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.
The Salt Eaters, a 1980 novel by Toni Cade Bambara, opens with a healer, Minnie Ransom, saying to her patient, Velma Henry: “‘are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?’” Velma, an activist, mother, and wife, has attempted suicide and she is having trouble holding onto herself, let alone the stool she is perched upon. Later, Minnie continues, “‘cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.’” Staying well is a challenge even in the best of times and circumstance. Being well requires work, patience, self-compassion, and resources. The struggle is real. As Susan Raffo argues, “healing is dangerous work. Healing is about going into the struggle.”
The struggle to be well is neither a straight line nor a quick fix; in fact, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, argues in her book, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice: “the idea that survivorhood is a thing to ‘fix’ or ‘cure,’ to get over, and that the cure is not only possible and easy but the only desirable option, is as common as breath.” We want to believe in cures because this is an idea that our culture feeds us, and our healthcare system supports the idea that a pill or a procedure can cure whatever ills us. In Who Is Wellness For? Fariha Roísín argues that “In the worlds of health and wellness, there’s an inconsistent belief that if you try hard enough at something, eventually you will see results.” Just lose a little bit of weight. Just eat organic whole foods. Just exercise three times a week. Just take this prescription. This isn’t bad advice, and wouldn’t it be nice if being well was just this easy? But what if, as Susan Raffo argues, being healed or cured is not what we should be seeking, but instead, what if “struggling better is the goal”?
Many of us avoid struggle as often as we can. If we are struggling, our culture tells us, then there is something wrong with us. But the idea that we can avoid struggle, just like the idea that we can find a cure or heal completely from our trauma, is a myth. As Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us, the idea that we can be fixed or cured is “a concept that has deep roots in ableist ideas that when there’s something wrong, there’s either cured or broken and nothing in between.” But there are a lot of spaces and possibilities between broken and healed—in these spaces there is room to move, to shift, to transform. As Roísín writes, “Healing is an everyday practice that requires personal resolve and diligence [and] relies on reworking, reweaving, and reimagining what it looks like to feel safe and at ease with oneself.” We have to think differently, but we can’t just think our way out of trauma. We have to engage our bodies as well as our minds. In fact, when we engage the body/mind, the results are far more powerful.
We pursue all kinds of ways of finding ease, often deferring, deflecting, dismissing, detouring, avoiding, ignoring, replacing. Sometimes these coping strategies are just what we have to do to get through our day, our week, our life, and that’s okay. It is hard work to venture toward wellness and the path is circuitous and often hazardous. As Melissa Febos writes in her book, Girlhood, “It is slow, and there is no shortcut. . . It is sometimes painful and often tedious. . . . it requires consistent tending. We must choose it over and over.” And we cannot choose heling or wellness all alone: “A lasting, conscientious change in the self is similar to one in society.” We need to do the inner work and the outer connection. This is where JourneyDance comes in.
In JourneyDance, we move our bodies in ways that help us heal emotional wounds. We loosen up trauma that has become wedded to our bones and tissues, embedded in our mind/body/spirit matrix. More than one participant has told me that JourneyDance has helped them make deeper and quicker progress toward healing than they were able to find in talk therapy and other attempts at healing that do not address the mind/body connection. This, too, is my experience with JourneyDance. We often say: “you have to feel it to heal it,” and the mind often wants to control the process and intellectualize it. But when we dance, we can’t help but feel what we feel and what we find sometimes surprises us.
Melissa Febos writes a lot about the body and about her journey to overcome addiction and to work toward wholeness. She writes, “When I think about healing in the abstract, I imagine a closing-up, or a lifting-up. In my fantasies, healing comes like a plane to pull me out of the water. Real healing is the opposite of that. It is an opening, a dropping down into the lost parts of yourself to reclaim them.” We can’t rely on external factors to drag us out of our mire; in JourneyDance, we drop into the deepest parts of ourselves and claw our way back into the world to struggle another day. And another day. And another. And we become more powerful and more empowered.
Before I found this healing modality, my introvert tendencies convinced me that I could work toward healing and wellness mostly by myself. Reaching out to other people was (and is) a huge part of my process, but reverting back into my shell often feels like the easy way out. JourneyDance provides a sacred space where we can be alone and together; we can work on our own stuff, but we can also hold the space for other people. I created The Spiral Goddess, a Center for Mind/Body Movement, to be more than just a space to do yoga and dance and move our bodies in the pursuit of health and wellness. It is a space for healing and processes that take a commitment to our own mind/body/spirit as well as to that of the collective. When we change ourselves, we change the world. This cannot be overstated.
As Minnie reminds us in The Salt Eaters, “‘got to give it all up, the pain, the hurt, the anger and make room for lovely things to rush in and fill you full’” (16). There’s nothing wrong if we “‘want to stomp around a little more in the mud puddle . . . like a little kid . . .Nothing wrong with that’” (16). We’re all just stomping around in the mud, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when we can harness our play toward healing, rather than toward distraction or avoidance, the possibilities abound. JourneyDance lets us play, experiment, explore, push and pull, open and close, mimic and create. Each time we return to this practice, we find new things about ourselves and new possibilities for our lives. We don’t have to ask, or be asked, if we want to be well because we are already moving toward—not a destination, but a weigh station—and our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirit are carving a journey where we can enjoy what we find along the way.
“According to ancient Asian philosophy, life is not a straight line but a spiral. Every life lesson that has ever been presented to me (which means everything I have ever been through) will come back again, in some form, until I learn it. And the stakes each time will be higher. Whatever I’ve learned will bear greater fruit. Whatever I’ve failed to learn will bear harsher consequences.”
"Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? . . . 'cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."
--Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
Healing and transformation are closely related. We might argue that we cannot have one without the other. And we might argue that in order to transform our society and culture we first need to heal--our bodies, minds, and environment.
In her book, Transforming Ethnic and Race-Based Traumatic Stress with Yoga: Rest, Reflect, Renew, Gail Parker describes the difference between healing and transformation in her note to the reader:
"Healing is a term we use when we discuss illness or injury. Racial stress and trauma are emotional injuries that, left unhealed, become chronic and can lead to negative health outcomes. . . . Transformation, on the other hand, suggests change--in this case, positive change that leads to growth. To that end, transformation can be a change agent and can also be the result of healing. . . . What is true is that healing the wounds of racial distress along with individual personal and collective transformation are essential to a better quality of life for us all. Yoga is a science, a philosophy, a practice, and an art that can both effect healing and lead to positive transformation."
While Parker focuses on racial stress and trauma, her words apply to all kinds of stress and trauma--individual and collective, complex and intergenerational. Further, In his groundbreaking book, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem argues that we are all impacted by "white-body supremacy" which is "in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the culture we share"; it is "an equivalent of a toxic chemical we ingest on a daily basis. Eventually, it changes our brains and the chemistry of our bodies."
Those who practice and teach conscious dance, trauma-informed yoga, and embodied practices often say things like "the issues are in our tissues" and "we need to feel it to heal it." As Melissa Febos argues in her book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, All forms of trauma--from intergenerational or historical traumas to those of illness, mental and physical abuse, and the many wrought by war—share the quality of disempowerment." In other words, we cannot begin to heal, let alone transform until we are willing to do the hard work of healing and until we recover some sense of agency.
The work we do--the practices we do--at The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement, aim to bring us back into our bodies, to help us become more empowered, to feel, and to heal and, ultimately, to transform ourselves, our community, and our world.
11/17/2022 0 Comments
For almost my entire career I have walked a line between what is work and what is “work.” By some definitions, I am working all the time. For instance, my hobbies and passions of teaching fitness and yoga classes were often paid work in addition to being a work out. This is work that I have always done in addition to the work of being a student, and later a professor. For a long time these spheres were completely separate, in part because being a fitness instructor was looked down upon in the world of academia. I have worked over the last decade to bring these two spheres closer together.
Almost anything and everything I do that is not work can be connected to work somehow. My fitness teaching has been work, a work out, and then work in the form of research. As a cultural critic and theorist even my recreation of watching tv shows is also work! I have worked (there’s that word again!) hard over the past few years to create better boundaries between work and not work, and to pursue activities that are not at all work, but it is an ongoing challenge for a recovering overachiever and someone who is passionate about all the work that I do.
Being a professor is to be in a vacuum that absorbs everything as a part of the expectation of our teaching, advising, research, university service, and public service. I can always do more, if only because it can be another line on my vita. There is an unspoken expectation that we should give more of ourselves, more of our time and energy (and even our money) in service to the university and our community. I teach my students that service is part and parcel with our privilege, but where do we draw the line?
In my attempt to be ethical and serve my community, for more than a decade I have offered fitness/wellness events for free as well as low-cost events, sliding scale events, and events where the funds raised support scholarships. Part of my free offerings was my reluctance to profit from what I consider to be community service. I love being able to offer free events, especially to those who cannot afford to pay for the “luxuries” of self-care. With a flexible full-time job with decent pay and benefits, I can afford to be generous. I give freely of my time, energy, skills, and talents even when my giving is not always in my best interests.
In addition to offering a ton of free and fund-raising events, on and off campus, I have also taught for non-profits where my annual pay is a nice bonus but doesn’t even begin to cover my expenses for trainings, let alone for the things I need to do the work of this side job. I’ve always operated from the idea that this work is more service than it is work. Even when I receive a paycheck I am also spending thousands of dollars a year on maintaining certifications and continuing my training. I could skate by on my knowledge and experience, but I want to learn more, do better, heal myself, and better serve my community.
I have continued to operate with this loose ethical structure of service for over a decade—working a demanding full-time job while also teaching up to five or six fitness and yoga classes a week (plus unpaid prep time for these classes) and offering free events and classes, on and off campus. In this work, I consider myself to be an ethical person. At least I try to be.
But in the world of yoga and healing modalities, like JourneyDance, we are encouraged to not offer free classes and events for a variety of reasons. Many consider it unethical to regularly offer free classes. We spend a lot of money on trainings and professional development and we are encouraged to ask to be paid what we are worth. (This argument of my own worth has always been an additional challenge for me!) But not everyone who needs these healing modalities can pay what they are worth in our capitalist system, which is an ethical dilemma that I struggle with.
Further, when we offer free yoga classes, for instance, we are devaluing the work that other instructors are doing to make a living (not to mention the debates around cultural appropriation, but that’s a whole other blog!). Just because I have the privilege to afford to offer free yoga doesn’t mean that I should, especially if I am hurting the work that other teachers are doing in an attempt to make a living. And, really, by offering my highly skilled work for free, I am ultimately devaluing myself, even if this is not the way that I see it.
My navigation of the lines between my professional career and my work in my community have become further complicated by my opening of a “business.” I really hope that someday I can say that I run a successful and profitable business, but that dream seems like a far-off future, especially since I have spent a sizable chunk of my personal savings to open the doors of The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement. As a new venture, I really have no idea if I can expect to pay the rent each month, let alone make back the money I have invested in this dream.
Further, because of the model of my enterprise—as a low-profit LLC that aims to provide not just affordable and accessible yoga and JourneyDance classes, but also free and low-cost community events and scholarships for community members who cannot afford the luxury of healing modalities—my potential profit is mitigated by my personal ethics and generous spirit of community service. I am okay with this. Even if I never make a penny of profit, it will be worth the time, effort, energy, and money to be able to offer my gifts and talents on my terms and to create space for others to do the same. The Spiral Goddess Collective is ultimately not about making money; it is about creating and curating space and inviting the community to engage in healing modalities. My community includes my colleagues—faculty, staff, and students at UMA—as well as people living in and around Bangor.
But here’s the crux of the issue . . . part of what I am offering is workshops that colleagues and friends encouraged me to offer as professional development workshop opportunities, especially since UMaine system money is available for just such offerings. In an attempt to do so, I hit a barrier that I did not anticipate—UMaine’s policy on conflicts of interest. I have been told that while it is okay for me to own and operate a business as “outside employment,” UMA faculty and staff cannot use professional development funds to pay for my workshops because this is considered a conflict of interest. In fact, when I inquired further I was told that no faculty or staff in the entire UMaine system are allowed to spend professional development funds at my “personal business.”
This breaks my heart. Not only because of the money that I will not be making, but because I have been offering workshops like this for free or by donation for a long time and I have witnessed the positive impacts that they have made on people’s mind/body health and wellness. Of course my colleagues can still attend. They can still choose to pay me their own hard-earned money. But because I now pay to maintain a beautiful, sacred space for such offerings, I can no longer afford to offer these services for free. I will continue to offer sliding scale prices, and I have already awarded scholarships to a couple of UMA students. So I find myself wondering what is ethical about this decision to bar faculty and staff from the entire UMaine system from using professional development funds to pay for the innovative, revolutionary services I am offering?
Is it ethical to tell faculty and staff in the entire UMaine system that they cannot choose which trainings they want to spend their professional development funds on? Is it ethical to create a circumstance where I feel like I cannot charge what I am worth? Is it ethical to restrict funds to a business that is trying to place the best interests of its community above its profit margins?
Apparently it is not a conflict of interest for me to offer free weekly yoga classes to UMA students and staff, and to give scholarships to those same students and other community members. It is not a conflict of interest for me to offer my professional services for free, as I have been doing for years. But it is a conflict of interest for people to pay me with money that comes from the UMaine system because I am also employed by this same system?
To make this fuzzy boundary more complicated (because that’s what I do), The Spiral Goddess Collective is not simply “outside employment”; it is a manifestation, culmination, and synergy of everything that I have been working on, and for, over the last couple of decades, maybe longer. I had dreamed of having my own space and teaching mind/body movement on my own terms, but I never really thought this dream could be a reality. It only very suddenly came into being when the universe plopped down the opportunity of a lifetime right smack in the middle of my path. The SGC is a blending of my education, my activism, my academic teaching, my personal and professional research, my fitness and yoga teaching and training, my service, my ideology, my life’s work—the best of both worlds in one amazing, magical space that has already made a difference in my community.
Evil capitalists bask in the glow of conflicts of interest and bend the rules of ethics all the time. It’s why we need conflict of interest policies in the first place. The language of the UMaine conflict of interest policy is vague—perhaps as vague as the rules that surround ethics more generally. I feel stuck and constrained by a system that is trying to preserve the ethics of its employees. I feel devalued by a system with no wiggle room and hard boundaries. I feel cheated out of an opportunity to reach more people in my community and to actually have a chance to make enough money to pay my rent and grow my business to serve even more people.
My dream finally has a sacred space—a place where I can offer comfort, relative safety, and an atmosphere that fosters healing, rather than the austere and chaotic borrowed spaces where I have previously offered my healing modalities. But even with a physical space, the dream of The Spiral Goddess Collective still does not fit in a square world. I am just another “personal business.” There is no category on Google that describes The SGC. The categories on the Mindbody scheduling App don’t fit the classes I am offering. I still have to convince people that yoga and conscious dance are worth their time and money. I should have expected the lack of conventional fit, especially since its uniqueness is at the core of its creation and impetus.
So, perhaps this is just one of the many lessons I have to learn about what it means to be a “business woman,” an identity that I avoided as long as I could and still struggle to embrace. Perhaps this is one of those “life lessons” that I have chaffed against as I have attempted to carve my own path through the wilderness of what it means to be an ethical person and to work in service of the people in my community. I will appeal. I will push back. I will continue to live and work within my personal code of ethics and hope that I at least break even on the money front. My approach has worked pretty well so far though I grow tired of always having to argue and defend innovation, transdisciplinarity, and radical service. And that is another reason why I took the leap and opened The Spiral Goddess Collective—every time I arrive there I am renewed, rejuvenated, and reminded that I am right where I need to be.