Hey, Girl, Hey, Namaste: Queering Yoga in Long Beach | KCET
Hey, Girl, Hey, Namaste: Queering Yoga in Long Beach
Note: The following story includes genderqueer subjects who identify with and use third person plural pronouns.
The Long Beach LGBTQ Center shares a bustling swath of Fourth Street with several thrift shops, an artisanal chocolate vendor, an independent movie theater, and a yoga studio. Hipsters in pegged jeans trod past the Center's rainbow-accented façade, likely unaware of the Zensual revolution happening on the other side of the rainbow.
In the Center's media room, queers and allies stretch, breath, and pose to songs by Björk, Al Green, and Alicia Keys. They sprawl on mats, breathing through an asana called Corpse Pose. They are aware of their bodies while simultaneously transcending them.
Welcome to trans and body positive yoga.
Trans is shorthand for transgender, an adjective describing people whose gender identity differs from their gender assigned at birth. Body positivity refers to a social movement aiming to radically expand what it means for a body to be both healthy and beautiful. And recently the LGBTQ Center has focused their new yoga class on creating a safe, comfortable space for trans and differently-bodied queers and allies.
Annie Parkhurst, a musician and digital marketing entrepreneur, is responsible for establishing this new trans and body positive yoga program at the Center. Parkhurst also loves the Corpse Pose. "Dude," Parkhurst declares, "Corpse Pose! Come on! Yoga is totally metal!" Parkhurst identifies as a genderqueer person, someone neither entirely female nor entirely male. Parkhurst is, however, entirely punk rock.
Parkhurst explains that they started the yoga class after taking daily yoga classes as part of theirQueer Rock Camp. This yoga was different and for once, Parkhurst felt entirely at home. "I got interested and went looking for something similar in my community."
Since Long Beach is almost as yoga-crazed as it is queer, Parkhurst felt confident that they would easily find a queer yoga space. Long Beach boasts one of the largest LGBTQ pride festivals in the nation. Those seeking to get queerly caffeinated may pop in to Hot Java, the gayborhood's busiest café, while those seeking über queer entertainment may traipse to Club Ripples, the seaside bar with a drag revue featuring pop parodist Lady Caca. To find locals indulging in yoga, one need only cruise a few blocks past Hot Java, to where Junipero Avenue intersects with Ocean Boulevard. There, daily hordes engage in sun salutations on a bluff overlooking the Queen Mary. An online search of yoga in Long Beach yields a gamut ranging from yoga en Español to mommy n' me yoga.
Parkhurst, however, felt alienated by Long Beach's yoga culture. Parkhurst says, "These spaces didn't really feel accessible to different bodies, and honestly, it's a fear thing. I didn't see anybody like me when I went looking, and I don't want to be the only kind of me in shape and size and gender presentation at a yoga class. I'm 6 foot 2, I'm 300 pounds, and I'm really, really queer looking."
So Parkhurst took matters into their own hands and, being a long-time community organizer, contacted Porter Gilberg, the Center's executive director. Parkhurst requested a space in which to host a monthly yoga class, Gilberg granted them the media room, and Parkhurst tapped JC, the yoga instructor from the Queer Rock Camp, to lead classes with a trans and body positive emphasis.
The Center's inaugural yoga class could hardly hold everyone in attendance. Queer people and allies packed the room, underscoring how keenly Parkhurst has their finger on the pulse of what their community needs.
Gilberg says, "It's vital that queer and trans people have access to low cost wellness resources to relieve stress and improve mental health." Yoga's holistic nature provides unique benefits for queers and the differently-bodied. It offers a multi-pronged approach to spiritual, physical, and mentalï?¾for coping with traumas rooted in homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, fat phobia, ableism, and other oppressions that queers and the differently-bodied habitually face. While anecdotal evidence of yoga's health benefits abounds, mounting scientific evidence is steadily substantiating these claims. JC, the class's facilitator, says yoga helped her recover from both substance abuse and depression. These two issues stemmed, in part, from her experiences as a queer woman facing homophobia.
"At this point, in the West," says JC, "the face of yoga is a white, thin, cisgendered woman." A cisgendered person is one whose gender identity conforms to the one assigned to them at birth, and the Western stereotype JC describes contradicts that of the average Long Beach resident, especially given the city's demographics. According to the 2015 census, less than half of the city's residents identify as white. Popular programming at the Center, such as support groups for transgender youth and socials for elderly queer women, illustrate that hetero-normativity is far from the norm in Long Beach.
"At the Center," says JC, "yoga is safe for people who are larger or differently bodied, especially for people who have never done yoga and are afraid to try it in a very public place, like the bluff. The trans and body positive class is on the gentle side. We do Hatha yoga, and I give various alignment-based instructions. I'm aware of people's injuries, bodily differences, and offer different poses for people to choose from."
Parkhurst describes the class as both relaxing and challenging. Parkhurst says, "When I got there for the first session, JC had made the room nice, dark, and cool. We went into simple stretching and breathing and then evolved into different poses like Downward Dog. JC started providing alternative poses right away. JC didn't make it about size. She made it about ability, and if you were unable to do a pose she was like here are two different alternatives. Get on your knees. Breath differently. We did a solid hour."
The Center's trans and body positive yoga class is the first of its kind for Long Beach, and in a sense, Parkhurst is employing an anarchist D.I.Y. strategy to decolonize yoga and redistribute it to "misfits." Parkhurst says, "Think about an identifiably transgender woman trying to do yoga in a space where she doesn't feel comfortable. Or an identifiable transgender man who wants to do yoga with his shirt off and feel comfortable. I've heard stories from queer people about attending yoga classes where the instructor would never touch them to help them with a pose."
Benny Huang-LeMaster attends the trans and body positive yoga at the Center. They describe being drawn to the classes for their inclusivity. Huang-LeMaster says, "My largest concern around any form of public fitness is my size. The fact that I identify as genderqueer only compounds the issue as I struggle with the sorts of gendered binary language fitness spaces use. For example, boys, go here and girls, go there." Huang-LeMaster also hopes that queer yoga will give them some relief from graduate school-induced sciatica.
The Center's trans and body positive yoga program belongs to a larger trend called queer fitness. Queer fitness resists the hyper-policing of bodies that happens at many mainstream fitness spaces, the most pernicious example of this tyranny being the commandment that men bulk up while women lose weight. Portland's Punk Aerobics, formerly Homorobics, belongs to the queer fitness movement. So does Samuel Every's Tenderqueer Fitness in Elysian Park. Every, a trans man, and former pole-vaulter, designs classes that focus on wellness, not weight loss. He says, "Not everyone who comes to my classes is queer or trans, and I think this is because the everyday social pressures of the gym are uncomfortable for most people. Queer fitness is punk in that it respects the intelligence our bodies already carry that may not come from or speak the language of an established exercise philosophy."
It is of no surprise, that at The Center, even the language of yoga is transformed. JC notes: "Yoga classes are normally ended by bowing with the hands at the heart and saying, 'Namaste.' When I did that at the end of our first class, Annie and others exclaimed, 'Hey, girl, hey!' Namaste means 'I recognize the divine within you' or 'I bow to your highest self' so what they said was totally the same thing."
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