Picking Sides and What I Learned from Yoga by Kristina Grinovich

“I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” ― Michel Foucault

I learned at an early age that you have to pick a side. It was written in the history books, and I studied it in my religion classes, and I felt it during recess and gym. You are either with us or against us. You are either chosen first for dodgeball, or your name is called out last with a sigh.

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I saw the boundaries between the poor and the rich in my community—there were the projects and then the new condo developments in the cul de sacs, and despite bordering one another, sometimes only separated by a street sign, the division was real, was felt, was not to be messed with. I saw the subtle lines being drawn amongst my classmates: the jocks versus the nerds, the drama kids versus the poetry club. This is not an unfamiliar narrative and one that TV sitcoms, politicians, and pop culture capitalize on. There is sickness and there is health. There is us and there is them.

I was an anxious kid, and part of that was genetic, and part of that was listening to the parables of God’s wrath and redemption, and part of that was watching my dad suffer through a motorcycle accident when I was 9 years old. I went with my mom to visit him at Spaulding Rehab. He was one of a variety of injured people; some would walk again, others would not. But despite my own personal history, my anxiety grew as I learned that these boundaries I saw in the soccer field, home versus away, star athlete versus pitifully benched substitute, encompassed more than just childhood games. These boundaries, these divisions, were everywhere and they were insidious. Some of the boundaries were discussed, some were not, but all of them were well-known and irremovable.

After understanding that my strengths did not lie on the soccer field, or in any type of competition, I decided to dive into art. I thought, if I can’t be Sporty Spice, then I’d rather be Anne Sexton. I felt I had to pick a side: be an athlete and shove down all my feelings, or become an artist, and talk about them in code. The choice seemed easy. I wanted to talk about watching my father learn how to walk again, but I didn’t want to speak it plainly. I preferred metaphor and sculpture. It seemed safer than outright admission.

In the art world, everyone was lonely but loved. I liked reading and painting and photographs because, for a brief moment, those were what mattered, and everything else was just something for normal people to worry about. When I was writing a short story or a poem, nothing else mattered. I didn’t need to do soccer drills, or socialize, or be seen. I could, as Kafka suggested, be an artist just by sitting still at my desk and listening. I didn’t need to engage in social politics or discussions of death. As an artist, I felt that I could remove myself from all the fights, I could see into the future, and I could walk through walls. My father told my brother and me that artists breathe different air than the rest of the world, and I wanted to be that special.

I wanted to hide in art, and, as Bukowski wrote, “if you’re going to try, go all the way.” So, I went all the way into art. Once I made that decision to become an artist, my biggest fear would be that I would be found out and that I would be deemed too smart, neurotic, and reasonable to be considered an auteur. I found myself writing about fictitious motorcycle accidents, I took photographs of hospitals, and I made clay sculptures mimicking the digestive system, but I wanted to rid myself of any sign that I was a normal person.

As I entered into art college, a horrible realization dawned on me: not even art was safe from partitions. During my first year at Pratt Institute, you had to declare a major: are you going to be a painter, a writer, an architect? If you choose a painter, will you be a realist or abstract? If you choose a writer, will you specialize in short fiction, long fiction, poetry, or essay? All of the majors had separate buildings, different schedules, specific career paths, and you had to choose. I didn’t trust my painting talents, and my older brother had already chosen sculpture as his major at MassArt, so I went with Creative Writing specializing in short fiction. And I felt doomed.

As my anxiety, depression, and loneliness increased with every passing year in Brooklyn, a friend suggested I try yoga. I didn’t want to; yoga is what normal people do. Plus, if yoga cured my depression, then I wouldn’t be able to be an artist. I thought I would be sabotaging my career if I were to try to make myself happy.

However, I did try yoga. I got desperate. I think at one point, I decided I couldn’t spend another moment feeling so sad and lost and in between. My writing hadn’t been published, and my job as a copywriter made me feel hollow. My friend brought me to Yoga to the People, a donation-based heated-power flow class taught in a packed studio in St. Mark’s Place. And I liked it, but not because it made me feel good, but because it made me feel horrible, and that’s what I wanted. I struggled, I sweat, and my thighs burned with every warrior posture. I wept during half-pigeon when the teacher asked if she could adjust my hips, and I realized how long it had been since I had been touched gently. Yoga, it seemed, was an externalization of how bad I had felt in my brain, and I was allowed to enact that badness out in public, with other people who were also crying and sweating. It reminded me of my days spent in church, listening to people cry out to God for forgiveness, for mercy. Here I was, a supposed artist in a room full of strangers, all of us crying out for clemency.

I continued to practice at Yoga to the People. I would give two or three dollars in the tissue box they passed around before every class. I loved the tissue box. It reminded me of the tithe bowl. I truly began to enjoy the classes and the physical rigor of the practice, the sweat and tears pouring out of my body, the shake, and the release I felt at the end of the class. The only boundaries I felt were the edges of my mat, and even those were blurry; depending on how packed the class was and what pose we were doing, there could be a stranger’s arm dangling onto my mat, some sweat flicked off from a nearby practitioner’s hair, or an errant sweatshirt sleeve slipped onto my mat, probably taken off during rigorous plank work. The more I did yoga, the less isolated I felt: not only in body but in mind. I was surrounded by people, but I was doing yoga for myself, by myself. I enjoyed breathing with people that I would never introduce myself to. But, the more I did yoga, the less I wrote. I could feel myself pulling away from my life as an artist. I had to take a side.

I enrolled in a yoga teacher training course and it terrified me. I had very little experience, but I knew that I wanted to be good at it. If I were going to be a yogi, I better go all the way. I bought the right pants and tried to brand myself as a healthy, peppermint-tea drinking vegan. I studied Patanjali and Sanskrit. And I practiced yoga.

I learned the meaning of yoga, to yoke, to combine, integrate, and unite, and I did feel a connection to my body and mind, a merging of my movements with my choices, in a way I hadn’t felt before. Before yoga, I assumed that everything that had happened to me had been done to me and that I was powerless to alter the inevitable motorcycle crashes in the future, the looming ambulance rides and IV tubes. While yoga is certainly not a shielder of misfortune, it did provide me with an hour in which the only thing I had to worry about was where my foot was in space and how my breath felt in my lungs. Doing yoga for me became a relief from the terror of the future, the claustrophobia of my choices. It was brief, but it was there.

Practicing and learning how to teach yoga also reconnected me to my scientific, anatomical brain, the part of me that loved understanding muscle fibers and researching bone spurs and how the body works in a kinesthetic chain, unable to be separated out into its parts, and only able to function fully when all the parts worked together. Yoga taught me collaboration, the blending of art and physiology, precision and perception.

Along with anatomy and posture names, I also learned about Shiva, the creator, and the destroyer, the diety that could hold both extremes in his hands, the one that said, “yes and yes,” -- that both are necessary to maintain homeostasis.

Yoga also taught me about breath. Yoga taught me that no mammal can live without it, and, that in this atmosphere, air is all the same, all shared, all inhaled and exhaled. If you have it, you live. It is the great equalizer.

After my teacher training, I auditioned a lot. The more I auditioned, and failed, and practiced, and auditioned again, and again, and again, the better a teacher I became, and the bolder. I realized that I was capable of learning and improving. I realized that what I loved teaching was both the philosophical, ethereal parts of yoga, along with specific, anatomical intelligence. I loved discussing the psoas and the sutras. Even though the path to becoming a yoga teacher has not been graceful, or easy, it has given me resilience.

I watched my father learn how to give a handshake again. I watched my mother learn how to be a wound-care specialist, daily changing out the bandages wrapped around the external fixators holding my father’s forearms together. I watched my father get back on his motorcycle, rev up the engine, and drive to work. Re-creation and redemption are possible. I have seen it. I have watched the part of me yearning to be an artist living in New York soften, and I have felt the edges of my black and white thinking blur with each yoga class I take, and with each student, I have been able to see clearly, if, just for a moment in a class. I’ve learned like Rumi wrote, that I need to keep breaking my heart until it opens.

I am still trying to accept that part of me that wants to condemn my love of science and public service. I am trying to accept that part of me that will always try to destroy myself before someone else can. I am trying to believe that I can hold both creativity and science, lightness and weight, strength and softness. I am trying to re-write my story, make my inner life the art project I so badly felt I needed to externalize to be worth seeing.

My foray into veganism only lasted for one year, but I still enjoy peppermint tea. I also enjoy coffee and red wine and Giacometti sculptures and Deleuze and Guattari philosophy books. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel uncertain, and there is also not a day that goes by that I don't feel completely and utterly myself. I am learning to accept the state of in-between-ness, of nothingness, of terrifying boundarylessness. I am learning to incorporate the pieces of my life that I held apart for so long, like a referee in the middle of a boxing match, telling both sides of me to go to their corners. I think about how to create a life that is not bound to the confines of a yoga studio, or an art studio, or a hospital room, or an Instagram bio, or a cheeky catch-phrase. And even now, in the midst of a world bent on boundaries and building walls, and despite the boxes and titles and ways in which I find myself trapped by the segmentation of society, I can find moments of togetherness, of breaking, of intermingling, and binding, and recreating. They are brief, but they are there.