Yoga: The Sanskrit word for “Union.” In the West, often meant to imply the union of body, mind and spirit to become a whole person.
It happened on November 29, 2016. On this day, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump, I had an anxiety attack. It had been three long weeks of hoping each morning I could wake up in a different reality. Three weeks of wishing it was all a terrible mistake. Three weeks before my body realized and reacted to the truth that, terrible mistake or not, there was no portal to an alternate reality.
When it happened, I was in my warm, cozy office in the middle of the afternoon, surrounded by windows letting the sunshine stream through. None of this comforted me. During the attack, which lasted maybe 30 minutes, wave after wave of cold fear zipped up my spine. I alternated between nausea, sweating and for some reason, swallowing. Blood drained from my face. My chest tightened. I did not cry or scream out; I had no ability to do either.
When my teenage daughters came home from school an hour or so later, I didn’t have the strength to fake it and brightly ask, “How was your day?” For in their eyes, I saw hopes for a future I no longer believed they would get to realize. I didn’t want to scare them unnecessarily. Nor did I wish to burden them with my scary visions — armed police marching down city streets, State-run media, concentration camps filled with who-knows-who (even I didn’t picture migrant children). So, I closed my office door.
My husband, who had tried and failed to comfort me for months leading up to Election Night, was growing frustrated. He still believed (naively, I told him with a bite) that Donald Trump would respect the office of the presidency and uphold the institutions that define our democracy. Like many, he believed Trump would pivot into a president we could, if not respect, at least tolerate. He suggested I “just stop worrying,” which, as anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows, never works.
A friend of mine reached out — not to discuss the state of our country, but to ask for advice on dance mom problems. I put her off. It seemed trivial. Everything seemed trivial. I couldn’t imagine planning for the holidays, enjoying a funny movie or making dinner later that night.
I didn’t believe I had enough wisdom, gentleness or courage to navigate the coming years. The fear of witnessing the violent destruction of Earth and America as we know it — which was what Donald Trump’s election represented to me — was beyond my ability to accept. I desperately wanted to believe that things would be okay, but most of what I read only verified my fears. I saw no hope. I felt only dread. I had no traction to move forward and for a moment, lost my desire to be on a planet with others — many of them my loved ones — who believed that Trump, who creates and spreads both conspiracy theories and hate speech, was the leader they wanted for America.
My emotional state was not because a woman lost her bid for the presidency, but because I believed women as a whole lost their momentum for autonomy and equality. It wasn’t that I feared for the life of our planet, but that I feared for life on our planet. And it wasn’t that I thought I was better than this, but that I believed we were. And yet, nearly 63 million Americans voted for a man who had admitted sexual assault, who did not believe in science or climate change, and who bullied, cheated, grandstanded and lied as a way of life. Incredulity froze me into time and place. I didn’t know how I could break that ice, but I knew I needed to.
An Activist’s Spirit
I am very lucky that in my life, I am surrounded by wisdom. I have spent most of my adulthood studying and teaching self-care and personal growth — from yoga to meditation to alternative healthcare. I have at my fingertips dozens of books that have guided me through difficult times.
Logically, it was to my books and teachers that I turned to first for help. I assumed that authors like Pema Chödrön, who wrote the book When Things Fall Apart, would say something wise about America’s imminent falling apart. But she did not.
I thought maybe Joan Borysenko, who authored the book It’s not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change, would write to assure us that even the mob-like takeover of the American government was not, surely, the end of the world. But she, too, was silent.
One by one, all the people and energies that I had for years tapped into for healing on personal matters hid behind pretty façades of podcasts, new books and retreats when it came to the looming global disaster called Donald Trump.
A fire of anger sparked within my body, cracking the icy fear that had incapacitated me. This was my turning point.
How could they? I thought. How could any teacher of universal love and ethical living turn their back now, instead of standing up for morality and common decency? How could they wrap themselves in privilege and withdraw? How could they pray for peace passively, without taking a single active step to ensure it?
Theoretically, I could’ve followed my spiritual teachers into a safe, silent space. The idea did tempt. My name may be somewhere on the long enemies list, but I was not up first: I am a straight white woman living in a safe neighborhood, married to a white man working in the white-collar world. But I believe yoga’s philosophy when it says that we are all one, and that what happens to one happens to all. There is no “them” and “us” in the yogic view of the world. I couldn’t understand why the people who taught me this didn’t seem to remember. I felt betrayed and abandoned. In order to remain aligned with my spiritual beliefs, I departed from my spiritual teachers.
Looking back, it’s almost funny that I was able to feel anger toward my spiritual teachers before I could understand that the actions and words of the Trump administration were the true object of my anger. But this is something I’ve learned about the energy of anger: until it’s properly acknowledged, understood and harnessed, we often direct it at people who are closer or safer in some way.
I already knew that to deny or misdirect my anger would stifle my creativity and joy. It would infect my relationships. It would consume my life. I knew these things, because that stifled, relationship-infected and anger-denying place was why I had entered the yoga world in the first place nearly two decades ago. So, while my decision to get politically active certainly emerged out of a sense of moral and even patriotic duty, it also emerged out of a need for self-preservation.
I first considered taking part in the actions that typically fall under the heading of activism — group marches and protests, or attending and speaking out at Town Halls. I considered volunteering on a campaign, canvassing neighborhoods, or making phone calls. But the body that produced my anxiety attack is also a body that produces low-grade social anxiety. These things are not for me. Plus, even if organized group protests like the Women’s March or March for our Lives suited my constitution, I can’t wait around patiently for a circled future date on my calendar. Because when I read, for example, that the federal deficit for 2018 was projected to approach $1,000,000,000,000 (I think we need to see those zeros, rather than writing $1 trillion) I need to speak out right away. I can’t memorize and follow pre-written scripts, because when I watch our president employ economic steroidal tactics normally used while already in a recession, that’s the only topic I want to talk about. I needed something wholly independent of dates, timelines and scripts — something that emerged from within me.
An Introvert’s Mind
I’ve always been a good learner. Reading and writing have long been staples of my life. Though I mostly read fiction, and my learning and writing centered around self-care or philosophical musings, I figured applying my natural abilities to the political world seemed about as good a place to start as any.
With the afternoon hours to myself while my children were at school and my husband was at work, I began my self-directed political education. I started by watching and reading about politics and the people who make up the political world. I subscribed to online newsletters. I followed journalists and politicians on social media from both sides of the political spectrum. I got to know the TV personalities on news networks so well that I was soon addressing them from my couch on a first-name basis.
And more. I signed up for online courses in journalistic ethics. I studied the importance of the fourth estate (journalism). I learned how to identify propaganda to ensure I wasn’t buying or spreading it. (For instance, if a story is shared by an unknown source or individual, it should not be treated with the authority of The Washington Post.) I’d spent many years attending to the food I gave my body, and now it was time to be mindful of what information I gave my mind.
And then, I began to write.
For the health of my body and mind, it might have been enough to stop there. I could’ve even burned the pages afterward. But through the lens of activism, it mattered that other people read my words and had the chance to respond. Before my anxiety attack, this exposure would’ve been an impossibility. But the attack had given me an existential experience which, in turn, provided me with the courage and the call to do the impossible. So, after I finished writing my first political article in January 2017, I clicked “Share.”
Some friends and followers of my pages, even most, were silent (or maybe quietly unfriended me). Others thanked me with a like or a comment. But soon, what I feared would happen happened: negative comments. “I followed you for your yoga advice, Keri, not your political opinion.” “I do not agree with your liberal train of thought nor do I appreciate it being sent to me.” It ached to know I’d disappointed people by not “staying in my lane” as a spiritual teacher was apparently expected to do. It never again manifested as a viable option for me, but I began to better understand why my spiritual teachers chose silence.
I decided that when I felt the need to respond to criticism from friends or strangers, I would respond from the same place from which I wrote: mindfulness. I wanted to remain as heart-centered as if I were leading an opening meditation or guiding students into Downward Facing Dog. So I stayed engaged as long as a conversation moved forward (instead of descending into what-abouts, meme wars or insults). This process, while uncomfortable, was rewarding and educational. Engaging on social media isn’t easy, but it has never been as bad, nor as hard, as I feared. I’ve even made friends across the aisle, had challenging but fruitful conversations with family members, and sought to better understand other viewpoints.
I wrote and published and shared and engaged and began again. I wrote about Trump’s tweets, but more specifically, I pointed out the danger of weaponizing words to stoke fear, hatred and division. I wrote arguments against the Republican proposed health care and tax plans focusing on access for all and fairness respectively. I wrote a warning and a call for hope after the marching of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. I linked George Orwell’s 1984, a book which warns of a post-truth society, with Trump’s ability to lie effortlessly about anything from crowd sizes to Middle Easterners infiltrating the caravan of migrants hoping for asylum.
But I don’t only share pieces I’ve written. Each day, I scope out the landscape and share one or two pieces that I believe helpful for furthering dialogue and invoking curiosity and thoughtfulness. After all my studying, I’m now well-equipped to read and scan other articles for accuracy and intention.
In-depth political articles and posts often receive few responses on social media as compared to family photos, funny memes or status updates. But I’ve learned that doesn’t mean no one is reading them. A neighbor once mentioned my posts, and quietly encouraged me to keep doing it. A friend said her job required she not be seen as having a political bias, but wanted to assure me that she enjoyed what I shared. It’s nice to hear how my work — and I do consider it my part-time work — helps others sort through the noise, or perhaps not feel so alone. What I had initially hoped my spiritual teachers would do for me I am instead doing for myself and others. It is a mark of growth when the student becomes the teacher.
A Whole Person
Many of the things I feared in the wake of the 2016 election have come to pass in one form or another over the two-plus years of this presidency. No one, let alone Donald Trump, has pivoted. I am as distraught and outraged by the daily news as I ever was. Democracies don’t die overnight, they perish gradually. We are witnessing the signs, and in some respects, the siren calls. I still don’t know if we, as a country, are going to be okay.
But I think that I will.
While I still experience the occasional rush of fear, I have suffered no more anxiety attacks. I enjoy preparing dinner again, and I look forward to planning for the holidays. I no longer need to close my office door on my daughters, for we have found ways to talk about our fears and our futures. Rather than turning to my husband as a sole source of comfort, he seeks me out when he wants my perspective on the day’s events. He’s learned to trust my gut. I have, too. It turns out that I do have the wisdom, gentleness and courage to navigate this new world.
Over the years, I’ve tried dozens of styles of yoga. So far this political yoga, which joins together and honors my anxious body, my introverted mind and my activist spirit into a blended expression of truth and activism, is the most authentic form of yoga I’ve ever discovered.