A few of you who know me, know that my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was eight. I was an only child, and my father was an often absent work-a-holic, so I spent periods of my childhood caring for her, up until her death a decade later.
I sat with her when she was sick from chemo. I held her steady when she came to my school events, embarassed for having a weak, visibly sick mother. (I then swallowed my shame for feeling embarassed.) I picked up the pieces after her violent grand maul seizures she had in public. I lied for her when her shame asked me not to tell my father about those seizures. I mothered myself when she was too sick to mother.
My childhood was not all awful; there were many moments that it was great to be a kid. But even when she felt well, living in a household with the constant, underlying energy of illness is not an easy way to grow up. My trauma around all of this is layered and brings me to my knees *still* sometimes. Grief a funny thing.
Fast forward to some – was it 8? 9? – years ago:
You can imagine, then, as a single parent of a young (only) child, how terrifying it was when my routine mammogram showed signs of possible cancer. My follow-up ultrasound was inconclusive. A biopsy then, scheduled for the next week…
Anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or had a cancer scare, has a full range of emotions during the wait for test results. Amongst mine, given my childhood experiences: If I was ill, would my daughter forever carry the pain of witnessing it? If I survived, could I live with myself for putting her through this? If I died, would she feel as lonely and untethered as I do? Or, would her father show up for her, unlike my own father, who was so self-absorbed in his own trauma and a revolving-door of shiny-new girlfriends that the grief of our unravelling relationship felt as if it were a similar loss; a second, metaphoric death?
…. So I had the biopsy; the results would be available in a few days.
Several hours later, still tender from the procedure, I attended a yoga workshop from a well-known visiting teacher. His name was Andrey Lappa.
(I started to not name him, but fuck you, Andrey, we women are done protecting men from shameful behavior).
The workshop was crowded. I knew many people there from the Seattle yoga scene. It was kind of a BFD that he was in Seattle; this was before Instagram fame and the sheer numbers of yogacelebs that exist today. The ones that did rarely visited Seattle. Andrey, from the Ukraine, was doing innovative, cool shit at the time. Or at least I thought it was cool then. He also had this bad-boy reputation of ‘pushing’ his students and being an all around douche.
I don’t know, that was before #metoo. Women, especially female yoga students of influential male teachers, didn’t question assholes back then. Even just 8 years ago.
These days, what I would consider innovative and cool is if a white male yoga teacher in a position of power acted with integrity and true compassion and as an ally of womxn and marginalized folks. Not by grandstanding and gymnastics and predatory, dick-move power plays.
But that could just be me.
At the workshop, I settled in the back corner, behind a post, hidden. Boxed in with many other mats. It had been a rough week: All I wanted to be was invisible.
The first hour of the workshop he continually berated us “for being American” and how messed up our shoulders were, including shaming multiple people specifically who had shoulders more congested than he deemed acceptable. About halfway through this workshop, which increasingly felt like should be titled “Yoga for Masochists”, Andrey asked us to do a twist. Any twist. He didn’t specify. Feeling emotionally tender and physically scarred from the procedure – it literally hurt to twist – I reclined to my back for a gentle supine version.
Andre picked his way across the mats of students in various competitive versions of Marichyasana D, stood over me, and in a booming voice: “Work harder! Go ahead, keep fooling yourself; with that little effort you’ll die a truly unfulfilled person!”
(Mike drop. Spin on heel and walk away).
Whether or not he was trying to be funny or witty, I don’t know. Or maybe this was his sick version of encouragement. Perhaps he felt powerful in that moment, this large imposing man in a red robe (pajamas?), towering full height over a me, a woman, laying on the floor at his feet. My eyes had to have looked scared and stunned.
I do know that I had spent the past week reliving the trauma of my mother’s slow death and planning for the possibility of my own. So to be told out-loud that I was going to DIE UNFULFILLED in a crowded room – no matter what his agenda – was an excruciating punch to the gut.
Layer on a lifetime experiencing gender power dynamics (hi every womxn on the planet), and the indignity of being diminished by a man while laying on my back in a truly vulnerable position underneath him and this was some sort of new awful.
I felt his spittle land on my face as he yelled.
I spent the rest of class, which felt like hours, stuck in the corner choking back sobs, trying not to make noise or bring attention to the fact that I was crying. I knew to try to leave would bring more attention to myself, so I tried to make myself small to mitigate the risk of being called out again. (I see you, women out there, trying to make yourself invisible). So I stayed, frozen in place, doing that ugly cry when you try to swallow tears while simultaneously trying not to be seen.
It was interesting: Later, other women present explained it away that it must be a cultural thing; that there was a language barrier and he didn’t mean anything by it. Or: Are you sure you heard him right? You must’ve heard him wrong. He was just joking.
Few of us would stand for that now: we know better. I often feel like we’re standing still with regard to societal evolution around abuse, harrasment and sexism. Eight years wasn’t that long ago. That women’s cultural narrative of this would be different today gives me hope.
I’m reliving this story to share that you’re not alone; everyone has some level of trauma (it’s hard to be human, especially as womxn or those who identify as marginalized).
Many of us, also, have had similar experiences at the hands of a teacher or someone more powerful than us – or we have knowingly or unknowingly been in the position of the oppressor – and we are just now beginning to loosen its powerful grip by talking about it.
My encounter with Andrey Lappa would have been an entirely different experience, I suspect, had I been more aware of the effects of my adverse experiences, or Andrey had had awareness of his, or, better: Andrey as a teacher was committed to empathy & being informed of the effects of trauma in students.
I’m actually grateful for the experience; which, like many things that suck, become the springboard for transformation.
It is my mission to offer a space at Twist Yoga to begin to unpack our experiences and create collective healing. In my opinion, taking a look at our traumas, and more importantly, becoming informed and empathetic to the effects of trauma in others, is necessary if we’re going to get beyond this turburlent time on the planet. Regardless of you are a teacher, mentor, family member or human being, I hope you’ll consider joining us for Trauma Informed Yoga Workshop at the end of March.
I, for one, am committed to creating space within to do some uncomfortable work, so moving forward I’m never the reason anyone is sobbing in the corner.
I hope you’ll be able to join us: for Trauma Informed, or to learn about your mind in Michele’s upcoming Yoga Nidra workshop, or for busting your heart right open with Rob, Melissa and Amber’s Five Divine Deities.
All of these weekend immersions support your own health and the folks who you encounter. It would be lovely to feel comfortable enough in vulnerability to be able to do this work as a community.
Ps. The lump in my breast was benign. I am one of the lucky ones.