New Release Excerpt: A Queer Dharma
Categories: General Excerpt Health & Healing New Release Society & Politics Spirituality & Religion
Excerpted from the introduction of A Queer Dharma: Yoga and Meditations for Liberation by Jacoby Ballard.
Meditation saved my life when I was a teenager. I was bullied for six years for being perceived as queer in my small mountain town in Colorado. I wasn’t out as queer yet, even to myself, but I was taunted, physically harassed, teased, dismissed, and mentally and emotionally manipulated by peers who perceived something different and seized upon me. Another queer kid in our high school died by suicide in our freshman year; I could have been right alongside him had I not studied meditation at that time. Beginning meditation in high school taught me focus, revealed an inherent goodness in me regardless of what was happening around me or being said about me, and a spaciousness inside that could never be taken from me.
After graduating high school, I left. I went almost as far away within the continental US as I could, to a small liberal arts college in Maine. It was a good college, I would be challenged, I would get to begin again, yada yada, but most importantly and entirely unconsciously, it was getting me away from Carbondale, Colorado. In my sophomore year of college, I was required to take yoga; we needed to fulfill a wellness credit in order to graduate, and all my other options had expired. I learned a way of embodiment and living my life from seventy-year-old teacher Lillian McMullin, and I have continued to practice and find some incredible teachers and guides on my journey around the United States (including in Atlanta, Ithaca, Santa Fe, New York City, the Finger Lakes region of New York, western Massachusetts, and now Salt Lake City).
For so long, although deeply committed to my practice, I felt that my practice didn’t fit. My politics and my body were unwelcome in yoga spaces, and my practice was met with disdain or judgment from fellow social justice workers. In many ways, I agreed with my social justice colleagues’ critiques—and several of them are presented here in part 2 of this book. Yet still I was committed to the practice, for it had stewarded me through coming out as queer, my grandmother’s death, coming out as trans, coming out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and countless difficult interpersonal dynamics and heartbreaks. I had faith that the practice strengthened my social justice work, my mind, and my body.
My yoga and Buddhist paths are deeply intertwined, though I am quite aware of their differences. I explore Buddhism not as a religion, but as a practice—something to try on and repeat again and again, reducing suffering over time as the Buddha invited us to. Evolving in the same geo- graphic space, yoga and Buddhism share many teachings, including most of the heart practices that I offer in part 1, which are found both in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and in Buddhist lineages. I largely practiced and studied Buddhism on my own until I met a swell of yoga colleagues in Brooklyn who were also Buddhists and, in some cases, training to be Buddhist teachers within the Insight tradition, a descendent of Theravada Buddhism arising out of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. These colleagues were largely queer women of color, and I followed them into the spaces where they practiced, and so was generally protected from many of the microaggressions that I experienced in yoga settings where I ventured solo. In over twenty years of study, practice, and teaching, the philosophies, skills, and sanghas that I have encountered have been vital to my survival, finding my work in the world, and the health of my friendships and professional relationships. I have learned yoga and dharma from loving people with quite different life experiences than me.
My queer and trans identities deeply influence my experience of yogic and Buddhist teachings, for I experience both my identity and the teachings as political. For me, identifying as queer is a political label rather than simply a personal identity. Queer conveys a politics and commitment not only around issues deemed as “LGBTQ issues,” but also around deportation and immigration policies, mass incarceration, food justice, housing justice, climate change, and other issues concerning power and oppression. Being queer means being committed to anti-oppression, justice, and liberation, including how I express my sexuality and gender. I use the words trans and genderqueer to describe my gender identity, and I don’t identify as a binary trans person—as a trans man. I use both he/him and they/them pronouns; I’m sometimes perceived as a man, sometimes as a butch woman, and sometimes as someone androgynous. I carried and birthed my child but did not nurse him. Not often seeing myself reflected in mainstream yoga and Buddhism led to my work in the world: creating space for underrepresented people, doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work within yogic and Buddhist institutions, and supporting social justice organizations and organizers to be grounded, resourced, and resilient.
In some ways, being pushed out of mainstream yoga shoved me right into the arms and hearts of my most beloved colleagues, who are now powerfully evolving yoga in the US: women of color, queer folks, and disabled and fat yogis. By mainstream yoga, I mean the colonized form of yoga on Turtle Island that emphasizes physical attainment over spiritual attributes, that is driven by the capitalist pursuit of profit, that is laced with white supremacy and cultural appropriation and resistant to calls for accountability and justice. I have had painful experiences of being called a “lady” in yoga classes early in my transition, when every such comment stung and stunted me for days. I was in a two-hundred-person class where everyone laughed when the teacher said that a particular posture was great for “pregnant people,” leaving the door open for the possibility of pregnant men and nonbinary people—an idea that was clearly laughable to all of the students except me. In 2018 I was a pregnant fella, sometimes perceived as a man with a beer gut, attending regular yoga classes and adjusting my practice to care for my body and babe-to-be, not discussing my pregnancy with teachers who I knew couldn’t hold my complexity. I was fired by a yogic institution in New York for being trans; I continued to practice while refusing to enter a yoga studio for the next five years. I needed to heal. I needed to strengthen. Through my tears, my running out of spaces in fury, and my rants at the covers of yoga magazines, I found my beloveds—yogis so brilliant, heartfelt, and courageous. I would not wish the racism, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, and fatphobia of mainstream yoga on anyone, including myself; my practice and the teachings held and guided me through those harmful moments. My practice is stronger, my network more robust, and my work more spacious because I have been through the wringer.
My task, then, is to hold the door open for and offer myself up to others, as well—queer and trans people of color, disabled people, fat folks, formerly incarcerated folks, and undocumented folks: people who are targeted by much more violent forms of oppression than me due to their intersecting identities marking them in multiple categories. I am so excited by so many trans people of color finding their work within yoga, and I vow to support them however I can, as well as show up as an accomplice to other yogis facing different forms of oppression within yoga. I continually grow and evolve my practices of compassionate listening, support, moving back, partnering with, and offering up.
I also must say that I found refuge in yogic and Buddhist teachings, teachings that come from South Asia, because of my whiteness. My parents and ancestors gave up their own spiritual traditions, teachings, and rituals in order to be assimilated into whiteness. That ancestral loss failed me in moments of great need and left me searching among other traditions. I am therefore grateful to all of the ancestors of these practices and their living descendants, for I might not be alive today were it not for their generosity in sharing the teachings. As I write in the section on gratitude in the chapter on joy, when we are truly grateful for something or someone, we have a duty to reciprocate, steward, accompany, and support.
This book is a queer approach to the practices of yoga and Buddhism, exploring the teachings, critiquing mainstream yoga culture, and providing some examples of liberatory practices, both within ourselves and within organizations. My queer community has incredibly insightful and clear critiques (of yoga, Buddhism, pop culture—anything, really), beautiful tender hearts caring for and fully showing up with the power of their presence and attention for themselves and others in our chosen families (when a baby is born, at funerals, at graduations, at organizations’ ten-year anniversary celebrations, and more), and innovators and visionaries who are making old models of social movements obsolete, growing our influence, and winning not just policies but the hearts of many. I cite teachings and wisdom by social justice leaders and visionaries alongside that of yogis and Buddhist teachers—they are all my sangha, my mentors, my heroes, and my colleagues, so if you are approaching this book from the yoga or dharma side of things, there may be unfamiliar reference points and explorations. If that is the case, I invite you to read slowly, absorb, and reflect, cultivating curiosity and respect. If you are approaching this text from the social justice side of things, I invite your vulnerability through my own and your contemplations of how these practices might ground, evolve, and expand our movements and organizations, whether they are familiar or not within your own ancestry and spiritual practices.
This book is for my queer and trans community and siblings, to see some of your own experiences reflected in these pages. This book is for straight and cisgender people to learn about how yoga practice is experienced and expressed through one queer individual, with some different stories, reference points, and musings than you may be familiar with. This book is for fitness fanatics who pooh-pooh the spiritual dimensions of these practices. This book is for mental health workers who may not necessarily consider the body, or who may suggest yoga to a queer client without knowing the potential harm you may be sending them to. This book is for white yogis who either don’t understand why cultural appropriation is a problem or drop the practice entirely, afraid to be one of the “bad white people” who practice yoga or Buddhism. This is for my beloveds and colleagues of color: an acknowledgement of harm and my complicity, a prayer for a world of equity, and a public commitment to steadfastly continue the work of racial justice. This is for those new to social justice movement work, hesitant to join, terrified of scathing critiques or being shunned in your not knowing. This is for my fellow social justice workers who need spaces and teachings to guide and hold your weary body/heart/mind. This is for all the martyrs out there, who keep on keeping on until something breaks—your partnership, your body, your resilience. This is for my queer comrades who are on the front lines of social change through art, philanthropy, theater, writing, scholarship, dance, and beyond. This is for the apolitical tender-queer, inviting you out of your shell and validating your vulnerability. This is for those healing from trauma through practice and those healing the sources of trauma through movement work. This is for the healers holding important, necessary, vital space for bodies, hearts, and minds, for you to be held too, so that you can continue. This is for my colleagues in the yoga service and yoga and social justice fields, teaching in prisons and schools, in homeless shelters and on the US–Mexico border, adding my voice to your own and inviting those of you who haven’t written to courageously share as I do here how the practices live in you—the world is in need of your wisdom and insight. This is for all the students, those practicing from within violent institutions and those who will never see the inside of those buildings, those comfortable practicing in studios and meditation halls and those who refuse to practice in a studio or meditation hall for your own well-being. This is for the elders who have been grappling with, navigating, and exploring these teachings for many decades, and this is for the young ones, including and beyond my own beloved Giuseppi Nova, who inherit the work we have done and the beautiful bodies of practice and communities of belonging that we have created, as well as our missteps and failures.