Calling for Community Care: a reflection on whiteness, privilege, connection and spirit.

This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for a while. These words reflect my ongoing process of coming to terms with my privilege. These words have laid dormant, wrapped up in fear and pondering; caution and consideration. I have been endlessly nervous and unsure of myself in articulating these sentiments because I worry what people will think – what the unintended consequences of my words might be. The reality is though, that I am privileged. Really privileged. And I want to be more accountable for what that means.

To start, I think it’s important for me to position myself. I am a white, thin, cis-gendered, flexible, femme identified “yoga” teacher. I am a settler, living in Vancouver Canada. My family came here 3 generations ago from Scotland (father’s side) and the Ukraine (mother’s side). I attend university here and I come from a middle class family, with whom I have a loving and financially supportive relationship. I am in many ways grateful for all these things. At the same time the more I become conscious of my privilege, the more I find myself feeling uncomfortable with it. I find myself wrestling with guilt, with the unintended, unspoken consequences of having so much when others have so little.

Feeling guilt, and lots of it, is a fairly common reaction. It’s easy to get stuck there. That is a privilege in itself – to have the time and space to get lost and bathe in guilt, as if doing that were enough. As if the guilt were somehow penance for all the violence and injustice that grants me greater safety and access than others. That said, we need to learn to move past guilt. Feeling guilt is not the same as taking action. I know guilt will never be enough, but I often wonder how to move forward. For now I’ve realized that all I can do is live and organize with integrity and maybe more importantly, be willing to be wrong. I’m trying to stop being scared of stepping into the vulnerability required to do this work, to write these words, both which put me at  risk of getting called out by people I respect. So, here goes.

Much of what I’ve written and what populates the yoga “blogosphere” is conversations about asana. We call this a discussion about “yoga”, but really, most of the time, we’re talking about asana (the poses we move through in “yoga” classes). So often, and I think of this as a direct result of imperialism and cultural appropriation, we get lost in the shallow, shiny, feel good, physical aspects of the practice. My friend and a fellow teacher at Community Yoga Vancouver, Blair Hayashi, recently wrote a facebook status that illuminates this really well:

something i overheard at the end of class ;
“how is your handstand doing?”
how come no one ever asks;
“How is your brahmacharya doing?”

Yeah – how is my bramacharya doing? How am I managing my energy and what am I dedicating it to? Lately, I have spent less time on my physical asana practice and more time with my breathe. My practice is making eye contact and listening – being present. My practice is being honest with myself and others, even when it hurts. My practice is learning to be gentle and treat myself and others with the love and compassion that we all deserve – the love we already know we are, but so often lose sight of. My practice is my politics – learning to be open and compassionate towards the lived experiences of people whose lives are different from mine, even when that learning demands I know longer cling to the comfort of believing that I’m innocent.

Learning yoga can and should be about so much more than handstands, fancy balancing poses and the coveted “yoga butt”. We get stuck on these things though, because for many of us they are more straight-forward to achieve than doing the so deeply needed self reflection that the rest of practicing yoga calls for and teaches. Getting caught up in a showy asana practice creates an impression that acrobatic asana is all our practice is and can be. We’re modeling these misguided goals for our students and each other and we are getting lost. Practicing like this not only shuts people out whose bodies don’t conform to our rigid standards – it also limits us in discovering and deepening our relationship with our spirit and our relationships with each other.

There is another element at play here. Getting stuck in and only developing a physical practice is itself a result of privilege. When you don’t have basic survival needs to worry about its easy and routine to get distracted by appearances – by how other people see us and how we see ourselves. This happens because we aren’t often faced with situations that force us to dig deep and learn who we are underneath those appearances. On top of that, most of western yoga studios, the spaces where many of us are learning – and I would argue often being pressured into – showy asana practices, cater to people with privilege. People who are “able” bodied. People who can afford expensive drop-ins. People who feel like they belong in a yoga studio.

Much of what is taught in the mainstream western yoga world focuses on teaching us to build better relationships with ourselves. We are told to “turn inward” and “be the light we are”. Put simply, we are learning to cultivate self love. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for self love – that’s something I am working very hard to build in my own life and it is an ongoing and challenging process. That being said, my position is this – self love isn’t enough. Not even close. It is just the beginning, a fundamental beginning, but just the beginning. Loving yourself, taking care of yourself – these things are important, they are undeniably necessary – but if all we do is turn inward, if our goal is only to take care of ourselves, then we are limiting our practice and we are missing out on accountability to each other, our communities and our shared struggles and resilience. We are missing opportunities to build communities of care.

Self care is, put simply, about taking care of yourself. This is an off shoot of an individualist society that puts the individual before the collective – a colonial, consumer capitalism society that teaches us ruthless self reliance, no matter the cost to others. Self care practices, particularly spiritual practices, that teach us only to go inward, I feel, are missing a key lesson. If we believe that “we’re all one”, why are we missing the part where we learn and practice care and accountability to each other? Not just to people like us, but everyone we’re supposedly referencing when we say, “we’re all one”.

Often I hear people in the yoga “community” make comments like “you chose your destiny” or “your thoughts shape your reality”. Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water here, these concepts can be useful. But here’s the problem – we aren’t often engaging these concepts critically. We say things like “we’re all one” and “Namaste” – I say them myself. I believe these things, but that doesn’t mean the way we use them isn’t sometimes deeply problematic. These phrases and concepts, especially when gestured to by privileged people, tend to erase or minimize the real, tangible differences in our lived realities. When you say “your thoughts shape your reality” or “this person is just angry at me because they are carrying this or that attachment” we are minimizing all the systemic factors that shape people’s experiences. We are minimizing forces like racism, sexism, homophobia and importantly for the yoga world – ableism. Without intending to, we are being condescending and dismissive. We are causing harm because, without even meaning to, we are reinforcing our privilege.

Now, here’s the thing I have recently been discovering about privilege  While it does give us undeserved advantages, this is not without harmful consequences. Privilege breeds isolation. It teaches those of us who have privilege (which is everyone, to some extent) that our common lack of empathy and self reflexivity is normal and even necessary. For our privilege to go unchallenged it is necessary that we learn not to consider other people – that we learn to see ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity and the world. The lived experience of privilege and the process of replicating and reproducing it teaches us to continue looking out for ourselves – to continue breeding individualism and isolation. Privilege can make us lonely because it prevents us from relying on and trusting community.

One of my profs, Glen Coulthard, recently said something in class that I found really helpful in understanding this idea:

“Power doesn’t just impose it’s will on you, it’s also productive. It normalizes injustice”.

There is a lot to parse through in this statement. For my purposes I find it useful, when thinking about power, to remember we aren’t just thinking about oppression and who is marginalized. We’re also thinking about the privilege and advantages that power produces. From there we can start to think about how the differences in our social locations are not only produced but normalized. Privilege is co-optive, because it’s comfort and it’s ability to veil injustice distract us from our responsibilities to each other. The more privileged we are, often the less we are willing to step outside our own experience and connect to our humanity. We get scared. We are fearful of losing our unearned privilege. We don’t want to be challenged, because if we truly learn to feel for one another we could not possibly let injustice continue like we do.

I recently read something by Lee Maracle that really helped me understand my own relationship to systems of power and domination:

“We need a country free of racism, but we do not need to struggle with white people on our backs to eradicate it. White people have this need as well. They need to stop our continued robbery, to rectify colonialism in order to decolonize their lives and feel at home in this land. Racism has dehumanized us all. It once filled me with shame and nearly drove me to death. It separated me from my brother, my sisters and my beautiful mother. It keeps white people separated from each other. It keeps white people either feeling sorry for us or using us as a scapegoat for whatever frustrations this society creates for us.” – pg 240 and 241 of Bobbi Lee, emphasis added.

I think part of what Lee Maracle is gesturing to here, when she says that racism is dehumanizing and harmful even for white people, is that the privilege racism produces carries a destructive burden. Privilege suggests that stepping on others and having more then others is normal – even necessary. Privilege works to normalize our profound lack of empathy. It can work to dissolve our humanity and leave us inward turning, isolated and fearful. It breeds attachment and often it prevents us from building community – because we don’t need it and we haven’t been taught the skills to tend it. Often when you have lots of privilege you are only taught how to look after yourself and maybe a small circle of loved ones. You are taught the skills to maintain your position of privilege  This is why simply seeking self care, as a person in a position of privilege, can be so problematic.

Now, I’m not saying that taking care of yourself isn’t in and of itself an act of resistance and decolonization – especially for marginalized people and communities. I believe self care is healing and revolutionary, that is why I teach it. But I also firmly believe – I know in my bones – that my self care and resistance becomes richer, more healing, more resilient, more effective when it is given space to grow within the rich, supportive soil of community. My self care is richer when it tends to and is supported by means other than those granted to me by my privilege.

When we say namaste often what we mean is “the divine light in me acknowledges and bows to that same light in you”. It’s a way to acknowledge and bask in our connection. It is a powerful word that invokes the commonly held spirit that connects us. What I’m calling for is that we do the work to understand, acknowledge and break down all the systems of power and oppression that make us forget this fundamental connective spirit.

For me, part of being grounded is fully acknowledging and being accountable to the lived realities and experiences of not only me, but everyone I share this planet with. We can do more to acknowledge and resist the forces that operate to create violent disconnection and separation between us. I’m asking that we remember our humanity so that we can reignite our empathy and rediscover our connections to each other and to all living beings. I believe we can do this by not only taking care of ourselves, but fighting for the space, time and resources to take care of each other. So yes, let’s spend some time going inward. But let’s take those practices into the world with clear eyes and open hearts, so that we might tend to each other as well.

Other pieces on Community Care:

An End to Self Care by B Loewe

Response to “An End to Self Care”: How About “An End to the Activist Martyr Complex?” by Spectra

for badass disability justice, working-class and poor lead models of sustainable hustling for liberation by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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26 thoughts on “Calling for Community Care: a reflection on whiteness, privilege, connection and spirit.

  1. When I see the words white, privileged, yoga teacher my hackles go up. I am white and am a yoga teacher, but for the longest time, I’ve failed to identify myself as privileged. I may look like any old middle class white woman with kids, but damn, getting here was no easy task.I have been on the margins. This is not the time or place to go into all the details, but I can definitely get what you are saying and appreciate it. Perhaps the spiderman line can sum it up, ” With great power, comes great responsibility.”

  2. Nice article! As we find ways to heal our hurts and eliminate all the PATTERNS of racism, sexism,oppression of children, of nationalism, of oppression of physically disabled people, and all the other insidious viewpoints of oppression, it will become crystal clear to all of us that ALL MEN ARE SISTERS.

  3. Yes. This completely articulates and voices many of my inner voices and, yes, some of my ‘guilt’.
    I agree that giving lip service to easy, one-liner, pop-psych phrases isn’t enough and I’m so excited to hear you voice this in such a thoughtful, and honest manner.

    I remember realizing, back in university, that ideas should be accessible to all and that many (feminist, but it could apply to all theories and movements) writings were just simply unaccessible, literacy wise, to so many people who NEEDED it. I was (am) in a place of privilege where my education allowed me to feel comfortable parsing and absorbing feminist-jargon. But I had already ‘bought’ in. My parents, others from my village, who have yet to buy-in to feminism, would never pick up a feminist theory book.

    So… I guess my contribution to this discussion is that I’ve always been one for the ‘making ideas accessible to all via appropriate literacy-message packaging’ kinda gal. 🙂

  4. As we find ways to heal the hurts from the past and recover our intelligence and eliminate all the patterns of racism, sexism, oppression of children or Adultism, of nationalism, of oppression of physically disabled people, and all the other insidious viewpoints of oppression, it will become crystal clear to all of us that ALL MEN ARE SISTERS.

  5. This is great. thanks for posting it. most days i’m not motivated to start my own blog, cause i feel like you’ve written what I want to say already. this is another example.
    one thing that i have found really interesting is that “namaste” or saying “the light within me greets/acknowledges the same light within you” can be really troubling for some people of colour. Several of my students of colour have commented that everything “good” is considered “light” and that the “light within us” is the essence of goodness, and conversely, that everything “bad” is considered “dark”. we do not honour the darkness within us.
    These students challenged me in saying htat they weren’t comfortable greeting the “light” within others because it made them feel that their darker skin was an unwelcome experience. So, I have changed my language to say the “life essence” or “Spirit” or “life energy”. It was a real eye opener that the language of yoga can often, in a racist society, be a pathway of oppression.
    Thanks again for posting this!

    • I offer to you the words “the radiance within me greets/acknowledges the radiance within you.” We radiate and receive much energy that is something other than visible light; that is elsewhere in the electromagnetic energy spectrum. It is the flow of all of this energy that is significant and essential to Life.

  6. My maternal child healthcare model, ‘The JJ Way’, although developed specifically for improving maternity care and reducing disparities, has also guided me through the arduous journey to living and working in the USA since 1989. I am by no means near to ‘getting it’ , especially as a European-born Black woman, but the four essential tenets of The JJ Way have informed my path and those of the women I serve – first and foremost comes ACCESS, followed by CONNECTIONS, then the KNOWLEDGE flows freely leading finally to EMPOWERMENT. At this juncture I am focusing on community-based models of maternity care – I join with you in a call for ‘Community Care’. Thank you for this piece.

  7. Reblogged this on dancing in duality and commented:
    An honest, authentic, representation of what the yogic tradition is all about. Not sculpted butts and a shallow self-love, but deep introspection and real connection.

  8. Recently, I have been thinking that when I hear the words “White Privilege” I wonder what the trigger is. I feel that it might be this: “If I believe that white privilege exists and that I, as a white person, is a part of that, then my hard working nature and my work ethic is considered non-existant. If believe that it exists and that I, as a white person have reaped from that, then it is as if I am saying that I got through life without working hard, pushing myself… That I got an easy ride.” I humbly and curiously wonder if this sounds right?

    • I don’t think its legitimate or fair to assume that recognizing real aspects of white privilege translates into the non-existence of your hard working nature and work ethic, nor does it translate into any sense of getting through life without making the efforts you have. What is reasonable, though, is to recognize that white privilege may have been, to some degree, a factor in your success, such that someone without such privilege may have worked just as hard but not been so successful, or that someone without such privilege may have had to work just a bit harder in order to become as successful. In other words, it’s not an all-or-nothing affair, it’s a matter of degree.

  9. I really appreciate this piece. It addresses things that I was getting really fed up with in yoga culture – especially yoga in Vancouver – so I’m glad you’re talking about it. You also did a beautiful job incorporating issues of colonialism. Please keep writing!

  10. This is by far one of the most accurate, honest and on point pieces of writing that I have come across around the intersections of privilege and yoga. I believe that you will also find Anne Braden’s analysis on how racism affects us all in her essay, “The Other America” eye opening http://www.november.org/BottomsUp/reading/america.html. I look forward to continuing and contributing to the conversation around power, access, and a social justice yoga approach and practice. There are not enough of these conversations or writings in the mainstream. This counter narrative is necessary and revolutionary. –Jardana Peacock
    Reclaim, Health and Healing for a Just World, http://www.facebook.com/ReclaimWellness?ref=hl

  11. Pingback: Decolonizing YogaCalling for Community Care: a reflection on whiteness, privilege, connection and spirit. - Decolonizing Yoga

  12. Privilege is related to degree of freedom – freedom from restriction. With all freedom comes responsibility. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility.

    Lightness and darkness on a superficial level – whether skin color, hair color or the colors of our clothing – are minimally significant compared to the lightness or heaviness (darkness) of the inner self. If we are open and free of self-restriction, we radiate lightness, we gravitate towards receiving lightness, and when we receive heaviness we transmute it into lightness before radiating it. That is the ideal. Whatever denseness we acquire in life restricts our ability to do this and it is perceived, by others and by ourselves, as inner darkness which is typically expressed outwardly as darkness.

    Our identification, whether exclusively or predominantly, with the material self and with adopted materiality distracts us from our inner essence and confuses us and dims our perception of our own radiance as well as the radiance of others. The adoption of material practices that can be quickly and easily done without thought – without real conscious awareness – can as much get in the way as they can open the way for us and for others. If it is your habit to greet others with “Namaste” then change your habit … and see what you can learn from changing your habit. If you have put on such a habit, it is not really different from a nun’s habit or anything else you put on your body – on you. It becomes part of you but it may not necessarily serve you very well. You may benefit from taking it off and putting something else on for a while … until that, too, becomes your habit.

    Wearing a habit indefinitely indicates lack of change. Lack of change evidences lack of personal evolution. Lack of personal evolution becomes slow death.

  13. Pingback: Calling for Community Care: a reflection on whiteness, privilege, connection and spirit. | wigged - ein zine rund um's thema haarausfall

  14. Pingback: Time for yoga to man up? Hardly. | Not a Yoga Mum

  15. Pingback: Selfcarekritik und Praxis | Anarchistelfliege

  16. Reblogged this on Anarchistelfliege and commented:
    Ich würde hier gerne noch auf einen Text hinweisen, der auch Teil der US-Selfcaredebatte ist, um die es hier letztes Jahr auch schon einmal ging. Ich möchte ihn empfehlen, weil ich in meinem Selfcaretext soviel geschrieben habe, warum ich Selfcare wichtig finde und was ich tue, und in meiner Entgegnung auf die Selfcarekritik alles, was mir wichtig einfiel um auf die Kritik einzugehen. Da komme ich nicht mehr weiter, und ich dachte, vielleicht versuche ich es mit einem positiven Beispiel. Kritik an der Selbstfürsorge, wie ich sie für richtig und toll halte.
    1. Sie macht keine Gegensätze auf zwischen Selfcare/Fürsorge und Aktivismus (als ob man das nicht beides tun könnte)
    2. Sie würdigt Selbstfürsorge als wichtige Grundlage und fordert dann, dort aber nicht stehen zu bleiben, sondern fordert darauf aufbauend solidarisches Handeln – “Communities of Care” und Accountability.
    3. Sie benennt das Problem mit Privilegien und dem falschen Glauben, der Individualismus wird alles schon richten, und benennt dass Selfcare und Privileg zusammenwirken können, so dass von privilegierter Seite aus nur noch Innenschau geschieht, ohne anderen Menschen zuzuhören. Sie geht darauf ein, dass Privileg Vereinzelung fördert, und dass Selfcare gemeinsam mit dieser Vereinzelung kontraproduktiv wirkt.
    Ihr Fazit ist am Ende, dass Selbstfürsorge ergänzt werden sollte durch Gemeinschaft und Solidarität.
    Und das ist eine Selfcarekritik wie ich sie öfter lesen möchte. Eine Reflektion von eigenen Privilegien, die zum ziehen der Konsequenzen ermuntert, wie ich sie mir für unsere Communities nur wünschen kann.
    Deshalb wird dieser Text zur aktuellen Selfcarediskussion hier rebloggt.

  17. Well my reply comes late but I’ll say it anyway. Yoga is one of the only exercise regimes I can do. I don’t give a rat’s ass if my asanas are perfect, or what’s a trendy pose. If a pose hurts or doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. I don’t care if I’m impressing anyone or scandalizing them. I do it for the moderate & safe stretch, for the moderate strength building, for the brain calm and breath control that feels good to me.
    And I think this is entirely healthy and fine. Maybe I should call it something else? I love that I don’t need special clothes or gear. It’s perfect.
    I think the trendiness and the annoying new age Crap that gets wrapped up in yoga – as – presented – by – white – studios is annoying. The one upmanship. The showing off to the point of injury. But I see that in a lot of pop culture do I just tune it out and get what I need from the experience.
    I wonder if this too is appropriation. I honestly don’t know.

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