Sometimes it’s the littlest, most innocuous-seeming things that bring up some of our most profound questions. I had this experience recently, over a cat video, no less.
It was a video of my own cat playing with a rogue orange peel that hadn’t yet made it to the compost. He was enthralled by the peel, batting it around, sneaking up on it, jumping back when it jiggled from his touch. It was funny. It was also one of those times as an pet companion that I really want to get inside my cat’s head–what did he find so interesting, or terrifying, or joyous about this encounter? Was he motivated by play, or hunger, or some misguided sense of threat?
I can’t know. But in questioning his motivation, I started thinking about my own, and the experience recentered me around one of my own ongoing areas of personal work and exploration: the practice of discerning my root motivations for actions and orienting future actions toward my genuine “yes.”
In my work teaching yoga and exploring themes like agency and consent, I find myself thinking and talking about this idea of “yes” over and over again. And as someone who has gone through and is still surviving trauma, who is still working through the patterns that I learned within our not-particularly-consensual dominant culture and a variety of problematic relationships, the work of honoring my own, authentic, agentful “yes” is work that has proven to be among the most challenging and profound. It’s led me to much bigger questions than I started with, questions about how to create huge cultural shifts and aid social justice movements that are working to build more equitable, agency-based societies. And it’s also led me to new patterns of thought when it comes to my own life, the decision I make, the boundaries I set, and the situations I’ll willingly enter.
When I talk about this genuine “yes,” I’m talking about that full-bodied, cellular-level feeling of overwhelming pleasure that comes with being all-in to what you’re doing. Audre Lorde called this the errotic “yes.” Building on her work, Toni Cade Bambara proclaimed that we need to orient towards pleasure in our social movements and make the work of building a just and equitable society irresistible. I believe this, and I also believe that orienting towards pleasure, towards “yes” is how we make the work of personal liberation irresistible as well. I’m continuously drawn to explore the intersection of pleasure and yoga, which sometimes seem diametrically opposed.
But I’m not sure they’re actually as opposed as it may seem. Among other things, the spiritual and ethical principles of yoga espouse non-harm, non-stealing, and the idea that beyond our identities and social trappings, we all contain an aspect of divinity that’s inextricably connected to a larger, united whole, which points, to the best of my current understanding, towards an ethic of non-hierarchy–if we are all one, if we all contain that same divine spark, then not one of us at our essence can be held up above anyone else. To me, this means it’s an important aspect of our work in yoga to interrogate power dynamics, to investigate where our motivations come from, and to connect to agency in order to align our lives with practices in consent and resource sharing. It feels clear to me that non-consensual actions cause harm. The opposite of that would be consensual actions, which require us to know what we want.
If experiences of pain help us figure out what we don’t want, experiences of pleasure can help us orient towards our wants and needs. Unpleasant hunger pangs may remind us that we need to eat, that we don’t want to starve, but it’s the memory of pleasurable tastes and pleasant feelings of energized satiety that help inform our decisions about what we want to eat. It’s perhaps the loneliness or unmet desire to care-take that lead us to adopt a pet, but it’s the pleasure of our past and present interactions with animals that lead us to decide whether we want a cat or a dog.
But of course, in many realms of our lives, barriers exist that prevent us from accessing pleasure. Diet culture stigmatizes certain foods (or even eating enough to fuel your body, if you’re a fat person). Capitalism ingrains in us a model of scarcity-based thinking that both rewards hoarding and instant gratification and creates barriers to accessing our wants and needs, cutting us off from many of the experiences that we’d find most pleasurable. The overarching culture of white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, ableism, etc. place us in hierarchies of power and privilege and punish us for trying to move up or down or, god forbid, point out that these hierarchies are constructs that needs to be dismantled–these oppressive systems are built to cut off those they disempower from pleasurable experiences, exactly because there’s power in pleasure.
And certainly, there are additional considerations, beyond just doing whatever feels good. First and foremost, we must ask ourselves: will the action I want to take cause harm to others, or cut them off from their own “yes” in some way? We might also ask ourselves if there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” When I check in with my deepest values, I find that I have no desire to cause harm to others, no desire to harm myself by indulging in any one thing too much–I don’t want to deny someone else their supper in order to eat, nor do I want to eat so much that I start to feel sick. When I am doing my work to unlearn scarcity thinking and to tap into my overarching desires, the ones based on my values, I find that neither of these questions cause me nearly as much difficulty in aligning towards my larger “yes.”
In the microcosm of my body, I can practice aligning with my “yes” through movement and yoga asana. Often, rather than follow along with an instructor or video, I’ll get on my mat and try to check in with my body, see if it’s giving me any guidance as to what it needs to do or explore in that moment. I’ll visualize a time when I experienced intense pleasure, that full-bodied feeling of “yes,” try to call any physical or energetic sensations from that moment back to the surface in my muscle or cellular memory. When I start moving, I try to find the options for movement and postural work that bring me closest to that feeling, and work to stay present with my sensations and emotions so I can integrate any feedback my body is giving me. When I teach, as much as possible, I try to empower my students to practice in this way–I try to make it as clear as possible that I don’t want to be an authority but rather a partner in their movement practice, offering suggestions for exploration rather than demands about how they use their body, time, and energy.
Folks who attended my inaugural Align Your Week class on Core to Coeur yesterday had the opportunity to practice with me in this way and can draw from that experience and try to integrate anything that came up and out of that practice into their intention work this week. If you weren’t in class, perhaps try a self-directed movement practice for yourself. Don’t worry if this is difficult at first–it can take a while to tap into our own body’s needs and desires, especially as the larger systems we exist in continue to try to cut us off from what we’re feeling.
Once you’ve had a chance to practice orienting towards “yes” in your body, you might grab a journal and reflect on the following questions:
- Reflect on the practice you just did (or the practice you did with me on Sunday). How did it go for you? Did it bring anything up for you? Did you find it challenging to find that physical and energetic sensation of “yes,” or were there moments you felt like you tapped into it?
- Think back to a time you experienced a full-bodied, cellular-level “yes.” Try to recall as many details as you can, including any physical or energetic sensations that came up in your body in this particular moment of pleasure. Perhaps jot down anything you notice.
- Now think forward to the week ahead. What are a few key things that you want or need to do or accomplish this week? You could list two or three things at first, and then consider how you’re feeling as you anticipate these upcoming tasks or events. Do they excite you? Are you anticipating enjoying them? Or are you feeling avoidant or begrudging when you think about them?
- For the things on this list that excite you, perhaps reflect on why. What about these tasks or events do you expect will bring about pleasure or joy for you? What past experiences are you drawing from that lead you to feel that way?
- For the things on this list that don’t excite you, first perhaps reflect on whether or not you actually have to do them. If the answer is no, maybe reflect on why they’re on your list in the first place. If the answer is yes, or if you find yourself thinking it’s not strictly required but you still feel some sense of obligation or tepid desire to keep that task or event on your list, perhaps reflect on why–does it feel like a requirement of a role you’re filling that you desire, in the grander scheme of things, to keep? Are you worried about losing something you care about if you don’t do it? This is not meant to discourage you from doing anything on your list, but to get into a practice of discerning your own motivations for taking actions that don’t excite you on their face. You may find that there’s a larger, perhaps values-based reason that you want to do the task. In my experience, those are important desires to note and explore further.
Later this week, if you find yourself wanting to recenter around this theme or explore it in a little more depth, you might come back to your journal and reflect on the following additional prompts:
- What on your initial list of key to-dos for this week have already come to pass? Was the experience as pleasurable or unpleasant as you were expecting? Did you find yourself able to stay present enough through the experience to recognize what you were feeling in your body? Is there any information you gathered through that experience, such as particular aspects that brought you pleasure, that you could potentially use to inform your future actions?
- When you think of the phrase “too much of a good thing,” what comes up for you? Do you think of food, alcohol, money? For anything that comes to mind, perhaps reflect on what it would mean to you to have too much of that thing. Is “too much,” in each individual case, defined by an internal marker that originates with you (such as a certain feeling of satiety when you know you’ve had enough to eat) or by an external marker that originates outside of you (such as a diet’s prescribed calorie count)? If you find that your idea of “too much” of anything comes from an external source, perhaps reflect on why you’ve chosen to use that definition. This is not meant to discourage you from using any of those external definitions necessarily, merely to consider where they come from and why you would rather use them than an internally-determined definition–you very well may have a good reason!
- Can you recall a time when your pursuit of pleasure caused harm to someone else? To the extent it feels possible, reflect on that experience. What did you learn? How have you integrated what you learned into subsequent actions or decisions? Then consider: what does your ongoing practice of accountability look like? When you cause harm, do you routinely try to learn and grow from that experience, or are there times you still act defensively? What patterns do you see in your own behavior when it comes to pleasure-seeking?
- Do you actively help others access pleasure and joy? If yes, how? Are there additional things you could do, resources you could redistribute, or conversations you could have that would help others experience more pleasure, power, and liberation?
Whether you attended Sunday’s class or are just joining us in this practice through this blog post, you’re invited to join me on Core to Coeur this Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 9 a.m. EST/6 a.m. PST for a 30-minute guided meditation to help you recenter yourself on this theme and come back to your quest for this genuine sensation of “yes”. Sign up here.