Yoga, Resilience and Learning Self-Care by Marie Cartier

All Photos by Kimberly Esslinger

It is spring and it is warm in California. I haven’t been exercising over the winter because it has been extremely cold for California. I had the bug everyone else had. But, now I am back, and we have just experienced Spring Equinox on March 21st, 2019.

And I am headed back to yoga classes.

Why did I start doing yoga? It’s a good question, since I started as a senior in high school, which would have been 1973. I was a lower middle class kid who had very few resources. I was also from an abusive family, where I was responsible for taking care of my younger five brothers and sisters. This meant I almost always had to come home from school and start peeling potatoes, getting dinner ready for when my father would walk through the door—and hopefully be in a good mood.

I learned to not be around when he walked in that door, because he would take out his anger on whoever was first in his path. I remember thinking this was very smart on my part, and also feeling guilty that I hadn’t imparted this to the other kids. Someone had to be in his path when he got home, and I didn’t want it to be me. I still feel guilty about that—even though as the oldest I was punished physically by him more than the others.

Trigger warning for the next paragraph only:

For instance, one time I remember, there was a dish left in the sink. I had finished the dishes but one got put there after the dishes were done. He dragged me into the kitchen by my ear, smashed my head into the counter and yelled at me about being stupid and didn’t I know I was supposed to do the dishes? I’m not sure what he “thought.” Was I supposed to sit in the kitchen and watch the sink to make sure no one put a dish there? I’m sure; he did not think about it. I’m sure he just needed to vent—and I was in the path. And that’s how he did it that day.

This is the only example I’ll give. It suffices to validate the “extremely abusive” environment I talked about earlier.

Back to yoga.

I remember being in high school- and there was a yoga class offered in the gym. Why? I don’t have any idea now, but what I do know is that the teacher was an older woman doing yoga in New Hampshire in the mid 70’s. This in and of itself was revelatory. My mother did not work outside the home. A home of six children: what if the Catholic Church had been more– understanding? Honest about women’s lives? Cared about women’s freedom and autonomy? She would not have had. But– which in fact she did have. And after, she went somewhat quietly into a life of depression and living in an upstairs bedroom.

I was left to care for them.

So, an older woman working outside the home always intrigued me–I know why now. And a woman exercising in this meditative way? I had never encountered it. I signed up after that first gym class for a longer class—a class that would meet in the junior high for several weeks following that high school introductory class.

I don’t remember a lot about that first night. What I do remember very well is attending and feeling so much love for myself for attending. I felt like– I can manage. I went into what I would call now, a deep meditative state. The woman had lit candles. She wore a complete black leotard set, top and bottom and sat cross legged on the floor in front of us. We meditated, we moved, I felt so strong in who I was that day. Somehow I sensed that I would survive my childhood.

My father was a frustrated artist, with a Catholic wife, and six kids, and an accounting job that he hated by all accounts.

He also was an alcoholic, also a rage-aholic, and a sexual abuser. I was the oldest valiantly trying to protect the children who were younger than me, which was all of them.

However, there was no one between my parents and myself.

What can I say about learning yoga?

Let me start with a vivid memory I have of coming home from that first class. I was maybe seventeen and I thought to myself after that first class–I can take care of me. I can take care of me, too. Because it was all about me taking care of others up until then. And while, I had probably thought this thought before, after that first yoga class, it was really clear.  I thought:  I deserve this too. Care.

I decided to make liver by myself when I came home. I, by myself and for myself, fried liver, which at that time, in that place seemed like the epitome of health. My mother bought it for our family occasionally and meat was a luxury in a working class home. I fried liver and I sat at the table and ate it with salt, by itself. With every bite I thought, yes, I will survive. I can take care of myself. I will make it.

I don’t remember being punished for eating it by myself, but I could have been. And I don’t remember doing it again in my house—cooking for myself. But, I could have. But that day, I took the liver that was there, and ate it by myself. And it was because of going to a yoga class.

To this day, when I need comfort food, I go to a diner and order liver. Strangely I rarely make it at home, but it is my go-to comfort food, and it still does make me feel like I am taking care of myself.

I felt so strong eating that liver.

And so, of course, I went back to yoga.

The teacher had a short pixie cut of what today I would call hennaed hair, but I don’t think I knew that it was henna back then, but I did know her red hair glowed in the candles she lit. And her black leotards on an older woman’s body made me feel all things were possible. Just to wear a leotard like that and move like that.

The exercises, or poses, as I now call them? I remember loving shoulder stand and I started doing exercises randomly in my life. When watching television I was in a shoulder stand—today I would think—oh my God my neck! But my seventeen year old body and I don’t think knew the difference.

But, maybe I was in a plough, or a cycling pose. Today I think, yes, you must have been in a cycling pose.

In any case, I was in some kind of inversion and my father remarked, “You will live forever doing stuff like that.”

Even in my mind, I thought something along the lines of, if I survive this childhood, I will live.

For years and years, ever since I could remember, after a particularly horrible incident I would go to my room and chant to myself, you just need to grow up.

Yoga was one thing I saw myself growing up into. I would do yoga. I would be an old woman doing yoga.

And at sixty-three, so I am.

When I was on an exchange program from New Hampshire to California and I felt lost—I found my first real friends in California in an outside of school (again!) yoga class.

I have done yoga throughout my life. When I was severely injured in karate, getting my black belt, I had to stop training and I did yoga for a year before going back to the dojo.

When I graduated from my doctoral program and felt lost not getting tenure or job interviews, I went into a yoga training program and got certified with a 500 hour program in Hatha Yoga.

My specialties?

I created chakra yoga sequences and yoga for elders for my 200-hour certification, and using yoga to help you sleep for my 500-hour.

May all beings be blessed.  May all beings be blessed.  May all beings be blessed.

I don’t know who that woman was, that first yoga teacher of mine, or what her name was.  But I bless her this Spring Equinox, for giving me the gift of self-care. May I always have it and help others to receive it.



Marie Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.  She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine.

Categories: abuse, Body, Domestic Violence, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, yoga

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38 replies

  1. Nice share


  2. Blessed be your yoga teacher and whoever else helped you survive abuse! Love.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for this beautiful post, Marie. I too found yoga in the early 1970s, and it gave me my first experience of peace and self-acceptance. Since then, it has been a continuing source of sustenance, a stable point in a world of flux. I am deeply grateful to the teachings and all the teachers. And what your story demonstrates is how we never know who will be transformed by what we do; how important it is that we embody and pass on what we have learned. Namaste.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blessings to you and your first teacher. Blessings to you for surviving. Blessings to you for the holy work you’ve done and the holy work you do. Blessings on your transformations from a frightened girl to a courageous woman. (But you’re not old.)

    We both live in Long Beach, but you live further inland than I do. I don’t think it’s very warm, but maybe compared to New Hampshire, 50 degrees is tropical. The photos look like a summer day. Enjoy!


  5. What an inspiring post – I am struck by the power of your body to let you know that you could take care of yourself when you were still an adolescent, and how this body has led you through life up until this point. I am awed and grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Yoga was one thing I saw myself growing up into. I would do yoga. I would be an old woman doing yoga.

    And at sixty-three, so I am.”

    I LOVE this statement! It speaks to me of strength, contentment, eating all the liver. Makes me want to jump in the air and shout “Yea!”

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you Marie, wise womyn….Thank you.


  8. I too was very moved by your post, Marie. Thank you for these glimpses of both a difficult life and of a young woman claiming, I CAN take care of myself and I must. I am happy to share this post as I know that our STORIES make a difference in the world. This is a very powerful life story, YOURS and the teacher who inspired you. My dance and yoga teacher will hear an echo of the work she has done for many women as well. I hope those new to teaching yoga will see how powerful a calling it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “May all beings be blessed. May all beings be blessed. May all beings be blessed.” — Thanks, Marie, yes, thank you, thank you, yes!


  10. Beautiful post, Marie! You didn’t just survive abuse, you found self-care in that first yoga class at 17! That’s totally amazing! As women in patriarchy, we all need to find our self-care wherever we can. May the blessings of caring for ourselves, the peace it gives us, and the insights that come from breathing deeply and well alight on all women as we change our culture into one worthy of our love and care.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is beautiful and sad and made me cry for your gorgeous, vulnerable and strong young life. Thank you for sharing. Everything you do always inspires me. I’m glad you found and love yoga, and I’m glad that woman could be your salvation for that time. And the liver. Food and women have often been mine as well.


  12. Wow! Powerful


  13. Beautiful Marie, You have such a loving, strong nature. YES YES to self-care. You rock it! We are the same age with a similar background at least as it pertains to abuse. (And for that I am not so sure I would call you an “old woman” LOL) You are a beacon of light. Brava, brava!


  14. A very interesting and heartfelt read. Abuse is tough it molds who we are and permeates into everything we do throughout life. Kudos to you for being a survivor and coming out on top

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow such an inspiring journey. I’m glad you found a way to reflect your father’s behavior to finding love for yourself. Very powerful post!


  16. A beautiful post-what a gift yoga has given to you and now you pass that on to others!


  17. Sooooo amazing♥️♥️♥️


  18. Marie, Was just reading something that made me think of you and, therefore, googled you. This came up. It is lovely. I am glad that way back then in that little town you were exposed to yoga and that it has helped you throughout your life. I think of you and hope all is going well in your life.


    • this is such a wonderful comment and beautiful sentiment. joan,how very very nice to hear from you! i always looked up to you growing were a model of a woman i was hoping to grow into :) i hope all things are fabulous in your world.


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