In the first installment of our brand new series ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Thought Catalogue!’ you will not believe what happens: A black person goes to yoga. Oh wait, no, sorry, that’s not really interesting. But what is weird is that a girl in her class felt so many feels about this non-event that she decided to turn them into a very lengthy ‘It Happened to Me’ think piece on XO Jane.
The harrowing tale begins, “January is always a funny month in yoga studios…” Excited, I turned up the brightness on my laptop screen and settled in for a hilarious story about mid-pose queefing. But what actually happened wasn’t really funny at all:
A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine. It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.
There are two things that could have been happening here: The “fairly heavy” black woman could have been experiencing some sort of epileptic fit, in which case the correct response would have been to call 911. Or she could have just been trying to do some damn yoga without some weird girl ogling her from between her “skinny white girl” thigh gap. I’m guessing it was the latter.
The trauma continues:
Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.
I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.
The keyword here being “imagined”. The writer then muses on yoga’s thousand-year Asian history and yogic egalitarianism for a paragraph, creating a nice build-up of suspense before the scene where, when this story is turned into a blockbuster horror movie, the scary Psycho stabbing music will play.
I realized with horror that despite the all-inclusivity preached by the studio, despite the purported blindness to socioeconomic status, despite the sizeable population of regular Asian students, black students were few and far between. And in the large and constantly rotating roster of instructors, I could only ever remember two being black…
I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?
Stay tuned for the sequel: ‘It Happened to Me: I Went to Yoga and This Weird Girl Wouldn’t Stop Staring At Me’.