As a boy, especially a black boy, the policing of your body begins as soon as you’re taught that you are a boy.
Boys walk this way and girls walk that way.
Boys can’t switch their hips.
Boys can’t roll their backs.
Boys can’t move their bodies like girls can.
To move the black-boy body untethered to the stiff, oppressive weight of hyper masculinity is to move like a girl, which, in our heteronormative, misogynistic society, means moving your body inconsistent with that of a straight man.
Men, so our toxically masculine world teaches us, are to essentially move as physically unattuned creatures whose limbs don’t relax or move gracefully. Thank God I liberated myself from that imprisoning mindset after I finished my first vinyasa class more than a year ago. For me, yoga isn’t merely about flexing my muscles into positions that are unexplored—it’s much more. When my feet touch the mat, it is an act of resistance. An act of loving myself enough to move in a way that feels good, no matter how much it clashes with misconstrued gender norms.
The Power of Yoga
I celebrate that liberation with my yoga instructor, James Roberts, several times a week at black-owned And Yoga Studios in Brooklyn. And Yoga's space provides a liberating environment where I can live and celebrate blackness. Replicas of Basquiat’s portraits line the walls and R&B plays quietly while we practice. Robert’s classes usually started at 6:30 a.m. (before stay-at-home orders, of course)—relatively early for me to be sitting on a yoga block centering my mind and body. Now, students meet via Zoom classes later in the mornings and evenings. Before COVID-19 ravaged the world and forced us indoors, I was at And Yoga Studios four to five times a week. At least three of those sessions were with James. His caring touch moved my unsure postures into focus, into the right direction. Without realizing it in the moment, his touch dismantled the faux belief I grew up with that black male intimacy was harsh and hard. Toxic masculinity has a way of teaching us that movements like those we see in yoga are feminine. Of course, such thinking is ignorant and I knew it intellectually. Physically, on the other hand, I had a lot of growing to do.
If you struggle to grasp why I feel such a release, or a sense of freedom, practicing yoga with a black man, you likely don’t appreciate how pervasive hyper-masculinity is—especially how brutally the black male body is policed. Black men aren’t supposed to touch each other with care or emotional intimacy. Growing up as a black boy, we’re taught that when it comes to interactions with other boys, anything beyond rough, aggressive play could be interpreted as sexual. My uncles played rough with me so I would not be considered “a punk” or “weak.” A slap over the head or a pulled punch to the chest during aggressive horseplay was a loving way of callusing my body against the rough and tumble streets of Detroit, where I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. These gestures also served as protection against white supremacy. Black boys growing up in Detroit could not afford to express emotional intimacy and be in tune with our bodies in ways that could signal us as prey. My uncles loved me the best way they knew how. But until I stepped on my first yoga mat in 2018, I had been living under the tremendous weight of an oppressed body and mind.
It took four months to finally try Robert’s class when I started practicing at And Yoga Studios, a choice I made simply because of my schedule. Up until then, I had only been comfortable with women (preferably black women) leading my practice. While my body was slowly growing attuned to the vinyasa movements, I felt uncomfortable when another man laid hands on me.
I was hesitant for Robert, or any man for that matter, to touch my body, because I wasn’t conditioned to believe that men could be the source of healing and comfort. But I grew to trust him. Robert, day by day, month by month, and now, after a year, has shown me that a man’s touch can help liberate my mind and body.
This physical liberation didn’t begin with yoga, however. I first had to clear my mind of toxic black masculinity in therapy in 2013, after I planned to take my own life due to unresolved childhood trauma. Through therapy, I was able to excavate the painful memories and experiences with violence from my pre-teen years growing up in a home where drug use and dealing were prevalent. In therapy, I learned that seeing my uncles beaten an inch of their lives and walking past the blood-sprayed stairwell for weeks resulting from his beatings from rival drug dealers were traumatic experiences, among other violence I witnessed. Over two years, I learned that men could, in fact, cry about the pain they experienced and that it was OK that I could no longer “man up” and toughen my skin to suppress the memories of decades past.
Men, I was taught, don’t show emotion. We just deal with it—which, of course, we never do. We don’t get in touch with our feelings. Mentally, therapy helped me to understand that. After two years of therapy, I was seeking a new sense of liberation and decided to try yoga. I started off with female therapists because I saw black men lacking the requisite tenderness to help me navigate the pain I was experiencing. It took some encouragement from my therapist to trust a male psychiatrist.
That distrust of men carried over to yoga where it took me a few months to trust men to lead my practice. Robert, without even knowing it, was the first man to help me liberate my body by simply leading me through vinyasa flows.
Because I learned to trust him, I’ve been able to trust my body to move with the freedom and grace I did not anticipate feeling after I first started my practice more than a year ago. Three times a week, I walked 12 minutes to feel Robert’s liberating hands move my body into new positions that prepare me for the day ahead.
COVID-19 has yogis inside now, but I am still practicing yoga by myself and through streaming. My yoga journey started long before I met Robert, but I’m grateful for his very unintentional guidance of helping free my body of the toxic masculinity that allows it to move more freely than it ever had before.