When I started doing yoga, I mostly did a physical practice. Yoga teachers love to give beginners a chair pose. It’s simple – sit your hips back like you’re about to sit in a chair and then raise your arms over your head. I wasn’t particularly athletic when I began, so my legs shook like a tower of Jell-O molds after holding the pose for only a few seconds.
Emma, one of my first teachers, explained to newbies like me something that was very important: Sharp, shooting pain is bad, and you should stop doing what you are doing; everything else is discomfort. In a new yoga practice, this advice gets you through the discomfort of nearly every pose that makes you feel like that tower of Jell-O or like you are going to break in half from the latest pose that looks easy (but actually is not). You learn that breathing through hard things helps to sustain the uncomfortable pose. Your mind learns that your body can do much more than it thought it could. Your nervous system learns to stay calm in moments of physical exertion.
That developed ability to sink into discomfort has served me well in life and work. While I was serving in the larger United Church of Christ as a regional staffer, I was called upon to work with deeply troubled, even conflictual congregations. My comfort with discomfort helped me lead them to ask hard questions and have hard conversations – often that they had been avoiding for years, even generations. I found myself better able to name the elephant, rather than sitting in the silent tension with everyone pretending that pachyderm wasn’t there.
But never more profoundly was this lesson tested than it was this past summer. I’ve written before about how impacted I was – as many of you were – by the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests. I did what many other white people did – I read books and listened to podcasts by Black, Indigenous and People of Color who reminded me how comfortable our culture made me as a white person. I had to seek out the discomfort of those conversations because my daily life shielded me from regularly having to deal with the overwhelming (and overdue) discomfort of racism.
Anti-racist discomfort has become part of my practice. I turn to books, podcasts and videos that are going to make me uncomfortable. I have conversations with other white people about racism. I confronted my own hesitancies and developed a series of gatherings for white people to confront the white supremacist habits that their communities fall into.
Intentional anti-racist discomfort helps me build resilience muscles, just as chair pose helped me build strength in my lower body. Discomfort is absolutely necessary for confronting racism in our midst. White people will definitely need to have the resilience to call out racist behaviors and injustice in our midst. At minimum, doing so will result in an awkward conversation. At most, it will result in overt conflict. But, avoiding the discomfort or conflict guarantees that we — and the system as a whole — stay the same. And, if we’ve learned nothing else from this past year – we know that things CANNOT stay the same.
Go Deeper: Read more about the habits of white supremacy in Tema Okun’s article white supremacy culture. Learn some mindfulness practices that can help you embrace discomfort in Nicole’s Spring Cleaning: Rest and Restore Yoga and Meditation on Monday, April 5, and two more upcoming free offerings – the Meditation of the Month practice on Sunday, April 18, and Brown Bag Lunch networking and discussion on Tuesday, April 27, during which Kathryn Toussaint Williams and Nicole will reflect on their own anti-racist journey.