I often think back to my first yoga class.
Not the one ten years ago, when I fixated on the clock and kicked my mat into a roll at the end, but the one three years ago. I had just broken up with my girlfriend and was saying “yes” to any and all invitations, from softball to spin to yoga.
Everything resonated with me that day: a calm mind, the new space inside my body, the laughter and sweat, the opportunity to offer it all away, and the community, the sangha, uniting our voices in the ancient chant, Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free.
Simplistic as this was, yoga held the promise of something radical, an unlearning, a remembering, a dismantling of all that we’d constructed about ourselves and our world. Impelled by curiosity and inklings of sensations that existed beyond words, I returned to the studio again and again.
Within six months I came out as transgender. This is no coincidence. It makes sense to me that when I finally stopped distracting myself, actually learned to be still on my mat, truth emerged. Satya.
This was not some great truth that I had been “Born in the Wrong Body,” not some horrible mistake, nor was it a mental illness, although Gender Identity Disorder was diagnosed. My progression toward understanding myself was gradual. As I greeted my fears, disintegrated them through the breath, a deep sense of knowing revealed itself.
I took each step—changing my name from “Nina” to “Nick,” pursuing chest reconstruction surgery, and eventually starting testosterone hormones—without a desired or calculated end point. I did not see myself as moving from one pole to the other, or as becoming a man, although that is the gender that others perceive me to be now.
I perceive myself to be transgender. My body is queer. An amalgam of parts. An embodiment of transformation. My identity is queer, fixed only in that it moves, in its fluidity. I am trans-gender in its most literal sense. I cross gender, back and forth, from moment to moment. I co-exist as man and woman. In union. Yoga. And yet, it is in this community space that the middle ground of gender is often ignored.
Every time I sign up for a yoga retreat, the boxes on the application form accost me: male or female. It doesn’t have to be this way. Offering the box “other” is a great addition. Another alternative is the phrase “your gender” followed by an open field.
Inside the yoga studio, teachers use language to separate people by gender. They address men with adjustment instructions to avoid crushing their crotches and women with instructions to avoid crushing their chests. There is no need to tie body parts to gender. These very same instructions can be delivered in a gender-neutral way: some of you will need to adjust… We all know where our flesh is, regardless of whether we are women or men or other.
For most people, those who do not panic at male/female boxes on forms or public restroom signs, or who have “normal” anatomy, or who laugh at “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” jokes, the idea of a binary gender system makes functional organizational sense. It works.
But it is only a story, built on the credence of science. The idea that there are two sexes male and female which correlate directly with two genders is a collective construction, no different from the “I” of my own individual construction. Both are creations of the ego, tools for separation. In yoga, we practice letting go of our own stories of “I am this” and “I am that,” but what if we also tried letting go of the collective story of “we are this” and “you are that”?
Yoga is queer in its notion of time. To be truly present, even for a second, without past or future hovering, to connect in to the cosmic oneness, is to subvert all that seems permanent, and the most formidable institution of false permanence is gender. When we segment ourselves into two gender camps, we are only reinforcing the separation we attempt to dissolve on the mat.
As I continue on my yoga path, I search for ways to express and understand non-duality without responding to duality. We seem to hold black in one hand and white in the other hand, interlocking the fingers in union and hoping to know grey. But all we end up with is a mix of black and white. The grey is there, in bodies and in genders. Recognizing this would be a revolution in consciousness.
At one studio I visit, there is a sign on the bathroom door that says, “Boys… and Girls and Everyone In Between.” In this very statement is the promise I’ve been seeking since my first yoga class, my hope for a community that includes all people, and the possibility of all that is truly radical.
Nick Krieger is the author of the recently released memoir Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender, which explores the beginning of his yoga path, and, well, gender. A native of New York, Krieger realized at the age of 21 that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. He aspires to be a stay-at-home dad (with or without kids), and spends his time practicing yoga, eating cereal, and queering all that he can.