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What She Said

Beaten down by the resistance? Activists turn to yoga for sustenance in the age of Trump

Lizzy Handschy held a position in Yoga for Sustainable Activism. “If you . . . aren’t stopping and pausing and practicing self-care, you will burn out,’’ said instructor Katie Beane.
Lizzy Handschy held a position in Yoga for Sustainable Activism. “If you . . . aren’t stopping and pausing and practicing self-care, you will burn out,’’ said instructor Katie Beane.(Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe)

PORTLAND, Maine — For liberal activists, it has been a punishing two years of protest, waging battles over health care, tax breaks, family separation, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Resistance, it turns out, is exhausting.

“People are getting burnt out,” said Marie Follayttar, a Portland artist who founded an activist group called Mainers for Accountable Leadership after the 2016 election.

If liberals are feeling increasingly beaten down by the never-ending demands of activism in the age of Trump, then perhaps no one is more dispirited than Maine activists, who for two years have been on the front lines of the nation’s most heated fights.

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They tried, and often failed, to sway their US Senator Susan Collins, a swingable Republican, their way on issues from the fate of the Affordable Care Act to the tilt of the Supreme Court.

After losing an emotional round over the confirmation of Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault, some had nowhere to go with their frustration and resentment, or the memories they had unearthed of the violence in their own pasts.

“The mood was already grieving. People were already raw,” Follayttar said.

Achy, angry, and in dire need of self-care, they decided to take some time for themselves to learn to shake the weight of the world off their shoulders.

They’ve turned to yoga.

A series of classes, called Yoga for Sustainable Activism, is being provided free to activists at Portland Community Squash through several donors and Sea Change Yoga, a Portland organization that provides trauma-informed yoga to people who might not otherwise get to indulge in self-care. (Think of those in prisons, recovery centers, group homes.)

“What do we do with the fact that social justice never ends?” instructor Katie Beane asked 10 activists assembled on yoga mats on a recent Monday evening. “There are always folks who are marginalized and always people who need our help or need support. It can be really overwhelming.”

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Kim Simmons, a sociologist who teaches in the women and gender studies program at the University of Southern Maine, planned the yoga curriculum in anticipation of Trumpian burnout. When she wrote her dissertation about coalition-building, she recalled, everyone she interviewed wanted to talk about “the pain of in-fighting.”

“As we entered the postelection-2016 era, I noticed my students were especially run ragged, worried, angry, hurting,” Simmons said. “Similarly, as I reentered more activist spaces, I noticed my own fatigue and guardedness.”

So she, Follayttar, and Beane built a class for sustenance, which looks much like any other mild yoga class, though it begins with a poem — on this night, Marge Piercy’s “To Be Of Use” — and ends with a discussion about organizing.

Admittedly, there may be nothing that sounds as self-indulgent as “self-care.” When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced she was taking time for it before being sworn into Congress, she was roundly mocked for needing a break. It sounds positively un-American, to want a vacation.

Self-care is, however, a basic human need, and though it’s most often associated with facials and kale, most have probably been doing it by another name. (Try “down time” or “mental health day,” filled with good-for-you ingredients that boost your health and spirits, without regrettable aftereffects.)

It’s hard to justify taking a break when the world seems to be falling apart, of course — a condition Beane calls “activist guilt.”

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“There’s always more to do,” she said.

However, she added, “The reality is, if you are constantly doing the work and you aren’t stopping and pausing and practicing self-care, you will burn out. You’ll get sick. You’ll get angry. . . . Or you become filled with rage and it comes out on your family members.”

Self-care is what keeps people going, in the sometimes soul-crushing world of political activism, Simmons said.

And after all, they expect another two years of this.


“What She Said” is an occasional column on gender issues. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.