SUICIDE, Identity, and Survival.

Death has seemed to permeate spare moments recently. First I learned of the death of an influential teacher, then the news of the suicide of Robin Williams. In the meantime my own mind was manufacturing thoughts of my own death, so when I heard about Williams my thought was, “wow, he lasted a long time.” All the listings seemed to include his age at 63, a full 20 years more than I’ve lived, and in the moment of my own darkness that was seeming really amazing (as in how could he do it: live so long with such hopelessness!)—and I write this also knowing that 63 can be very young, but for someone carrying psychological heaviness 17 can also feel old.

In 2011 I wrote a couple pieces on SUICIDE (Suicidal Education. How Thinking on Death Might Help. and Open to a Radical Acceptance of Life, including Death and Suicidal Thoughts.). And a few years later, my thoughts on the matter have developed—go figure!

I was saying that suicidal thoughts can be seen as faulty ideation—which they can! But I also think that there is something to be honored and respected about experiences of pain and difficulty, and to simplify that process may not serve as strongly as delving deeper. And to just give some credit to the experience that life is hard when you feel that.

It is possible to try to live in a positivity bubble, but I think if we are lucky it will actually burst to let more of reality in. It is very hard to have one’s state of awareness shaken, but I also think that we are here to heal. And as we start to move through some of our personal pains, then it is time to open our cloak a bit wider to serve community and world concerns, and this—in my experience—wraps back in to deeper personal healing.

Let me explain about the “positivity bubble”:
Earlier in my process of learning yoga, I heard people talking of “news fasts” to clear your self of negativity. This can either be a helpful break, or the beginning of a habit to block out information. I do think it’s okay to choose and be discerning about news sources, but I also think that it is important to be open to hearing news beyond one’s self. Also it was suggested to use affirmations to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I tried this, and what I discovered at that time was that my mind has a bullshit detector. Lying to myself had limited effect, but to ask yourself those questions about growing into greatness to help open a mental door you might not have seen before can have a helpful effect of affirming a positive light in the self. And practices of only surrounding yourself with happy people seems fake, and can be warped into only engaging in friendships and interactions that will advance one’s social standing or wealth which can result in more imbalance in our culture at large. Everybody’s individual actions (and actions of our ancestors) accumulate to produce all of the disparity and injustice in the world today. What are the actions that are more inclusive of community and world wellness?? is a question I ask in an attempt to direct healing rather than adding to the weight of the dynamics of injustice I see in the world today.

So if the positivity bubble isolates a person with people of power/privilege all lying to themselves, then it should be opened to include more air, information and people with different backgrounds and experiences. plainly said.

On the other hand I do think it’s important to bring love and compassion to life’s interactions, this is different from the harmful, policing, isolating form of positivity practice I was offering some space to explaining above.

make sense?

People should not use yoga and positivity practice to isolate themselves, people should use yoga to amp up energy and vibes that can help serve physical, mental and emotional healing with a greater goal of inclusivity of self-understanding, people, and environment in perceptions, awareness and choices.

I have discovered a great deal of healing in developing my self and connecting to others beyond the yoga community. At this point it seems like a non-negotiable to allow myself freedom to explore gender identity. It really seems clear that when “male” and “female” boxes are applied to things like identity, personality, skill-sets, and body type that those differences are often false. And to freely discover and be who I am means to look beyond who I was taught to be, and so much of that has to do with having been seen to have what is called a female body. There is also a spiritual healing that is represented by the integration of so-called male and female aspects in one’s self. Is it just taboo to talk about it in lived perceptions?

I think that the power differences that men and women commonly experience help to make our culture oppressive and harmful (rape culture is already an established concept, wage differences are also commonly known about). And I don’t believe that there is anything about this that needs to be permanent. We are humans. We can grow. We can learn, integrate, and heal. I believe that a part of this healing work has to do with how gender is commonly seen to be divided into 2 categories or classes. And I also think that this “war” not only harms the people involved, but it also distracts from the complexities of healing race and the harms, not yet fully healed, of slavery and colonialism on people and land.

What makes me want to live is a belief in love and healing, and to have specific ways that I, Brooks Hall, can experience and express love of self and others, and concrete ways that I participate in change, including cultural change that supports freedom of personal and gender expression. What stops me is overwhelm, and I promise to take daily steps to release that pressure.

So what I’m saying is that my life and artistic expressions of late have offered me a lifeboat of survival. It is no small matter or frivolous pursuit. To pursue ideas and expressions that can be challenging for people can appear like a kind of suicide, since the culture I am in values conformity. Men are like this. Women are like this. Yoga teachers are like this. I know I am not alone. In fact I know people who seem way more courageous to me than myself, but I do feel that I am doing my part in healing by pushing my own boundaries and creating an artwork, a life that is mine—while I have it.

The Sweet Passion of One-ness!*

seahorseTranscendent experiences happen. Someone can feel an experience of one-ness, bliss, or insight that is so powerful. It can shake the very foundation of a person’s understanding of themselves and life. This is not necessarily news.

As the work of Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad has shown, a problem occurs when a person prioritizes transcendence above other states. They might become checked-out from life on the planet, or someone might give up personal agency and/or wealth to a guru or spiritual group that promises more of a direct or constant connection to the “special” experience. A person can be vulnerable after a spiritual opening such as this (and sometimes vulnerable to delusions of grandeur and consider becoming a guru).

I feel that my experiences of bliss, connection and insight are too many to count, really. I think there are bits of it in every day!

However there was also an extreme experience I remember happening after a yoga class. I was saying goodbye to the teacher, looking into his eyes, and I had perception of palpable love that came down from above and held me in place, frozen for some time, like a Star Trek tractor beam of love. It was all around me, including the air and walls. It was overwhelming my senses, this experience of love like sensual molasses: it was thick and strong and all encompassing. I couldn’t even flesh out all the details with my mind, the love just kept going, expanding like a nuclear blast of love and magnetic intensity that kept going…

And I came back to the experience of my body, never to be the same again because I had experienced something more than I had known before. Words are not adequate.

After years of trying to understand (or at times to deny) this extremely transcendent experience, through spiritual reading, teachers, observing my experience in the world, and working to see the world as well as I can, I have formed some ideas about how to navigate transcendence even though the experience itself can be unasked for (in my case), totally disorienting, and overpowering in the moment and aftermath!

I think it’s not correct to use this knowledge to escape the suffering of the world. I know that this is the promise of spiritual traditions, and that it is a human impulse to move away from pain and towards pleasure. But I also think that any escape is temporary, and meanwhile the violence among people in the world and towards the environment of the world appears to be escalating. We haven’t found peace.

The transcendent experience I described earlier forms a foundation of belief for me. I have had an experience that I really cannot deny (even if there are moments and habits that are contradictory). I know there is love that is felt that goes beyond what I learned from others. I rationalize it as a vision of potential, a kind of faith.

I call on this knowledge to be fuel for trust in the goodness of this world, even as it is not fully expressed in time as we commonly think of it.

My “job” (I believe) is to use my agency/power/privilege to help healing in this world. We, as humans, can do so much better! Part of healing in our bodies in our communities on this planet is painful. It is important to discover when we are doing helpful work versus harmful actions in daily life.

The vision of healing includes building a structure of helpful actions to set us up for a house of love (including loving relationships) for the future. Right now the house is not loving—we are not there. Even if and when there is love present, the human work is to fortify love and build more to let healing expand beyond our own homes, close family, and communities. But we can know what it feels like to be there through the insight of a spiritual breakthrough. So feelings of spiritual bliss exist to help us believe in our potential for creating in this world and to believe in love and healing, even when we see pain, suffering, and oppression in lived experience.

Keep going. We can make things better.

* The title for this piece is a remembered phrase from a Mary Oliver poem!

When “All One” Becomes Oppressive.

Photo credit: MARS

Photo credit: MARS

Of course I get the warm and fuzzy good intensions and vibes that can surround a sentiment of “all are one” in a yoga class. The widely accepted interpretation goes something like, “under the appearance of difference we are all connected and somehow essentially similar with the same human needs for food, shelter and affection.” Feel that expanded consciousness of connection! Good stuff!

Realize how people are reduced to basic survival instincts when “all are one” is taken literally: now it’s not so good. So much of what I value about being alive is not included. I love art and expression, and have made no secret about my passion for queer theory and expressions. My art will be different from your art. My gender and expressions of gender may be different from yours. You can’t possibly understand me without getting to know me.

“All are one” becomes flawed when it becomes a concept that attempts to homogenize difference.

“We are all one.” ≠ “We are all the same.”

But just under the surface of thinking this can be what happens. I imagine the functioning of the problem to be something like, “I feel/believe I am one with this other person who is a virtual stranger to me so I will expect that they will like what I do/feel safe when I do/want what I want.” Without realizing it someone can fall into some harmful assumptions about other people.

I am always super-honored when I am published on YogaDork, and my recent piece Questioning Queer Yoga is no exception. (I hope you’ll go over there and read it!)

In the comments section the validity of queer yoga classes are questioned. My interpretation of what was written there includes a questioning of the right of queer yoga to exist. Queer yoga is already happening in many places in many cities, so reality might be truth enough. But the logic of the comment I am thinking of seemed to question a need for a class like this. Just because one individual feels their needs are met in a yoga does not mean that every other individual will also get their needs met.

And when people assume that everyone is the same, or they assume that they know what everyone needs, and they are in a position of power—like a yoga teacher—these assumptions can harm students. We need queer yoga right now because there is not sufficient awareness of respecting difference, agency and self-determination of yoga class participants.

Authoritarianism in Yoga.

untitled31of89Hello. In my recent post Why Queer Yoga? I raised the question, “Can we have yoga without the authoritarian class environment?” There was a response on Facebook that expressed curiosity about what I might mean by using the word “authoritarian”. Here I plan to offer a few thoughts on that.

An authoritarian class environment is a situation where a teacher/guide/guru is seen as someone who has the power or right to make decisions for students/class participants at some expense to their personal freedom. A teacher (and people close to the teacher in some cases) is regarded as someone who has a greater status than students. The class contains a hierarchy. Sometimes it is personal power that is wielded, and there are times when the power is a replication or amplification of oppressive aspects of our daily life in the current cultural climate, including sexism, racism, and ableism.

Sometimes people can feel like their yoga teacher is their “guru”. When this happens a person might give away too much power, and trust too much, too soon. It can feel wonderful to think one is special and that a magical teacher figure has chosen you, but beware. People in a human body (I know that might seem redundant, but sometimes an awe-struck yoga participant can think that their teacher is god-like) tend to have human distortions in their personalities, and even teachers with good intentions can create harm in an over-trusting student.

This happens a lot to different degrees in relationships. Anytime someone claims to know what’s right for you, remember that they have not lived as you. The only person who is an expert in being you is you. Any time someone claims to know what’s right for you this is something that should be examined for potential manipulation, or simply disregarded.

An experienced yoga teacher may be able to help you with your body, and they might be able to offer technique that can free the mind and even ease suffering. But we need to be able to discern how a teacher can help, and where they might be overstepping appropriate boundaries. Basically when it comes to choices about life expression, this is a sacred choice and holy territory for individuals to claim for their selves.

When someone leading a yoga class claims to have the power of someone else (their guru) to offer class participants, this is usually a way to get control and harness enthusiasm of students. Some might argue that this is an effective way to circumvent students’ natural defense against doing something different with their bodies, and feel that you can get more work done more quickly when students decide to “trust the word of the guru” even if it comes from someone’s mouth who is not the “guru”.

The yoga teacher or guide who is in the class with you is the person who is there. Again this sentence might seem redundant, but it exists as a point of confusion at times. Teachers are sometimes trusted as the word of a famous yoga teacher (possibly a “guru”) if they have spent some time studying with them.

Another situation that is authoritarian, more in the category of systemic oppression than a personal dynamic, is anytime yoga facilitators (teachers) refer to “men” and “women” to describe difference in practice or postures. It can be seen as a perpetuation of the deeply entrenched systemic categorization that supports sexism, the condition where “men” are seen as different enough to merit a higher status than “women”. It also causes violence to identities that don’t align with the assumptions about who gets privilege and who should submit to power that go with forcing people into two separate groups.

Also, shaming students for not being able to do certain physical feats in yoga is an expression of ableism. It appears to say that students who are stronger or more flexible are better (a higher status) than those whose bodies are weaker or stiffer.

And racism might show up in how yoga guides speak to class participants, or who they pay attention to in class, and what assumptions they make about “everybody.”

As people who choose to engage in yoga classes, either as facilitators/guides or as class participants, we can do well to educate ourselves about the dynamics that play out in class. It is a common teaching that we encounter situations within our selves on our yoga mats that tend to show up in our lives, too. This post is about seeing power dynamics, whether it is personal or systemic, as showing up in the yoga room that also play out in life beyond class.

Queer Community Yoga’s First Class.

hipstre81of89Teaching my first queer yoga class was something awesome for me. The class was attended by queer community including yoga teachers, friends, and members of the house where we held our class.

I was surprisingly nervous when you consider that I’ve been teaching for 10 years—I am a seasoned teacher, to be sure. Also when you consider that I wanted to do this. Donated funds are going toward the purchase of props to support future classes, so it wasn’t financial excitement pressuring me. I chose to do this on my usual day off from teaching yoga. So it would almost seem like I was doing this just for fun, and that there would be no reason to be nervous, but I was more nervous than I’ve been in a while.

It took me out of my safe yoga teacher box. I was bringing dream into reality. This was a first step in co-creating the yoga community that might sustain me and others that resonate with queer community yoga.

Class started informally. We all seemed happy to be there. The space was super-cheerful. Sun was streaming in through open windows, and a warm breeze greeted our skin.

I introduced people who hadn’t met yet. I met someone that I hadn’t met before!

The scene was set. Water in the kitchen. Bathroom over there. I brought grapes because, well, grapes are awesome! To the side, we also had a donation box and paper & pen for anonymous feedback, if someone wanted to share that way.

I started class with some gentle movements and breathing to help us all perceive our bodies! Then we sat to do a check-in. We said our name, preferred pronoun, how we were feeling, and if there was something specific someone would like to have happen in class.

We did partner poses as a part of our practice. This worked really well for our group. It was also an opportunity for me to talk about listening to each other and voicing boundary needs. It’s also a good way for people to connect in class, by helping each other with their yoga.

I tried to be attentive to the physical needs of people in the class. It was fairly easy because people were similarly able. And at the same time there was also variance in athleticism and expectations that can make teaching any yoga class challenging. I really felt that my goal was to take care of our bodies, and to do what I could to cultivate an atmosphere of self-care that might open space for experiencing ourselves in an honoring way.

I ended savasana, resting pose, by reading an excerpt from How Poetry Saved My Life by Amber Dawn:

In the room you’ve made together, there is an east-facing window. Through this window you’ve watched the moon disappear and return a hundred times before you understood the message. There is artistry to self-perpetuation—the moon’s had a lot of practice. You, however, are still a tenderfoot when it comes to beginning again. Now you stand in this world as someone who is completely loved. From this point of view, who knows what poetry is yet to come?

After class there was time for talking and a relaxed pace for going forward. So there was community building, grape snacking, donating, and feedback happening then.

Yes to success! I hope that this is merely a start to something that will grow!

Why Queer Yoga?

untitled65of89I’m sitting to write why I want to teach a specifically queer yoga class (which I am doing tomorrow for the first time *yay!*). I’ve been asked the question, and answered okay verbally. I also want to try to splash a few words on the surface here, too, about why I want to teach a queer yoga class. Why not just teach yoga (I’ve been teaching yoga for 10 years)? Why does it have to be queer yoga?

Yoga has lined up in a big way with mainstream media, and has been translated through this information vehicle as something to enhance thin, white, mostly female-assigned bodies projecting a feminine image of yoga, and when the model is assigned as male, it’s usually a more masculinized presentation of yoga-supported health. It is a reflection of an externally-sourced idea of who we are.

Queerness in my viewpoint has something to do with discovering identity apart from who we’ve been told we are. The way I see it, the issue of sexuality is not connected in a direct way to a self-identified queer identity. It doesn’t mean a person is necessarily “gay”, “poly”, “trans”, “promiscuous”, or even “sexual”. “Queer” means a person is self-determining (from knowledge coming from within self through trial and error and success in experiences), and the only way to get to know someone is to get to know them personally, without the assumptions that often can present themselves based on how a person looks or expresses themselves.

Yoga has the potential to be a space to explore the atmosphere of your self, including sensations and impressions, without assumptions about what kind of body you have, or are supposed to have. Hopefully in yoga we can be free to be ourselves and make choices about how we want to participate, or not.

Sadly, in my opinion, many yoga classes uphold the mainstream perception of yoga as a way to be a hotter female, with a tight butt, constant smile, flat abs, shapely legs, and scant upper-arm fat. This is not a safe or comfortable environment for many people. Sometimes it is just numbing. Sometimes we know we feel good afterwards (depending on the class), so those of us who are into yoga forgive or ignore some of those controlling directives about how we are “supposed to be” presenting in class, or acting in life beyond class.

Can we have yoga without the authoritarian class environment? Can we have yoga without the sexism and racism? This is at least part of what queering yoga means to me. Is there room to express and discover our selves in yoga with our movements, as a group and as individuals on mats? Is it okay to place a boundary on whether you’d like to be touched in a yoga pose for a posture adjustment, or whether you’d prefer to be left to your own solutions for this one?

These are some of the questions and ideas I will be going into Queer Community Yoga with tomorrow, prepared by 10 years of experience as a yoga teacher with all the requisite training, and also by healing I’ve experienced in intentionally queer spaces, including friendships, art events, parties, writing salons, rituals, presentations and trainings.

Aging in a Queer Utopia.

My age has always been a lie. The first time I remember it coming up, I was 7 years old and was being introduced to people at my father’s country club. I was wearing little girl clothes, and a woman in the group asked me if I was 15. I was tall, and still am. I also had experienced more change and moving around than many others my age, especially in the small town in Ohio where my father is from. I was considered “mature for my age.”

I think I really was older than “7”.

Chronologically I was 7: I had been on the earth for 7 revolutions around the sun. I was born on a certain date in a certain year, and so there is a mathematical logic that equals 7 at that time.

But I had also rationalized and normalized interactions with a mother struggling with her reality, and had figured out being okay with her gone from my life. I had lived in 3 different states with 3 different families (all a part of my extended family). The number was 4 families if you say that the family of my mother and father was different from the family of my father and stepmother. They were different.

So I was “older” than 7 in experience and handling skills when people read me that way, and even when they didn’t.

And these days I am often seen as younger than my “age” to many people I know. I also wonder—similar to the example from my childhood—if in some way I am actually “younger” than the number of times the earth has traveled around the sun with me on it, or possibly “younger” in comparison with what that is usually seen to mean in our culture.

Have the losses I’ve experienced, the radical letting go that I’ve done, or circumstances totally beyond my control actually lightened me in some way to receive life in a way that we usually associate with youth?

Part of the launch point for my current reality had something to do with turning 40.
40

Around this time, I finally took the pressure off of myself about what kind of life I thought I was supposed to live based on what I had been taught and started to explore available options in my life that appealed to me.

I went to my first queer performance because a coworker friend was involved.

I started to go to more because the images and words populated my mind and also spawned exciting and titillating new thoughts.

I was welcomed into these intentional queer spaces. I made new friends. And went to more kinds of events like readings and trainings on trans awareness and disability justice.

A new life opened up for me. It was a gift of my aging process and personal choices that I dropped old fears and questioned my self and my life anew! I have now met people with values, attitudes and worldviews who I feel like I have been waiting to meet for my whole life.

I have evolved with Chicago queer culture. It has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

And yet my age also seems to pose an issue in my new life. It is a crowd with many folks in their 20’s. I have been so afraid to destroy what I have enjoyed, and to face people’s possible ageism by saying that my age is 42.

How old am I?
How alive am I?
How creative am I?
How loving am I?
How curious am I?
How adventurous am I?
How well can I listen to and support others and my self?

What is important?

In my own work on queer time, I have shown that queer people do not follow the same logics of subcultural involvement as their heterosexual counterparts: they do not “outgrow” certain forms of cultural activity (like clubbing, punk, and so on.)…queer spaces tend to be multigenerational and do not subscribe to the notion of one generation always giving way to the next. Other theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman, have elaborated more mobile notions of intergenerational exchange, arguing that the old does not always have to give way for the new, the new does not have to completely break with the old, and that these waves of influence need not be thought of always and only as parental.
~J. Jack Halberstam, ‘Gaga Feminism’

In queer culture there is a potential for continued engagement and creative expression. We are only limited by our imaginations.

Earlier this year a friend shared that they had lost 2 friends to suicide in the last year, and expressed an impression that some people in their 20’s can’t always see an interesting or fun future for themselves.

I remember feeling that there was a black hole in my imagination as I approached age 30. And in my 30’s I fell into it, and I also invented a new life for myself as a yoga teacher. Becoming helpful seemed a strategy for survival.

One reason I want to come out openly as someone over 40 years old is to share my enthusiasm and excitement about what I see in my self and my friends. In myself I see a hope for the future based on the activism and values of people in queer community, I also see a future for myself as an activist, artist, writer and yoga teacher. In my friends I see community leaders/organizers and amazing activists and artists.

Queering has to do with taking on one’s identity and stepping away from an inherited lineage of ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, privilege, money focus, misogyny, ageism, sex-shaming, fat-shaming, objectification, coercion, bullying (…) and consciously being a person—even creating a self through chosen actions and expressions—that better reflects values of the heart with caring awareness of other people in community emphasizing inclusion of people (of a different race, body type, or gender presentation for example) helping to expand the understanding of the person reaching out as well as to reverse the effects of the old ways of domination, control and repression.
~from ‘Self-Determining Queer Pelvis

untitled (26 of 89)

The above photo illustration is from a project of mine that explores human morphology and gender assignment in yoga. photo credit: Mars

And if I ever seem to be glittering like a jukebox from the early 1970’s (reference to Sandra Beasley), well… That’s when I was born!