Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Letter of recommendation / unconventional testimonial for Joe Strider's Power Yoga

I haven't written anything in a while and I plan on posting something up that's new, but in the meantime, I found some older writing that I liked and felt appropriate:

I have had friends teach me yoga in college and my partner has always encouraged me to join, but I always had this vision that yoga was just for white people who were pretending to be Asian, and I also kind of wrote it off because there was this pressure to join my partner almost like a favor, but it didn't really click with me until I re-contextualized for myself what it really was.

It's a dark photo, but Joe is in the center there, walking his dog.

I have had a difficult time transitioning to living in LA and attempting my first ever 9 to 5 to support Rachel while she went to get her MFA. I didn't realize that the low pay rate combined with my being the only person making money and a hour and a half commute was going to exacerbate any of the coping mechanisms I had built up around my ADHD. This combined with anxiety and depression left me desperate for answers but I had less time than ever and my close friends were either back in Detroit or in Glasgow, and it seemed that any attempt at self-care really only kept me afloat. After getting healthcare via my job I was pointed towards a weekly anxiety and depression group session to further understand what was definitely beyond my own abilities to comprehend. It was one of many tactics. We moved closer to where I work, and I worked many long hard hours to earn raises. I tried to make sourdough bread regularly, I joined the YMCA gym, and I even took swimming classes even though I have an irrational fear of swimming. I was hell bent on being the best self I could be to basically learn how to love myself, not only the happy or successful versions of me, but to be my own good friend.

If you meet me, the way I delve into real conversation real quick may be one of the more obvious of my quirks. I wear my emotions on my sleeve but I'm also stubborn, I pull many all-nighters and crash before putting on art shows no matter how small, I still have lots of bad habits including constantly being late. I have built up a lot of symptoms that point to me avoiding feeling things, feeling sad, even though I would have claimed that, with rejection sensitive dysphoria for example, that I feel too much all the time. I think that a combination of really wanting to take this project of myself head on in an unprecedented way, plus medications, plus yoga, eventually talk therapy, has been a powerful, necessary regiment. At one point, Joe asked his students for a kind of testimonial, so the following is kind of one, done in my hyper focused ADHD story way:

The transition to yoga really started with taking stretching and meditation with more intention from dipping a toe in during the anxiety and depression workshops. I also developed searing sciatic pain from sitting so long at work which even flared up on the first day of those group therapy sessions. It was so painful I kept re-adjusting myself, until I actually just started crying from the discomfort. From that summer long Kaiser-Permanente group session I felt like there was so much more to do, and I built up a resolve to take self-care much more seriously because my mental health was at stake and I could see how it manifested in a bodily way.

For some reason I made a color version of a black and white hand out I was given. It reminds me of how bad I am at 2D design sometimes...

Then a big break happened for me, I found out that I had been accepted for a full artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center and they offered yoga classes at a discounted price. My job let me take four weeks off and it was 100% about giving myself as much time as I needed to get back into the rhythm of art making and whatever goals I had including just finding the time to organize my life if that's what I wanted to do.

This time around, yoga was easy to relate to it because of its relationship to meditation and everyone else seemed to be signed up to be doing it. My first class I was in my head but in a surprisingly good way. I remember making a goal to not look at anyone and in some ways my nervousness helped me to focus on just my own presence in my weak feeling body. I say weak because I was embarrassed when I would sweat after stretching. It just seemed abnormal, I've never been able to touch my toes, I grew up a little chubby, yoga seemed like it was for fit, confident people.

Previously I thought that everyone listening to a person giving commands and saying Indian words was akin to the embarrassment of being brought to square dancing by my parents in the super white suburbs and that someone was going to tell us to do-see-do.

But in this context it felt sacred, and the words spoken matched what I experienced in Vermont: that it was a safe space FOR me.  Even though I knew everyone around me were artists, I had just met these strangers and it made me nervous to look around, and I pretended as if I was doing my regular stretches and didn't want to be bothered by other people. I was in my head, but it was different... when I had been going to the gym I would somehow still be upset with whatever had been going on that day that I struggled to deal with, like, where were these endorphins I was promised? There was nothing rewarding about exercise, just constantly pushing myself in vague ways; to try to run a mile without stopping or do a full lap across the pool, it was always about getting to the end.

When I got back from Vermont I bought a yoga mat and tried to carry that place with me in my head. I needed to find ways to continue what I had built up in myself that made pride in myself seem practically tangible and at hand. It helped that the YMCA had a reduced rate for us as we easily qualified for it so it didn't feel like a big deal to choose between swimming, a sauna or yoga as opposed to getting a full on commitment to a yoga only studio.

Joe's class was the first one I had ever attended back in the “real world” and Rachel came with me. The first thing we noticed was his music and style. Although he wasn't playing Tool, he mentioned it a bit off handedly, and I knew that he probably yoga'd the fuck out to Tool. I remember being warned that some instructors go full on and rock out in some strange Americanized bro culture and so I kept in mind that it would be one of many classes I would try. He acknowledged that we were new and immediately I was satisfied with the amount of helpful direction and hands on adjustments he gave so that we really understood and could feel the foundation of what each pose was. I sweated a lot, and thought that I had learned a lot, and would probably come back next week. Rachel didn't like it so much. We both were probably really judgy.

At some point recently we passed a 1 year mark. (this writing is being revisited another year later) Joe and I had gotten to know each other more when he offered to be a hiking buddy to the class. I took him up on it as I still had not figured out a way to explore LA comfortably on my own. It felt like it came from a generous place and it felt rare to get an invitation from strangers. Compared to other instructors, we always knew that there would be two consistent things that would happen in his classes: we wouldn't accidentally hurt ourselves, and we would be building up our strength (core work, focus, self confidence) Joe is a great teacher, always focused on training everyone on how to be careful. He's very sweet, he shares, and he explains what is at stake.

In Joe's class I really came to appreciate the concept of “practice”. For some reason I thought of it as a misnomer, as in... not real life, but practice for the real thing. (Is that your whole breath?) But practice had a different connotation with the way that Joe described it. Practice could be something more vulnerable in its imperfect state, and therefore it was generous when out in public. Practice also meant something more personal, and somewhat more satisfying than just showing up. It meant an awareness of improvement (perpetual beginners) while also downplaying the pressure that one actually had to be improving.

There was a respect for mastery (especially so that one doesn't get hurt) while at the same time he often vocalized his skepticism towards the programs set up by so-called masters. Sometimes Joe rhetorically says, why ain't I rich like these gurus? It'd be awkward to respond in the moment because we all know he's rich in other ways that make it a privilege to be in his classes, he has integrity.

Joe had mastered the theatrical aspects of leading a class, holding attention to the process that should take up ones thoughts, rather than my usual overthinking. His voice seems to follow through with the attitude that there are thoughts worth pushing out and that directives can become routine. And he did all this from a place of care and love. He overemphasizes producing embarrassing yoga noises and is the silliest person in the room so that there has never been a point where I stopped in a self-conscious way and thought, why am I making humping motions in a room full of strangers? He sets a solid expectation that you will listen to yourself, but he knows how to really deliver it with another important messages, perhaps one of the hardest lessons to stick to in life: don't take everything too seriously, get a buzz...

Joe developed a natural all-levels power yoga as a safe space, an encouraging place to feel ready for challenges, a place to show up when you don't know where to go mentally next, that grounds the head and body together to the here and now. Perhaps it shouldn't be overly relied upon, but it really has been a productive place to be when I want to work on baggage that settles somewhere into stiff joints, or wanting to channel frustration into something productive. There is never a time that I don't leave the class feeling capable, more reflective and rejuvenated, which is interesting because often I don’t really want to show up actually. But I know that it's like a reset button, a clean slate, setting the stage. It's so effective that I find it hard to associate with the same person I was an hour and a half ago, dragging my feet thinking 'do I really have the time for this?'. But he always makes sure that you give yourself a hug and thank yourself for showing up, and I always feel it. Another one of the words (it's probably more of a phrase) that he uses often comes to mind: effortless... On the other hand, it could also be called Fuck-Yeah-Yoga, but perhaps that would turn some people off before they really gave it a chance.

I think there are times where we wish that we would get more out of life than what it seems like we may put into it (especially in capitalist America) but here is an old practice that does not require complicated stuff. It's just one of those things that the more you put into it, the more you get out, specifically in the form of self-care. I don't actually understand now how people would deal with mental issues without yoga... I guess I could say the same about art. But unlike even making art, which can be everything to me, it feels like I transcend my ADHD. And it's not about trying to understanding everything, but rather working it out as if the worries could seep out in drops of sweat and negative thoughts are wrung out in the moment that one gets into a stretch and reaches their edge. I also like how Joe knows that this is a great way to do much needed maintenance on the organs that are in charge of keeping the imagination fired up.

Joe lets it be known that it's nice to see you, and can let you know how far he can tell you've progressed. He does little acknowledgements to those who he gets to be familiar with. It's uncanny how the classes will change from one to another and yet feel like exactly what I feel like I needed to work on, perhaps my shoulders were sore from sleeping funny, or I am a bit sluggish, somehow he seems to read the room and adds nuanced variety. A computer guided session won't change things up, won't acknowledge you, won't help you to go at your own pace, won't even make sure that you're doing it right. And yet Joe encourages yoga to happen, even if you don't make it to his specific yoga classes. Our bodies and our health are too important to make secondary so he's always made it clear how important it is to find a way to do yoga somehow. And I know, even if he's not right there with a class, that he's given me a lot of tools to feel things clicking right into place. He has helped to replace bad habits with really good ones.