The Privilege of Yoga.. or why it’s important to welcome discomfort.

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Recently I attended an event called the Privilege of Yoga. I was one of the facilitators and Community Yoga Vancouver, the collective I coordinate, was one of the sponsors. Here is an excerpt from the event’s description:

Join us as we talk about: Who gets to practice yoga? What does it mean to be queer practising yoga? To be a person of colour? To be a feminist? To be poor? Is yoga gendered? Are all bodies truly welcome in yoga? What does it mean to practice collectively in corporate spaces? How does modern yoga honour/dishonour the tradition? Come dig deep as we ask these questions and many others, and as we struggle together with how yoga can be a powerful tool for social change. 

I was really excited for this event and felt inspired and hopeful that it had been organized. What follows here are my reflections on what happened and what we could improve on. I want to start by saying that I have tremendous respect for everyone who was involved in organizing this event. I am deeply grateful for all their hard work and feel so inspired that they got this conversation started in a public, larger scale way that I haven’t seen accomplished in Vancouver so far. This piece is my way of contributing to the conversation they started. I also want to make clear that I mean no one any disrespect in writing this. I’ve left out names so as to be critical of people’s ideas and actions, rather than the people themselves. I think it’s great that we all showed up and I think we all had really good intentions. That said, we are all learning and social justice work is a steep learning curve. I am certainly always learning, making mistakes, growing and asking questions. I will speak about some of those mistakes and questions later in this piece. I am not innocent here, I don’t think any of us can or should claim innocence. Rather, I’m writing this as an invitation to welcome the uncomfortable feelings – to dig deeper and to do better to break down oppression in more meaningful ways. I have faith that we can do this work and that we can do it well – that’s why I’m writing this.

I want to start by looking at the event’s title “The Privilege of Yoga”. What strikes me here is the way the events title sets up the discussion from the perspective of people of privilege. I didn’t realize that the event title could be read this way, until I sat with it and thought about it after the event had ended. I think I didn’t really notice it at first because I am super privileged and the event, in some ways, is advertising to me. I am white, cis-gendered, often read as straight, university educated, a settler, able bodied, not-fat and from a stable upper middle class family. People like me are not uncommon in the yoga community, matter of fact we are the majority.

Here’s something I’ve realized after thinking lots about this event – if we want to talk about yoga as a tool in social change and whether all bodies are welcome, don’t you think we should be talking to the people who aren’t doing yoga, rather than to the people who are already doing it? If we are only talking to ourselves then really we can only guess who isn’t there and why – or worse, we end up just talking about ourselves, rather than doing the hard work of breaking down and understanding what makes yoga an activity that isn’t accessible to all bodies, or all people.

I think this lack of understanding outside our own perspectives was reflected quite clearly when we were asked to brainstorm topics for discussion in the second half of the event. Now, this event is meant to address the perspectives of various different non-normative groups practicing yoga, and yet, many of the suggestions, to me, reflected a sense of pre-occupation with ourselves that seemed to be quite off-topic. One person suggested a group to discuss yoga as a tool for self-development, for example. It’s not that I don’t feel like self development through yoga is important. In fact, I use it that way, but I wonder if we don’t have other spaces where this is the focus the majority of the time, so perhaps it would be appropriate, even necessary, for us to spend an evening not thinking about ourselves, but rather thinking about who isn’t here and why. That said, I was really relieved when someone suggested that we discuss accessibility, the group I ended up facilitating.

I’ve been facilitating for about 5 years now. I’ve done it in quite a few places, with lots of different projects and I can honestly say this is one of the hardest discussions I have ever facilitated. Some of the reasons for this are logistical. We had about half an hour for our discussion, which really isn’t an adequate amount of time to meaningfully explore this topic. I felt like we ended up mostly skimming the surface and I worry that people left feeling either like they didn’t end up having the conversations they were hoping for, or worse, like they had done some work to address this issue, when really we should feel like this is only touching the surface. I think it’s a good thing if we left that discussion uncomfortable. We are failing at accessibility and if we left this discussion feeling good, in my opinon, we really missed the mark. In situations like this discomfort is an invitation to go deeper and understand why we feel uneasy – what is it that isn’t working here and why? The challenges we face are enormous, we shouldn’t feel good – but that doesn’t mean we should be hopeless either. Quite the contrary. Feeling uncomfortable is simply an emotion signaling an opportunity to do much needed work and reflection. It’s an opportunity for change and connection. Uneasy feelings are ripe, fertile and necessary to move beyond where we are, to where we want to go.

As challenging as facilitating this group was, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to do it because I learned a lot and was exposed to people and ideas that really shined a light on the weak spots in my facilitation and organizing skills. My group included someone who was a member of a queer-person-of-colour sangha who brought up some extremely poignant and important critiques of the yoga community. They expressed concern that yoga accessibility is not simply about cost or the perception that people aren’t flexible enough to do yoga (a primary topic of discussion amongst my group’s members). This person wanted to talk about healing justice movements and how and why setting up an intentional space for a queer-people-of-colour’s sangha had been so challenging. Another member of our group, who is of Indian decent, mentioned how strange and problematic it is that Indian people don’t practice yoga in studios, when yoga is a practice that comes from India. These are incredibly important points and my group could have done better to honour and address them.

There are lots of reasons our discussion didn’t delve into these topics in more depth. As I said before, we were really limited for time. Another reason was that we were given prompts for our discussion that really didn’t suit what we were talking about. We were asked to discuss our personal experience with this topic and what we could do to improve this. Again, I wonder if talking about our personal experience is the best way to go about this. I’m not saying we should speak for others, but when we have a room of mostly white yoga teachers and we are talking about our accessibility struggles our discussion can, and did, work to ignore race as a factor in accessibility. If I had done a better job facilitating and if the audience for this event had been made up of a more diverse group  we could have had a discussion that explored more meaningfully the barriers to accessibility we aren’t yet addressing. Instead, we spent most of our discussion talking about flexibility and why men don’t feel comfortable in yoga. I was planning to prompt the group to ask, “why do you think yoga studios are mostly comprised of white people?” when I was told we only had five minutes left and needed to discuss the question “what can we do to improve this?”. Because we didn’t have the time to address this and I didn’t have the facilitation skills to orient the conversation around this topic sooner, our group ended up minimizing the voices and concerns of people of colour. This is not ok.

All that said, even if we had had more time and I had facilitated this more skillfully, it’s not to say that would have been enough. Our group was made up of well meaning people, many of whom are my friends, but that group was fairly homogenous (white, fairly privileged yoga teachers). What this homogeneity reveals to me, both in the people in the group and in the way people thought and spoke about accessibility, is that we haven’t yet done the work to build community with people outside of our norms. Our privilege grants us access to yoga studios and we maintain that – to our and everyone elses detriment – by not looking outside our own experiences and reaching out to discover and support the needs of people who aren’t like us. Even the way I’m writing this piece (a privileged white person speaking to other privileged white people) reveals a problem in the lack of diversity and self reflexivity of our community.

Recently I read a piece called “The Importance of Listening as Privileged Person Fighting for Justice” which explains the value of listening in social justice work:

“Men who refuse to listen to women, cis folk who ignore trans* voices, white people who ignore people of color… In every case, we are denying ourselves the knowledge of powerful perspectives.

And because privilege conceals itself from those who have it, those of us who benefit from identity privilege are often unaware of the perspectives we deny, silence, and stifle with our voice.”

I think this piece has really valuable insight that would have been useful for me utilize as a facilitator and I would high recommend that everyone read it. I should have worked to create more space for the voices and concerns of the people of colour in my group and in turn, I hope my group would have taken the time to listen, so that we might understand what can be done for us to truly make our spaces and programs more accessible.

At the same time, this event we did offer us, in my opinion, a great opportunity to listen to a person of colour speak about their concerns regarding how race operates in our community, both in the discussion group and in the first half of the event with one of the speakers. The same person who was of Indian decent that participated in my discussion spoke very eloquently at the beginning of the event regarding cultural appropriation. She spoke for about 5 minutes explaining the tension she experiences between how she relates to yoga through her family and her Indian roots and how those same experiences are not necessarily reflected in her experience as a yoga teacher. She asked questions, was open, friendly, calm and eloquent. Further I felt that her discussion topic was one I have rarely seen addressed in the yoga community previous to this event, whereas the other speakers, who did a great job, mostly focused on topics I have heard addressed before. After she spoke I went up to her and told her what a great job I thought she did and how valuable I think her voice is. At the same time I was wondering, what would have happened if she had spoken to us about the same topic but not maintained her characterstic calm and centeredness. What if she had expressed anger, frustration or resentment? I caught myself and realized that I had congratulated her for speaking to us the way she did, but really, it would have been totally within her rights to be angry – or any other emotion she felt about the topic she was addressing. Racism is not only frustrating, it’s harmful, violent and degrading and she would have had every right to express those feelings in that way – should she have wanted to.

Now, I’m not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth and I want to avoid speaking for my friend, who I love and deeply appreciate. What I’m trying to focus on here is how can we make our community a space where people can speak about their frustrations honestly and what work do we all need to do to be able to truly listen – no matter how uncomfortable what is said makes us. It’s natural to feel uneasy and uncomfortable as you are being called into responsibility for the ways in which you are complicit in racism, or any other type of oppression. We all participate in these systems – sometimes in subtle, difficult to detect ways – but the cumulative result of our participation means that our community becomes not only inaccessible, but unsafe and unwelcome to many people – the exact opposite of what I think many of us intend.

I want to close this piece by acknowledging that I might be stepping on quite a few toes by writing this. I might upset people – and that’s ok. If you read this and you find yourself upset with me, or my words, I invite you to consider that I’m writing this because I believe we can do better. I believe we can listen and support each other. I also believe that I can and do fail to do this sometimes, but I believe that failure is a natural and necessary part of this process. By failing to facilitate this group in a way that gave adequate space to the voices of people of colour I did them and our group a great disservice, but I also had a big illuminating spotlight shone on all the places I can grow into as a facilitator and that we can grow into as a community. I know in my heart that we can be a community that is welcoming to and supportive of a wide range of people and I welcome and encourage critiques of and responses to this piece to keep the conversation going.

In the coming months I’m hoping to organize more events to keep this dialogue building. If you would like to participate in these events by organizing, speaking or attending, please contact me at communityyogavancouver@gmail.com.

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6 thoughts on “The Privilege of Yoga.. or why it’s important to welcome discomfort.

  1. It’s so important to write about our imperfections. It is too often that we only lift up what works really well. For me, as a white, antiracist queer yogi who is also trying to shift conversations and culture in the yoga world–the title “The Privilege of Yoga” means that white people are having a discussion about their privileges. Too often we rely on marginalized groups, people of color, people not of able bodies to tell us (white people) how to make spaces better for them. However, this is not their work, it is ours to examine our own blindness. I think a privilege talk is essential to have among white folks who want to do good but don’t understand how the need to feel good and be a savior, is counter to the creation of accessible, relevant and diverse spaces in the yoga world. I would urge the privilege conversation to continue with white folks. What is privilege? How does privilege show up in the yoga class? How does language include or exclude people? How am I or not connected to communities different than mine? These are some of the conversations that are important to have with a group of white people. People of color, queer folks-they/we are tired of bringing up these points. It’s time for white people to examine these hard questions—in the context of an antiracism analysis and a better understanding of whiteness historically. Thank you for writing, exploring and sharing. These questions, this work is happening in the US south and Appalachia too!!!

    In Justice,
    Jardana

  2. after reading this i’m left with the impression that out of all the speakers, only one was a person of colour and of Indian descent. is this the case?

  3. hi, i’d like some clarification on who was selected to speak on the panel. after reading this, it sounds to me like there was only one person of colour of Indian descent who spoke during the panel, and only for five minutes. is this true?

  4. You have to start somewhere, right? If these problems didn’t exist, it might have been easy to throw together a panel with all kinds of voices and perspectives. Honor to you for helping to guide these discussions. Hopefully you will get to facilitate much more “guided listening” to representatives of underserved populations.

    If I were stepping into such a venue, (having gotten together the dream panel lol) I might try to lead at least a ten minute asana sequence followed by some langhana pranayama (ex longer than in) with about 3 minutes of stillness, silence, meditation, what have you, before beginning the discussion. What better way to act out of peace than to cultivate stillness inside? I find it makes me a better listener.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

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