By Jacoby Ballard, Third Root Community Health Center
In yoga and Buddhism, long-time practices of mine, the sangha is regarded as a sacred container for the spiritual path. I think about that a lot in relation to queer community, and it has been an experiment in Queer and Trans yoga, to see what evolves when we come into our bodies, into our hearts, and share that intimate space with one another as queer people. I am so grateful to Larry Yang and Maddie Klein, teachers of mine who hold an annual meditation retreat for LGBT community, and to all of their teachers who came before them, and all of the queer teachers throughout the world who we may not know about, or who were not out as queer for many reasons. And I am grateful to Emily Kramer for holding down Queer and Trans Yoga at Third Root, with me, for the past 2 years. I have taught Yoga for All Genders at the LGBT Center in NYC for 8 years, and at Third Root I have taught Queer and Trans Yoga for 5 years. At Third Root we have also offered 3 “Queer and Trans Yoga Jams” over the past 2 years on Saturday nights, which have successful and fruitful.
I have found that this space is really necessary for our community to hold and heal all that lays upon our shoulders, and to rejoice in ourselves and in one another, often in silence, often with laughter, sometimes with tears. I have also found that Queer and Trans Yoga has enabled queer people in Brooklyn to develop a yoga practice that they might not have otherwise felt welcomed into, what a blessing! And, as Queer and Trans classes are popping up around the country-Denver, Philly, Amherst, Toronto, Austin, Minneapolis, Seattle, I think that the yoga community is starting to open their eyes to why this “separate space” is necessary and healing to queer people, and why that might be different than the way that regular yoga classes can hold us.
I want to talk about the qualities of fearlessness, embodiment, generosity as they apply to queer and LGBT community. I chose fearlessness because I have lived in fear for years-I think part of residing in queer community for the past 15 years has yes been part of accepting myself, loving myself, building bridges and connection, but also about isolation, separation, and resistance to the straight world. Which is not to say that it’s been all warm cookies and milk in the queer community-this is also a site of very difficult work, to keep drama at bay, to work hard to repair relationships within a sometimes confined space, to have space to differentiate myself from others while also being grateful for the mirroring in community, all of which I am grateful for.
In talking to my teacher Seane last year, she challenged me by saying, “you have to change your relationship to transphobia and homophobia, because it’s not going away in the world. You will continue to encounter it for the rest of your life. You have to change your relationship to it so that it does the least damage possible.” Which, for me, means practicing that encounter, and coming out of queer community to face fears. In Buddhist and Yogic practice, I learn that I don’t dismantle fears by turning away from them, I dismantle them by turning towards them. I have to understand my fears, their history, their presence in my current life, and move into that discomfort. It also means trying to bring all of myself, even when that hasn’t been welcome in the past. How do I encounter that oppression, that fear, that hatred in a way that is the least harmful to me? One way is that I remember that someone else’s actions are actually rarely about ME. I encounter it by asking questions about it, trying to find a way into their heart, a way to connect. To trust that everyone wants to be happy, but that ignorance is a hindrance. I don’t need to blame or shame, but to be generous and trust that we are all trying to come into love, and somehow I became a part of this person’s path, and they became a part of mine.
And I practice working with fears on my mat and on my cushion every day, just showing up and being with what is there. Whatever is there.
I also want to discuss generosity. Generosity is often presented as an antidote to greed, but I think of it as also an antidote to fear. Generosity, or Dana, is the first of the Paramitas, a list in Buddhism of qualities to cultivate in order to live an awakened life. The word “Paramita” translates as “crossing over to the other shore”. The other nine Paramitas are determination, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, lovingkindness, and equanimity. These are all “natural inclinations of our heart” as Sylvia Boorstein says, qualities to be examined, and also practices to return to. These are ways of behaving in the world that create an awakened heart and a connected, compassionate community.
Generosity is the first practice that the Buddha gave to lay practitioners. The very first, the most important. Consider that for a moment. Why is generosity the most important practice?
Generosity is said to be the antidote to greed, and I would say, a component of fearlessness. Greed has a withholding, closing energy that fosters isolation and fixed states. Underlying greed is fear-fear of there not being enough, fear of losing something, fear of not having something that someone else has. All of the Paramitas have their opposite, and its said that the heart cannot hold both-so we overcome greed/fear by generosity. By practicing generosity the fear dissipates! Generosity is preceeded by the awareness, “I have this, and I can give it away. I don’t need to keep it.” What also has to be present is the awareness of having something useful, pleasant, or comforting, as well as a sense of other people’s needs. Generosity is about connection.
“Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression.
We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous.
We experience joy in the actual act of giving something.
And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”
Generosity helps release our Buddha nature. Stephen Cope and Sharon Salzberg both advise that when we have an inclination to give, we should. Right after that inclination often comes the, ‘oh but I don’t have the resources right now’ or the ‘he could do without that’. The doubts. The teachers say, just give. Don’t give everything that you have, because that is not being generous to yourself, but give what you are inclined to give. As the Buddha says, it will feel good.
I see the practice of generosity in queer community a lot. I see collective houses sharing, providing for one another. I see partners taking care of each other, friends showing up for childcare for queer families, of community putting in incredible effort to create beautiful commitment ceremonies. I see our communities supporting the organizations that support us. This is so beautiful, and I think this is a human quality for survival. Every community that survives does it together-we can look to so many other communities to see this. Generosity is a response to injustice. We rely on one another out of necessity, but also because we know in our hearts that there is a different way to be, a different way to live. Our generosity with one another is indeed resistance to the greed and fear that oppresses us. We provide for one another out of love for each other and love for ourselves. When we give, we acknowledge that all beings want to be happy.
Bishop Oscar Romero said that “peace IS generosity. It is right and it is duty.” We have all felt the generosity of presence-when we are truly listened to, when a friend truly holds space for all of our feelings, without needing to do anything, but be present. And so when we can be present to all of our own feelings, without reaction, resentment, avoidance, that is generous to ourselves. When we can be present with others, it is generous.
Generosity definitely involves generosity for ourselves, taking care of ourselves so that we can truly serve others from a well-resourced place. It’s not either/or-me or the community-but we actually are generous to our community when we are generous to ourselves, because it means that a stronger, more authentic version of ourselves is showing up in community. Imagine what our queer community would look like if everyone took the time to take care of themselves, to do what they needed to feel balanced and grounded every day. What a gift.
It is said that when we are angry with someone, we should practice Dana-to have the intention to open, to connect, rather than shut down. We have many opportunities to practice this, with our partners, with friends, with enemies. When do we shut down, shut off? It is out of fear. So how can we counter that fear with giving, even though we are programmed to do the opposite? When I am angry with my partner, can I give her my hand, my soft touch, my presence? When I feel attacked by a coworker, can I bring them lunch the next day? When I am angry at any injustice in the world, at that moment, what can I give? Generosity is an antidote to fear.
Jacoby Ballard has practiced yoga for 14 years and has taught for 12 years. He has been involved in social justice work for 15 years, and is the founder of Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn. He received his 200-hour certification from Kashi Ashram in Atlanta, his 500-hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training at Kripalu in Massachussetts. He has received additional training from Street Yoga, the Lineage Project, Off the Mat Into the World, the Interdependence Project, Dinacharya Institute for Ayurveda, and Insight Meditation. Jacoby loves working with students of all bodies, genders, and experiences, and offers his students precise alignment, the lessons of yogic scriptures suited to daily life in the West, and physical challenge with playfulness and compassion.