Part of the reason I opened this space was to offer something to our community that is rarely found in other places and spaces dedicated to fitness, wellness, dance, or yoga—a space that is inclusive of all bodies and identities not just in word, but in practice. I wanted to bring my particular approach to yoga and movement, which is queer—unconventional, radical, inclusive, trauma-informed, creative, and “deeply rooted in truth, love, and justice,” as Jacoby Ballard describes (and as I quote in part 1 of this blog). There are many ways to be queer, and one way is to challenge gender binaries and social and cultural norms of all kinds.
Many gyms draw strict gender lines with offerings for men and women, reinforcing stereotypes that weight rooms are for men and group fitness classes are for women. Locker rooms where you have to choose to identify as “man” or “woman” will likely feel unsafe if your appearance is gender non-conforming. Some yoga classes offer a certain pose variation “for men” or “for women” and reinforce binaries of gender. The music used in a lot of classes reinforces heterosexual narratives about love and romance and stereotypes about men and women (and boys and girls).
Further, many group fitness classes are populated by people who are thin and already “fit” and fat bodies are conditionally welcomed into that space if they want to lose weight, as if this is the only goal of moving one’s body. The messaging in and around group fitness is largely about losing weight—about changing your body to be more “fit” or “healthy,” which ultimately means more socially acceptable. But “fat” is not just a physical weight we carry; it is often related to trauma—the psychological weight we carry. And narrow cultural norms reinforce the psychological weight that queer people, and all socially unacceptable people, carry.
Before opening The SGC, I taught fitness classes for over a decade at a community non-profit where I did not feel comfortable being out (and I taught fitness classes elsewhere for many years before I was brave enough to consider myself queer). I was discouraged from including “political” messages in my classes and promotions for classes. I taught a program where I was required to use music that often had lyrics that I found to be offensive to women and to reinforce stereotypes related to race and sexuality. But it was deemed “clean,” and context was ignored. Still, being in my fat body, leading a class, was the least I could do to push back again one of the norms of fitness spaces. More than once a new participant walked right past me to talk to the thin woman they thought must be the instructor. Too often, we are unaware of the limited scripts we participate in on a daily basis and most gyms and fitness centers prefer not to have these societal corsets pointed out.
One of the worst examples from this past teaching gig is something that happens all the time in mainstream/corporate America. One day I walked in to the facility to witness a large, masculine person teetering around in high heels and “acting” like the female CEO because he had won the honor of “CEO for the day.” The staff filled the lobby as everyone laughed and cheered for this offensive display, which was probably considered to be a light, fun team-building activity. I felt extremely uncomfortable as I passed through to teach my class and imagined what it would be like to be trans and witness that display. I debated for weeks about whether I should say something to my supervisor or just let it go. I still regret that I let it go.
So, opening The Spiral Goddess Collective is also an opportunity for me to be more brave, more open, and more in line with my values. This is part of “the potential for queer identity,” what Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore describes as “the radical potential to choose one’s gender and one’s sexual and social identities, to embrace a radical outsider’s perspective, to create a culture on our terms, and to challenge everything that’s sickening about the dominant culture around us.” The Spiral Goddess Collective embraces a radical outsider’s perspective.
Despite a name that is feminine, and perhaps makes people wonder if men are allowed to attend classes and events at The SGC (the answer: of course they are and they do!), our space is pushing up against the boundaries of the norms of fitness spaces as well as the norms of social justice movements. The Spiral Goddess is not just a symbol for women—it is an archetype that informs what we birth into the world, how we use our energy, how we treat ourselves and each other, and how we connect our inner and outer worlds.
Feminine qualities and values like collaboration, compassion, empathy, nurturing, and flowing are seen as weaknesses. Women are expected to work out to get hard, but not too hard. To be thin, but still curvy. We compete against ourselves as much as the other women in the room. And, women and femme people of all genders, have been excluded, abused, and threatened in fitness spaces (and the larger culture), to say the least.
Men are made to feel like they have to be stereotypically masculine (competitive, linear, logical, assertive, independent, controlling), which just adds to the problems of our patriarchal world and the mental health problems of men, women, and children and everyone outside of these gendered categories. Individuals are forced to choose one side of the gender binary or to push back as non-binary, both of which can lead to violence against ourselves and others.
At The SGC we embrace the radical, political meaning of queer and practice radical acceptance—we invite you to come as you are and to discover that you are so much more than you’ve been allowed to be. We invite you to start healing your wounds so that we might also heal the systems and structures that cause these wounds. Transformative healing happens form the inside out and the outside in. When we move our minds/bodies together, we are stronger—we are a collective of power and potential!
Queer is a reclaimed word. It is an umbrella term and denotes a spectrum of identities and sexualities that have been marginalized and demonized. I like this term because it is inclusive, political, and ambiguous; and the word also means unusual, not normal, odd, eccentric, and unconventional. To queer something, as Jacoby Ballard describes, is to “critique, challenge, and transform toward something more radical—that is deeply rooted in truth, love, and justice.” In this way, The Spiral Goddess Collective is a queer enterprise. And there are many ways to be queer.
Despite my professional life as a professor and fitness instructor—both things that appear to be the realms of the extrovert—I am a shy, introverted, home body who likes to spend time by myself—usually with a book and preferably with a cat or two or three. I’m not the type to yell from rooftops or wave a flag in a parade regardless of how passionate I am. When Hannah Gadbsy asks where the introverted queers are in her brilliant stand-up special, Nanette, I whisper “right here” and feel seen.
When I filled out the forms to propose Bangor Pride Events—a Queer Yoga/Yoga Outside the Box event on June 17, First Friday Free Dance on June 2, and a table among the vendors at the Pride celebration on June 24, I was reminded about how much anxiety can come from inclusion and visibility. I’m sure I am not the only introvert who feels this anxiety when they are asked to expose semi-private parts of themselves toward a bigger cause. And yet, brave acts by marginalized people have created social change and continue to transform our world. I would like to be so brave, but my role is to support and facilitate. And I am far more comfortable behind the scenes.
I have offered several events at Bangor Pride in the past through my role as a professor at UMA-Bangor. But now I offer these events through The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement. Part of my desire to participate in Bangor Pride is to bring more visibility to the space and our offerings. We are a space where members of the LGBTQIA+ community can come for dance and yoga and healing modalities that are inclusive, trauma-informed, and social justice-oriented.
And The SGC is a space where we want everyone to feel welcome. We are not simply a yoga studio; we are a center for mind/body movement. What we offer at SGC is not an ordinary approach to "fitness," dance, or yoga—it is something deeper and it is difficult to get people to come try something new, especially something that requires vulnerability and self-reflection. As Jacoby Ballard argues, queer and trans people don’t often have “the opportunity to be in their bodies as their whole selves” and a queer approach to yoga (and JourneyDance!) “creates expansion and spaciousness.” The Queer Yoga/Yoga Outside the Box event on June 17 is partially inspired by Jacoby Ballard’s book A Queer Dharma: Yoga and Meditations for Liberation.
We all deserve to be in our bodies as our whole selves and this is one of the goals of SGC. Our work is inspired by a desire to make a difference in our community. We offer scholarships and encourage people to pay what they can. We offer a space where people can come together toward embodied wholeness—movement that isn’t about meeting the demands of dominant culture, but meeting ourselves where we are.
In my yoga training, one of the mantras we rely on for guidance is “letting go of competition.” We often follow this up by saying: “letting go of competition with ourselves and others.” Sometimes we can be really hard on ourselves when we compete with our own expectations and judgements. (We also let go of judgement and expectations!) And we can make our friends and community members into enemies when we see them as competition. We will never be as beautiful, as thin, as strong, as successful, as whatever as the person standing next to us. But we also never know what they are struggling with in their life. Yoga teaches us that it is best to tend our own garden and to let our neighbors tend theirs, but this mindset is in direct competition with American culture!
When I first started to ask myself if I could open a yoga and dance studio, I almost shut myself down before I started because I was afraid of the competition. I knew I would have to compete with the Bangor YMCA where I have taught a variety of fitness, dance, and yoga classes since 2010 (and left because I was told that I am not allowed to talk about The SGC at the Y). I knew I would have to compete with the long-established OmLand, only a few doors down from my new space at 16 State Street. I knew about a few other dance fitness opportunities, like Sunshine's Zumba and Jill's Beyond Bold Dance Fitness. (I love dance fitness and I love that we have a growing number of options in Bangor, including my new neighbor offering classes on the 3rd floor starting in January--Dirigo Dance Fitness.)
When I came across Eye Candy Dance and Fitness, I almost ran away from my dream. "A place where you can feel empowered to be yourself," Eye Candy's tagline, articulates what I have offered in my academic and fitness classes for as long as I have been doing this work. And belly dance fitness and empowering women—these are two things that have been staples of my work in the world of dance fitness. How could I complete with sexy, trendy classes and savvy social media?
Each time my internet research revealed another “boutique fitness” enterprise that I did not know about, my doubt grew and I told myself that I was crazy to think that I could do this—that I could be a business woman, that I could have my own space for the kinds of fitness/dance/yoga classes that feed my soul and inspire me to make the world, and my community, a better place.
But then a few things occurred to me that set me on the path to pursue this dream of The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement:
1) While there may be competition concerning people’s time and money and the coveted post-work time slots, what I am offering does not exist in Bangor. It doesn’t really even exist in Portland. Maybe this unique space and concept I am offering does not really exist anywhere, at least not in this particular form. In this case, there is no competition at all.
2) The space that I have created (with the help of many of my friends) is downright magical. From the moment I walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, my mind started to imagine what that space could become and what I have created matches that vision with room to grow. I am confident that when people drag themselves up those four flights of stairs, they feel the lightness and positivity, the possibility of what we can discover when we move our minds and bodies and our collective mind/body. (And the stairs get easier every time!)
3) Because I believe in community, I believe that there is space for all of us. I believe that what I am offering is something that people in Bangor have been looking for. It has existed in different iterations in the past, but now is the time for it to flourish. I tried to offer mind/body movement and radical approaches to fitness/dance/yoga at the Y and was able to reach some people who might not know to look for such offerings, but it became clear that I needed my own space to push back against limiting definitions and mainstream ethics. I am honored and humbled to be able to create a space for mind/body movement, a place for community-building and radical acceptance, for self-exploration and interpersonal connections, for growth and healing—for so much more than I can imagine, and I have a vivid imagination!
4) And, finally, it has been a long road of self-discovery, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, of growth and healing and confidence-building to get to where I am today. I have never fit into the box of “fitness” despite spending 25 years teaching almost every iteration of group fitness—many that I created and choreographed. And I have struggled to believe in my gifts and talents. I have struggled with body image. I have struggled with being radical and queer in a vanilla world that wants repetition and predictability and to know how many calories they are going to burn and whether they have discovered the magical pill of weight loss (spoiler alert: there is no such thing). Today I am trying to be the best and most authentic version of myself without fear or shame, and I am inviting my community to do the same. It's not easy to push back against the messages that we receive every day—messages that tell us that we will never be good enough and fuck with our self-esteem and self-worth, to say the least.
JourneyDance was what set me on a path to believe in myself and my “personal medicine” as they call it in our training. Ironically, the CEO of the Bangor YMCA set me on this path when she told me about the online teacher training. I am grateful to her and to my time in the fitness industry. I have learned many skills and lessons and I have made them my own. I still love dance fitness, but what I have to offer is more than just fitness and I am excited to bring JourneyDance—and my eclectic, creative, intuitive approach to yoga and mind/body movement—to this space and to the larger Bangor community. I am excited to be able to bring in other talented, unique people who also have gifts to offer our community.
What we offer might scare some people away, but I hope it will attract people who are looking for something different than a workout. We offer yoga that meets each person where they are, dance that is about how you feel not about how you look, healing that goes at your pace, space and activities that nourish and open new possibilities. Deciding to approach fitness, health, and wellness from a different ideology is not easy, but it is worth it. If we practice consistently, we will start to see changes we might have thought were not possible.
Getting here is the hard part, but I am confident that once people take that leap they will return again and again because they will feel the difference that mind/body movement makes. As the saying goes, we have to feel it to heal it—to move and be moved.
And a message from our business hat: we have gift certificates in any amount and a 10-punch card for your gift-giving needs! Give the gift of yoga, movement, self-healing, and self-care to yourself or someone else who needs it. And your first class is always free!
8/20/2022 0 Comments
Land acknowledgements have begun to be standard practice for many institutions and organizations, as well as for yoga teachers and studios. These statements aren't just an act of bending to the political climate--they are a recognition that the power-over practices of the past continue to reverberate into the present day, impacting the physical, mental, social, cultural, and economic wellness of individuals, communities, and our nation and keeping inequalities firmly in place.
Toward the larger goals of social justice, it is important to recognize that where we are and what we do does not exits in a vacuum. Both the land and the traditions of indigenous peoples influence and support the work we do at The Spiral Goddess Collective as well as the work that all of us who participate in conscious dance and yoga, specifically, and modern life, generally, participate in and benefit from. What does this mean? Part of our work is not just to acknowledge our debt to indigenous people's and traditions, but also to continue to educate ourselves, to honor these roots, and to participate in and support ongoing indigenous movements toward, individual, cultural, and collective healing and self-determination. This work is ongoing but it is only a beginning.
Downtown Bangor and The Clark Building, and thus The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement, exist on the unceded homelands of the sovereign people of the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq people. The Kenduskeag Stream, a tributary or the Penobscot River, dominates the view from the windows at the front of the SGC center. The Penobscot River continues to be contested territory in the centuries-long struggle for stewardship toward ensuring a healthy ecosystem for all of Maine.
Also framed from this view is the monument to Charles O. Howard, the victim of a hate crime in 1984. While walking down the street, Howard and his boyfriend were harassed for being gay and then Howard was assaulted and thrown over the bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream where he died by drowning. This, too, is a legacy for our land. On a wall near the Howard memorial is one of my favorite examples of street art and my favorite bird. It seems apt that some of the meanings and symbolism of the hummingbird include: "signals that challenging times are over and healing can begin. . . . an inspiring sign of hope and good luck. Hummingbirds also can have a spiritual significance and mean the spirit of a loved one is near."
Bangor, and the State of Maine, are microcosms for the United States where movements for social justice have been ebbing and flowing since before the U.S. officially became a country. As a part of the legacies of racism, sexism, white supremacy, and imperialism we honor the land where we live, love, breathe, work, and find community. We acknowledge that here in the U.S. what we have was built on stolen land and by forced labor. We pay back this debt by keeping our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts open and settling for nothing less than justice, equity, peace, and love.
Finally, yoga's roots are thousands of years old and are part of a larger set of traditions from indigenous practices from India, Africa, and other regions in the world--there is nothing new about embodied practices, but many have been lost, forgotten, or forced out of our cultural norms. The yoga practiced and taught at The SGC, a Center for Mind/Body Movement, draws on a variety of traditions, mixing styles and approaches that blend breathing, embodied movement, and meditation. Sarah writes more about these practices and approaches in her blog and in her forthcoming book, American Yoga Demystified: Creative/Critical Insights for a Complex World and an Evolving Mind and Body.
On Indigenous People's Day, Monday, October 10th, 2022, we will not hold classes, and I hope we will hold the weight of indigenous peoples and practices, past, present, and future, in our hearts and minds. Here are a couple of resources if you want to learn more about The Wabanaki Confederacy: Four Directions and the Wabanaki Alliance.