Being reborn by Josetta
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Josetta, dedicated yoga practitioner and Trans Can Yoga instructor tells us how yoga gets them through the day.
I was a bit of a tom boy as we were called back in the seventies. I have always been a bit of a mixture gender wise, and in sexuality too, and I am very happy with both these days. But I didn’t have a language for how I felt about my gender, until very recently. I thought and still think I am Intersex – but try asking to get tested for that at any kind of clinic or GP! I always felt a connection with people who identify as trans, but I only realised it was because I am trans/non-binary myself about a year ago, at the ripe old age of 50. I just thought I was a good ally, supporting the cause and having mostly trans and trans non-binary friends. I don’t know how it took me so long to realise I was more than an ally! It is a relief to feel like I fit in somewhere and have a gender community. I like saying I am non-binary, whatever that means, it is such a spectrum term. When I feel safe, I like to come out and let people ask questions (to a point), to tell people they can practice using they/them/their pronouns on me. And yes, it is a pain constantly being mis-gendered. Often as soon as I say my pronouns are they/them. I don’t think people can square someone who is a bit femme/female-looking with a non-binary identity. I know having a binary gender identity is very necessary and life saving for some people, but for me being non-binary is a necessary rejection of binary genders, because none of them fit me. I do also love to subvert notions of what gender is, particularly as a person of colour, because a lot of what we see and hear about gender in the west is from a white Eurocentric position.
As soon as I started teaching yoga, I taught LGBTQ classes and private students. It made sense, living in Brighton to set up a queer Ashtanga class ten years ago. https://yogaeastlondon.com/whatisashtanga_ Then, when I moved to London, I set up low cost/donation LGBTQ classes. Word got out, and CliniQ, the Trans sexual health clinic in Soho, asked me to start a Trans yoga class. Because I am queer and have a background in mental health; from using services, studying it and working in LGBTQ mental health, it makes sense to bring all these things together and focus yoga classes on queer and trans people to help our physical and mental health. And that is what I love to do, especially now I am back in Brighton, which is why I got asked to teach yoga for Trans Can Sport. Well that and because I realised I was non-binary and they were looking for a trans/non-binary yoga teacher.
Yoga has its roots in ancient India and Africa and was developed as a spiritual and physical practice to calm the mind. The physical postures/movements were designed to strengthen and cleanse the body so that you can sit in meditation more easily. There are numerous breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques as well as philosophical guidance. I see it as a lifelong practice, which makes more sense and becomes more powerful over the years. Alongside the physical and emotional health benefits, is also changes us in some subtle ways, as we become more connected to ourselves and others/the planet and beyond! There are certainly some problems with the way yoga has become an industry and how some aspects of it have been co-opted by the west, and how it has been portrayed as something for rich white skinny able-bodied people. But at its heart is a deeply profound and immensely beneficial practice.
I finally found yoga in my early thirties, thanks to a wise friend who dragged me along to my first class, saying it was good for stress. I was a mature student at the time, living in Cornwall working several jobs to make ends meet. I did cleaning, sold T shirts, waited tables and was the clumsiest seller of ceramics. Still clumsy despite the twenty odd years of yoga since then, but I am much happier and healthier. And I have seen how yoga has helped countless other people, from fellow students to the hundreds of students I have had the honour to teach. It is teaching yoga to people with physical and mental health conditions that has made me such an advocate, because I have seen and heard from them how much it helps.
I’ve always struggled/survived with my mental health, sometimes the life and soul of the party and then months of hiding away because of anxiety and depression. In the past, I used food, drink and drugs to numb the pain, but nothing worked for long. So even though I had been one of those annoyingly good sporty people at school, by my twenties I was quite unfit, I didn’t like my weight and always had a cold. It didn’t help that I had moved to Cornwall and was the only black queer in the village. It was isolating and difficult living there as a queer person of colour, but I continued my journey of therapy, started yoga and gained a degree which led me to Brighton to do something useful and interesting with it. My experiences of racism and mental health issues meant I focused my Social Science degree on these areas. When my friend took me along to that yoga class, I found a physical activity that also sorted my head out. I felt so calm afterwards, and that was a rare thing for me in those anxiety fuelled times. There was something about the moving and stretching that worked my body in new and interesting ways, but also consciously using and concentrating on breathing was a revelation. I was hooked and it changed my body, my thinking, and literally my life, all for the better. Nothing happened overnight aside from finding a wonderful new activity. But over the years, I practiced more and more regularly, building up to a daily practice. The more I practiced the more improvements I made to my lifestyle, as an early morning strong physical yoga practice is so much easier and nicer with a clear head and good sleep. So, I cut down and then cut out all the drugs and alcohol, the late nights and partying. My lifestyle is now completely chem free, clean and vegan, no gluten, soya or refined sugar, so not for everyone but I have never felt stronger physically or mentally, even with an aging body and health conditions.
First I studied Iyengar yoga, which is a very precise form of yoga, where you can spend endless minutes perfecting and “feeling” each posture. But my teacher also taught Ashtanga yoga, and once I discovered that style, I was re-born! In Ashtanga, you learn a set sequence of poses (and then increasingly difficult sequences of poses), and it is a very physical demanding cardio workout type of yoga. But it is not just about the physical poses (postures/stretches whatever you want to call them), the real point of yoga, well the reason the physical poses were developed, is to train and cleanse the body and mind to sit in meditation. In the West, people tend to just do the physical practice, which I think I fine, it is incredibly beneficial and can lead to the philosophical and spiritual areas of the practice. I like to drop a little bit of yoga philosophy into my classes, like the principal of non-harming, Ahimsa. I take this principle to mean how you practice yoga non-competitively, but also how we think, speak and act off the mat. For me it fits my vegan, and environmentally friendly lifestyle. It took me many years of a physical practice to get into meditation, but once I did, I was hooked on that too. Now I do about 90 minutes of Ashtanga yoga and then sit for half an hour doing pranayama (alternate nostril breathing exercises) and meditation. One of my great teachers, Nancy Gilgoff calls it sitting, rather than meditation, which is useful because no one can just “meditate” or empty your mind, it is hard! What we do is sit, and just notice our minds are wandering and bring our attention back to focusing on the breath. Daily meditation has done for my mind what Ashtanga does for my body (and mind), it gets easier to meditate and I am noticeably calmer than I was before – people comment on it so I must be. I still get anxious and sometimes down, but every morning I have those precious 2 hours on my mat, and they are the best part of the day, especially in the Summer months when I can do it all outside in my beautiful garden. I have come to terms with having long term mental health conditions and being on the autistic spectrum, and the yoga and meditation keep me resilient to manage them and my autistic traits. It all makes sense; when we are anxious or stressed we go into that flight/fight/freeze mode and shallow breathe, but with yoga and meditation we breathe deeply into the belly, which sends messages to the brain that we are calm and relaxed. Try it, take a minute or two to breathe deeply and let your body and mind wind down. But if you are new to all this, it is much better to learn from a teacher, and you can try one of our TCS yoga sessions.
I love teaching trans people, we really need it and we get to spend time in a trans positive setting. It is completely non-competitive, and everyone can do something, regardless of fitness, mobility, health or experience. I have always taught beginners and people who are wary of yoga, and people with physical and mental health conditions (I do lots of yoga classes for the NHS on mental health wards), so they are very gentle and supportive classes.
Aside from getting you fit, strong, flexible, and helping you relax, there are numerous other health benefits to yoga. It increases energy levels, improves digestion, posture, breathing, helps weight issues, back problems, blood pressure, pain management, the nervous system, emotional and mental health conditions, circulation, aids sleep and concentration, it pretty much does everything!
I currently teach private students in Brighton and London, NHS mental health wards in East London, occasional classes for Allsorts and Gendered Intelligence and of course TCS. Next block of 6 yoga classes at TCS starts 23rd July 2019, please see TCS website for details and to book https://www.transcansport.co.uk/.