mental health

An Ode to Yogis Who Bring Darkness to Yoga

Yoga doesn't have to be unrealistically positive to be helpful.

by Rajul Punjabi
20 February 2019, 8:45am

J.D. Mason

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Yoga teachers are too excited about life and it really irks me sometimes. They’re like the embodiment of that Baby Shark song that won’t go away, making light out of everything, even a family of apex predators. My yoga teacher, Tracey, is more like a post-2010 Rihanna album: ‘Unapologetic,’ if we’re being specific—sometimes celebratory but also dark, reflective, and sometimes uncomfortably honest.

“So when I was a kid, my mom used to sell drugs,” she said once, to the bewilderment of a yoga studio full of squeaky clean-cut white ladies in colorful leggings and 70-dollar Gaiam mats—many of who attend or teach at Tulane—and me. This declaration was part of Tracey’s dharma talk—a five-minute manifesto she gives at the beginning of every class that highlights a sort of lesson or intention we’re invited to carry with us through our practice. This particular dharma talk was about empathy and how challenging forgiveness can be.

There’s more to Tracey’s darkness then her willingness to discuss illicit family details in a space where instructors usually say things like “exhale all your tension and shine your heart to the sky,” but let’s just start there. I am not interested in constant sweetness, light, and blind positivity in my yoga practice. Yoga is a body meditation you’re supposed to carry with you off of the mat into other parts of your life. And some parts of life are dark, anxious, and depressing. Sometimes I don’t want to shine anything anywhere. I want to breathe and move through it without crumbling into useless shards of anxiety.

After I started taking yoga with Tracey five years ago, it’s been challenging to practice in other spaces with teachers whose rhetoric deals only, cultishly, in abstract concepts of happiness. Some of you might be thinking, but Raj, the world is a steaming, maggot-ridden pile of horse poo right now—why can’t we have our 50 minutes of sheer positivity while placing our hands in anjali mudra with our thumbs touching our third eye in order to vibrate pranna throughout our entire beings?

Here’s what the fuck we should all be vibrating through our beings: reality—the reality that our existence on this blue-green marble is a complex one, and the fact that we’d all benefit from bringing our whole entire selves to the mat. The light and the dark.

Tracey made this possible for me by just existing. I have the very cliche story of starting my practice with her after a tough breakup. I told her I was there to heal, exercise, and meditate like a maniac in order inject some extra endorphins into my depressing-ass situation. She did not tell me it would be okay. She instead showed me—through a challenging practice, breathing techniques, and honest dharma talks—that you can be with your darkness and be okay.

On Tracey’s darkness: Nothing about her class is gentle (save for savasana). Both your body and patience are tested in poses that are not particularly difficult at first but then, five slow breaths later, make you kind of want to die. She is extremely open about her life in class and on paper—she’s spoken and written about escaping an abduction, divorcing her wife, and climbing out of a debilitating opioid addiction. She talked about the Freddie Gray-inspired Baltimore protests and riots in class, in the actual South where, in my experience, people are even more prone to ignoring shit like that if they’re in a privileged enough position to. Tracey chooses unvarnished reality over pretty facades and that informs her pedagogy in every class.

I will not bore (and kind of bullshit) you with the details of the origins of yoga (they’re not completely certain, anyway). But the western ideation of yoga is a powdered-sugar-covered positivity fest. It’s really helpful 50 percent of the time, but not when I’m in wheel pose, feeling exposed and wobbly and hopeless because I’m supposed to be focusing on breathing but my mind has somehow wandered to the guy who killed himself in front of me last year. That’s when embracing a little bit of darkness—letting it be there with you when you fall out of the pose before finishing that heart-shining thing you’re supposed to be doing—can be useful.

My yoga teacher is goth and smokes sometimes and is health conscious but rails about bullshit wellness products. She doesn’t smile much but her posture adjustments are thoughtful and intentional. She taught me how to manage an impending anxiety attack by getting into child’s pose and breathing in on “I’m” and out on “okay.” Because child’s pose, to me, is not about perfection and sunshine and rest. It’s about surrender and survival. All you can see when you’re curled up in that posture is darkness that you know you can get yourself out of whenever you’re ready.