the color of one’s skin should not stand in the way of sanctuary.
Years ago, TWA, MacDonnell Douglas and the Ford Assembly Plant were all within a 5 or 10 minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri. Pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and air traffic controllers lived or rented in Ferguson. Restaurants, hotels and retail thrived. Designers and artists created the now famous vintage TWA travel posters and built the bold Mid-Century Modern wing-shaped airport design that predated the famous John F. Kennedy Flight Center in New York City and the Gateway Arch downtown. By 2006, all three industries were bought out or closed shop. Despite the drop in population able to pay for inflated traffic tickets, Ferguson used law enforcement for revenue. Motorists, usually black, were pulled over for supposed infractions that would be legal just a few blocks away in Florissant or Hazelwood. The fines for motorists were steep and arbitrary. Motorists would drive around Ferguson instead of through it; or they would try to signal other drivers on the road of the many speed traps ahead. Signaling like this soon became a ticketed offense itself. Ahead of travel, residents and business owners would routinely say to visitors and clients, “Drive at least one mile below the limit or you will get pulled over.” Ferguson was criminalizing poverty.1
By the time 18 year old African American Mike Brown was shot by a white officer, the tensions in Ferguson had reached the boiling point.
Media reports made it appear that all of Saint Louis was on fire, and that all black people were out to attack whites. “Black Lives Matter” was shouted down in the media and by politicians with a tepid “all lives matter”.
We at 314Yoga had read [Sander's] book “Outsider in the (White) House” and thought, “How can we adapt this to yoga? How can we address the racism and inequity in yoga classes, studios and workshops here in Saint Louis?
Voices of influence began to emerge. For us, one of many of those voices was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. We at 314Yoga had read his book “Outsider in the (White) House” and thought, “How can we adapt this to yoga? How can we address the racism and inequity in yoga classes, studios and workshops here in Saint Louis?”2
As a black female with a longtime practice and a white male yoga instructor, neither of us appears as a “conventional” yogi. We quickly found out that a conversation around the x-isms and x-phobias within yoga would meet with a lot of resistance. Yoga in America is firmly within the domain of white, cis-gendered, thin, flexible, conventionally pretty females. Their eternally sunny smiles and photogenic poses grace the covers of Yoga Journal, yoga books and yogawear catalogs. Their purported message was “we are all in this together”. We asked then, if that is so, why do all the classes, workshops and magazine covers disproportionately reflect them and not people of color? For a practice rooted in Southeast Asia, where were any Southeast Asian yogis?
Clearly the non-racial yoga mindset was only working for a few, but this belief in colorblindness was being taught, practiced, and passed down as an absolute by instructors.
In staying close to our message of social justice, equality, and union in yoga, we encountered a lot of “correcting” from white people who demanded “all lives matter”. Others said one thing but did nothing except offer empty platitudes of “love overcoming fear”. We experienced pointed racist attacks. There were also yoga instructors who expressed that since their hearts were in the right place, or because they had taught in Africa, that we had no right to point out racism. The African American female yogi was there to represent. The white male yogi was not to question racism, but instead support and align with the teacher under the unspoken assumption that white people stick together on such matters; and if he disagrees, he is sexist. Yogic “love for all beings” turned out to be rather conditional for those of us deemed “out of alignment” — yogaspeak for “you don’t belong”. We encountered yoga instructors and master teachers who wanted very much to play the heroes — the saviors who rescued everyone else with yoga. This required people in marginalized communities to play the victim; an uneducated, stereotype, provide smiling photos for white savior narratives, and to compliment privileged individuals wanting praise and approval for being nonracist.
We tried not to be blunt — at least not as a first response — but it happened now and then as more well-known yoga teachers became interested in our point of view. For a few of these individuals, being racially aware — or “woke” — was another self-congratulatory trend to be flaunted on social media and for personal public relations. But there were others who truly asked from the heart. Our answer was self-study, or Svadhyaya as it’s known in yoga philosophy. In classical Western philosophy, it might be called the Socratic method of getting to the heart of the question to draw out underlying presumptions. There are no shortcuts; no “my one black best friend”, nor “my kid goes to a mixed school” opt-out-racist-free black card. With that said:
The person of color experiencing racism is experiencing it as an emotion — an emotion that white people in North America can not have.
Imagine being in great emotional pain or trauma. The person who may have actually inflicted this trauma says, “You can’t possibly still be hurt by that! Get over it.” Your response is to try to function and power through quietly. Unable to play the prescribed role, you yell “I am in pain.”
The person takes out their dictionary or glossary, written by someone who looks just like them. “See!” they say. “I have the definition here of pain and your pain isn’t in here. So what you say doesn’t exist. How dare you insult me! I’m the one in pain because I see the definition of my pain here! Not yours!”
Talking around it or explaining it away with yogic terms are forms of gaslighting, passive aggression and spiritual bypassing. The person of color who is experiencing the pain of racism is shut down because there are literally no words in the white person’s constricted vocabulary. The pain becomes compounded by an oppressor appropriating race-based anger, pain or insults, while not realizing that any apology or resolution they may demand — or even receive — for being slighted is a privilege few people of color experience. Consider that when a white woman in Mississippi cried over a supposed dog-whistle, it resulted in black teen Emmett Till’s torture and death. This still happens today when a white Hispanic neighborhood guard is exonerated for following, accosting and killing black teen Trayvon Martin. While a white person might have a race-based experience, or experience deep pain, they will never experience racism.
However, white people can learn to recognize racism, empathize, step in, step up and say something. If it is uncomfortable to own one’s privilege; the subconscious stereotyping, prejudice, or bias; then sit with that discomfort. Look at it, and don’t blink or turn away from it. Ignoring it or saying it doesn’t matter will not make it go away. Acknowledging it is a start to dismantling it within. Approach this self-examination with the beginner’s mind. It will be an ugly baby…
Racism and privilege are not the same. One can benefit from privilege while not being racist. One who has privileges can use them by amplifying the voices of the marginalized; by listening and learning; by talking with people of color in the spirit of human connection, rather than correcting or ‘whitesplaining’; and someone with white privilege can observe and bear witness with the person of color by acknowledging all the various manifestations of racism. That is being an ally.
There are white people who feel that they will know racism when it happens so that they can swoop in and support the person of color. This was the mistaken belief behind the safety-pin symbolism following the 2016 presidential election. Most racist acts fall within the category of microaggression, and usually go unrecognized by whites or even by white allies. Consider when a "yogalebrity" says in their workshop or YogaJournal interview, "I was given secret yoga teachings by a guru in India and I brought those teachings back to America….” This statement is problematic because it plays into a stereotype of the “magical negro” — a marginalized individual who helps the already privileged white protagonist without any expectation of reciprocity. A Western teacher who monetizes spurious secret yoga teachings from India unwittingly passes on unexamined privilege to new student teachers. One manifestation of harm is that almost no one from India or of Indian descent feels at home in a western yoga class as a student or as an instructor. They don’t feel welcome in a practice that originated within their own heritage.
Few yoga students would notice the racism in this oft-told story of the magical dusty guru on a rock telling privileged white people their secret wisdom. The guru is always nameless. In the West, white students in the workshops may get full teaching and instruction while a person of color in the workshop may get less attention and instruction, or even get completely different information than their white classmates. A white student seeing a white teacher will see similarities and see themselves becoming just as famous in the future if they too can hook into a guru and market themselves. However, a student of color can make no assumptions. When it comes to partner poses, there may be no partner. If there are adjustments, they may come with careless statements about a Latina's body structure or a black woman's natural hair. A student from Southeast Asia in an American yoga class will likely cringe at the times an instructor tries to pass off meaningless sanskrit word salad as an invocation or mantra. White students wearing pins are not jumping in to protect or support the students of color because in that workshop or class, both the white student and the white teacher are benefiting from stereotypes of people of color. These benefits put white yogis in the category of a special person — a colorblind savior — as long as the white person is in the majority and can run (away from) the conversation. Far from relieving stress, for people of color, yoga classes can actually create stress.
...The unrest in Ferguson was limited to approximately one and a half blocks along West Florissant Road and a half block at the City Hall and Ferguson Police department — or About two blocks total.
For what it’s worth, the unrest in Ferguson was limited to approximately one and a half blocks along West Florissant Road and a half block at the City Hall and Ferguson Police department — or about two blocks total.3 The vast majority arrests were for refusal to disperse — which could also be a denial of the Constitutional right to protest and redress grievances.
Unrest in South City involved one block or less. At the St. Louis County seat in Clayton, there were generally more law enforcement and Missouri National Guard present than protestors.
Black Lives Matter — or BLM — does not mean that only black lives matter and those of others do not. It means that Black lives should matter too. BLM supports anyone who is the victim of police brutality, civil rights violations, and overreach — including First Nations people, #NoDAPL protestors, whites, Muslims, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. BLM does not condone nor promote violent acts. 4
The connection of yoga, race, and social justice is nothing new. The Bhagavad Gita says, “All those who take refuge in me, whatever their birth, race, sex, or caste, will attain the supreme goal; this realization can be attained even by those whom society scorns.”5
Equality isn’t just a one-time course, class or video. It is an ongoing process — and an ongoing practice. Equality has been part and parcel of yoga from the very beginning.
Not everyone enjoys yoga anymore than everyone enjoys opera, or basketball, or gardening. But for those who do, the color of one’s skin should not stand in the way of sanctuary.
1 “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department”, by United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division, March 4, 2015, http://bit.ly/1lV31kb
2 Vote Posters illustrated by Sharon Rhiney of 314Yoga and MadZen
3 Dianne Bondy visits Ferguson in September 2015. Boards on damaged buildings were painted by artists and residents. Photo by Jacob Kenner of 314Yoga
4 Black Lives Matter, Guiding Principles page
5 Easwaran Ed., Eknath (2009-06-01). The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) (p. 178). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition
racism in yoga
racism in yoga