Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My journey into spiritual, political accountability

Over the past few months people have been asking me, “why did you stop writing?”. “Are you teaching anymore?” I got an email from a stranger who asked, “Where did you go?” It’s taken me months to untangle the threads that wove this transformation together.  Like most transformations, it runs deep.

After much soul searching, traveling and reflection I can not-so-cautiously say, I don’t teach yoga anymore – and to be honest, there’s not many people who I think should. At least not in the way most of us do now.

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I took this photo at my teacher training.

I did my teacher training in 2011. Since becoming an “accredited yoga teacher”, I’ve taught classes in several studios; co-created a social justice based yoga collective that offered yoga on a sliding scale to folks who otherwise might not access it; taught anti-oppression workshops in yoga studios across north America; met and worked with some incredibly inspiring teachers; wrote a reasonably successful blog; had my writing published on many websites – I even planned to open a healing space in my hometown, the un-ceded Coast Salish territories of so-called Vancouver British Columbia.

Through out all of this, I have always had nagging doubts – doubts that became increasingly challenging to ignore. And like Alice, down the rabbit hole, when I followed the tug of those doubts, I came out the other side a truly different person, with some radically different goals in life.

When I first started blogging it didn’t take me long to write a piece that went viral. One of the teachers I most admired was even suggested to me as friend on facebook, because our mutual friend (a prominent yoga blogger) wanted my work to be on his radar. This same piece was shared by one of the political organizers I most admire in Vancouver. It was pretty mind-blowing to me.  For such a new teacher, this success definitely came as a surprise. I wanted to write because I wanted to articulate the ideas that were floating around in my head. I didn’t necessarily expect them to be useful or impactful to anyone other than me. It seemed though, that folks who care about yoga and social justice were looking for someone who could articulate the discomfort they felt. Many people told me they found my voice valuable and needed. I felt useful and that felt really good.

This elation quickly faded though, when I started to receive criticisms from folks of colour. I received these critiques both online and in school. At first and still to this day, they arrived in lesser frequency than the waves and waves of compliments I was receiving. But here’s the problem – most of those compliments were from white people. White people, who like me, were not aware (aka. blinded by our privilege) to some glaringly obvious problems in my work. My analysis often failed to meaningfully address colonization and my participation in that oppressive system as a culturally appropriating, white yoga teacher.

When these critiques started coming in I will admit I felt very hurt and this lead me to become defensive. I looked for reasons to dismiss the critiques because they felt painful to look at and inconvenient to consider or process deeply. I was, as most white folks (especially white women) are when we get called out, so wrapped up in how much it hurt to be told I was failing and fucking up – that I used my pain as a reason not to look at my mistakes with the empathy, patience and clarity they needed.

One day, crying in my front yard to one of my best friends I told him, “I just don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m doing the best I can and I just can’t let go of how much this hurts. What should I do?” In his painfully typical, sage and patient way he suggested, “maybe you should focus less on how much this hurts and more on what it was that you did wrong. What was it that you did that made these critiques start coming? Try to shift some of your focus that way and see what answers come.”

Hearing that made me realize what a tremendous (and typical) mistake I was making. I was focusing more on my own pain, privileging my emotional response over the critiques of the very people who I was oppressing. I took some deep breathes, worked to settle my discomfort and started to focus on the work of understanding the critiques.

I started to ask questions. I sent some of the online critiques to other yoga teachers. People whose politics I respected. One after the other, they all told me some variation of, “these people are reacting from a very emotional place. You do good work, just focus on that and keep doing it.” I was literally being told that I should ignore the critiques. That I should “let it go”. And I was told this over and over again no matter who I asked. And as much as this was something a part of me really, really wanted to be able to do, I just couldn’t. I knew I needed to get to the bottom of what these critiques were pointing out.

Eventually in my process of asking everyone I could find whose opinions I respected, I eventually asked a mentor of mine – this time not a yoga teacher, but a well loved and deeply respected facilitator. They kindly and patiently pointed out to me: you’re like the Jackson Katz of yoga. You’re saying things that folks of colour have been saying for a long time. And sure, some white folks are listening to you and that’s good, but it’s reinforcing of your privilege that they are listening to you, when these critiques already existed (and they didn’t say this to me at the time, but really, other people had articulated these ideas a lot better than I had) – and you, a pretty white yoga teacher needed to say them for them to be heard or seen as valuable. Maybe you need to shift your work towards uplifting the voices of people who are already making these critiques? See where that takes you.

The time this person took to offer me this explanation, I realize, was a gift. A really beautiful, valuable challenging gift. Finally, someone was helping me focus more on what I had done wrong, rather than encouraging me to ignore the critiques and just move blindly forward. From there I decided to stop blogging, focus on teaching and facilitating and see what I could learn from stepping out of the online spot-light. Since then I’ve reached some radically different conclusion in terms of how I feel about yoga – which I want to share with all of you.

Before I share what I’ve learned I want to make clear what my intention is in with writing this piece. I’m not trying to attack anyone or take away from the good work people are doing. What I’m suggesting is a re-frame. I’m hoping, that maybe what I’ve written here will spur you to action, but I’m also aware that it might make you feel a lot of emotions, especially if you are a white yoga teacher. It might make you feel angry, sad, hopeless or defensive, but whatever you feel I hope we can share in the journey of diving into deeper accountability together. My hope is that this offering will encourage discussion, bravery, reflection and critique – not tear anyone apart.

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Photo I took of the temple and shoes at my teacher training.

I would encourage you to keep in mind that the ideas I’m about to share with you literally took me years to shape in my own head. All the ideas presented here are gestures to some of the meaningful learning I’ve done since I stopped blogging. Lots of conversations, so much reading, travelling, self inquiry and facing some big fears. As such, this blog, while longer than average, is literally just scratching the surface. If you have follow up questions I would encourage you to do some of your own research. Talk to people and ask questions till you get answers that feel right to you. Answers that feel real and bold and brave. And if you need – I would be happy to refer you to resources. What I can’t do, is explain all the ideas presented here in endless detail. It’s a blog piece – I’m inviting you to do some of your own research, reach your own conclusions. See where it takes you.

I also want to make clear that I do and always will, value my yoga practice. It has been in many ways a life raft for me through some of the hardest challenges and deepest healing that I’ve experienced in my life. No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.  Recently I watched a video produced by SAAPYA titled “We Are Not Exotic, We Are Exhausted: A Film On Being Desi and American, Now”. One of the youth in this video explained this process, from their perspective, much better than I could:

“It’s cultural appropriation with white females, even white males, doing yoga but they don’t even know why they are doing yoga. It’s cultural appropriation because of the fact that it can be turned into a billion dollar industry with these clothes and mats. Yoga isn’t about buying the right things and doing poses. Yeah they say its about reaching, going inside of you to find something spectacular, to find your soul or something. But I don’t think they understand that yoga and finding your soul runs deeper than that.”

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Screenshot of SAAPYA’s most recent video.

In many ways, the most challenging part of this learning process for me was coming to terms with the fact that I don’t actually know what yoga is. I thought I did – I thought it was about healing trauma, getting into my body, but I realized that I had been missing the mark completely.  I was missing much bigger picture, where some of the most valuble lessons in yoga come from.

A friend of mine, who is of South Asian descent, a woman who grew up practicing yoga her whole life, helped me see that how we practice yoga in the west is a HUGE departure from what it looks like for her and the culture she comes from. She helped me understand that yoga is a multifaceted spiritual practice, philosophical tradition, medicine system and way of life – not an exercise regimen. And when we see it this way, we miss some of yoga deepest teachings.

This same friend used to be part of a teacher training program in Vancouver and was told she needed to teach “our yoga” aka western yoga rather than what she had been taught her whole life. As a result of her refusal to adjust how she teaches she is no longer part of the teaching staff. Can you imagine, a white woman telling someone who has practiced yoga her whole life, that she needs to teach a more Americanized, more white version of a practice that she has practiced her whole life? It’s absurd. This dynamic is exactly why most of us aren’t exposed to any of the philosophical or cultural roots of this practice until we do our teacher training, if we are exposed to this information at all.

What hearing this story taught me is that I don’t and can’t know what yoga’s roots are, because its not part of a culture that I belong to. I could perhaps dedicate my life to learning and unpacking my understanding of yoga, going to India and really digging into that learning, but even that endeavor feels contentious for lots of reasons.

What I’ve come to see is that when I come into a public forum – whether I’m opening a business, teaching a class, writing a blog or speaking in a video – I am claiming that I know and have the right to create what yoga is. This is part and parcel in the process of appropriation and this is part of how we have created what Frank Jude Boccio calls the “yoga industrial complex”. We’ve commodified, materialized and westernized a practice that has roots in a culture that we (and by we I am speaking largely to white folks here) are not a part of. We are taking an aspect of this culture removing it from its context and then we are changing it, claiming to own it, attempting to copyright and sell it and ultimately shaping it into something that is harmful to all of us. However, this harm is unevenly and more deeply experienced by the people from whom we are stealing. Roopa Singh explains this really well when she says:

“What happens when people rely on a country or culture as a panacea for their own wounds with respect to race, lineage, and home? No one comes out of this kind of political or personal violence unscathed, and segregation in yoga is injurious to us all.”

In the time since I stopped blogging I started to re-engage in work resisting industrial expansion – specifically against oil pipelines. One of my most valuable lessons I’ve learned came from time I spent at the Unistoten camp in Northern so-called BC. In the process of working in solidarity with indigenous front line communities, settler folks like me are asked to consider the cultural roots they come from. “Remember, we all come from beautiful origins” is something I’ve heard my friend and mentor Mel Bazil say many times. The process of starting to trace back my family’s origins has lead to me see the way that many European folks have lost touch with exactly what many of us are seeking in our yoga practices. We have become so spiritually hungry and lost we are willing to steal. We feel comfortable doing this because whiteness breeds entitlement – the feeling that it is our right to practice and change a practice that isn’t ours in the first place.

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Photo from Unistoten Camp website.

For many white settler folks, whose family lines run back to Europe like mine, the times when we lived in community, on shared lands, in harmony with the moon, the earth and each other are much further behind us than those of the indigenous people whose land we occupy today. This is not to say that these ways only exist in the past, many indigenous communities, despite massive state violence, have maintained or relearned the practices our ancestors worked to destroy. Also many European traditions of witch-craft, herbalism, magic and other land based skills persisted and are still practiced today by European folks. That said, for the majority of us settler folks, we’ve lost touch with the spiritual practices  which ground us to place and the natural world. Those spiritual practices were intentionally and often violently stolen from us through the imposition of capitalism, the division of communally held lands, witch hunts and the forced introduction of Christianity. As a result we land where are today: living on lands we don’t have historical or ancestral connections to, with very limited access to spiritual practices that are culturally derived – and this, I feel, is part of what leads so many of us to practice yoga. Not only are we able to heal our bodies physically, we are able to nourish ourselves spiritually. What I would like us to consider though, is that what we are doing to yoga is tantamount to what happened to our ancestor’s spiritual practices. The solution to being spiritually lost is not to steal from others and then claim what we steal for ourselves.

Appropriation is a very difficult and unpopular topic to address in yoga circles. When the wesbite Decolonizing Yoga was launched I was excited, because it meant that perhaps there would be a forum for us to address racism and colonization in the yoga world. And I’m going to be painfully honest here, much to my disappointment I think Decolonizing Yoga has failed to do meaningful decolonizing work. It doesn’t mean that they can’t, but they have a lot of work to do to get there.

Some of my work was up on the site when it first launched and it is where most people came to know my work for the first time. I have considered asking to have my writing taken down from the site many times. When the critiques I mentioned earlier in this piece came in, I sent them to the founder of Decolonizing Yoga, along with some critiques of the site itself. It was brought up to me that the site doesn’t mention the land from which the work on the site was being done – a central and very basic part of decolonizing practice. Further, much like Yoga Journal, none of the content at the time was written by South Asian authors, let alone addressing cultural appropriation. When I brought this up to the founder of the site she told me nothing had been written on the topic that she felt could be posted on the site. I did some research and sent her some articles I thought would be good to post. They weren’t hard to find, just a couple hours on google. One by one she turned each article down. Eventually I posted on my facebook that I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of the site. She responded publicly quite politely and as if she was committed to working on improving the site, but in a private message was quite defensive and upset with me for making the post.

This behaviour, I have found, is pretty typical of white yoga teachers – including me. When appropriation is addressed, many of us get defensive. We stop being able to listen. My theory behind why this happens is that we get scared. We rely on our yoga practices to heal our bodies, ease our minds and give us a sense of purpose and spiritual connection. I think the idea of looking at ourselves with a critical lens is scary to us because most of us have no idea what we would do without our yoga practice. And I will admit, it’s been a scary and destabilizing thought for me too, for sure. But I really do believe we can do better than this. We can turn to our own cultural roots to discover practices that build spiritual sustenance. And yes, yoga is a practice that anyone can come to, but I’d encourage you to ask yourself, is the yoga you are practicing a spiritual practice? Or is a glorified fitness regime that is more invested in outwards appearances than deep spiritual work? Because what I know, is that yoga is a practice that can give us deep learning and that most of what we are doing, is running as far a field away from that learning as we can.

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Photo from Flick’r

That being said, there are some really amazing teachers and leaders who I feel are doing some essential and game changing work in the western yoga world. These projects consist of people I have learned a lot from who I would encourage all of you to keep an eye on. Check out The Underground Yoga Parlour for Self Knowledge and Social Justice, Total Liberation Yoga, Third Root in Brooklyn and People’s Yoga in East La. And finally I would encourage you to watch South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) and Roopa Singh. I can confidently say that Roopa is doing some of the most meaningful, spiritually integral and politically brave work that I’ve seen in all my time as a yoga teacher and blogger. Watch her – and do your best to really listen.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

If the answer seems simple – keep digging.

If these questions make you uncomfortable, don’t turn away – take a deep breath and ask yourself why.

The rabbit hole awaits, and trust me – it’s not as scary as it seems.


This project officially ended in the fall of 2014. In the fall of 2015 I launched my new magic + writing project. If you’d like to follow my current work you can find it at www.andigracewrites.com

Community Based Yoga …Or.. What yoga can learn from Community Acupuncture

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Community Yoga Vancouver

Right now Community Yoga Vancouver is fundraising for our our very own by-donation studio. You can contribute to our campaign and help make our dream a reality here.

Many of us exit space and time entirely during that first savasana. These experiences uniquely prepare us for empathy. Somewhere we realize: everyone has access to this spaciousness, this relaxation, this non-reactivity. But it is an empathy we haven’t the means to share if we’re not behaving like a culture. Ten minutes of camaraderie in the changeroom after a sweaty class will not organize a soup kitchen.

Matthew Remski in 21st Century Yoga

When I was at my yoga teacher training two summers ago I over heard a conversation between two people in my training. They were discussing acupuncture and how helpful they had found it. I have had chronic muscle tension in my neck and shoulders for most of my adult life, so over hearing this made me wonder if acupuncture might help me. Thing is, acupuncture is expensive, usually running around $80 for a treatment – not something I could ever afford, especially not for more than one treatment.

When I came home from my training I passed by an acupuncture clinic near my house. There was a sign out front that read “Poke Community Acupuncture” and “sliding scale $20 to $40”.  I thought to myself, “I can afford to at least try this”. So, I did. Poke is set up with about 8 chairs in the back room and the acupuncturist treats patients one after the other, leaving them to sleep together in the treatment room. Because they treat a patient every 10 minutes Poke can charge much less for each treatment. With a communal treatment room everyone shares in the healing energy of the space, rather than being isolated in separate treatment rooms.

Sitting in the chair, watching the needles poke my skin one by one in a circle across my limbs, I instantly felt relaxed and sleepy. It was similar to how I feel in savasana at the end of my asana practice. I was told I could sleep for my first treatment, but I stayed awake just noticing how it made me feel. About half way through the treatment it felt like a marble rolled out of my shoulder, down my arm and out my middle finger. This was the first time I ever felt that kind of release in my shoulder. I was hooked.

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Poke Community Acupuncture in Vancouver

I started volunteering at Poke at the front desk and got free treatments in exchange. I love volunteering at Poke. The space is quiet, calm and beautiful – even while being next to a busy street corner. Poke was my first exposure to a healing space that was truly grounded in a sense of community.  We receive our treatments together. We can see each other sleeping. We pool our money and we hold space for ourselves AND the community to rest, relax and heal. When I couldn’t afford $20 for a treatment I was told to keep coming and pay what I could afford. I wasn’t turned away from Poke when I most needed it. I felt like I truly belonged and was valued. There was something brilliant and radical about this.

At some point in my time at Poke I wondered to myself – why had I never felt this way in a yoga studio?

As I started to teach I realized that the model I was seeing in yoga studios really wasn’t serving as many people as it could – especially when I compared it to Poke, where the patients range so drastically in age, race, mobility, sexuality and social status. This diversity is something I have often felt is missing in yoga studios and as a teacher I wondered – how can we make yoga studios more like community acupuncture? What would a yoga studio look like if its goal was to build community, rather than profit?

The more I thought about and researched this idea the more I started to see, there already is a movement to build community in yoga studios – and it’s growing across North America. I wanted a phrase to refer to this movement and lovingly started to call it “community-based yoga”.

From what I can see, community based yoga projects have a few things in common:

By-donation classes
At Community Yoga Vancouver, where I teach, our classes are all by donation. Right now we’re fundraising to open a completely by-donation studio. Bryan Kest, who founded one of the first donation-based yoga studios in North America, wrote a great piece to get teachers thinking about how to offer by-donation classes. Many studios that I would consider to be community oriented offer less than market rate classes.

Safer Space Classes
Studios like Kula Annex in Toronto are introducing classes like queer yoga and brown girls yoga to create safer spaces for people who might not normally feel welcome in regular studios.  Similar classes are available at Community Yoga in Vancouver and at Ambaa yoga through Queer Yoga Montreal.

Combining yoga with other sliding scale healing modalities
Hemma in Victoria is a combination community acupuncture clinic and yoga studio. They operate on a sliding scale. Same with the Healing Roots center in Kitchener. Sacred Body Community and Healing Arts Center in Ann Arbor combines yoga with all kinds of sliding scale healing modalities.  Same thing with Third Root in Brooklyn.

Crowd funded
If you search “community yoga” on indiegogo lots of campaigns come up. Grow yoga project fundraised to send Angélica De Jesús to a teacher training, with the expressed goal that they would give back to community with more accessible classes when they graduated. Community Yoga Vancouver’s new studio will be crowd funded. Same with The People’s yoga in Oregon and Tri-yoga in Pensylvania.

Consent Cards
Queen St Yoga in Kitchener, Kula Annex in Toronto and Community Yoga Vancouver all use consent cards to allow students to indicate whether they would like to recieve physical assists. This keeps the students safe and opens up communication between the teachers and students that prevent teachers from making assumptions about people’s needs or their bodies.

Community Yoga's consent cards

Community Yoga’s consent cards

Many of the studios listed above embody several or all of these characteristics. What is most noticeable though, is that the goal behind these studios is not to make excessive amounts of profits – but rather to offer yoga to as many people as possible.  Accessibility is the bottom line. In these spaces, it seems money is exchanged to keep the spaces open and the teachers paid. We pool our funds collectively to allow community to grow. My feeling is that we do this because we’re stronger supporting each other to heal, rather than doing it all on our own. Community acupuncture recognizes this and slowly yoga is starting to catch on too.

There is a big difference here, I think, between charity and community building. We’re not asking teachers to work for free – which is challenging for anyone struggling to pay rent, as most yoga teachers do. We’re working together to support each other to heal and grow. In the same way an acupuncturist sits in the chair at the end of their shift at a community acupuncture clinic, with community based yoga teachers can take classes in studios that reflect their values and their community connections. We’re creating horizontal networks of community ties and we’re changing what it means to practice yoga in North America.

In my daydreams I wonder if one day all these community based yoga studios will eventually join together to create an organization similar to the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. What if we joined all these community-oriented studios together to support each other? What if we shared funds through crowd funding when one of us was threatened with closure? What if we could move from one city to another and know there’s a studio we can land in for instant community? What if we built a movement with yoga and we dared to boldly dream that healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth could be available to anyone who wants it – no matter who they are.

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My hope is that you’ll treat this as an introduction to some of the other people and places across North America who feel the same passion you do. An introduction to spaces working tirelessly to keep their doors and hearts open.

Whether we realize it or not – what we’re doing here is building a movement.

One breath at a time.

I want to thank Matthew Remski whose brilliant piece in 21st Century Yoga has been an inspiration to me as I’ve organized with Community Yoga Vancouver. I also want to thank Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey for putting this brilliant book together.

 

Community-based yoga studios:

Canada
De La Sol Yoga – Hamilton, On
Healing Roots center
 – Kitchener, On
Queen St yoga – Kitchener, On
Kula Annex – Toronto, On
Community Yoga – Vancouver, BC
Hemma – Victoria, BC

Europe
Edinburgh Community Yoga – Edinburgh, Scotland

USA
Just B Yoga – Lansing, Mi
Yoga to the People – Berkley, Ca
Third Root – Brooklyn, NY
Yoga to the People – New York, NY
Lotus Seed – Portland, Or
The People’s yoga – Portland, Or
Yoga to the People – San Francisco
Power Yoga – Santa Monica, Ca
Yoga to the People – Seattle, Wa
Tri-yoga – State College and Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
Yoga to the People – Tempe, Az

Feel free to introduce me to your studio by emailing andrea.grace.macdonald@gmail.com and I will add you to this list.

Off the Mat and Into the World: The veiled imperialism of Western yoga’s new-age missionaries

This is a paper I wrote recently for one of my classes at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC (un-ceded Musqueam territory). It is an academic paper, though my writing style was heavily influenced by the way I blog. Please note that I wouldn’t usually express my ideas with this kind of language or in this format. I feel like academic writing is often very rigid and inaccesible, for many reasons. That said, I think the paper has some useful insights into thinking though imperialism and feel-good spiritual activism.

Off the Mat and Into the World:
The veiled imperialism of western yoga’s new-age missionaries

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Introduction: good intentions and the end of innocence

The fusion of yoga and activism is a quickly growing trend. As more and more people use yoga as a tool for healing and personal growth they come to a place of deep appreciation and gratitude for the benefits and freedom the practice grants them. From this place a desire to “be of service” arises. This desire to serve, combined with a whole lot of privilege, mobility, and a growing retreat culture has lead to the growth of a new kind of missionary work: “yogi’s” travelling across the world to help those who are “less fortunate”. At first glance this trend might appear not only innocent, but perhaps even positive. What could be wrong with people wanting to put the values and lessons they’ve learned on the mat into action to help others? But perhaps this trend is not as innocent as it appears. In fact it is my feeling that this growing trend in yoga-based missionary work is a veiled extension of colonialism and imperialism, however well intentioned it may appear.

Before I move onto the main body of my analysis I think I should position myself. I’m a western yoga teacher. I’m also an activist and community organizer. Service is most certainly an important part of my practice. I see my politics as an aspect of my spiritual practice and I certainly believe that what I’ve learned on my mat can be put to good use out in the world. At the same time I’m also highly aware of my position of privilege. I’m a white, middle class settler and a Canadian citizen. I’m fit, cis-gendered and ablebodied. I’m often read as straight, though I learning to (more accurately) identify myself as a femme-queer. That said I certainly benefit from hetero privilege. In many ways, my positionality is not drastically different from Seane Corn’s – who is the focus of my paper. Because of this I feel there is much for me to learn and reflect on in deconstructing her subject position. I should also say that in many ways I admire her work and I definitely appreciate the integrity of her intentions, but I also feel good intentions aren’t enough. If we want to create substantial change in the world; if we want to work toward justice, liberation and freedom for all people, I feel we desperately need to interrogate our own privilege and the ways we are implicated in the oppression and marginalization of those we hope to “help”. Further we should be asking if what these people need is our help, or our solidarity.  We need to learn to implicate our own experience, our own positions and our privilege. Jane Flax puts this sentiment really well when she explains:

“We need to learn ways of making claims about and acting upon injustice without transcendental guarantees or illusions of innocence. One of the dangerous consequences of transcendental notions of justice or knowledge is that they release us as discrete persons from full responsibility for our acts. We remain children, waiting if our own powers fail, for the higher authorities to save us from the consequences of our actions.” (emphasis added) (459-460)

I feel one of the most powerful aspects of yoga as a practice is coming into ourselves. We spend time in our bodies, connecting to our breath, learning to take responsibility for ourselves and accept reality without judgment or resistance. We can apply this same kind of self-understanding to our politics. We can use this way of knowing ourselves to be self-reflexive. Indeed we have to, if we hope to truly be of service.

Who is Seane Corn and why does her work matter?

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn is an internationally famous yoga teacher. She is what’s known as a “yogilebrity”. Almost every western yoga teacher knows who she is and her work has contributed substantially to bringing awareness within the yoga community to global injustice. Seane is regularly invited to speak at large events like the Yoga Journal Conference and Wanderlust – which cost hundreds of dollars to attend. At these speaking events Seane speaks about her service work and she often weaves this into the narrative of her life story. In a video posted in 2012, where she is interview by Deepak Chopra, Corne explains the spiritual significance of her service work. She says:

“The answer comes to me usually, through a child or a prostitute, or even a pimp, who says or does something, that reminds me that I don’t even need to worry about what this bigger picture is, all I have to do is show up from love and commit to that love.” (emphasis added)

Now, it should be said that I can relate to Seane’s intention here. Sometimes it’s important to drop your political analysis so that you can genuinely, in a non-intellectual way, connect with the person in front of you. It’s important, I would agree, to be heart centered when you are building relationships. All that said, it appears to me that it is a running theme of Seane’s work and descriptions of her life that she chooses to gloss over her privilege. The thing about privilege is that it’s easy to deem it insignificant when you are the person who has it (which we all do to some degree). Nancy Chater explains:

“Since part of white skin privilige is the “freedom” not to be aware of it, conceding to feeling powerless in the face of actual confrontations with racism serves only to reproduce racism.” (102)

While I can understand what Seane is trying to say, I find it worrying that she can so easily dismisses, “the bigger picture”. I wonder if this bigger picture would seem more important to her, less easily dismissed, if she were in a less privileged position, a position where she wasn’t cast as the saviour.

Off the Mat, Into the World

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane is the founder of an organization called Off the Mat Into the World. Off the Mat is one of the largest yoga-based non-profits in the world. They organize people who practice yoga to vote, offer leadership trainings and lead yearly Seva Challenges, in which participants have fundraised millions of dollars to support development work around the world. Participants in the challenge who fundraise at least $20,000 are invited to join Off the Mat’s founders on journeys across the world to “work directly with the organization their funds have helped to support”.  Off the Mat’s website describes the Seva Challenge like this:

“The Seva Challenge is a transformational journey that builds community, provokes awareness and action around global issues, and raises significant funds to support communities in crisis. Since 2007, the Seva Challenge has raised over $3 million dollars for projects in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa, Haiti and India.” (emphasis added)

For me, it’s hard not to notice the parallels between Seva Challenge and civilizing Christian missions: well meaning, spiritual people – largely privileged white women – travelling across the globe to “help” those that are “less fortunate” and “in need of development”. As the above quote illustrates, much of the value of these journeys is vested in the spiritual growth of the people doing the challenge, rather than “uplifting” and “helping” people from the global south.

Some might ask, well what is the problem with fundraising money for a good cause and then visiting the place you are helping? That seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? Perhaps not. In a paper discussing international feminist praxis Haggis and Schech problematize the helping relationship which so many western feminists, and I feel spiritual activists as well, ascribe to:

“Here the benevolent trope, with its taken for granted hierarchical relationship between the western feminist and the oppressed other, develops into something more like a marriage partnership, whereby the western feminist becomes the provider. This mimicry of the stereotypical western patriarchal marriage is couched in the terms of partnership.” (emphasis added) (392-393)

When you combine a lack of self-understanding regarding your own privilege with a desire to help, there is the tendency for your service work to simply reinforce the hierarchy you are hoping to address. When people with a lot of privilege utilize that privilege to give money to causes around the world, they not only run the risk of imposing their will on the culture and people they are trying to help, they manage to shape an improved sense of self worth while doing it. So it could be said that the service work really becomes more about reinforcing the image of the helper, than actually helping those “in need”.

One might ask, isn’t it possible to give money to a cause without imposing your will on them? Yes, that is possible, but it’s extremely challenging to do when such a grave power imbalance exists between the two parties involved AND one of the parties believes they have answers to offer the “people in need”. Several years ago Seane and members of the Seva challenge travelled to Uganada to assist with the building of a birthing center. Seane described her trip in a blog on Ophrah.com like this:

“On Saturday night, I finally arrived in Uganda. It is as beautiful and complex as I remembered. There are flocks of bats and turkey vultures flying in circles just outside my window, scary and prehistoric looking, but my eyes can’t stay with them for long. What keeps drawing my attention down is the earth below. I’m always struck by the rich, red soil of Africa. It looks so fertile and dense, the perfect breeding ground for the “Motherland,” and I’m anxious to go outside and feel her once again under my feet. I’m so happy to be back here and feel strangely at home. Perhaps it’s the kindness and generosity of her people, or the fact that my father grew up in Northern Africa, or maybe it’s the powerful feeling of spirit and tribe that penetrates this culture. Whatever it is, I’m delighted to be welcomed back.”

There are quite a few problems with this description and I feel it is quite revealing, not only of Seane’s position of power, but also of the imperial nature of her trip. First of all, Seanes description of the land and the people as “prehistoric” and “tribal” are extremely reminiscent of the noble savage trope, employed by many colonizers as they discovered the “new world”. All to often well meaning western people essentialize the very complex lived experiences of people from the “third world” and then position themselves as the saviours of these simple, backwards people. The third world people are linked to the land, their bodies, tribal lifestyles and a simple, majestic way of life, as well as tied to nature – many of these links are demonstrated in the quote above and through Seane’s piece.

Much work has been done by anti-racist feminists to deconstruct the un-even relationship that exists between first and third world feminists and insight from this work, I feel, can also be applied to Seva Challenge. Chandra Mohanty explains:

“This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read:sexually constrained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, family oriented, victimized, etc). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self representation of western women as educated, modern as having control over their bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions”. (243)

Seane constructs a perfect example of this essentialized third world woman in another blog post she wrote for Oprah.com about witnessing a birth in a Ugandan birthing center. She writes:

“Like most of the impoverished rural women, she will likely grow up without a proper education, will lack food and water and will most likely be married off young in exchange for cows…and that’s if she’s lucky. The odds were better that she’d be raped, become one of many wives, and most likely contract AIDS, assuming she wasn’t already born with it. It was hard to feel excited for this child knowing that her life would prove to be hard.”

Throughout the piece Seane’s description of the birthing process and her prediction of the baby’s life clearly positions her as the saviour. In the rest of the post she describes herself as deeply moved by this experience and gives money to the woman who gave birth  (which she can easily procure due to her position of privilege, not to mention the fact that she is able to travel to Africa for this experience in the first place). She then tells the new mother what to do with the money – as if the woman couldn’t possibly make an informed decision about how to spend it herself. In this way Seane constructs herself as benevolent and erases the mothers’ agency. She also writes that the new baby is beautiful, “like a wild animal”.

This post not only displays an extremely troubling lack of self-reflexivity, it also casts the birth and the birthing center in a completely inaccurate and minimizing light. The post generated quite a bit of activity online, including responses from a Ugandan midwife:

“This is one of the most offensive things I have ever read. Your inherent belief that your ‘way’ is better/truer, your blatant disregard (even contempt) for the knowledge of the local midwives who staff the clinic and lack the ‘spirit of birth’, your assumption that the lack of care is a result of anything other than colonization is striking and scary. You speak so poorly of the staff midwife (who didn’t offer the care and love that you did). But did you ever consider who would have stepped in if there had been an emergency? Did you ever consider that her attitude might have shifted with you, the white women, in the room? You even assume that three women who have never attended a birth or spent more than a few weeks in a country know more about birth than the midwife and the woman giving birth herself. This comes from a long line of colonized thinking and quite frankly, it’s not helpful.” (emphasis added)

This quote clearly demonstrates the Seane was not only unwelcome in the space, but that her portrayal of the experience is not only imaginary, but deeply harmful. Her narrative then, can be seen as a mechanism within an imperial narrative which consistently and harmfully positions her and women like her as innocent, benevolent and helpful while at the same time represents women and people of the global south as backwards, tribal and in need of western intervention. These kinds of representations are not only offensive and untrue – they are violent.

This kind of simplistic renderings of women from the third world is regularly used to justify imperial conquest. For example, look at the Afghanistan war where imperial nations like America and Canada frequently employee descriptions and images of oppressed, veiled Afghani women to justify the war effort. We’re told “we must bring democracy to the middle east, we must liberate these women” – all the while women’s pay equity and re-productive rights in the imperial nations are constantly under attack. The hypocrisy of these positions is too painfully obvious and detrimentally harmful to be ignored.

Moving Beyond Good Intentions

solidarity

Now, I don’t believe that Seane Corn is intentionally trying to offer herself or her work as a tool in imperial conquest, in fact I have faith that she hopes her work would produce exactly the opposite effect. That said, good intentions don’t excuse the impacts of your actions. I wonder, if perhaps her position as a saviour, an activist and a spiritual leader has left her feeling comfortable enough not to question her own complicity. Sedef Arat-Koc wrote a piece in 2002 regarding western feminist positions on the Afghan war which I think lends itself well to understanding what I’m discussing here:

“In addition to the seductiveness of power that seems to ensure, there is something else which is intoxicating about an obsessive gaze on the “other”. Such a gaze not only affirms “our” superiority over the “other”, but also conveniently shifts the attention away from our own problems, conditions and status. Such a shift of attention not only helps “us” forget or remain unaware of the increasingly grim possibilities of achieving equality and better conditions for women in a period of economic and state restructuring. It also keeps us blind to the state of “our” civilization at a time when western countries are facing a set of changes since September 11th, of a nature not short of a coup. What we are facing since September 11th constitutes no less than a serious awakening, if not a major collapse of many institutions and practices which we supposed to be central to the self definitions of western countries as “free”, “democratic” and “tolerant”.” (61)

Bearing this in mind it becomes clear that a shift away from charity work to solidarity work is much needed. If we believe that we are all one, that we are energetically and spiritually connected and obligated to one another, then we must work to unpack all the dynamics and power and privilege that work to stratify and disconnect us from one another. We CAN work to end oppression, in fact a spiritual practice without this intention, I feel, is hollow and entirely too self oriented. In fact, this is a problem Seane speaks of regularly when she encourages her students and the yoga community to move beyond their personal practice and heed the call to serve. I just think she can and must take this concept one step further to include understanding her own privilege and encouraging her students to do the same.

I believe that the call to service must include un-packing our privilege. Doing so will allows us to enter into much-needed solidarity work. Service shouldn’t be a stepping-stone to higher self esteem achieved by standing on the backs of others – in fact I would go so far as to say that that isn’t service at all. Yoga is, at it’s heart, a liberatory practice. We can and should combine it with critical self-analysis. Doing so will leave us unable cling to comforting notions of innocence and allow us to do work that not only unpacks, but completely rejects the notion that we can or should impose our will, our answers, on others. Any other kind of approach lacks empathy, is steeped in illusion and will simply work to re-produce the separation we are all working so tirelessly to overcome.

Works Cited 

Arat-Koc, Sedef. “Hot Potato: Imperial Wars or Benevolent Interventions? Reflections on “Global Feminism” Post September 11th.” Atlantis 26.2 (2002): 53-65.

Chater, Nancy. “Biting the Hand that Feeds Me: Notes on Privilege From a White Anti-Racist Feminist.” Canadian Women’s Studies 14.2 (1994): 100-104.

Corne, Seane, “The Journey Begins.” Seane Corne Arrives in Africa. Oprah. 16 Feb 2010. 20 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Seane-Corn-Arrives-in-Uganda

Corne, Seane. “A Soul Enters the World.” A Birthing Center in Uganda. Oprah. 5 March 2010. 21 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/A-Birthing-Center-in-Uganda

Flax, Jane. “The End of Innocence.” Feminists Theorize the Political, Ed. Judith Butler. Routledge, 1992. 445-463.

Haggis, Jane and Susanne Schech. “Meaning Well and Global Good Manners:Reflections on White Western Feminist Cross-cultural Praxis.” Australian Feminist Studies. 15.33. (2000): 387-399.

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes.” The Post Colonial Studies Reader, Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Routledge, 1995. 242-245.

“Seane Corn “Showing up and committing to love | WHO ARE YOU Part 2”. YouTube. The Chopra Well, 24 September 2012. Web. March 16 2013.

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

The Lululemon Bag is Lying to You.

Image

The Lululemon bag is lying to you.

It’s encouraging, shallow platitudes
suggest you could be a better person
if only you wore
more flattering pants.

It’s a comforting, condesending symbol
of your inflated morality,
a lifestyle purchased on credit
against the better judgement
of your balanced budget
and your “non-attachement” to material things.

It will encourage you
to “do something every day that scares you”
but never acknowledge
the fear of non-belonging
that sold you in the first place.

It will tell you
that friends are more important than money,
while Chip lines his pockets
with the viciously reduced overhead
of his conveniently distant ladies labour force.

It will tell you
that simply breathing is enough,
so long as you have
the outfit to match.

The Lululemon bag is lying to you.

It’s that feeling,
that gnawing in your belly,
the tickle at the back of your mind,
that something about this fabric on your skin
isn’t quite right.

Listen to it.

Open yourself up
to your honest interpretation
of this televised spectacle,
a marriage between consumerism
and our lost self esteem.

You will stand in a room
full of pre-packaged
spandex normality
and claim liberation, freedom
and individuality.

You will not find enlightenment
in the perfect pair of pants.
Just admit it –
you were probably hoping
the answer was that easy.

I know I was.

Yoga, Capitalism and Community – An Interview

Recently I did an interview for Words Away where I spoke about yoga, capitalism and how to build community. It was a bit of an experiment for me. Most of my pieces are drafted and edited multiple times before I publish them. This interview is pretty much my stream of consciousness – raw, unpolished thoughts and opinions. As always, critiques and thoughts are welcome. The interview is available in full below.

 

Andrea MacDonald on yoga and breaking it from a shallow mold

Andrea MacDonald

On her blog, yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald has explored how secluded much of the discipline is–at least as it’s most widely known.  This may seem fairly obvious to some, but there are few words to that effect.  So, here’s some more, in the form of a Words Away interview with her:

***

There should probably be a distinction made between what I associate yoga with — at its broadest, most commercial level — and what it is in general, along with what you think it can be.

Yoga at a broad commercialized level is most commonly associated with white, slender, flexible, often female bodies. Bodies like mine. Usually these bodies are striking poses in spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, softly lit studios. Of course there is the prominent material association with particular kinds of food (coconut water), clothing (lululemon) and culturally appropriated, often inconsistently paired iconic religious imagery (Buddha heads and women wearing bindis for example). I think Frank Jude Bocio explains it well when he says:
“Rather than question the capitalist model of consumerism, with its creation of ever more desires and false needs for product, contemporary yoga has become a more than willing accomplice. Rather than presenting an alternative to the concomitant ideology of North American individualism, which prioritizes and valorize the isolate ‘self’ over the relational matrix, it has eagerly embraced it.”

What all of this signals is a sense of shallowness to our westernized, commercialized yoga practice. Yoga’s development as a philosophy and as a fitness trend, has taken place over thousands of years, all across the globe. It doesn’t have a central coordinating body, or even a central text necessarily — though one might argue the yoga sutras fill this role. The point is that yoga is not really definable. The word yoga evokes different feelings, images, communities and intentions. It’s used by the military to teach focus as readily as it’s employed by progressive activists to heal from burn out. It knows no fixed identity. In some ways, this is what lends yoga it’s power, popularity, mystery and appeal.

 How did you find your way to yoga?

For me, yoga started as a tool for personal growth and healing. I turned to the practice at 18 after being sexually assaulted at a time when I was suffering from severe anxiety and moderate addiction. You might be surprised to hear how many people have stories like mine. Most people come to yoga to heal some kind of suffering. This creates an often unacknowledged dark side to our communities, but also makes what we offer a powerful tool to build resilience, relaxation and sustainable political resistance.

Eventually my practice fell away as I took up a more than full time commitment to environmental and social justice activism. With my first experience of burn-out after the 2010 Olympics I came back to yoga. My practice was a balancing force of stillness and calm in my busy, chaotic, force-focused life. Eventually that balanced tipped so far out of whack I found myself exhausted, lonely (even while surrounded by community) and even more burnt out than where I started.

Needing to regroup and heal I took my teacher training and spent a year studying, teaching and living at Occupy Vancouver. I saw this time as “cocooning.” This year I’ve come out of the protective space I cultivated, newly inspired. I want to use yoga as a form of community organizing and open up political dialogue about the meeting places between our bodies, our breath and the realities of our lives. I founded Community Yoga Vancouver with teachers who care about making yoga more heartfelt, uncomplicated and accessible. As best we can we’re eliminating the material crap that keeps people from practicing or feeling like they don’t belong.

You’ve written some about how non-inviting yoga can be to people outside a very specific demographic, both financially and culturally.  Yoga’s most financially viable element seems to be tied to traditional lookism, in the way that many health outlets are.  How difficult is it to maintain a venue that’s counter to that?

Like I said before, there are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga. Yoga studios capitalize on peoples’ insecurities about their bodies and on their deep loneliness and disconnection from spiritual fulfillment. They promise students the “yoga butt” (or some other ridiculous incentive) that simply keeps people trapped in a cycle of self-hatred, judgement and grasping. Not all studios do this, but many do, particularly those that see the practice as simply a fitness trend. It’s a frustrating trend to watch grow and one that demands a consistent critique — I feel.

For us it was completely natural to open a space that celebrated and offered sacred protection to bodies that fall outside the norm, which really, is most bodies. We don’t promise our students they will magically transform into someone else. We offer them space to be exactly as they are. In practicing self acceptance our students support each other to do the same. Hopefully this ripples out to the broader community as well.

We really do believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga and we work to challenge the commonly held definition of what that sentiment means. We teach our students to find contentment and acceptance in their bodies. We teach them skills to balance fierce presence with deep surrender. We want them to acquire love and reverence for each moment – even when that moment demands struggle.

This was natural to us politically, but also personally. My partner in the project is a self-identified fat-femme-queer teacher. As her allie I willingly identify the anonymity,  access and privilege I have in a regular studio. I can blend in if I want because I’m thin and flexible, but that is not what my practice is about. Also that is not to say she isn’t flexible. She can open her hips waaaay wider than I can.

My practice and teaching is about honouring truth and discovering authentic embodiment. I think it’s dangerous to take steps away from that understanding, to make your practice conditional on your body looking and performing a particular way. Doing so will take you away from the fundamental truth that this practice, this life, is ultimately grounded in your breath and that is something almost anyone can access. It is not always an easy process because we don’t have a well-rehearsed business plan, like most other studios. We have to be creative and willing to take risks. We are lucky to have mentors and a quickly growing support network of senior teachers lifting us up, celebrating and encouraging our work. We are by no means dong this work alone.

I’m not sure that real diversity makes for something as easy as people would like it to be, nor that it makes for the kind of serenity people who practice yoga generally associate with its natural environment.  At its simplest level, it’s just fairer.  As a yoga instructor who wants to tap into that, what are your thoughts on the kind of diversity that’s perpetually lacking because it isn’t easy?

I think most studios see diversity and accessibility as most directly related to class prices. Sometimes they will offer a free class or two or do energy exchanges for free passes and they consider this opening up their studio. It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

The barriers are more complex than price. Some studios intentionally create, though usually don’t acknowledge, the barriers they set up to accessing their space. They want their studio to have a sense of a prestige. They aim to increase the sense of belonging for a select, privileged group. Some of this is related to “just paying the rent,” but much of it is masked elitism and classism.

There is an implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that yoga studios are places of serenity and therefore are not political, but this simply isn’t the case. The politics of belonging play out in every class where every students look, dress and move in the same way. We are grooming people into the status quo and calling it liberation.

In some ways, these dynamics make our work at Community Yoga Vancouver easier. By taking a stance against exclusion people can see what we are not. There is a growing resentment toward corporate yoga culture and in a way we make use of that. The physical space for our classes is sparse, unevenly lit and strangely shaped. It’s a typical East Van anomaly and we chose it on purpose. We want to embrace the strange, the unpredictable and the unpolished. We value raw honesty over pedicured pretense and it shows in our space, our politics and our classes.

Some neighborhoods are just more stressful than others, and I’ve heard the sentiment of how great yoga could be for the people who live in some of the harshest ones from people who have some familiarity with those places while fitting in well enough with the typical yoga demographic.  I’ve felt like this was one of those obvious sentiments that generally ignores the way the world often works.  The financial and cultural divide between the two worlds is a great one, so where do you think the border is?  And how out of the way is it for people on either side?

There is some incredible work being done to offer yoga to marginalized communities — prisons, women’s shelters etc. Street Yoga, Yoga Outreach – they do wonderful inspiring work to offer yoga without all the glitz and stuffiness of a studio setting. In terms of neighbourhoods though, I think yoga teachers and studio owners, people who have personally benefited a great deal from learning about yoga, often take the attitude that yoga will always be welcome and helpful, wherever they offer it. Frequently there is a sense of perceived need and yoga is offered as a solution. The problem is that often we aren’t asking — what is the actual problem here? Is it a lack of yoga? Or are we looking at a community shaped by a history of racism, colonization, violence against women and institutionalized poverty? When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

All that said — I think yoga can work to increase well being and deepen connection to spirit, if people want to learn the practice. Even so, for yoga service to work well we need to be conscious of the context, the historical and political realities, within which we make our offerings. Without this knowledge we’re imposing solutions that are not grounded in understanding. We run the risk of reinforcing and deepening the divide between server, service and served.

For Community Yoga Vancouver it was important to acknowledge a service gap that exists between very marginalized people and middle to upper class people. Both these populations have people working to provide them with yoga, though in starkly different ways. What this produces is a gap between the two groups, where the working class is underserved. We created a pricing structure that makes yoga accessible to people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, but aren’t necessarily experiencing life-altering poverty. This approach was hugely influenced by the Community Acupuncture movement, which seeks to serve the same population and also utilizes a community based model.

Is it a necessity to practice yoga in a group?  Is there anything that you think is gained from it as a social endeavor?   

Fundamentally, yoga is a journey inward, sometimes to a fault. It has often been used as a transcendental, individuating practice. “Turn inward to find the divine.” This approach lends itself simultaneously to reinforcing attachment to the self, in the short term, and on the other hand, supports empty rhetoric about discovering oneness. Actually discovering “one-ness” takes more dedication that the average yoga practitioner possesses –  myself included, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Can you see the contradiction here? You come to yoga alone, leave alone and then wear a t-shirt that says “We Are All One.” If we really believe that, if we really want to honour our connection to divinity and therefore to each other and existence in general, why not do so both in our practice and in our politics? It’s not an automatic connection, but it’s one we can cultivate.

That’s a pretty heady answer. So let’s break this down a bit. Yes, you can practice yoga alone. I have an at-home practice I find invaluable. The limits of this, though, are that we perpetuate self reliance over community ties. We don’t learn to release tension and holding in a trusted circle of our peers: people who are hoping for the same release, release that can only come with trust.  Trust in the safety of our bodies, the safety of space and the safety we find in community.

We don’t offer our presence up in service to others when we practice at home. We lose the potential for connection. When we practice together we offer ourselves up as examples of people in process. We might be turning inward to discover peace and stillness, but we do it together because part of our practice is developing unconditional support for ourselves and by extension, for others. When we practice together we build empathy because whatever patience we show ourselves, we extend to everyone else in the room. This kind of radical empathy and space-holding makes for rich, lasting community ties … and hopefully solidarity as well.