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I still remember the first time I tried yoga. It was 2010, and my friend Mimi and I trekked through the New York City snow to a nearby hot yoga studio, bodies buzzing with excitement for our first class. Intellectually, I soon came to know that yoga isn’t about the asanas—or the poses we contort our bodies into—but I still relished in “achieving” a posture.
Over the years, I experimented with various styles of yoga, bouncing from studio to studio, learning from everyone I could. I took power yoga classes in Queens, candlelight yin classes in Brooklyn, and fell in love with Kundalini yoga at one of Gabby Bernstein’s classes. When I made the move back home to Florida in late 2013 after a few years in New York, I mourned the classes and community I left behind.
Little did I know, I’d end up finding a new sangha (community)—and the practice that my body and mind were seeking.
In 2017, I became increasingly sick. I was diagnosed with multiple immune system disorders, including the autoimmune disorder lupus. I lost mobility and gained a lot of weight. Between my hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women), my now larger-sized body, and new mobility restrictions, I felt intimidated and out of place in a yoga studio. I practiced only at home because I was embarrassed and ashamed of this new body and how it couldn’t do what it used to, even with tremendous effort.
The mat wasn’t the only place that no longer felt welcoming. As divisive political rhetoric grew increasingly prevalent, hate crimes against Muslims hit an all-time high, surpassing post-9/11 levels. I experienced religious-based and sexual harassment. I was subjected to frequent harassment online, including death threats. Offline, I was called a terrorist, yelled at to “go back to my country,” and told in graphic detail how the harasser imagined raping me, and how he imagined that because I was Muslim, I had no clitoris. Then there were the ongoing microaggressions that occurred on a regular basis, such as people assuming I didn’t speak English because I wore a headscarf, or the white male doctor asking me about terrorism mid-gynecological exam. (Do you think he asks any other patients about terrorism while he’s doing pap smears?)
Compounded with the multiple medical traumas I’d experienced, including multiple episodes of anaphylaxis, I no longer felt safe in my body.
As a social worker, I knew the benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and somatic practices. Research has shown that meditation can help ease pain and reduce stress, among other benefits. Yoga is known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, as opposed to the fight, flight, or freeze response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
But how could I still do yoga when I felt like I couldn’t do anything? I’d always wanted to do yoga teacher training, but that dream originated before—before the changes to my body, the medical trauma, the harassment.
I just needed someone to remind me what my heart knew: As long as you have a body and can breathe, you can do yoga. And that’s what my teacher, Ravenflower Dugandzic, and my beloved classmates at Inspirit Yoga Studio in Orlando, Florida, did for me. They gently held space for me as I learned to be gentle with myself and live in my body again after two years of avoiding it.
I wanted to dive deeper into yoga to better utilize its benefits in my work as a social worker and crisis therapist—and to build my own confidence in getting back on the mat—so I signed up for a yoga teacher training. During the training, Raven brought in teachers who specialized in various styles of yoga so we could learn more about different practices. It was then that I tried a restorative yoga class for the first time, and I knew I had found it. This was the yoga my burned-out body so desperately craved. I no longer had to hold myself up, strong and stoic. I could finally release—or “melt into the mat,” as some teachers are fond of saying. The bolsters, blankets, and blocks supported me; I realized I didn’t have to do it all by myself any longer.
My body, which was always pushed to its limits, needed to learn how to slow down and just be. I developed a regular restorative practice, which I’ve maintained consistently—even during overnight stays at the hospital due to complications from my lupus—for well over a year now. And yes, you can do yoga in a hospital bed. If you can breathe, you can do yoga. My practice, even from a chair or bed, helps me maintain some sense of normalcy and routine while hospitalized. Restorative yoga in particular has reminded me that yoga, at its core, is about the breath. This is where a sacred shift has occurred for me: Restorative yoga has been a practice of how to show up on my mat (or wherever) and do less.
Grind culture tries to trick us into believing that we have to “earn” our relaxation and rest. Our fast-paced and taxing society very much runs on the reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system unless we are consciously working to retrain our bodies to respond to stress. Teaching your body to relax is a continuous and conscious practice, especially when new and legitimate threats like a global pandemic are present.
When I’m able to fully relax, I’m able to experience myself as the being that I am—not as what happens to me or my body. Healing is an active process, but that doesn’t always mean doing. Healing, sometimes, is an active process of being—just like restorative yoga.