I recently attended a yoga workshop led by one of my new favorite teachers. She began by telling us the story of how she started practicing. She was working as an advocate for abused and neglected children, struggling with everything from ulcers to insomnia, when she walked into a yoga class at a gym. Mostly, she said, because they were having a sale and the teacher was friendly.
Eventually she did more yoga, gave up smoking and started eating healthy. From there she left child protective services and became a yoga teacher. Her classes are so good that I’ve skipped work events and cut vacations short for them. I find it reassuring to know that one of my favorite teachers is thriving in her life outside the yoga studio–she’s physically healthy, she’s doing what she loves, and she’s good at it. But I can’t help feeling sad that children whose lives are diminished by violence and abuse have lost a valuable ally.
Though I don’t teach yoga, my story is a lot like hers. I used to work at a domestic violence crisis center where I helped women get orders of protection against their abusers. Most of my job was sitting with women for hours while they waited to see a judge. Sometimes courthouse waiting rooms were so small that the only option was to sit directly across from the abuser and avoid eye contact for over an hour.
Other waiting rooms had enough privacy that women felt comfortable telling me about times they were threatened with knives or thrown down flights of stairs. Some women who had already left their abusers lived with hundreds of hang-up calls a night and no way to prove their exes were the ones calling. I remember how hard I worked to hide my gag reactions when women removed their sunglasses to show me the puffy black and purple marks around their eyes.
After two years in court I got a job working nights in a domestic violence shelter and another job working days in a domestic violence law firm. I started drinking diet soda and nine in the morning and drank can after can until my teeth stung. I ate frozen fried chicken and hot breaded cheese sticks, or I didn’t eat at all. I volunteered at a third domestic violence program on top of my two paid jobs. I was tired all the time but when I tried to sleep at night I was so agitated that I couldn’t.
At the time I would have laughed at anybody who suggested I do yoga. Though I was emotionally raw most of the time and at 23 couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded, I saw that kind of self-care as a pointless distraction from the real work of helping women who needed me.
Eventually I burned out. I started locking myself in the shelter office and pretended I was busy when women knocked. I called in sick a lot, and eventually realized I couldn’t go back.
After I left domestic violence crisis work I found therapy, a support group, body work and, eventually, yoga. Now I practice about three times a week and have never felt saner or stronger than I do now.
I still do abuse work but I no longer have the stomach for crisis intervention. I’m the Executive Director of an abuse prevention and self-defense training organization. A lot of our programs are for homeless women, low-income teens with disabilities, and other people who are struggling with serious threats to their stability. But at least as many of our students are living relatively stable, privileged lives.
I know the work I do is valuable. Like other people who teach physical skills, I’ve seen dozens of students make major changes in their lives after they experienced the ways in which their bodies are powerful. But I used to be doing a lot more for people whose options and resources were extremely limited. One of the reasons I stopped is because I’m a lot less numb than I used to be.
I used to go to court hearings with women who were afraid of losing their children. I’d shake it off by shoving squares of giant Hershey bars into my mouth.
As a privileged person who has never been personally affected by poverty or serious violence, my interactions with the world of food stamps, public housing, and restraining order hearings was almost always a choice. The truth I don’t like to face is that the healthier I get, the more often I choose to insulate myself from that world.
As grateful as I am for the strength, calm and sanity my yoga practice gives me, I struggle with how much my own desire for wellness has made the hardest and most important social justice work intolerable. I have endless respect for people who bring yoga and wellness programs to shelters and prisons. And I sometimes make donations to these organizations. Like I sometimes protest the lack of affordable housing and I occasionally email my elected officials about legislation to support parents who become homeless as a result of domestic violence. But more often I roll out my mat and take care of myself instead.
Meg Stone is the Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, an abuse prevention and self-defense training organization. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Cognoscenti, the opinion page of the Boston NPR station, The Patriot Ledger, make/shift, Ms. and Bitch.