On the Yoga Teacher who Complains for Validation & the Woke Bro Who Wants to Talk Judith Butler

Yesterday I went to a yoga class that was, hands down, the worst yoga class I’ve ever been to in my life. Cue the violins for this TRAGEDY.

But hang on, let me finish.

The teacher walked into class and immediately, in a very shrill voice, started complaining about how cold it was outside. She wasn’t wrong. It was 33ish degrees outside. I was also freezing and the studio was drafty. I had just been standing outside Stonewall for an hour with one of my best friends and their cohort from grad school—at the Pride rally against Trump. But the event was filled with energy, good vibes, tons of different folks from all walks of life—including Hari Nef and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I KNOW.

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How amazing is “Alt-fact Kelly?” This was at the Pride Rally.

Yes, we were all freezing. But we were having a great time and I know that I felt more energetic and positive than I have felt in a while. Ironically, I had actually woken up in a bad mood and was thinking of not going to the protest because it was so cold. But finding the motivation to go anyway, and to feel the jolt of solidarity, ultimately made me realize that sometimes I’m deeply wrong about what I need to make me feel better. Standing up in the 33 degree whether with a stomach ache, lower back pain and a shitty mood was exactly what I needed to push me out of a funk. I love it when my experiences push back against my neurotic tendency to equate self-isolation with restoration.

Needless to say, this yoga teacher’s complaining really didn’t #resonate with me. It’s like, 1. you live in New York, and it’s winter, and 2. you’re trying to offer people a practice that enables them to exist more peacefully amidst discomfort, and you’re coming in here and talking about how freezing it is outside before we’ve even begun practicing. Like rly?

Anyway, she proceeded to ask the rhetorical question, “You know what’s so weird?”, to which no one responded. Quickly, she answered herself: the fact that the people who work in nail salons always whisper. Before she spoke, I kind of just knew something problematic was going to come out of her mouth. But I remembered the “homework” my therapist had given me: to note “ahimsa,” the principle of non-violence, every time I was making a judgment. Ahimsa, I said to myself as I noticed how vitriolically I already felt about the culturally insensitive yoga teacher. I tried to send her compassion, and told myself that she was just insecure.

The class sucked, mostly because it involved like 543,964,789,456 “knee to nose” cues, and was basically a HIIT bootcamp class couched in the vocabulary of asana. I’m used to the genre of biddie-workout-yoga here in NYC, but was particularly struck by this teacher’s vibes. She kept emphasizing the importance of maintaining an open heart and cultivating peace throughout class, and clearly had memorized the important buzzwords of self-acceptance and openness that are all the rage “these days.” And yet her class was making me feel the opposite. My resistance to the class reached its climax when, in Navasana (boat pose), the teacher asked us to hold hands with the person next to us. My mat was adjacent to that of this “hot” finance bro, who was practicing next to his girlfriend. She immediately struck me as The Skinny, Tan, Tall girl from summer camp who had a really symmetrical face and a sparkling Limited Too wardrobe. That is, she was not a specific girl I knew from camp, but that archetype—hot summer camp girl—I think you know what I am talking about. (Her hair always smells like Herbal Essences and is unimaginably soft and not frizzy. She is probably not Jewish.) In any case, the hot camp couple clearly pitied me when the teacher asked us to partner with our neighbors for hand-holding Navasana, and they invited me to join them in a “threeway.” It was at this moment that I really wanted to be a screenwriter so I could document the Navasana-threeway with camp girl and her hot finance bro boyfriend for a TV show about the dystopian zeitgeist.

Of course, I am kind of a hypocrite as I am using the language of “vibes,” “energy,” and “resonance” to try and make a compelling argument that this person’s pedagogy was inauthentic and deserving of public disdain. Clearly I am not deploying the rigor that I am yearning to see. But what I can say is that this isn’t the first time I have noticed people use the rhetoric of an established community only to defy that rhetoric in their own lives.

As someone who is deeply familiar with “the wellness world” (I cannot even believe I am saying this), I have noticed this time and time again. Food bloggers who don’t eat enough or who eat only rabbit food (read: leaves) and clearly demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with “clean eating” talk about their lifestyle all in terms of health, balance, and moderation. And you’re like, uhhhhhh that “indulgent” chickpea brownie is actually chocolate-flavored falafel. People at your mindfulness meditation retreat who take your sister’s shoes outside the meditation room because they were too unmindful to notice. (Then, when you ask if the couple in the car can drive you to your dorm because you are shoeless in the -5 below cold and snow, they say that they have a massage booked and it would be out of their way.) Life coaches who work with clients on communication emotionally abuse you over email when you copy-edit their blog posts to be grammatically correct. Meditation retreat founders who are too obsessed with the Soho House and “who wore it best” at the last meditation talk to even know how or why meditation is a worthwhile practice.

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These brownies contain chickpeas. They actually look p. good tho.

It’s not surprising to me that wellness people can often be narcissistic. After all, what is wellness? It’s self-improvement to some; self-indulgence, self-control, self-inquiry to others. But in almost all cases of description, the self is involved. But wellness can be understood in a more nuanced, mutlifaceted way, or it can merely be seen as a part of one’s life, in addition to political engagement, creative work, relationships, etcetera. That is why I am always skeptical of people who seem, so uncritically, to self-identify as healthy, mindful, balanced, etcetera. Like, if you are so mindful, then you are probably aware of the fact of the times you are, inevitably, not mindful. Or if you have such an open-heart, you a) probably don’t need to say it and b) are resilient enough to recognize that you often judge yourself and others, and that part of having an open heart is about being able to bounce back from mistakes, judgments, assumptions, and  so forth. Staunch commitment to any singular rhetoric—REGARDLESS of context—is a red flag to me. (Caveat: This isn’t true across the board, and I also recognize the insecurity often makes people act in off-putting ways. I don’t think the yoga teacher whose class I took was a bad person at all—maybe just a bit grating; but mostly, I just wanted to use that anecdote as a jumping off point for this discussion of “speaking” a particular “language.)

This theme reminds me of a guy I dated once who was obsessed with talking about gender theory as a part of our courtship. He knew I was into radical feminism, and that my friends were too, and so he used his admittedly adroit vocabulary on continental philosophy and critical theory to flirt with me via Judith Butler references. At first, I fetishized the shit out of said references, and was like, “OMG, this dood wants to talk about gender perfomativity rn” but I slowly started to see that there was a kind of power play at work in his commitment to bringing up stuff about feminism to me in such a confident and uncritical way. He was devoted to being seen as a feminist, and to seeing himself as a feminist, and didn’t really want or need to interrogate his politics. Or at least not at the time. At least in our dynamic, rhetoric about feminism became a way for him to wield a certain power over me intellectually, and to make me feel, at times, like I couldn’t challenge him on issues related to gender. He was as woke as could be—and he knew it. There wasn’t really anything I could do to rouse him further.

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Judith Butler looking fierce AF.

There was another guy I dated later who, off the bat, was interested in talking about his pseudo-queerness constantly, and would rant often about the “construct” of monogamy, his corresponding interest in polyamory, and how much he wished it was culturally acceptable to talk about kink on first dates. He was totally A Woke Bro, though he was more interested in foregrounding his queer sexual politics and denigration of patriarchy more than intellectually one-uping me re: gender theory, a la Judith Butler BF. But still, there was a commonality here: using the rhetoric of feminism, of equality, of being ALTERNATIVE in X, Y or Z ways to hegemonic straight white cis masculinity. In a way, these guys were using their rhetorics as mechanisms of seduction (I love me a straight white cis dude with self-professed queer sexual politics, what can I say?). But more than that, they were, as my friend says, “denying their white cis male privilege rather than expressing their true identity”—and the questions that their identity brings up in relation to questions around privilege.

The relationship between the archetypal disingenuous yoga teacher and the problematic woke bro may seem tenuous, but I am interested in exploring something larger here: the fact that a steadfast commitment to a specific “vocabulary” of any kind can be a red flag that there are insecurities around the ideology of said vocabulary.

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Aristotle is famous for his definition of rhetoric. How’s that for hegemonic masculinity? :D

I think it’s for that reason that I rely on self-deprecation as a paradoxical foundation for expertise when doling out life advice on here. It is my insurance policy in trying to communicate that really, I know nothing. But I think that self-deprecation—and the fact that it introduces the destabilizing forces of self-awareness, humor, irony, and acceptance—shows a degree of questioning. In a state of questioning, there is dynamism. And there is, to me, a POSITIVE value judgment in constant, dynamic questioning of one’s ideology. AHIMSA, I know. But a positive judgment seems better than a negative one.

Do I check my privilege always? Absolutely not. Do I try? Yes. Does it mean I’m always woke? NOT AT ALL. Does it mean I will keep asking rhetorical questions like this until I am blue in the face? “Abso-fuckin-lutely,” to quote Mr. Big, a totem of hegemonic cis white straight masculinity from the early aughts. TBT to SATC. Over and out.

Coming out as someone with mental health issues

“Things being whatever it is they happen to be, all we can know about them is derived directly from how they appear.” –Mel Bochner

Recently, I met with an academic mentor of mine for breakfast. Shortly after we sat down with our coffees, she “came out” to me as depressed. When I asked her what was new (she had just gotten a Ph.D and I was waiting for complaints about academia), she told me that she had started Zoloft. I congratulated her and gave her the real world equivalent of the Emoji-heart-eye face, because perhaps you know (or don’t know) that I could really go on and on about Zoloft.

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Me thinking about Zoloft

One thing my mentor/friend said to me was that she felt worried her drive to work was lessening as her depression, too, became less intense. I felt an acute pang of recognition, and remembered the year I first went on SSRIs at age 17. After a month of taking my meds (Lexapro at the time), I felt a sense of distance between my demons and me, and I saw that I had more of a choice than I had previously thought in terms of how much power I gave them.

Slowly, over time, I found myself gaining back the weight I had lost during my previous year of anorexia. To be clear, the meds didn’t make me gain weight; I was just suddenly able to see that I was choosing to starve myself, to take on more suffering than I needed to. My will towards discipline and self-abnegation became less fierce.

Of course, I missed my depression and anxiety when I got more freedom from it—and that’s what I said to my mentor to console her, at least somewhat. It’s not that depression helps your will to do great work or to starve yourself. It’s just that greater freedom from depression (it doesn’t go away, believe it or not!) shows you that you have more options than you think. NOT being free from our demons, as it turns out, can be far more comfortable. We’re used to it. Evolution tells us: keep being depressed, because you’ve been this way, and you’ve survived.

But I don’t need to tell you that living should involve far more than comfort at the fact that we’re surviving.

***

I wasn’t always this comfortable talking about depression or anxiety, and I felt a strange but whimsical sense of reversal when I found myself giving mental health “advice” to a woman I had so admired as a teacher. But it occurred to me that this conversation marked a turning point, a “coming out,” in our relationship. Before that point, mental health had been off the table. Faulkner and New Criticism and Djuna Barnes were centrally located, but the role our respective anxieties played in making us so feverishly academic was never discussed. It’s always comforting, at least to me, to learn that people you thought weren’t anxious are actually dealing with the same shit.

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I tried to read Nightwood on the beach in Miami, and ended up reading Us Weekly instead. Namaste.

In Scott Stossel’s book My Age of Anxiety (and in a related piece in The New York Times), he talks about “coming out” as anxious. In The New York Times article, Stossel shares a conversation he had with his shrink—one about whether or not keeping his anxiety a secret for many years caused his symptoms to get worse. Stossel explains his therapist’s strong position that “coming out” as anxious is necessarily cathartic, and would help alleviate his suffering. Early in the article, before launching into the nuances of his situation, Stossel confirms that his coming out has helped “a little bit, yes.”

Well, perhaps very fortunately, I find tremendous solace in coming out as anxious—each and every time it happens. When I tell the eye doctor about my Klonopin prescription for my anxiety and insomnia. When I explain to the mothers of tutees I work with that panic disorder debilitated me for years in school. When I laugh about my adoration of my psychiatrist at cocktail parties to new acquaintances. When I tell editors at publications for which I write that Zoloft is my jam. When I tweet about how I want to write a Shakespearean sonnet about SSRIs.

Perhaps this solace is because the act is cathartic, like getting something off my chest that otherwise would feel oppressive. Or perhaps it is because it feels like an act of virtuous rebellion against an anachronistic vision of myself that I still hold myself to, irrationally and self-destructively.

I’ll explain.

As a kid, I saw myself as someone who never said anything taboo. Do you like your dinner? my parents would ask. YES, I assured them, spitting my food out into my napkin. Do you like flying? my grandma asked me once. ABSOLUTELY, I replied with enthusiasm, praying (TO GOD!) the next time I flew that I would not die. Every flight, I spent its duration counting to four in multiples of four to pass the time, holding my breath during turbulence and repeatedly calling on God for help (I think it was the Hebrew God at the time that I had learned about in Hebrew school).

It didn’t help that our family narrative had it that my sister was dramatic, demanding and impetuous—and that I, by contrast, was quiet, easy-going and not easily destabilized. I don’t think I was necessarily celebrated for these attributes such that they made me act this way to confirm validation. As I recall, this dichotomy was just an idea that was circulated in the context of my family, and one that I sought to confirm with my behavior, and the dynamic shared between me and my sister. It probably began because I wanted to differentiate from the way my sister’s personality was first narrativized—and who knows why that happened? In whatever way, the cycle began and continued somehow, and it set me up to experience the act of “coming out” with X, Y and Z mental health issues as a perennial source of pleasure and empowerment. So sue me!

The irony, of course, is that I was anxious beyond belief as a kid, far more so than I am today. The first triggers I noticed were the feeling of nightfall and the act of waiting; both regularly sent me into a silent tunnel of existential dread.

When my dad used to go walk our Cocker Spaniel, Eli, each night, I felt the presence of death’s “shadow”(as Nietzche calls it). The real threat of death was, of course, delusional (or at least dramatic; it was unlikely from a statistical standpoint that they would get run over by a bus). But the feelings were real: my dad and Eli would go out, and I immediately felt certain that they would be discovered dead that night or the next morning. I would lay awake in paralyzing terror until I heard the metallic clink of my dad unhinging Eli’s leash from his collar, or the rambunctious scratch of Eli’s nails against the wood floor. No one knew this was happening, and I never admitted to myself that this was how I spent each night. Until now, really.

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Eli, 2001

It wasn’t until my second summer at sleep-away camp that I had the experience of seeing and hearing someone in the outside world confirming the existence of my anxious demons. That summer, homesickness (or some traumatic trigger) catalyzed the beginnings of my continued “journey” with panic disorder. Each morning when I would wake up, my throat muscles would feel like they were closing up. The tightness was unbearable, and made speaking or swallowing of any kind impossible. Chewing gum or sucking on a candy sometimes made the sensation easier, but my involuntary reaction each morning was to vomit. Plain and simple: I couldn’t help it—it was literally involuntary from a physiological standpoint. Vomiting forced me to relax my throat, and it perversely became something I associated with comfort. When I vomited, I could talk again.

Quickly, my camp counselors picked up on an unsettling behavior: my morning vomiting ritual! I was quickly shipped to the infirmary, where I was asked (not in so many words) if I was bulimic. I wasn’t. I didn’t know what was going on, quite frankly, but I told them I was nauseous because it seemed like that had to be true: “nausea causes vomiting” is what my 10-year-old brain told me.

When I came home that summer, the vomiting continued. My wise mom was maybe freaked out too, but she stayed up with me each night as I cried and felt helpless, still completely unsure of why this traumatic stuff was happening to me. I remember my dad asking me if I was abused at camp, and I thought he was crazy. I then remember doubting myself, wondering whether I was abused and somehow didn’t remember. I wasn’t. I was just bugging the fuck out.

After many many sleepless nights of crying, vomiting and talking, my mom and I reached a conclusion: my body was reacting to the fact that I had been, for an entire decade, swallowing everything I had ever felt. The mere emergence of this revelation was the beginning of my mental health journey, one that I am still on and will probably always be on.

#swallowing as a #metaphor

Still, I had not “come out,” and my “journey” didn’t immediately get easier from there. But there was profound comfort in merely recognizing that I could have a vocabulary to talk about my vomiting pattern. I was having PANIC ATTACKS. It was a DISORDER and it HAD A NAME. I was delighted at the ability to pathologize myself. I remember the elation I felt each night when, in response to rising levels of anxiety, I called my psychiatrist to listen to her voicemail. She told me I could do this, and boy, did I follow up on her offer.

***

I don’t think there’s anything wrong in gleaning comfort from self-pathologizing. I like knowing that I take Zoloft for my mental health issues because it helps remind me that I am not my issues. I deal with them.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with my over-sharing about my mental health struggles. It might be a defense mechanism. It might be narcissism. But it raises awareness, and makes me, and others struggling like me, feel more comfortable with the hand we’ve been given, neurochemically.

I have spent the subsequent 15 years struggling with anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and other issues, and as I said, I feel lighter and more buoyant each and every time I am able to be honest and transparent with others about all the bullshit I deal with, regardless of how close we are. I am able to find empowerment in the act of using storytelling to free myself further from my demons, and knowing that gives me pleasure and a sense of empowerment in and of itself; I can find humor in the fact that I was a 10-year-old with panic disorder at summer camp, and that I was mistaken as a girl with bulimia. It’s sad, and it’s funny, and talking about it today makes me feel like I will only continue to develop a greater sense of freedom with how I approach the world as time goes on. As I said, that freedom is scary because it suggests that I—that we—are moving away from what is comfortable.

I can’t remember when I quite “came out” with my mental health stuff. It was probably in college, when I began my life as an extroverted person. (Previously, I was shy and repressed. BELIEVE ME. I know it’s hard to.)

But as Stossel notes, “coming out” as anxious doesn’t make the suffering of it go away. It can simply change our relationship to it. It is no longer an object to hide from, but a part of ourselves we can relate to. And there’s a dynamism in that. We’re no longer swallowing a bitter pill, but showing the world that we, like the amazingly cute Zoloft balls, can proceed along in our lives—moving up and down, up and down. Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 11.59.46 PM.png

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.