Practicing yoga is like going on a date with yourself, a yogi once told me. I consider these words of wisdom as I lie on my back and wrap my arms around my knees, giving myself a hug at Queer and Trans Yoga, a weekly class happening Fridays at Chi-Town Shakti in Edgewater. It’s not all touchy-feely. Even in this beginner-level class you can pump strength through your limbs and gaze forcefully into the future like a warrior. It’s an empowering stance.
Yoga rhetoric seems ready-made for bodies and identities in flux. Open your heart. Soften your tongue. Turn your gaze inward. And shape-shifting is a prerogative in yoga. You can become, momentarily, like a cat, a cow, a cobra, a tree, an eagle—and it feels, well, transformative. Yoga follows the maxim that our bodies are constantly in a state of change, so yoga for queer and trans-identified people motivates its practitioners to grow, adjust and reshape the self, mirroring the fluidity of personal identity, too. Instructor Kristen Eithier, 27, began studying yoga several years ago at home. “I didn’t feel comfortable with my body in commercialized spaces,” she says of places like the gym. “I was a fat yogi, and it was difficult to be in my body there.”
After earning her certification from Chi-Town Shakti, Eithier asked friends in the neighborhood what sort of specialized yoga class they desired to attend, and Queer and Trans Yoga was born, as was EveryBODY, a “fat positive” class. Each session is capped at just seven people in the quiet, intimate studio on West Devon Avenue. Although the LGBT and queer presence was already strong in Edgewater, and many of Chi-Town Shakti’s clients identify as queer or trans, Eithier’s classes have solidified the studio’s commitment to the community’s needs.
“Yogis in love is lovely to me,” says Eithier, but Queer and Trans Yoga isn’t exactly a place to cruise for hookups; it’s more about practicing loving one’s self. If Eithier can facilitate a union, she prefers it be between mind and body. “Yoga is not about how hot your butt is,” she says. “It’s how connected you are inside, how you can work to enjoy being inside yourself.” Chi-Town Shakti follows a school of yoga called Shambhava, which encourages practitioners to lead with the heart—physically, in poses, and metaphorically, with gratitude and compassion for oneself and others.
At the outset Eithier asked herself, Are we going to make people funnel into a queer space? Is an identity-specific class ghettoizing? “Our bodies are places of scrutiny in mainstream culture,” but this is a “very intentional class,” says Eithier, whose demeanor is knowledgeable, welcoming and warm. Eithier is also a doula and a graduate student in sociology, researching the stigma teen mothers face. She’s also trying to bring yoga to women in Cook County jails as a form of recovery.
During poses, Eithier reminds practitioners how “fierce” they look, and she often emphasizes the community bond of class participants. In some ways yoga is like group therapy; participants share a practice in a safe and supportive environment. When you “draw upon each other’s efforts and energies,” says Eithier, “you learn a lot about yourself.”
As I perform the flowing, expansive yoga poses and push my breath through my limbs and organs, I cultivate an unusual sensation inside my body. It’s as if there’s a wick that rises through my stomach, heart and throat from my pelvis, and yoga ignites it, illuminating the dark spaces within. The feeling is nearly orgasmic but not at all sexual. Although I’m a yoga novice, perhaps this is what they call prana, the vital life force. It hits much stronger than a gin and tonic on the dance floor.
Queer and Trans Yoga happens Friday 22 and Friday 1 at Chi-Town Shakti.