for speaking flippantly about a very sensitive matter and, really, one I know very little about.

It is also true, though, that I will not run away from the topic. I am committed to learning more about why many women have such difficult relationships to their bodies; why we are almost universally obsessed with body weight; why we as individuals eat the ways that we do, for so many different reasons, to satisfy so many emotional needs. I feel there is a lot to learn here and I will practice writing about it in different ways. I will try my best to not speak stupidly, but please understand that I can’t promise that I won’t. To make that promise would be to stop asking the question.

Finally, it bothers me that you think I hate you. Yes, I believe I do know who you are and that makes it worse, but it would bother me anyway. I do not hate you or find you disgusting. I do not hold any such opinions of anyone, least of all on the basis of body weight. I would hope that you continue yoga, maybe with another teacher as you might not feel comfortable practicing with me anymore, and I respect that; but please note that if I saw you in class again, I would receive you with the same appreciation that I always have, and that I have for everyone who chooses to spend an hour of their time honouring their body.

I thank you for the dialogue.

Warmly yours,