By Nick Krieger
There must have been a hundred of us in the humid yoga studio, all lying face down on our mats. We each grabbed our ankles in preparation for bow pose, ready to place weight on the pelvis and arch up into a “U” shape. “Men,” the teacher said, “now’s the time to make that adjustment.”
Laughter spread throughout the room. The helpful cue, for a man to avoid crushing his bulge, was rather funny. Unless you were a man who did not need to make this adjustment. Unless you were a man invalidated by a society that considered you fake as a result of missing a small anatomical detail.
I am transgender. I fell in love with yoga around the time that I came out, a combination that rescued me from feeling lost and alone. Finally, there was a word, “transgender,” that allowed me to understand myself. The word proved that there were others folks like me, people who did not align with their sex-assignments at birth. We were real. We existed. We had an identity.
For as long as I could remember, I’d experienced myself as a floating head. Any reminder of the form below my neck — a friendly embrace, a romantic caress, the accidental graze of a stranger on the bus — caused me to hit the eject button. I immediately disconnected from any awareness of my body.
Through the postures of yoga, I reclaimed my physicality. Vinyasa flow classes, an hour and a half of linking my breath with my movements, invited me to bring my attention to the sensations inside of my body. The burn in my quads in chair pose. The wobble in my ankle in tree pose. The stretch across my chest in a backbend.
The most remarkable thing happened when I focused on the physical sensations: My mind chilled out. I was too busy, too preoccupied with the vast landscape of my body to listen to the squawking of thoughts in my head. (Do I really need to transition? Will anyone love me? Will I lose my parents? How do I know for sure that I’m trans?)
I craved yoga classes and reveled in my time on the mat. The sweaty exercise hooked me, but something else changed me. An experience, repeated again and again, in which the endless cacophony of my mind-chatter quieted. Under this noise, I recognized intuition. That’s what I truly craved, the power and heft of this guidance.
At first, I did not choose to change my name and pronouns, or to pursue surgery and hormones. I attended yoga classes. I breathed. I moved. I took a respite from trying to figure out my next steps. Slowly, my decisions to go by “Nick,” to use male pronouns, and to alter my body became inevitable. My practice of yoga and gender transition are forever linked.
The latter recedes with the passing of time, yet my identity as “transgender” remains strong. I still turn to this word to remind myself of support, community and shared experience. I embrace it as a rallying cry for social justice. I use it for education. I reach for it when I am hurt or harmed.
Over the past five years, I have participated in thousands of hours of yoga trainings as a student and as an assistant to my teacher. Anatomy is an important topic, and discussions and comments always reiterate the faulty concept that men’s bodies are like this, and women’s bodies are like that. Any man or woman who crosses the binary divide is a joke. While levity is useful in public announcements about periods, I have heard dozens of wisecracks about “men on their cycle” or “pregnant men” in the room.
But some men have babies. Some men menstruate. Despite the media frenzy over celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, it seemingly does not occur to anyone in the yoga studio that they are laughing at the furry dude downward dogging it on the mat next door, at the expense of my internal organs, at my hilarious man body with its intact uterus.
During those early trainings, I would fantasize about throwing a real yoga studio tantrum. I’d kick straps, knock over blocks and stomp the wood as I stormed out. “I’m trans!” I’d scream. “Transgender! We are real people. With real bodies. We exist.”
Embracing an identity, especially one pushed to the margins, can be a political act. It is crucial that I announce my trans existence to a society that does not see me. It is crucial for health care companies and doctors to recognize that some men need pap smears and some women need prostate screens. It is crucial, both inside and outside of the yoga studio, to use a language that includes trans bodies.
Through my engagement with yoga philosophy, I’ve also come to understand an identity as a story, a construction of the mind that solidifies who I am. I am trans, and you are not trans. In between us is a barrier, an obstacle, a wall of separation and self-defense that my mind creates. We are in opposition.
After hunkering down through many yoga anatomy discussions, the fantasy tantrums in my mind and the squawking of my angry, whiny thoughts became tiresome. I decided to try something new and old. I focused on my breath. I put my attention on the sensations inside of my body. I revisited all that I had learned, loved and needed when I first started practicing yoga, when it carried me through my gender transition.
As the arguments in my head, the battle against my opponents subsided, I began to speak up in group settings or to individuals later. In these discussions, which I still have, I do my best to explain the concept of gender-neutral language. There is always a way to talk about anatomy without tying body parts, internal organs or processes to a gender.
The practice of yoga continues to serve my trans experience by offering me an opportunity to find breath and space around my stories of who I am, my mental constructions, my identity. Time and again, yoga shows me that underneath my ideas and mind-chatter lives intuition, the root of my actions and activism and my power to make true positive change in myself and in the world.
Nick Krieger is the author of the memoir 'Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender,' recipient of a Stonewall Honor Book Award.