Published Mar 28, 11 AM
By Kate Stone
For as much as we live in the present, there was always a life before. I had a life before.
Before lecturing privileged adults on the glories of Virbhadrasana II, I did time in Chicago, Illinois, teaching mean children how to read. I wear with honor the marginal success I enjoyed, though I fully acknowledge my shortcomings. And the violent results of my spectacular failures. I left Chicago to teach yoga and write in Boston, but this life before will always be part of me.
Since becoming a yoga teacher, I’ve noticed that my snapshot description of this life before—namely, that I once worked with “mean” kids in Chicago—has occasionally drawn ire in the sometimes delicate, oft-emotional yoga world.
I’m not sensitive, nor do I feel the need to clarify things I say in jest. But my own flip depiction of those years in Chicago provides a good opportunity to examine how we’ve gone off the rails with our yogic philosophies.
I’m not trying to convert anyone from the other side of the Argument Chasm. If, right this very second, you are steeling yourself to wear your coat of nerve endings, then you will likely not be interested in my words. And, if you cannot have a sense of humor about yourself or the things around you, well, you might want to stop reading.
Somehow, in the midst of trying to better ourselves, we’ve taken a universal approach to sensitivity and blanketed all our statements with empathic kindness. Because yogis are supposed to be all sunshine and unicorns and happiness all the time, right?
We, the yoga people, are so nice.
Here’s the thing. Actually, here are three things:
- Doing yoga does not make you some kind of reformed saint. I do not call myself a “yogi” and I do not identify with attempting to be all kinds of perfection all the time. Sometimes I’m not in a good mood. I say rude things or hold opinions other people hate. I’m a human who likes to take bendy classes and clear my head and learn things. I get better at stuff every day. I’m not claiming to be a Buddhist healer. And this, too, is equanimity.
- Being kind does not mean masking your true emotions. It doesn’t make you a better person to pretend to be happy. Posting forty-seven Rumi quotes on Facebook does not invest your compassion in a Karma bank. It has to be genuine to be worth it. It follows that we can’t simply slap a label of “kindness” on a judgment and thereby make it fact instead of opinion. If you want to be judgy, great, but own it without hiding behind the name of yoga.
- Being sensitive does not inherently make you a champion for the voiceless. Action does that. And this is where it might be helpful for me to explain that tricky part about describing my life of before.
My students do not belong in a snarky yoga piece on the Internet or as an anecdote in a passing conversation. They are mentioned as part of how I got to be where I am now, but they are intentionally blanded out to dampen the devastating magnitude of their collective oppression. They had every right to be angry and not many other options to be anything but mean. To speak of them as part of an inspirational narrative takes their reality away. To speak of them as downtrodden applies an inappropriate pathos to their charge. To speak of them as having a right to violence lowers the standard to which I will steadfastly hold them for as long as I live.
I had a life before. I speak of it irreverently because that life is made of children who deserve far better than fear, pity or exploitation. To be truly reverent takes well more than a short paragraph about me. To be truly honest takes a loss of sensitivity. To truly be a champion for the voiceless, sometimes you have to go hang out with mean people and create out of them chances to be less mean. And you’ve got to have a sense of humor while you do it.
If that offends you, you are welcome to create your own world of sunshine and unicorns and happiness all the time.
About Kate Stone
Kate started taking yoga in middle school as a rebellious move against sports camp. After years of gymnastics, not having to flip over after a backbend was a relief, and the practice stuck. After college, Kate moved to Chicago to teach mean children how to read. She was marginally successful but felt severely, physically ill-equipped to deal with the fighting in her classroom. As someone who takes things literally, she became a personal trainer. Kate spent eight years in Chicago working in gyms, bars and museums, feeling like she was supposed to have a real job. Last year she realized she doesn’t ever want one of those. Kate spent all of her money on yoga training, and is now a yoga teacher, writer and bartender living in Boston.