When my sister, a writer, read the manuscript for my upcoming memoir, her comment was, “Wow. I’m struck by the persistent lack of resonance you’ve faced in this world.” Her words touched deep inside me, with the painful recognition in their truth, as well as the knowledge of the long road of transformation that has brought us to this point— my family and I.
I started practicing yoga at 23. I was living as a woman at the time, an actor in graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The need for more stamina to survive the rigor of the final production we were working on before graduating (the staged version of the Hindu epic poem The Ramayana) led me to the doorstep of "It’s Yoga", Larry Schultz’s shala. Inside they practiced "Rocket Yoga", a version of Ashtanga I knew nothing about. In fact, I knew nothing about yoga at this point in time. Upon entry, the smell of incense and sweet sweat enveloped me. The space was simple, an empty room where anything could happen. I immediately took to the teacher, Reshma, and her way of asking impossible things of me in a calm, steady tone, well used to inhabiting impossibility, even then.
The serendipity that The Ramayana, one of the most beloved texts in the yoga tradition, brought me to the thing itself still feels like a trickster karmic nudge. The path had always been laid out for me, waiting for me to walk down it. Today, almost twenty years later, when I examine why I do what I do - teach yoga - it’s easy for me to trace my answer back to its greatest gift to me: belonging.
I grew up in Colombia, South America, steeped in staunch Catholicism during the Pablo Escobar years, in a country devastated by the terrorism brought on by the drug cartels. A period many American movies and TV shows have glorified, yet the living of it was a heart-wrenching, traumatizing experience. Terrorism’s primary purpose - the unlawful use of violence and intimidation of civilians - is meant to instill fear. Why fear? Because it is the most divisive force that exists. Once fear takes root, it chips away at the very fabric of relationship by corroding trust.
Fear doesn’t only take hold in the mind, it is a very real physical response. It detonates our sympathetic nervous system, igniting our lizard brain. This limits our ability to be social. It physically narrows our perspective, taking nuance out of the picture. That’s what happens on a neuro-biological level. These are physical reactions, not just psychological ones. I highlight this because it is important to understand that this is how we are wired, we cannot control these reactions, they happen to us. We may not be able to change our physical reactions to fear, but we can learn to track them, recognize them, and that in turn can make all the difference in how we move through something.
So my world, along with my neuro-biology, was stunned, frozen in an actual State of Emergency throughout my teenage years, when my parents had to know where I was at all times, to know to look in the rubble if the time came.
I had no idea that day in San Francisco, walking through the doors of the shala, that I would find something profound that would stay with me always. Something life affirming and long lasting. Something that would offer stability and grounding to the whole foundation and container of my life, make it viable. I had no way of knowing the simple potency hidden inside the practice. And had even less knowledge of the effective tools yogis had honed through the millennia to align the sheaths of the body and their awareness unto itself. That yoga was the wondrous work of unwinding and balancing the autonomic nervous system. That it offered a resiliency to navigating life’s fear and uncertainty.
It’s almost comical to think one could gain so much from such an innocent gesture, a mistake practically, of stepping through the threshold of a space. But stepping through that doorway (for me) made all the difference between being utterly and fundamentally destroyed - by myself or the world - and life becoming possible. However, the rasa, that sweet taste of honey, did not come from stepping through it that first time, but rather the process of doing so over and over and over again, what constitutes a practice.
It feels apt, then, and not an overstatement to say that yoga saved my life. I have been lucky that either from sheer stubborn willfulness or because I am naturally a glass half full kind of person, I’ve never gone too far into the dark place, but that is not usually the story for my people, the trans community. We know through research that 41% of trans people attempt suicide during their lifetimes. And as if that isn’t horrible enough, 2021 has already been the deadliest year for trans people with 25 of our community murdered, mostly trans women of color.
“If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you;
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
~ Gospel of Thomas
It would seem trans-ness is a new development. A modern construct. But the truth is that we have always existed alongside humanity. My gift has always been with me and I have always felt it. Even through the long, desert stretches of time when it only existed inside me with no external confirmation. And it is a gift.
Most of my life I felt completely out of place. The feeling so strong it felt like everyone must feel the exact same way (something I’ve come to realize is at least partly true). Being extremely adaptable, though, a shapeshifter, and matched with the discipline I gained from horseback riding, I committed to the task of being with ardor. Except that for a long time I had no idea what I was adapting to or from. The worlds I had existed in had little to offer in terms of role models or seeing myself mirrored. When I realized I was queer in my early twenties (practically unheard of where I came from), I figured that was it - the point of dissonance. Still, life was clunky and awkward and I did not find the comfort or resonance I had hoped for in lesbian circles.
This sense of cultural and societal homelessness was, I believe, subconsciously my impetus for becoming an actor. I was searching, trying on different types of personalities and people hoping to find something I recognized of myself in them. Still I found nothing. This failure to find existing proof of myself had the surprising simultaneous benefit of strengthening a very deep though quiet sense of self, even though I couldn’t quite own it yet.
Through yoga and encountering the alchemy of impossibility shifting into possibility with consistency, I began to realize: I belonged to myself. Like Maya Angelou’s response to Bill Moyers, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great....” I was able to experience a sense of belonging from deep within me that went with me everywhere.
This gave me the sthira (steadiness) I needed when words finally did find me years later as transgender.
For this Pride, in 2021, with the country surging around us, continuing to chip and corrode trans rights, it is love in action to continue to engage with and examine our own fears, our own biological reactions. To look deeper into the proposals of yoga and recognize that liberating the trans community is not only in line with the essence of yoga, but of essence to it. Yogis take responsibility, we study our patternings, our attachments and aversions in order to carve our own freedom from dukkha (suffering): moksha.
“No one is free until we are all free.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King
Human rights come as a bundle. We cannot and should not choose how many or which ones we think people are entitled to as if they could only be human in some respects and not others. I always wonder at the need to parcel our love as if it were finite, to dosify it as if we were going to run out of it right at the next breath. It is our most renewable resource.
Imagine what would happen if we led from abundance instead? If we could embrace all the colors of life, the colors of joy, the colors of happiness, the colors of love and the colors we want to paint life with. Then, we might risk finding out that we belong to ourselves and to each other. “The price is high, the reward is great.” Be bold and brave.
So, Happy Pride! From my tender heart to yours as I write this in the knowledge that I belong to you, and you me.