It Depends: Musings on the Paradox of Life by a Mixed-Race Yogi
by Rocky Heron
We live in divided times. It is not uncommon for people to ask one another early in a relationship where they stand on particular issues, perspectives, and beliefs. Online algorithms show us content that aligns with user perspectives, and our world becomes increasingly separated into distinct groups that are organized around similar interests rather that contrasting ideas. As a bit of an astrology nerd, the Virgo in me appreciates the organization that comes from labeling and sorting life into neat piles, but my better judgment recognizes the danger of separating based on differences—while failing to unify based on commonalities.
I am a mixed-race individual. My mother is white and from California, and my father is black, from Jamaica. A further dive into my ancestry just this last year revealed that my mother is mostly Scandinavian and British, and my father Nigerian and Ghanaian. While I find it interesting to tease apart and study the parts of who I am, ultimately I am the unique amalgam of all of them rolled into one. Yet all my life I have been asked the frustrating yet somewhat understandable question: Do I feel more black or white?
The answer I’ve arrived at? It depends.
When I was nine years old my mother and I moved to a rather rural, primarily white part of California. Having lived previously in a somewhat culturally diverse part of the Bay Area, my ethnicity had never been a point of intrigue or confusion. Yet I remember being asked by a boy in my fourth-grade class shortly after we moved how my skin was so tan and if I had to perm my hair to make it curly. Apparently he had never before met someone with my mix and he had no context for what he was seeing. So while my years spent in this town were mostly positive, I most certainly did not feel white. And as there were not many other people of color living nearby, for all intents and purposes, I was black, and thought of myself as such.
Cut to my early 20s where I spent several years living in both Southern California and Manhattan. I lived in South Central L.A. and Harlem for one year each, neighborhoods that represented the other side of the cultural spectrum in which I was raised. While I seemed to blend in more in my appearance, I was often accused of “code switching,” a term used to describe alternating speech patterns in order to identify with different social groups. In other words, the black folks thought I sounded white, and the white folks saw me as black. I realized later on that this fluctuation in speech pattern did not mean that I saw myself as one race or the other depending on who I was with or where I was. Rather it was a paradox unique to the experience of being both black and white—that is, of mixed race.
I love a deep dive. I am endlessly fascinated by the art of diving deeper into the infinitesimal layers that contribute to the whole. I’m a singer and recording artist, and the richness of the harmonies I seek to create require me to isolate each vocal track and layer of instrumentation so that I can blend them to perfection. As I grow in my musicianship in all areas—vocally, lyrically, in production, and on various instruments—the songs I write reflect my increased ability to pay attention to these details.
Since learning more about my ancestry, it has likewise been interesting to discover further details about the cultural layers that contribute to the whole of who I am. Being from America, I recognize that I have been largely ignorant of my African and European roots, beyond the experience of being just “white” and/or “black” in the United States.
For example, as a black man, my cultural history extends well beyond just the history of slavery in this country. I have spent a fair amount of time teaching in Berlin over the last few years, and have met many people who relocated there from Nigeria, Ghana, Scandinavia, and Britain. The conversations I’ve had with them have helped me develop a deeper understanding of the ancestral forces that contribute to the man that I am. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, I am fascinated to see how my appearance is a clear amalgam of distinct features unique to those regions of the world.
I am mixed in every sense and appreciating each ingredient has led to a fuller appreciation of how they have blended to become Rocky. I have likewise found in my teaching that years of exploration in seemingly contrasting styles of practice, pedagogy, and even philosophical consideration has ultimately led to a deeper appreciation of who I am as the unique synthesizer of my many influences. I find the paradox of dissection and assimilation to be a beautiful coupling that makes life and knowledge both infinitesimal and infinite in its evolution.
“It Depends” in Yoga
I have been teaching yoga for the last 13 years and the majority of my work is now focused in the areas of continuing education for yoga and movement teachers. I am fortunate to travel the world and lead training programs and workshops for dedicated students and teachers, and I often encounter well-meaning yet somewhat reductive questions about yoga asana, teaching pedagogy, and philosophy. In what has become an increasingly standard response to questions regarding the “right” way to do a pose, the “best” way to offer an instruction, or the “correct” perspective on the interpretation of a text, I often find myself answering in the same way I would regarding my race affiliation: It depends.
The answer may not lead to the neat and tidy satisfaction of the student, but it is one that usually leads to further questions, the need for some contextual consideration, and hopefully the synthesizing of seemingly opposing viewpoints. Welcome to yoga. Welcome to life!
Let’s take, for example, the question of proper alignment of the shoulder girdle in overhead flexion and upward scapular rotation (as is the case when you reach your arms up in postures like handstand, down dog, and tree pose). Is it appropriate to pull your shoulder blades “away from your ears” (scapular depression), or is it better to let your shoulder blades lift (scapular elevation)? As a younger yogi I would have answered yes to the former instruction; after more years of experience I would have made a case for the latter scenario; and the teacher I am today would answer…you guessed it: It depends! On what, you may ask? It depends on why you are lifting your arms over your head in the first place!
All too often we put ourselves in poses and positions, assuming there’s some magic in the shape that we will unlock by doing it “correctly.” From the perspective of functional movement, we derive more benefit from postures when we take a more adaptable approach—not limiting ourselves to a “one-size-fits-all” model, but recognizing the diverse ways in which our body can and must move if we are to maintain our resilience and mobility. Asking how I should organize my body in a particular pose without considering the context or intention is bound to produce a reductive answer. So let’s look at how, once again, it depends.
All too often we put ourselves in poses and positions, assuming there’s some magic in the shape that we will unlock by doing it “correctly.”
If my arms were over my head and I was pushing the floor away from me (as in a handstand), it would make sense to recruit the musculature needed to push in this position. My shoulder blades would elevate in relation to my thorax as my torso rebounds further away from the floor. If my arms were overhead and I was grabbing a bar and pulling myself up, the opposing movement in my shoulder blades (scapular depression) would occur relative to the starting position. But if I were hanging and not actively pulling, again, my shoulder blades would elevate in relation to my trunk! Neither is better, neither is worse, and even up or down are somewhat linear terms that don’t take into account the rounded shape of our bones and the notion of relative positioning. Our ability to do all of the above makes us resilient and adaptable movers.
So arms overhead without the context of what they’re doing up there in the first place doesn’t give us enough information to decide how to organize our joints. Depending on our intentions, one option may be better and more sustainable than the other. Further, if you have shoulder blades that can only depress, but which never practice elevating, they lack diversity in their mobility and strength.
Isolating individual parts that make up the whole—naming them, studying them, and creating distinctions around their unique functions—reflects our human tendency to categorize into discrete units what we see and experience. This is the very definition of anatomy (from the Greek word anatome meaning “I cut open”). While this is incredibly useful in making sense of the complexity of the whole body and spectrum of possible movements, all too often this method causes a compartmentalization of the systems of the body and creates vast misconceptions regarding the way in which we work as a harmonious whole self to move, breathe, and live.
It is helpful to name things so that we have shared reference points. But in the naming of something it becomes clearly this and not that, black and not white, and our perspectives run the risk of reducing rather than expanding. Again, I am not making the case that we abandon this model of study, but rather that we study our parts in order that we may better understand our complete, whole selves.
In the conversation on yoga philosophy, we can also find innumerable examples of paradox. The principal aim of classical yoga suggests that samadhi, the yoked state of equanimity between our individualized consciousness and the expanded awareness of our soul, is achieved through kaivalya, our ability to isolate our awareness of the material world (prakriti) from the realm of our eternal spirit (purusha). It is in this isolation and distinction that we can cease confusing who we think we are with who we really are.
In fact, Samkhya philosophy, which provides the metaphysical model that informs classical yoga, is characterized by separating reality into smaller and smaller parts (tattvas) for the purpose of identifying and understanding further the pieces that contribute to the whole. This all contributes to the dualistic predicament that classical yoga seeks to remedy: that there is a twin-principled reality of both matter and spirit, matter is the problem, spirit the goal, and in order to merge with spirit, I must first isolate and understand the parts.
I am neither making a case for or against dualistic philosophies, but merely making the point that even yoga itself is full of invitations to create separation for the ultimate aim of unity.
So what’s the point in all this? Do I have a neat and tidy summary for how this all contributes to the larger context of our life and practice? No, not really. But it is my hope that we all continue to ask questions not for the purpose of landing on solid answers, but to refine the questions themselves. When the questions end so does our capacity to evolve in our understanding. Let’s catch ourselves before classifying something as black or white so that we can study the paradox and the contexts upon which “it depends.” Perhaps then we can all more skillfully blend our individual perspectives into a more unified, diverse, and brilliant collective community.
I now take great comfort in questions with vague answers, journeys with many paths, and contradictory viewpoints on similar subjects.
I spent many years trying to come to conclusions about who I am, what I want, and what I believe. Every answer, while initially clarifying, only led to more confusion as I learned how multifaceted and dynamic life is—and I truly am. I now take great comfort in questions with vague answers, journeys with many paths, and contradictory viewpoints on similar subjects. I am not this or that, I am both. I am Rocky, and I am a part of all that is…or is not…it depends on how you look at it.
Photography: Andrea Killam