Recent events in the Seattle yoga community have created a huge and much needed dialogue about race, privilege and yoga in the Western world. In my opinion this dialogue is long over due, and what we are all learning is that it is uncomfortable to talk about and we're all sitting in it together. My hope is that as we all sit with the discomfort of recognizing the inherent privilege and power dynamics in the westernized yoga we practice, we start to break those down, one incident at a time.
Here are some things we can thing about moving forward as we start to claim or own actions and their impact within our yoga community and beyond:
Privilege does not make you a bad person, but its important to acknowledge when you do have privilege.
Most of us come from a place of privilege and some of us more so than others. What constitutes privilege? The circumstances of your life give you benefits you never asked for. What are these circumstances? A few major ones include:
In the words of Ijeoma Oluo, speaking about white privilege: " Every time you go through something, and its easy for you, look around and say, 'Who is it not easy for? And what can I do to dismantle that system? But in order to do that, you have to be willing to look at it and see it as part of the system of whiteness because that 's what it is."
Good people can make mistakes, it does not make them inherently bad people, but allowing that behavior to slide because they had good intentions does not undo the harm that they caused.
We can be good people, with good intentions trying to do the right thing and still end up having an impact that is racist. And if we scroll back up and revisit privilege we can also understand how the impact can become even greater because of the power we have based on our personal privilege.
For example, I was teaching a yoga class one day and made a comment trying to get students into a pose about crossing their legs. Off hand I said something to the effect of "like you would cross your legs if you were wearing a dress, but that might be something the gentlemen in the room don't know anything about." In that moment, I was trying to be humorous and got several laughs as I said it, but when I did it also felt a little off for me.
Luckily after class, a student of mine came up to me and asked to speak with me. He mentioned the impact of my comment on him as he did know men who wore dresses and had worn a dress from time to time. In the moment, I felt awful and we talked about it a bit more and he was gracious enough to accept my heartfelt apology and gratitude to him for such a profound teaching moment. In the aftermath, I was appalled with myself. I was a yoga teacher, a queer woman who had trans friends, someone who taught diversity training to new yoga teachers, and I had said something that created a situation where a student of mine felt unwelcome and hurt by my words.
I had no intention of being transphobic or unwelcoming of someone who didn't identify with the gender binary and yet I had. My intention wasn't to do that, my intention was to be funny, but my impact was hurtful. And yes, I should have known better, but it still happened.
All this to say is that it can happen to anyone and it can be subtle or it can be glaringly obvious. Our job as the perpetrator of the incident is to listen to what the other person is telling us. Even if it throws up all our defenses, recognizing that regardless of what we intended our impact was different and that it is time to unpack some of our unconscious biases that lead us to act in that way.
The majority of bias is not conscious and overt racism (or other "isms" for that matter) but unconscious bias which is much more dangerous as we have to be able to see its subtleties at work.
Renee Navarro defines unconscious bias as "social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing".
As I mentioned above, its these unconscious biases that can lead our well intentioned actions to have negative and harmful impacts. These biases come from our brain trying to organize the world and categorize it (another word for this? stereotype). We let this organization and categorization create beliefs for us that we may or may not be aware of and are shaped by the outer world, the media in particular.
Because they are unconscious we are often unaware of these biases and so it takes extra work to start to unpack them and they may not often come up until someone else calls us out on our words or our behavior. That call out is a call to action for doing some personal exploration.
Ahimsa does not mean "do nothing" it means "do no harm."
When we look at the meaning of ahimsa it is seeing that in the act of "do no harm" it most often means standing up to places where harm is being done. It means taking an active role in the world whether its speaking up for someone, attending a rally or a march or writing our representatives to make change happen.
When we tell someone to calm down, that they're being to aggressive or too angry when they are expressing their hurt or frustration with us, that is tone policing. Throwing yogic terms like ahimsa at someone who says something to you in a way you don't like only serves to shut down the dialogue, keeping you from understanding what you did wrong. And when we ask someone who is speaking up against something to use ahimsa we are in essence saying to them "I expect you to do no harm to me, but I am not willing to hear how I did harm to you."
Get ready to get uncomfortable.
"The journey of awakening happens just at the place where we can’t get comfortable. Opening to discomfort is the basis of transmuting our so-called “negative” feelings. We somehow want to get rid of our uncomfortable feelings either by justifying them or by squelching them, but it turns out that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. According to the teachings of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism, our wisdom and our confusion are so interwoven that it doesn’t work to just throw things out. By trying to get rid of “negativity,” by trying to eradicate it, by putting it into a column labelled “bad,” we are throwing away our wisdom as well, because everything in us is creative energy—particularly our strong emotions. They are filled with life-force."- Pema Chodron
Talking about privilege and our part in unconscious bias is uncomfortable. Its uncomfortable look at places of ourselves we may not like, but its necessary and something we need to embrace and see through to the other side rather than trying to make ourselves comfortable by pushing away the discomfort or pretending like these things aren't happening inside the yoga world.
Ready to Get to Work?
How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice
When Spiritual Bypassing Meets White Privilege Meets Racism
8 Signs Your Yoga is Culturally Appropriated--And Why It Matters
Understanding White Privilege
Tone Policing and Privilege
10 Books about Race to Read Instead Of Asking A Person of Color to Explain Things to You
Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don't Really Matter
Yoga teacher, sound healer and explorer of the inner landscape. Join me!