II. What I Did
I wouldn’t be able to tell the next part of this story without beginning with a thank you. Jewel City Yoga is a community-oriented yoga studio and intersectional feminist bookstore in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and without just shy of a year of Megan Cuzzolino’s Saturday morning classes, I don’t know where I’d be. With that, thank you to Megan & the Jewel City team. The space you create made me feel safe, and it gave me room to grow into someone I can be proud of.
When I stepped into Megan’s class for the first time, I near-wordlessly tucked myself in the back corner of the brick-walled room, figuring it was a good place to be if I didn’t want to interact with anyone. But it’s Brooklyn — personal space isn’t exactly a readily-available resource.
I didn’t anticipate what happened next. As someone who’s spent most of her life being staunchly introverted, imagine my surprise when I not only found myself not hating being in close quarters with other people practicing, but also actually enjoying sharing space with them.
It was a diverse room, full of people of different races, ages, gender expressions, skill levels and abilities. I started to feel a strange sense of kinship with my classmates, a community of people who each independently made the choice to show up and practice something together.
Of all the things these classes taught me, what helped me the most were the simplest reminders: Move at whatever pace is right for you. There’s no right or wrong pace, there’s just your own. Listen to your body, and try not to judge yourself for what you’re capable of today. Give yourself permission to be where you are. Progress will come with practice in due time.
In the practice of yoga, this is part of a concept called ahimsa. In my own life, it was like being pulled in the right direction by a gentle tide. It helped me recognize the connections between my breath and my body, my body and my mind.
I’m a recovering perfectionist. No one is a harsher critic of me than I am of myself. I’d done yoga on and off for years, so going into Jewel City, I put pressure on my body to move the way it was “supposed to.” When it didn’t, I felt anxiety churn in my stomach and hot frustration rise in my chest. But with Megan’s gentle reminders, I decided to give being a beginner a try.
When I did, I got stronger. My chaturangas got smoother, my side planks sturdier, my arms more graceful as I moved through the flows. I remember the first time I felt muscle tone emerge on my quads walking to work. Like many other people, I’d always hated my thighs, but in that moment, I remember thinking, Woah, how cool that my legs can move like this now.
I began to see what happened when I put intention into specific parts of my body to create something strong and beautiful rather than moving aimlessly through space. More than that, I started seeing how hard I’d been on my body all my life. I’d been punishing it for what happened to me and hating it for not looking how I thought it should.
When I started paying attention to these things, I felt overwhelming compassion for myself. I’d never treat anyone I love the way I’d been treating myself, so during class, I began apologizing to my body, then thanking it for how strong it had been without me realizing.
Strength was contagious. What I began feeling in my body started creeping its way into my mind. If I could let my body learn to get stronger, what if I could do the same thing for my mind?
I let myself be a beginner in more of my life — advocating for growth at work, nurturing relationships with my friends and family, falling in life-shaping love, learning film photography, quitting drinking. In relieving some of the pressure I’d been putting on myself to succeed, it all became simpler.
The things that made me anxious, the terror I had over a fundamentally uncertain future, those were just more things to embrace as is and continue practicing at until I could live with them. Some days I’d be stronger. Some days I wouldn’t. But regardless of where I was, where I am, it’s not about trying to control the future or judge my participation in it — it’s about accepting myself and continuing to put in work to grow into who I want to be for myself and for the people I love.
In beginning to build this love for myself, it made it so much easier to feel it for other people, including the strangers I shared space with every Saturday morning.