It was one of the hardest things I’d tried to teach. To teach a class for a popular teacher is hard enough. The students don’t already know me, and people are rarely totally open to a teacher that is new to them. To make it more challenging, this was the beginning of a weekend full of rallies reported to be run by white supremacists in the bay area.
Personally, I’ve been afraid of a Nazi uprising my whole life. I’d heard about how Jews had been integrated into German culture in the 1930s, feeling part of the community and totally secure, and how quickly the tides had turned, turning neighbors into suspects and much much worse.
For me, when I heard there was a white supremacist rally coming, I thought “hell no, I need to stop this!”
I read about creative ways to protest. Clown protests, turning our backs protests, black bloc protests, skipping it entirely and giving them no attention. As a love warrior, I wanted to do something that would not just preach to the converted, not just hate the haters, as cruelty and humiliation increases polarization, but to find something that would have the even the slightest possibility of being even a tiny part of changing the heart of even one person attending.
To strategize, I looked at their event page and learned the presenters were a surprisingly mixed crew: two African-American men, a Samoan man, a half Japanese man, a white transgender person, and a white man.
This gave me pause. Why was nearly everyone saying they were white supremacists if they are such a diverse crew? Were we all so outraged by what had happened in Charlottesville the weekend before, that we were projecting that event onto these ones?
Suspicious, I looked deeper for videos of them on stage, (to see whether they were wolf donning sheep skins, marketing themselves as moderates, but espousing hate once they had the platform… or something like that). All I heard was “We are bridge builders. We are tired of the right and left trying to fight each other and villainize each other. We want love and unity and freedom, we want to have a discussion, we want to end the violence, we don’t want the KKK or the Nazis here”.
While I had a hard time believing their sincerity, I found that if I lifted the veil of listening to them as if they were evil, that I would say those exact same words. That was very interesting to me. If I thought they were evil I heard them one way, yet when I removed that prejudice I heard them another way.
That sounds like yoga: that pose looks challenging, but when I stay clear headed and centered it’s not as bad as it looks. Yoga is very much about looking at how our presumptions color our perception, so I looked some more.
I didn’t like the sound of their one white guy: nicknamed the “based stickman” who sounded belligerent in his videos and was being prosecuted for violence at rallies, though claiming “self defense.” and I didn’t like the sound of the “Oathkeepers” doing their security. I didn’t know anything about the Oathkeepers*, but had heard someone sound an alarm about them doing the security.
I was feeling disoriented. I’d been hearing bad things, believing bad things, but when I look deeper, they are not what I’ve been told. If they are an evil, they are not the white supremacy evil I’ve been told they were. Best case scenario: they are who they say they are, bridge builders wanting to talk instead of fight. Worst case scenario: they’re outright racists just trying to knock us off our center, to bait us into starting a fight, making it look like the left are the ones starting the violence, justifying a police state.
To that I say: let’s stay in our centers and not give them that fight.
Back to this class – the studio had suggested we speak about how yoga applies to all the intensity coming through town. I thought I’d share my journey with an abbreviated version of the above. How I’d stayed calm, looked deeper, and seen more than I would have if I had succumbed to the initial hype. In a balance pose I talked about staying in our center so we can’t be lured into a fight.
I said that part of yoga is creating a safe container and then putting ourselves in positions that – while safe – trigger our fears, and staying clear headed enough to create the most optimal outcome available. We practice clearheadedness in simple postures, and gradually move to more complicated challenges to practice clear headedness as our capacity grows.
I said that in the wake of the horror in Charlottesville the week before, we have to be careful not to project our outrage from that completely unrelated group onto this one coming here. We don’t want to misdirect our righteous anger against the Nazis and the extreme right onto the moderate right, onto people who want to be bridge builders.
I suggested we feel any bodily sensations what I’d said had stirred up, and leave the story outside the room so we can deal with our own bodies, the fears we’d faced so far, and how we hold tension.
We did one of my favorite simple practices (try it): standing, imagining there’s broken glass under our feet, and notice how we contract away from that pain, even though it’s imagined. When you try it you’ll see how your mind makes it real enough for you to react against.
The class seemed to go well, however, a few days later I got an email. Someone had interpreted what I’d said as siding with the white supremacists. They said that some people of color have internalized white supremacy and that said I’d poisoned their practice by making the space unsafe. This was heartbreaking for me.
The author asked me to study up on racism and white supremacy, and I took them up on that suggestion and enrolled in a course.
I certainly did not mean to express any sympathy for the Nazis. I have none. I do have sympathy for people on the right who want to be bridge builders. Certainly I hadn’t made my point very well.
Seems they were too triggered by what they thought I meant to hear what I was saying at that point.
Ironically, this was exactly the point I was trying to make. When we are triggered we start projecting worst case scenarios. They started projecting our so-called-president on to me, and compared me to them in their email.
When we are triggered into fear/outrage/disgust, these emotions are there to alert us that a negative situation from our collective past may be happening again. Ideally we look to see if it is actually happening, but often we are too activated to see clearly. The extreme case of this is PTSD, where we disassociate from the present and act as if we are in the middle of a past traumatic event.
It is very hard to see beyond triggers of any caliber, but that is the very practice of yoga. In postures we may remember that last time we tried the splits our hamstrings hurt for a few days, so our first reaction may be to prevent ourselves from trying again at all, but on second thought, we can learn to align our thighs just right so that they open without strain.
Perhaps it was too big of a topic to address in such a short period of time, especially to an unfamiliar crowd, but that was my assignment that day, and I wanted people to stay in their center in these times of chaos, and this was what was alive for me. I pray that not many of them heard it that way. Only one reached out, and I appreciate them for that.
Please, if I’ve ever triggered you, let me know. Dealing with triggers is part of the practice. They say our practice brings to the surface the buried traumas we are ready to continue processing. We may want to blame our surroundings, but the deeper work is letting what comes up for us move up and out, so we can create the most optimal future.
Thanks for reading. This has been a vulnerable share.
Deep bows of appreciation to all of you and your life and challenges that are still working their way out of your system.