I am serious
By Kimberly Johnson
I am serious. I was born with a furrowed brow. I live intensely. I feel the broad spectrum of human emotion and experience that is being alive.
Whether in laughter, joy, sorrow, concern or amusement, I am unafraid to express myself publicly. In my sincerity, due to the fact that I really, really care about other human beings and their experience, at times I get choked up with emotion unexpectedly or I cannot hide my disgust or disagreement or my eyebrows close in on each other deeply creased from worry or I squeal and jump with joy.
I just got back from teaching at a Yoga Festival in Bahia, in the north of Brazil. The trip was full of firsts. It was the first time that I have taught three hundred people. The first time I taught with a microphone. The first time I tried to include both my perspective on the difficulties that women are having in childbirth worldwide and a perspective on how we humans are losing the ability to move through the world instinctually—and connect those thoughts to a movement practice for three hundred people I have never met or seen in a way that offered a solution to both of these problems. I attempted to create an experience that offered a taste of moving through the practice, i.e. world, connected to the felt sense. Plus I did it all in Portuguese, my second language, which I picked up through necessity and sheer will—not through classes or school.
In my strong desire to offer a somatic paradigm that, while readily available in the yoga world in some coastal US cities, is not the norm here yet in Brasil, I found myself deeply concentrating, and slightly disoriented while I figured out how to work a room so large. I was connecting with individuals and touching them at the same time, and making my way back to the stage when my words were not sufficient to explain what I was suggesting. I offered an experience of deconstructing the familiar—something as simple as bhujangasana but from various viewpoints—in order to more fully inhabit and feel the poses, instead of just “doing” the poses. Creating different pathways through movement facilitated the possibility for organic rather than habitual action, and the chance at spontaneous discovery.
When I returned back to Rio, I posted a photo of me teaching on stage during the festival:
Moments later, I received commentary from a man I don’t know:
“Looking tooo serious. Slight upturn in corners of mouth please.”
My face got hot. My first impulse was to ignore it. But then I thought, “Does he realize that I am teaching, not practicing?” And he replied: “Always smile teaching, just like your photo on FB.”
Outraged, I had to examine where my anger was coming from.
Here are some of my guesses:
First of all, some guy I don’t know (although we have forty or so Facebook friends in common) is telling me I need to be/appear different than I am in order to be an effective teacher. He has no idea what I was talking about, but it is obvious that I am talking in the picture, because I have a microphone on. He has obviously made the leap that the content of what I have to say is smile-worthy, or rather, that the content of what a yoga teacher says should be smile-worthy. I could have been talking about Eve Ensler’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on February 14, 2013, which I did talk about during this class. I could have been talking about the perineum, which we yoga teachers are known to do. It would be pretty bizarre to be talking about worldwide violence against women, or the perineum, and smiling. But, apparently, the domain of yoga for this commenter is not a domain for serious inquiry, nor is it political.
The subtext is that the job of the yoga teacher is to smile. To demonstrate happiness as defined in this specific, superficial, narrow, and philosophically handicapped way, outwardly depicting itself as a smile. Forget about authentic self-expression about what really moves me—which is generally what I try to bring to my teaching, especially when I have the honor to teach in front of a large and unfamiliar group like this— just put on the yoga identity façade: a bindi, a rudraksha mala, and the newly added… smile.
That’s already obnoxious. But let’s move on to the not-so-thinly veiled gender bias. Men are not subject to uninvited comments on facial expressions that many girls and women hear growing up.
“You are so much prettier when you smile.” Or walking down the street, deep in thought: “Cheer up, it’s not so bad.” The message here is that, as women, we are here to beautify a man’s world. When we are not outwardly cute, smiling and pleasant, we are not acquiescing to that role, “So lighten up, cheer up, and let me see those pearly whites, for God’s sake.”
At this same conference, during a roundtable discussion, a student asked about what urban violence has to do with yoga. Most of the responses included references to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, saying that if we remain in the present moment, we will be happy. As the comments escalated in their spiritual escapism, I became increasingly uncomfortable. Providing a safe haven for students to feel whole and receive support so that they are not living in fear is one thing. Indeed, their inner peace extends to their families and hopefully contributes to resilience if and when they are to be subject to that violence. Tackling the myriad systemic problems that create urban violence is another. And living in the present moment, taking care of your own mat or cushion, I’m afraid, is not an adequate response to the pathetically low investment Brasil is making in education compared with the rapid growth and demands of being a BRICK nation. Even teaching yoga in a favela, which is a worthwhile endeavor and the dharma and well-meaning desire of some, does not equip people with the real world skills (i.e. reading and writing) that are necessary to be engaged citizens. Yoga is no doubt a powerful coping mechanism, and at worst, a harmless offering. Yoga can also operate as a palliative or a shield from unpleasant emotions and complex and difficult questions.
If we are all interconnected, then we should all be outraged at societal injustices that lead to urban violence and violence against women. Anger and outrage, while not hallowed emotions in the yoga world, are potent and necessary to mobilize real change.
I do view yoga as a political tool.
In a world that increasingly emphasizes front brain activity, where women worldwide are having a harder and harder time giving birth, where increasing numbers of children are diagnosed for mental illness, a time to stop and sift through mental, emotional and physical plaque can be revolutionary. The right practice can build life force so that we have more strength and resilience to face difficult situations and savor joyful ones, and can help us maintain a sense of inner wellbeing so that we are effective in our attempts at making larger change in often hopeless situations. We can be woken up by the deep sorrow of injustice, woken up to the power of collective action, and motivated to apply the spiritual to the political.
Dictates that say that a yoga teacher should be skinny, flexible and smiling both undervalue yoga itself as a transformational tool on more than a cosmetic and superficial level and are a great disservice to students who then think that they should live up to this ideal, and if they do, that they are practicing good yoga. Yoga also maintains its elite status this way, because it perpetuates a message that yoga is only for those who look a certain way already. The marginalized (fat, inflexible, dark or unhappy) would never view yoga as for them.
Uninvited comments on appearance, decidedly in the male to female direction, belie a woman’s lack of ownership over her own body and personal space. The message here being that my body, appearance and affect are not my own domain exclusively and are open to comment at any time. In other words, that women should be accessible and available to others at all times—to beauty, to caretake, to nurture, to serve. When women are habituated into not having control over their bodies in public space, the leap is much smaller when it comes to turning over your personal power to another. I see that here in Brasil, where men feel free to comment upon your appearance, suck their teeth, yell after you and ask you if you are married whenever they want. In line, women in Brazil define their own desirability/worth/sexuality much more in terms of what is attractive and desirable to the other by very hetero-normative standards (for example, long hair, tight clothes). I see a connection between this and the shockingly high Cesarean rates—where women hand over their pelvis to mostly male doctors, with very little information about what a Cesarean means for their baby, or at least little information about the power they might derive from the rite of passage of natural birth.
As women, we are accustomed to how uncomfortable it can make people when we are assertive, unpredictable, emotional or simply take up too much space.
A client said to me recently: “My husband can’t stand women who cry.” Even laughing too hard can be outside of social confines. I laughed so hard I cried the other day, which is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Someone came over and offered me a glass of water and told me to take deep breaths!
The perception that who we are is wrong (not smiling) or too much (just have a glass of water and calm down), in whatever direction, is what silences voices and lulls status quo acceptance. These perceived judgments also deaden our sensory world, contributing to the inability to live life fr
om an instinctual place where spontaneous action is actually a possibility. We keep ourselves from feeling and expressing fully, as they are unwelcome interruptions to the social order.
I am not interested in a yoga that succumbs to popularized ideals of women’s beauty nor society’s need to normalize difference and leave male privilege unthreatened.
I am interested in a yoga that engenders a strong sense of justice, discernment and unconditional love and whose hallmarks can be recognized and felt as something much deeper than a smile.
Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil, then a Brazilian—and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 5-year-old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth: Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars; leads teacher trainings; gives Rolfing sessions; waxses poetic about the importance of pelvic floor health and the future of humanity and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she is currently working on a project to fill the black hole in women’s health, which is the post-partum period- helping women heal their bodies and fully mine the new identity of motherhood.
Visit Kim online at: