“I’m a Trans Man with AIDS and Yoga Made Me Feel at Home”

“If you had told me as a child or young adult that I would someday feel at home in my own skin, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
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“If you had told me as a child or young adult that I would someday feel at home in my own skin, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Teo Drake

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When I was five years old, I told my grandfather—an Italian machinist—that when I grew up, I wanted to be a jockey. In my little-kid logic, I knew you had to be a boy in order to be a jockey. My grandfather was a wiseass and told me to sleep curled up in a little ball, because in order to be a jockey, I couldn’t get any bigger. So I did just that: Each night, I fell asleep curled up in the tiniest position that I could muster, until my mom caught me one night and told me not to believe a word my Grandpa said. I think about this now and realize that even back then, I was trying to heal a profound disconnect with my body. 

I was raised a girl, but I always knew something about that wasn’t true. For 
35 years, I was at war with my body. In fact, I spent my adolescence and young adulthood trying to die in all kinds of active and passive ways—from drinking to drag racing to being actively suicidal. When you’re battling your own body, everything becomes a desperate attempt to not feel, to flee, to ultimately not exist. So it’s no wonder that when HIV crossed my path, I had no ability or will to think about long-term consequences; the choices I made simply got me through my day. At the age of 28, 
I tested positive.

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It took the threat of dying young from AIDS for me to find the courage 
to transition from female to male. When nothing was more frightening than dying, I could risk everything to live authentically. And at age 40, five years after starting transition, I found my way to a yoga mat.

Living the way I had been was pretty much the opposite of being embodied, so the idea of doing yoga and being more physically present in my body 
was like being asked to move into a war zone. My childhood home had been full of violence, chaos, and addiction. My physical self never felt like a safe place. Why would I ever seek out a practice that was inviting me to come “home” 
to my body? 

And yet there I was, flopping around in flannel pajama pants in my living room, trying to follow along to a yoga DVD. It was a disaster. Soon after, I found a studio and a kind, accepting teacher who talked about her own limitations and who created space for me and my fellow practitioners to talk about our bodies and where we struggled. She talked about ways of navigating it all from a matter-of-fact place, rather than treating our bodily limitations as something to overcome. And I learned that yoga is a ritualized process of allowing yourself, in good time and with intention, to show up. As I learned in 12-step recovery programs, “It’s simple, but not easy.” And I believe this is true when it comes to yoga.

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To this day, every time I step onto 
my mat, I’m terrified I’m going to let 
the practice down. I’m afraid I won’t be able to show up. Despite all of this, I’ve developed an ability to trust the practice outside of my ability to understand it. And I try to show up, despite my fears. 

Yoga helps me breathe deeply, where I couldn’t before. It allows me 
to move my body with an open heart. 
I probably don’t look very graceful when I practice, and if you had told me as a child or young adult—when I was so actively at war with myself and living in a culture that was at war with me—that I would someday feel at home in my own skin, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I can tell you now; there is something about the magnitude of grace that happens when my body, soul, and breath are aligned. That is what yoga offers me: an inexplicable gift and invitation to experience that grace. 

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About Our Writer
Teo Drake is a spiritual activist, educator, writer, and artisan. As a blue-collar, queer-identified trans man living with AIDS, he helps spiritual spaces become more welcoming and inclusive of queer and transgender people, and he helps queer and trans folks find authentic spiritual paths. Drake also teaches martial arts, yoga, and woodworking to children.  

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