Parking Lot Yoga Makes Me Feel Alive (Relearning How to Look White Men in the Eye)

Parking Lot Yoga Makes Me Feel Alive (Relearning How to Look White Men in the Eye). August 31, 2020. 7:46AM.

Legs stretched out; fingers intertwined in-between my toes. Pulling myself towards earth.

I look up. She’s standing there, you know, of course, six feet away. Somehow, I feel closer to her than before. And how could that be?

“Hi Tianna,” she says. She looks away. “I just wanted to tell you how much I love hearing your voice during this time.”

I knew exactly what she meant. Exactly two months ago, she posted my New York Times article on her Facebook wall. I looked at that photo of me and stared back at myself; my red lipstick, my beautiful afro hanging over my face, curls everywhere, and my favorite earrings from a thrift shop in Lisbon. However, there was something in my eyes that I still did not recognize when I looked at photos of myself.

And she wrote- “This is my friend. This is my yoga student. She is a fucking warrior.”

Below she posted my original blog post from May; my baby, my pain, all that I experienced. A few days before I wrote my blog post, I heard about George Floyd and a mention of the video. I was enraged, why would I need to watch a video of a Black man being murdered in cold flesh? Another? A friend asked me if I’d ever seen a video of a white person being murdered, widely distributed on the internet and we both knew the answer to that question. America was in love with Black trauma and pain and YouTube was only for watching Black people be murdered.

I was fuming and sad and depressed and disappointed in my America; my America that I dreamed of, believed in, and held close to my heart. I’d played by all the rules only to end up here. America upheld respectability politics and we believed it. It doesn’t matter. You can’t outrun racism, baby. You can’t overachieve to bypass racism, baby. You can’t escape racism through education, baby.

In May, there was something so painful in my body that I needed it out and I figured I should write. My entire blog post- I mean every single word- I wrote by accident one night, two days after my 28th birthday. At 8PM I realized I forgot to drink the leftover coffee in the pot and since I couldn’t waste it, I added salted caramel ice cream. The caffeine and sugar were so strong that after edits, it was 6PM the next day. I posted the link to my blog on Facebook, bought a hamburger, and a friend begged me to go to sleep. From 7 to 8PM I paced my apartment, restless, finally sat down on my yellow couch, and woke up 10 hours later to 20K views on my blog post.

Look at what my story had done. So many others had come forward. “This happened to me too.” We now had a safer space to express our experiences.

But I wasn’t sure what I needed. Justice? Accountability. And I realized it didn’t matter what anyone gave me, because at the end of the day, I still had a lifetime ahead with PTSD, because once the damage is done, the damage is done.

So today, three months later, to think I almost didn’t come to yoga this morning. When I woke up, I told myself to sleep in. Who schedules their first yoga class at 7:30am on a Monday, almost six months since an actual face to face class? Me.

When I walked up today, I was suddenly aware that almost every person there knew who I was. Not heads on a swivel when I walked through the parking lot to find a socially distanced spot, but like hey, here I am, bare, and exposed to the world. Holding my yoga mat in a way that made me feel childlike, awkward, suddenly aware of my posture, sweat on my palms, tongue in my mouth.

They knew. The interviews, blogs, photos, news articles galore, the intimacy in my voice in interviews, hesitation, pause. The interviews took my breath away and after I stayed in bed for days. There is this look in people’s eyes. It’s not that they view you as a victim, but man, there is just a small ounce of realization in their eyes that you survived. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. No one does this intentionally, just a millisecond of realization that damn, that was a lot, and that happened to you… I’m sorry, and yet I don’t know what to say, because I don’t want you think I feel sorry for you. Uh, but damn, that was a lot and I still don’t know what to say.

So, you have to look away for a second. And also realize that it’s been months since you talked to anyone face to face and six feet feels like a million. We all needed intimacy, closeness, and goodness- a hug.

On the other hand, I was so proud, so proud of myself for coming forward, empowered even. Cause here is my story, my government name, and here is what happened to me. You can sit with it, read all of it, feel the terror I felt and the terror I feel, and in that we can make a change.

Yet, there was something inside of me that felt on fire in the pit of my stomach. There were parts of me that were playing catch up, still looking at my photos and not really recognizing myself, not knowing my voice in interviews, half of me so proud and half of me so terrified. Still in shock and overwhelmed and in this whirlwind.

And this morning, I read a message in Spanish from a Mexican citizen who grew up in Juarez. “Thank you for speaking up for yourself,” he says. “And me. They’ve treated me and my family like this my entire life.

His message caught me breathless at 3:01AM in tears, because my God, I really carried this weight alone for two years when there are so many of us.

And here I was, in the flesh, this twenty-eight-year-old woman that sometimes felt young, but still so incredibly aware that no one could ever take away my voice again, no one could tell me not to speak; that in this incredibly damaging experience I found my voice, strength, and power. I found my pen.

And damn girl. Once you realize that, you never go back.

And here I was at yoga four hours after reading that message. And here my yoga teacher stood, waiting for my response. I think it was the way she suddenly looked at me and then looked away. It was so… I’m not sure? I wanted to thank her. I felt so seen and heard– in a way that- even with this mask on my face, it felt so insanely healing and freeing and genuine and liberating and yet, so insanely sad.

I was so exhausted from being angry; focused on the wrong things, wasted effort on the wrong people. It was driving me crazy. Interaction after interaction would suck my joy. I needed that joy. A blog post I thought about writing while on a long walk was suddenly diverted from my mind. It was unbelievably frustrating. Three months ago, I wrote all these things down about what I wanted from white people to free myself from expectation. I knew I didn’t need anything from white people; they were free to do what they wanted, but I wanted one person to hear my words and be shaken awake.

Hadn’t I done that?

And right here in front of me, I’d missed the fact that someone was actually trying. Sure- it wouldn’t solve systemic racism, but here she was, trying, in a way that was authentic and not performative; a way that now made this space even safer for me and any other person of color to follow.

Maybe some white people are scared. Maybe they have no idea what to say because they want to get it 100% correct and they know they never will. I felt torn; I watched anti-racist work #trend after George Floyd, then it sizzled out, and a few people abandoned their literature because they knew deep down that the work was too difficult. It was lifetimes of work, effort, learning, relearning, tweaking, being called out, held responsible, and accountable for words, behavior, and actions. It was lifetimes of repeatedly doing the work. It was easier to check “nice white person” and “good white liberal” on a bucket list and buy a t-shirt than realizing that you benefit from white supremacy. In order to change this, you’d have to abandon spouses, lifelong friendships, careers, neighborhoods, and religious principles.

White supremacy bleeds from everything as we know it.  

As a Black woman, it was painful to watch the denial, guilt, ignorance, and/ or lack of effort. White supremacy tore my life to shreds. White supremacy impacts the lives of so many Black and Brown people around the world, especially in America. I wanted white people to do their part. I was frustrated with the realization that white supremacy will not shift in this country until white people buy into a system of equality.

It’s like having someone mistreat you and know that only they can stop their own behavior.

It’s like convincing men to listen to you speak in boardrooms because you are their equal as a woman.

And here I was, twenty-eight-year-old, and I had to deal with both of these problems because here I was, Black as hell and a woman. Oh nah. What the hell.

I like white people that show me their cards upfront; that never burden me with guilt. The more I spoke to white people, it seemed that everyone had a racist uncle, a racist father. White people knew better and they also didn’t and this left me feeling hopeless.

I like white people that were unlearning and learning. White people with thoughtful discussion points, that were well-read, before they presented their questions. But silly me, unlearning, learning, and doing it in reverse and back and forth is an absolute mess. And it was insanely painful and almost humorous, that once I ceased attention, effort, and interaction with those that I had extremely negative interactions- the John’s, the Laurie’s, tone-deafness coupled with willful ignorance, that I woke up to messages like this-

“You said in one of your blogs that you hope to reach just one person and this is the cheesiest of cheesy things to say, but you have reached me. Thank you so much for sharing your story and putting yourself out there so that we can all learn and share what we have learned.”

And it wasn’t just white people; I was unlearning.

I was just coming down. I’d spent the last two years in fight or flight; always on edge, on guard, aware of every single surrounding.

I arrived home in October 2019 and knew the road ahead would be tough. I packed pots, pans, utensils, and a bathroom mat in my checked bag. When I arrived, I was absolutely beat down by my experience; waiting on my possessions and my car to arrive from Mexico City, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in my apartment. I wasn’t sure what I could do to get myself out of this. I went to therapy twice a week during this time. Three minutes away from my apartment, there was a yoga studio with a $20 pass for the first month. I told myself no for weeks.

On the day I finally arrived at the studio, I paid and said hello, eyes glued to the ground. And guess who I saw? A friend, my college roommate. She was so excited to see me; it had been years since I lived in the area. When she reached out and hugged me, I let myself melt in her embrace.

I was home.

She introduced me to everyone she knew there- the friendly yoga teachers, her friends, new people, whoever walked by. She was smiling, beaming, and so full of life. In the hot yoga studio, I let the heat move through my body and after the 45 minutes of class, I felt just a little bit lighter. The nightmares I had nightly decreased to only five times a week. My body felt less heavy, bruised, lifeless. On the days I didn’t go to yoga, my body ached in a way that made me crave a return. And each time I said goodbye to everyone after class, a new friend that loves cross stitch, would say “see you tomorrow!” in a way that made me say, oh, well I guess I should come back tomorrow?

And here we were. It had been almost a year.

I was relearning. I was also traumatized.

I can walk into a building and immediately tell you how many emergency exits there are. Before I get in my car in a parking lot, my eyes are somehow trained to examine the ground below my car before entering the driver’s seat.

I was relearning. I was also traumatized.

When my dog barked at night, I automatically assumed it was him, that white officer who I think of and still get chills, coming to break into my home and kill me. He and his white colleagues terrorized me for months. That nightmare of him standing over me at 3:00am in the morning, gun drawn, in that same vest, that same taunting, familiar smile, woke me up in cold sweats. I wasn’t sure how to tell anyone this, because it felt embarrassing to admit here I was, almost 30, still traumatized by nightmares. In the morning, I told myself this was nothing personal; it was just the idea of me.

It was just what I represented. But in that representation, sometimes I wished the disdain that this man had for me was just something personal.

I had finally come down and could realize that my behavior would need a change.

When driving and at stop lights, I still squeeze the steering wheel so tight that my hands are blistered. I lock my car door as soon as I slam the driver’s door shut. Car windows remain up. I chew on the inside of my cheeks whenever my heart races from the sound of fireworks, noise, of anything unfamiliar. I am perpetually aware that there are parts of me that are so unprocessed so I try my best to allow the ones that love me to hold space for me and not hold everything that keeps me awake at night. Walking outside at dusk heightens my anxiety and makes my PTSD feel like little spiders crawling all over my skin. Looking at white men in the eye is still traumatizing and I had no idea how not to flinch when they spoke to me.

I just feel so fucked up.

Trauma, trauma, baby, trauma, is within me and I want to let this shit out.

I was relearning. I was also traumatized.

But yet, my friend and her husband invited me to their home (socially distanced) and she told me it was okay, I didn’t need to bring anything. Bring yourself. So, I went, strangely empty handed– which is against all of my cultural norms- and I allowed my friends to be nice to me. And I dropped my guard at the front door of their home, next to the multicolored hammock and again in the backyard next to the banana tree. For the first time in years, I felt so at home, so loved, so safe there; offered a home-cooked meal and laughter, the ability to just be myself. When I finished my food and put my plate on the countertop, I offered to put it in the dishwasher. “It’s okay,” my friend’s husband says with a smile. “I’ll get it.” My friend smiled and gifted me sage and I held it in my hand on the drive home, windows slightly cracked in my car. At home that night, I opened my windows just a little bit more and burned the sage.

I was relearning. I was allowing my guard to just drop an inch or two and letting people be nice to me.

So, when my yoga teacher said “unclench your jaw” and reminded us to breathe, I listened. I breathed. I took small, deep breaths during the day, unclenched, unreleased, unlearned. In therapy I processed and held hands with pain and joy and anger and utter confusion.

I needed to be held and told that everything would be okay, but I learned that no one can do that for me but me.

And in that is healing.

Healing comes in many forms and parking lot yoga makes me feel alive.

-fin.

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