Popaganda: Body-Positive Exercise

Popaganda

Why does the thought of going to the gym inspire such anxiety? Because exercise—literally moving our bodies—is so wrapped up in fatphobia, ableism, sexism, and other nasty stuff.

On this episode, we try to extricate exercise from all the body-shaming stuff that's usually tied to it. Bitch Media editorial intern Emily McCarty brings us a dispatch from roller derby training with the Rose City Rollers and listeners share ideas for feel-good exercises ranging from rugby to trampolining. In the last half of the show, we dig deep on yoga. Fat femme yoga sensation Jessamyn Stanley drops some knowledge, then writer Mika Doyle joins us to talk about the science of using yoga to heal from PTSD. 

FULL SHOW: 


KICKIN' IT WITH THE ROSE CITY ROLLERS


INTERVIEW WITH JESSAMYN STANLEY

MIKA DOYLE DISCUSSES YOGA AND PTSD

LISTENER STORIES


SPONSOR: 

This episode of Backtalk is sponsored by The Smitten Kitten, a progressive, feminist sex toy store for everyone. Selling body friendly sex toys since 2003, The Smitten Kitten is your trustworthy source for high quality, non-toxic toys and equipment for the bedroom and beyond. Their staff of friendly sex nerds can answer all your questions! Visit The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, or on the web at smittenkittenonline.com.


SHOUT-OUTS: 
• The photo of Jessamyn Stanley doing yoga that's featured on this show was used with permission from her Instagram and was taken by Sacha Maric. The other photos featured on our Soundcloud files are by Liz West and Sascha Kohlmann.
• If you're interested in learning more about the intersection of yoga and PTSD, Mika Doyle wrote more about her experiences in the article, "The Science of Using Yoga to Heal from Trauma."
• The band highlighted on today's episode is Juniore. They have a great retro sound—look them up! 
• Maybe you need a body-positive workout mixtape? Don't worry, we made one


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This podcast was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
 
FULL TRANSCRIPT

SARAH: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by The Smitten Kitten, a progressive, feminist sex toy store for everyone. Selling body friendly sex toys since 2003, The Smitten Kitten is your trustworthy source for high-quality, non-toxic toys and equipment for the bedroom and beyond. Their staff of friendly sex nerds can answer all your questions! Visit The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, or on the web at smittenkittenonline.com.

This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.

[theme music]

Okay, so this month I went rock climbing for the first time. Not on actual rocks but at a gym full of fake rocks and very muscular people and lots of kombucha dispensers. And it might not sound like a big deal to go to a gym, but for me it was. A friend had invited me to come rock climbing maybe six months ago, and my first reaction, I realized, was horror and dread. Something athletic? That’s not for me. I’m not sure if you know, but I’m a writer; I do a lot of sitting at a desk. In a city that’s full of hikers and backpackers, I’m what you would call “indoorsy.” So of course I said no; I turned down her offer. But then I kept thinking about it. Why does the very idea of going to a gym full of rock climbers immediately inspire in me such anxiety? What was I afraid of? It took me a long time to pick through those feelings and to eventually realize that it wasn’t fear so much that I was feeling….It was shame. Shame around my body. Feeling like…yeah, I’m not small, I’m not muscular, I am pretty roundish and pretty slowish. And all these super-fit gym people are going to be watching me clumsily climbing up a wall like a drunk spider in spandex and go, “Oh my God! Who let her in here?”

So, yeah, it was shame, shame around my body keeping me from doing something I actually really kind of wanted to do. So I once I realized that it was shame and not fear, I got angry. And this anxiety I feel about exercise is so screwed up! In our society, exercise—literally moving your body—is so wrapped up in the diet industry, in the beauty industry. Companies are spending millions of dollars a year telling us that our bodies aren’t good enough, that unless we buy these special yoga pants and purchase these shoes and eat this protein powder and are a size zero or smaller, preferably, we should be ashamed to be seen outside. And we definitely shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as anything so lofty as runners or hikers or bikers or climbers or yoga practitioners. Leave that to the professional jocks, please. At its core, that idea is so harmful! And I can say that in the abstract, you know? I can decry the beauty industry as much as the next person, but to realize that its tentacles are still there in my brain, still making me feel bad, that came as a bit of a shock. We should be able to do what we want with our bodies. That’s a basic right. I hadn’t thought about exercise in the context of bodily autonomy before this whole rock-climbing existential crisis thing, but once I did, I couldn’t stop.

[music]

That’s the theme for today’s show: body positive exercise. How do we extricate exercise from all the terrible, negative, body-shaming, ableist, sexist stuff around it? How can we claim the right to move our bodies in ways that make us happy and healthy and strong without that nagging anxiety that…actually, we’d be happier with a different body altogether?

This show is also inspired by several listeners, who told us on our podcast survey over the summer that they wanted us to put together a show about yoga. Our Popaganda show themes are all derived from listener feedback this fall. So if you have an idea, please feel free to email or tweet it to us. On this episode, we’ll hear a dispatch from a roller derby team and share listener’s own voices discussing how they approach exercise in a body-positive way. Then, the second half of the show is all about yoga: two different, personal perspectives on yoga that run counter to a lot of what media coverage of yoga usually is—including a conversation I had with fat-positive yoga sensation Jessamyn Stanley and a story about using yoga to heal from PTSD. So stay tuned.

[music]

For my part, when I finally took my friend up on her offer to go rock climbing--six months or so late--it’s funny/depressing how nervous I was when I got to the gym. I paced around like an angsty teen, actively trying not to care how everyone else looked. And when I finally worked up the nerve to grab a beginner handhold and try hauling myself up the wall, I felt like such a doofus [chuckles]. But after a few false starts, I got all the way up and then all the way back down again. At the bottom, my friend gave me a high five. After an hour or so of tackling super beginner routes, I was exhausted. I could barely lift my arms. The next day--I know it's kind of all in my head, but--my muscles, I  swear, felt stronger. I felt a little bit taller and a teensy bit more ripped. And I felt proud. In a world that’s constantly telling women to get smaller, I want to make myself big.


[music]

This first story comes to us from our number one summer roller derby correspondent, Bitch Media editorial intern Emily McCarty.

[recorded clip: crowds cheer]

COACH: Here we go! [blows whistle] Yeah!

EMILY: I’m in the sweltering heat of a three-story high, aluminum hangar at Oaks Amusement Park in Portland, Oregon. Inside, bleachers encircle a floor full of skid marks, with worn tape marking off a large oval. It’s home to one of the most active roller derby leagues in the world: the Rose City Rollers.

The Rollers have several teams. There’s one for kids who are under 18, there’s a rec team for those who want to just have fun, and there’s a super competitive All-Stars team. The All-star team is currently ranked the 4th best roller derby team in the world by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

I talked to some of the skaters who came to sweat on the track.

AIDEN: All right, so my real name is Aiden, and I'm 16. My derby name is Trouble Clef, and I’ve been playing derby for just over 2 years

[crowd clapping, yelling]

EMILY: Aiden skates on the Rosebuds, a team for young folks who are 12 to 17 years old. The Rosebuds have five different teams, and Aiden skates for the Undead Avengers. Roller derby is radical in part because it aims to be inclusive. Although it’s often known as “women’s roller derby,” in 2015 the official Flat Track Derby Association gender policy was updated from being trans-inclusive, to being inclusive of all trans, intersex, and gender expansive people. The policy states they only have to “most closely identify” with women’s derby in order to skate. And that makes it better for everyone.

AIDEN: So roller derby is a lot more fun than doing other forms of exercise, like going to the gym and running and stuff like that. And you're in a big group of people, and everyone's pushing you to do your best. Whereas, if you're just exercising on your own, just kind of your own mind that's having to push you.

EMILY: Another positive aspect of roller derby is a lack of judgment or expectation. Unlike a lot of sports, at derby, you don’t have to look or act or be a certain way. It’s exercise, it’s fun, and it’s really accepting.

AIDEN: It's a lot more inclusive. Like, being transgender I don't feel excluded out. There's a lot more teamwork and strategy involved. No matter what body type you have, there's something that you can do and something you can be good at.

[music]

EMILY: I really relate to the way Aiden feels. I started skating two years ago with the Grand Raggidy Roller Derby league in Michigan. I found it to seriously be the most body-positive experience I’ve ever had, in sports or otherwise. I don’t think I’d ever worn spandex in my life before derby; now spandex is pretty much my default pants situation. It really changes how I view my own body.

[derby team clapping, cheering]

EMILY: You might remember the televised version of roller derby in the '60s and '70s. Skaters flew around a slanted track with no apparent rhyme or reason. Interest diminished until 2002, when women in Austin formed a team that skated on flat tracks. This would start what is modern roller derby, and the Rollers formed quickly after, in 2004.

 

CARRIE: My name is Carrie, and I am 43. My derby name is Colonel, and I've been playing roller derby for 4 ½ years.

EMILY: Carrie is a more seasoned skater. She maneuvers around the track with ease. It's obvious she's been doing this for a while.

CARRIE: I think roller derby is typically different because of the community. You’re all doing something together. Whenever you're combining a desire to be around other people with exercise, you're gonna get a winning combination.

EMILY: In the derby world, one year of skating is considered your learning year. Skills and safety and game rules take a long time to learn. You may not play a game until you’ve skated for 12 months or more. I talked to a skater who’s still in her learning year.

HILAVY: My real name is Hilavy, and I’m 24.

EMILY: Could you tell me your derby name and then how long you've been playing roller derby?

HILAVY: So I actually don’t have a derby name yet cuz in our league we have to earn them. So I’ve only been at it now for about 3 months.

EMILY: Hilavy skates with the Wreckers, a recreational team where new skaters develop their skills, learn plays, and get skilled at properly knocking someone to the floor with pride. Hilavy mirrored one thing I kept hearing over and over: They’ve never felt more welcomed or more comfortable in any other sport. Appearance, orientation, skill level, none of it mattered.

HILAVY: I think roller derby is completely different from really any other sport that I've been involved in. And that's actually been the biggest eye-opening thing, I think, for me starting to play roller derby is that there's never been another environment where I've walked in and felt just completely comfortable with my body as is. I didn't feel the need to shave that day, or what I was wearing didn't matter. I think I’ve seen people with that same kind of confidence. Roller derby is so different for me. It's almost like black and white, and I think that's why it's working, is that often, with other forms of exercise, I really have to drag myself there. But when I'm going to derby, I'm not thinking about the exercise. I'm thinking about the skills that I'm gonna try to work on, I'm thinking about how fun it feels to skate--it feels like flying to me--and then I'm thinking about the people that I'm going to be able to see.

EMILY: Roller derby is more than team sport; it’s more than just exercise. It’s really a community.

COACH: Nice go, Moon! Yes! Good job! [crowd cheering]

EMILY: Whether you’re still wobbling around on skates, or you’re whizzing around the track like nobody’s business, it’s all about feeling good in your body.

HILAVY: derby is the one thing that I'm like, man, when do I get to skate? When is derby coming? My derby days are my best days, so far. Yeah.

COACH: Beautiful!

SARAH: That was Emily McCarty.

[music]

Alright, so we asked listeners to tell us what they do for body-positive exercise. A bunch of you recorded voice memos and sent them in. Thank you so much! It was awesome to hear all your voices. I’m honored to share some of your thoughts here on the show.

LEAH: There's two exercises I've taken on since I had kids that've really had a big impact on my life. The first one is working in the yard. I find that I put on workout clothes, and I really push myself. I feel like at the end of it, I've really got a good workout, especially if I'm really dirty. I feel like...it's somehow more meaningful. The other exercise I've been doing a lot lately is getting on the trampoline, which is something that I never thought that I would do. But there's something really liberating about it. I've had a baby, so my body isn't what it was before. But I feel like, on the trampoline, it just doesn't matter. There's so much inertia that anybody with any body parts is making weird faces involuntarily, and parts of their body and their skin and their hair is flying all over the place. But it doesn't matter because you're on a trampoline, and it's a lot of fun.


[music]

DANIELLE: Hi! My name's Danielle. I actually struggled with an eating disorder twice. The first was in high school, and the second was for a pretty long time during college. A part of it for me was actually exercise addiction. And I've always said I'm very honest about my eating disorder. One of the things I've always said to people is I don't think it's something you could ever fully recover from or be cured of. You still have really hard days. There are still plenty of times that I see a photo or someone says something--even something really minor--that will trigger me. Or I'll think of those years in the past, no matter how long it's been. And exercise and coming to terms with finding balance with exercise has been something that's been, for me, very challenging. It wasn't until very recently when I moved to Wisconsin for a job and joined a gym up here that I found a group exercise class--just a spin class--that was really, really wonderful and eye-opening for me, not only physically, but mentally. And I know there's some stigma surrounding spin classes, especially SoulCycle classes. It's kind of cultish. But I actually regularly cycle with a group of really strong-ass women, and all different ages, all different levels of physicality. It's not even so much the physical exertion of it. I mean, you get a really awesome workout, but for me, it's just finding the group of people that you click with and will hold you up and can see you at your worst, when you're really sweaty. Yeah, it's really awesome to share that. When you love something, you wanna share it.

LAUREN: Hi. My name is Lauren, and I'm from Washington, DC. And as a disabled person, I think one of the things that I try to do to feel good in my body, which is often a very complicated experience, is to just try to do those things that just make me feel free and at ease. So one of those things would be a lot of yoga poses that feel good to me or just using whatever exercise equipment I particularly enjoy. I'm really, really thrilled that Bitch is doing this topic because I think that wellness really does erase disabled narratives and experiences, and a lot of us come to this with a lot of trauma around our bodies.

CHELLE: Hi Sarah! This is Chelle from Cambridge, Mass. The way I stay healthy and active without body shaming? Dancing! Whether it's in my room, at a bar, or at my standing desk, I can't stop moving to a beat.

BAILEY: Hi. My name is Bailey, and I am a plump genderqueer in San Francisco practicing ethical masculinity. My favorite forms of exercise are strapping it on and having hot sex and biking everywhere.

ALYSSA: I very recently discovered exercise in a way. I'd been working at a office job for almost two years pretty consistently, and there's some stress involved. And I also noticed a lot of back pain and stiffness from sitting around all day. So I started exercising, and I feel like the benefits have been two-fold. For one thing, I'm able to relieve stress in a way that I don't, just sitting on the couch, eating Cheetos and watching Netflix. And I have also noticed that a lot of those pains have gone away through stretching and strengthening in my back. I honestly haven't been working on weights all that long. I thought I had sciatic, and I don't think that that's the case anymore. So exercise is just a great healthy habit to have, and it is too bad that it's surrounded by this body shaming and this weird fitness model image that I know I'll never achieve even if I work out two hours a day, six days a week.

MARTINA: Hi. The two things I do for workout are biking and belly dancing because I like multi-purpose things in my life. Biking is not only a form of workout, but for me it's transportation. So working out while I get to places is just ideal for me because it doesn't take extra time out of my day. And belly dancing satisfies my need for being girly, being glittery, making funky costumes. Both of them come with huge communities of fat, wonderful, old, young women who are really, really supportive.

ELLA: I started playing rugby when I was 14, a freshman in high school. But before rugby, I never really considered myself to be an athlete. The most beneficial thing for me was once I started playing rugby, I stopped fixating on how my body looked and more on what it could do. I realized that being the smallest girl on the team really wasn't all that beneficial and not everyone that looks in shape really is in shape and that being in shape looks different on different people. Overall, it was a wonderful environment to be in, just to be around a bunch of girls and women uplifting each other based on our athletic achievement. "That was a nice hit. Great tackle. That was such a fast breakaway. Nice moves." It really shaped me into the woman that I am today, and I can't speak more highly of the sport.

 

SARAH: In order, that was Leah, Danielle, Lauren, Chelle, Bailey, Alyssa, Martina, and Ella. Thanks to all the listeners who called in to share your body-positive exercise ideas! It was really, really great to hear all your voices.

[music]

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Yoga…is complicated. Not just because, you know, I personally can’t touch my toes, but because yoga is so many different things in our society. For some people, it’s just straight-up exercise. For others, it’s tied into spirituality and meditation. Many people find doing yoga to be really healthy and empowering; it’s exercise you can do with just your body, no special equipment required. But yoga culture is also so wrapped up in consumerism and materialism. The 2016 Yoga in America study, undertaken by the Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance, found that Americans spend $16.8 billion on yoga products and classes a year. That’s a far cry from the spirit of minimalism. And this all ties really closely into gender, race, and body image. 72% of people who do yoga in the United States are women. That Yoga in America study didn’t ask about race—that’s quite the oversight—but for many people, the image of yoga is a skinny white woman photographing herself on Instagram doing tree pose on a beach while wearing a pseudo-Native American headband and expensive Lulelemon leggings—hashtag #blessed.

To navigate this tricky world, there’s no one I’d rather turn to than Jessamyn Stanley.

JESSAMYN: It's basically like people are worshipping handstands or worshipping arm balances, trying to do these things because somehow it's gonna make you a better person. But that’s not what it actually is.

SARAH: Jessamyn Stanley is a fat-positive, queer, Black avid yoga practitioner. She’s gained a huge following on Tumblr and Instagram for posting photos of her home yoga practice. I first saw her photos a few years ago, when I was scrolling through Tumblr late at night--like ya do-- and I remember stopping and thinking “wow!” I just had never seen someone with a body like hers--a big, voluptuous body--doing these yoga poses. And more than that…she looked so joyous. She’s funny, she’s confident, she’s really in love with what she’s doing, and that comes through so strongly in her photos.

JESSAMYN: To me, yoga is the ultimate body-positive thing because it's taking you beyond this place of even needing to be, even needing to have these conversations with your body so that you can have conversations with your true self.

SARAH: When Jessamyn started doing yoga in 2011, she was just practicing for herself. But now that she has so many fans, people kept asking her to come and teach classes. So she went through yoga teacher training and is publishing a book this spring called Every Body Yoga. It’s about making yoga more inclusive and starting your own practice without all the nasty, negative stuff that can go on in your head.

For Jessamyn, yoga isn’t so much about going to a class and doing certain poses. It’s about feeling a connection between your body and who you are.

JESSAMYN: If I’m having difficulty with balance, like let's say I'm having difficulty with balance on my mat: I can't find my drishti, I can't find my focus, I can't find this way of trying to be still. I can't root into the ground. I can't feel myself being single. That is totally evident off the mat as well. That's not just something that happens while you're practicing this one balance posture. That's trying to balance in life.

SARAH: At the core of Jessamyn's work is a desire to focus on herself. Usually when someone posts photos of themselves doing yoga, I personally get kind of scornful. And that's probably my own jealousy or body shame coming through, but my first thought is like, “Oh, you’re showing off how you can do triangle pose so perfectly. And you’re on a boat in the Bahamas. Thanks for that.” But Jessamyn’s photos feel different to me. Instead of showing off to other people, they feel more like she’s expressing herself. That’s what she says she’s always working on: constantly checking her motivations to not compare herself to other people. It’s really hard to see just yourself and not the other people whose bodies are different than yours. Learning to do that, to focus just on whether you feel healthy and good, runs counter to so much of our society, says Jessamyn.


JESSAMYN: And it’s something we’re not even taught to do at all in the West because we're all taught, from the jump off, you come out the womb, and you're already idolizing the babies in Gerber ads. You know what I mean? And then, that turns into idolizing the little girls and boys or whatever in these children's book. And then, that turns into idolizing the people who are on magazines and in television shows. Then you spend your entire life doing that, so that whenever it comes to things that you will want in your yoga practice, that is naturally gonna float in as well.

SARAH: There’s really not a lot of places in our society where you don’t compare yourself to others, places where you’re encouraged to ask, “Why am I doing this? Am I just trying to be like someone else?”

JESSAMYN: This isn’t even really about yoga. This is about the human condition. It's about why do you feel compelled to compare yourself to another person? Because that ultimately is what all this comes down to is that we're so busy comparing ourselves to other people that we don't bother to know ourselves, and we don't bother to become comfortable with ourselves.

SARAH: Body positivity is about saying “I’m okay. This is good. I am good.” And this might sound simple but…it’s actually pretty radical. Our economic system is built around pushing people to constantly acquire, to try and move up and not be happy with who they are, what they have, or their bodies look like. Saying, “I feel good” runs contrary to capitalism.

JESSAMYN: You’re immediately taught you need to be compared against somebody else. We'll tell you who that person is, depending on what's going on in your life, but you're never enough. You always need to be compared, so that why wouldn't you do that in a yoga class? I don't understand how all of a sudden, now you're supposed to be like, "Yeah, let me look at this from a completely different perspective."

SARAH: Jessamyn says she tries to think about her body like an instrument. She plays her instrument. Other people play their instruments. As a teacher, she strives to NOT have everyone feel like they need to play their instrument in exactly the same way and sound perfectly in unison. Instead, everyone’s instrument is different, and that creates harmony. Even if you spend the entire class in child’s pose, that’s good if it feels good to you.

JESSAMYN: I always just wanted to be in a class where it was totally fine, I could come in wearing whatever I have on hand; I don't have to be dressed to the nines in the Lululemon clothes that not only can I not afford, but that do not fit my body. And then, I'd have to be in this environment with people that are judging me. So my is to be the complete opposite of that.

SARAH: Now that she’s become a teacher, author, and role model for others, Jessamyn feels a responsibility to get people to rethink some of the more problematic parts of yoga, like cultural appropriation. As Jessamyn explains, she doesn’t tell people to do one thing or not do another thing. There’s not a list of cut-and-dry guidelines that people can always follow to make sure they’re practicing yoga without laying claim to a culture, a spirituality, or a heritage that’s not theirs. Instead, Jessamyn tries to get people to examine their own behavior and just think about it in an ongoing way.

JESSAMYN: Just take a beat and think about it. Most people do not take a beat at all. There's no beat; they just do whatever they want. They take it, and it's fine. And that, again, this is imperialism. So it's like for me, that is embedded in my practice. I think it has a lot to do, honestly, with having-- I am Black, a Black female. And then being a Black, queer female, it's like you're constantly, there's always somebody trying to take some shit from me that doesn't belong to them. So if you have experienced that, have experienced just how deeply disrespectful that is, that even looking at the Kardashians is like looking at a bunch of disrespectful stuff, then it's easier to say, "OK, well maybe I need to check x, y, z thing about my own behavior."

SARAH: This is not an easy conversation to have a lot of the time. And it’s not one that just ends. It's an ongoing practice.

JESSAMYN: Because most people just don’t wanna accept the blame. They don't wanna feel that they've done anything wrong. If more people just took a moment to be like, "Hmm. Is this OK?" I just think that so much could be different. And again, I'm not saying that chanting's wrong, I'm not saying that you can't wear a sari in the right situation, I'm not saying that you can't wear a bindi, I'm not saying-- I'm just saying, "Can you check it? Can you check it? Can you think about it?" And because 9 times out of 10, you're probably gonna think, "I shouldn't have done that."


SARAH: For Jessamyn, doing yoga isn’t about achieving some perfect physique. In fact, it’s the opposite: it helps her realize that there is no such thing as perfect, and however good life is, there’s low times and hard times.

JESSAMYN: There’s still dark days, and there's still things with....You know, I don't think that, "Oh, I started practicing yoga" and think they're magically awesome. Yoga just helps you understand that things are not always magically awesome and that they don’t need to be. And that's a part of living.

SARAH: So the next time you’re doing any kind of exercise and getting anxious about how the person next to you is prettier or stronger or better, just pause. Remember, you’re playing your own instrument.

[music]

Keep an eye out for Jessamyn Stanley’s book in the spring. It’s called Every Body Yoga. And if you wanna see her photos, which are universally awesome, you can follow her on pretty much every single social media platform. Just look her up: Jessamyn Stanley.

[music]

Let’s talk about an interesting intersection: science, PTSD, and yoga. Just a heads up, this story's gonna discusses sexual assault. It's not in graphic detail, but if you feel like hearing about a survivor’s experiences is too upsetting for you right now, just save this story for another time.

[music]

So there are lots and lots of studies about how exercise doesn’t just change your muscles, it affects your brain. But recently, researchers have really started studying how yoga, in particular, can help people who are dealing with the lasting effects of trauma. Writer Mika Doyle recently participated in one of these studies. At first, she was really skeptical. Not just about using yoga to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder, but about yoga itself.

MIKA: So the first few times that I did yoga was actually at a gym. I did not know anything about yoga, just the stereotypes of certain types of bodies, certain types of people, and specific kinds of moves. And I just felt really sick. I would be in the middle of a yoga class, and I would feel nauseated, like I was just gonna throw up in the middle of class. And I would feel lethargic, like all the sudden, my muscles didn't have any energy anymore. So I would just wanna lie on the mat and be done. After a while, in the middle of a class, I just packed up my stuff, and I left, and I never went back.

SARAH: Mika was seeing a therapist who told her that a group of researchers was doing a study, looking at how doing yoga would impact the lives of people who have PTSD. She decided to join the study, really just to try and help out the researchers because she cared about the science. At the time, Mika not only didn’t really like yoga, but she was also not OK with the idea that she had PTSD, which was the lingering impact of being sexually assaulted over a decade ago.  

MIKA: I didn't want to have PTSD because saying that I had PTSD meant that something had happened to me, and I didn't want to look back at that part of my life and say something traumatic had happened to me. I just wanted to say, "You know what? Nope! My childhood was great. Nothing awful had ever happened to me. So, no. There's no way. No way I have PTSD."

SARAH: For the study, Mika agreed to attend a yoga class with other people with PTSD once a week for eight weeks. Just getting to the class took a lot of willpower.

MIKA: I didn't wanna be there at all. My emotions were just so high when I walked into that studio. I had my guard up to the point where I didn't even wanna make eye contact with anyone in the studio. And it wasn't just because I had had a bad experience with yoga in the past. It was going back to the fact that I didn't wanna admit that I had PTSD. I was walking into this room of all people who experienced a trauma and who had PTSD and were involved in a study to  

 

see how yoga was gonna impact that. So being in that room was like saying, "Yeah, I've got PTSD. And I'm here for the same reasons as everybody else." So I actually kind of wanted to cry when I walked in there. I just found a corner, and I unrolled my mat. I just put my knees up, and I sat there, and I just wanted it to be over. I just didn't wanna be there.

[music]

SARAH: Yoga that’s geared toward people who are trauma survivors is different than the yoga you might find in most gyms. It’s not about burning calories; it’s about feeling connected to your body.

MIKA: So if we're talking about trauma-sensitive yoga in particular, that's gonna be a lot more of a gentle yoga. It's not gonna be about necessarily physical exertion. The instructors are gonna do everything alongside their students. The language is gonna be different. So it's gonna be more invitational rather than directional. There are very few, if any, physical assists. So the instructors are very conscious of how they're interacting with the participants, both on a physical and an emotional level.

We did your typical downward dog, sun salutation, warrior poses, but we did them in a much slower pace. The language of my instructor was so different from gym yoga, or at least the gym yoga that I had experienced. So I remember there was one class in particular [chuckles] in which I actually almost burst into tears because she made me feel so emotional because she said, "We're not here to be in a place of pain." And I feel emotional just kind of thinking about that moment because I was in such a place of pain. I think everybody in that room was in such a place of pain. And I hadn't heard anything like that in a gym yoga class. It was just, "Try to hold it a little bit longer! You should be feeling this in your quad muscles!" Whereas my instructor for the study, it was just about this emotional-body connection in which I had permission to feel, and that changed everything. It was so different. It was wonderful.

I'm so fascinated with the science of this. I did a ton of reading after the study concluded because I wanted to understand better what it was all about. The basic idea is that people with PTSD, the part of their brain that handles the fight or flight response no longer reacts or functions like your average person. So it's kind of like a light switch where that fight or flight response is always on. So what that's gonna do is it's gonna always make you feel on edge, it's gonna cause a lot of anxiety, it's gonna cause depression. So a lot of those symptoms that you hear about with PTSD where that hyper-arousal, which again is that anxiety feeling, the flashbacks and things like that, that all has to do with that portion of your brain that just won't shut off. So the way that yoga connects with that is that it's about reconnecting the part of your brain that connects your emotions with your physical experiences. Because people with PTSD, there's like this disconnect that happens. It's almost like a wire got cut. And so you can have a physical experience, but you're not able to connect it with the emotion or vice versa. It's really confusing, really complicated. But the idea behind trauma-sensitive yoga is that you're feeling what you're doing.

[music]

SARAH: Living with PTSD can be an out-of-body experience. In fact, as Mika told me, emotional times and new trauma can trigger a weird disconnected feeling.

MIKA: It feels like you’re floating above your body, and you can see your body. You can sense that your body is there, but you can't control what's happening. And that has happened to me when I experienced something extremely traumatic. So the person who had assaulted me contacted me through Facebook. So I was having a confrontation with this person through Facebook where I said, "You raped me. Here's why I believe that." And it was so stressful to my system that I just sort of shot out of my body. I just remember sitting on the couch, not being connected to my body at all. When I told my therapist about it, she said, "Yeah! That's really common." Like, really? I just shot out of my body! And this happens to people?

SARAH: With yoga, Mika found she was able to get back into her body and relax a little.

One of the most important pieces of this study to Mika was some data that the researchers collected. Before the study started, the researchers did a skin conductance test. After the study, they repeated the test.

MIKA: It was kind of high-tech and sort of sci-fi from my perspective, since I didn't really know very much about it. But she put a little clamp on my finger, kind of like when you're in the hospital, and they're gauging your oxygen levels.

 

SARAH: I just wanna pause here to explain the cool science here. So your skin is electrically active. Just think about that for a minute. Maybe you think about your skin just being there, you know being a lumpy sack of skin. But while it might look dull to you, your skin is actually coursing with electrical currents. And those currents give clear clues about how the rest of your body is doing. Your sweat contains water and salt, which conduct electricity. So if you’re even a little bit sweaty, your skin is a little bit more conductive. And when do we get sweaty? When we’re emotional: afraid, stressed, angry. When a researcher hooked Mika’s finger up to that machine, they were charting a line graph to see how conductive her skin was, to see how stressed out her body was, and to see if that changed over time. Even if she was really good at keeping that stress, fear, and anger under wraps, at not betraying any worry in her facial expressions or being really good at pretending everything was fine, her skin would tell the truth.

MIKA: And we sat silently in a room together, and I think we sat there for about eight minutes. The purpose was, at some point during that eight minutes, she would play a startle sound. The skin conductance would judge how startled I was, what my stress level was, and how I reacted to that. So we did that pre-yoga and post-yoga.

SARAH: What's a startle sound? What did it actually sound like? I imagine like an explosion?

MIKA: It was a siren, like a police car siren.

SARAH: In the first test, before doing any yoga, the test showed that Mika never relaxed during the whole eight minutes.

MIKA: I never reached any sort of baseline. So I was just stressed the entire time the test was taking place. And then the siren goes off, and my levels shoot straight up, and they don't quite go back down. They're just jagged the whole way through. But when we redid it after the yoga, I was able to relax as I waited for the siren to go off. Of course like anyone, my stress level shot up when the siren went off. But then, it was very interesting because the lines indicated it was kind of this smooth transition back down. So it showed that I was consciously trying to calm myself, and that was a skill that I didn't have eight weeks before, before I did the yoga.

SARAH: While that’s great news for Mika, she makes clear that dealing with PTSD is really complicated. It’s an ongoing practice, and it’s not like eight weeks of yoga made everything better.

MIKA: Yoga isn’t this big cure-all for the PTSD that I've experienced. I mentioned that it was my therapist who had gotten me involved in the study. I'd actually gone to therapy for about 10 years or so, and I've seen a couple of psychiatrists. So I am on medication as well. So I think for people who are interested in trying something like this, it's not like something that just is an instant cure for PTSD. But it is something that's great for self-care, and that can enhance other therapies that they might be doing.

[music]

I think it just makes me instead of just react, I recognize that I want to react. Or I recognize that I'm feeling something. So I can take a moment to just take a deep breath and try to put it into perspective. And it's also made me interested in yoga on a spiritual level. So I've actually been reading up on different branches of Buddhism. I'm actually half Japanese, and so my mom's side of the family is Buddhist with some Shinto sort of connections. But I never really pursued that cuz I've always lived in the United States. So it's just changed my life on so many different levels cuz not only has it helped me with stress and helped me sort of learn about myself, but it also makes me feel like I'm connecting with a whole other part of my life.

[music]

SARAH: Thanks so much to Mika Doyle for talking with me for that story. God, she is a great writer. So look her up: Mika Doyle.

Everyone inhabits their body in a different way. Though I’ve come around to exercise and am excited about getting stronger, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be able to run a marathon or even be able to even touch my toes. The culture around athletics pushes us to constantly compare ourselves to other people. Who’s the fastest? Who’s the best? Who is doing full bridge pose next to me in the yoga studio while I can barely get my hips off the ground? But what's radical is rejecting that and saying, "I'm doing this for me. And I am feeling good."

 

[music]

The band featured on today's show is by the band Juniore, that's Juniore with an "e" on the end. I love their retro sound.

This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by The Smitten Kitten, a progressive, feminist sex toy store for everyone. Selling body friendly sex toys since 2003, The Smitten Kitten is your trustworthy source for high-quality, non-toxic toys and equipment for the bedroom and beyond. Their staff of friendly sex nerds can answer all your questions! Visit The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, or on the web at smittenkittenonline.com.

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and want to pitch in? Become a member! Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. And when you do, you'll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a brand-new monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews, straight to your inbox! Become a pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.

This week’s listener comment-of-the-week comes from Bethany, who wrote in with thoughts on last week’s Backtalk episode, where we discussed the way academia can feel closed off and insular. Bethany, who’s getting a PhD, said academia doesn’t have to be a closed-off, secretive world, and if you’re in grad school, she said, “Find your people and hold them fast. They are there. Being the brave person who opens up that space where many others are thinking the same thing but too scared to say it, that's important work.” And that is good advice in any context, I think. Thanks for the email, Bethany. I hope you all find your people and hold them fast.

[theme music]

Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.

 
by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She's interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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