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

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.

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

With Best Intentions: Yoga, Gentrification and Solidarity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

One thing I’ve noticed about yoga teachers is that almost all of us are in some way driven to help people. We want to create positive change in the world. We want to show others that healing is possible, just like others have shown us. Usually we’ve come from a place of suffering and when we found yoga we discovered safety, peace and serenity we didn’t have before. We discovered our breath, our bodies and even sometimes God – for lack of a better word. Eventually our paths as teachers and healers were revealed to us.  We excitedly make our way through our teacher trainings and when we finish we’re unleashed into the world – shiny eyed and well intentioned. We are a quickly growing league of big-hearted, makeshift missionaries. Despite the purity of our intentions, in our fumbling infancy we sometimes accidentally cause harm where we mean to be helpful.

Before I move on to the remainder of this piece I want to clarify a few things. I am a relatively new teacher. I don’t claim to know all the answers. I am merely hoping to ask questions and point out some problems I’ve noticed. I have respect for the teachers’ whose work I address in this piece and I hope to work with them in the future so we can discuss the questions raised here and more. I want to be a comrade and a friend – not an enemy or an outsider. I believe the work we do is deeply important, I just think we need to be more mindful of how we execute it so that we can better contribute to the change we hope to create. I also want to acknowledge that while I use one group as an example here I am by no means trying to target them – my intention is to spark conversation. This group is just one example of people doing this work and they happen to be doing it in my hometown, in a community I’m familiar with. There are many teachers, yoga studios and non-profits that should be thinking about gentrification, privilege and oppression – myself included. This is work we all need to be doing.

Recently I came across an article from Elephant Journal that was posted on the Karma Teacher’s website. It’s entitled “Karma Teachers: Showing the Huddled Masses How to Breathe for Free”. What I’d like to draw some attention to here is the language used to the describe the “huddled masses” Karma Teachers are “in service to”:

“We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks.
This is where Karma Teachers have opened their new studio. They are on a mission: teaching yoga for free with an open door policy in this forgotten part of town (emphasis added).”

As far as I’m aware the person who wrote this article is not a member of Karma Teachers. They don’t live in Vancouver. Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.

I find this article troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, how do you think potential students (or, you know, the “huddled masses”) would feel about this description? Do you think it would make them feel welcome and respected or looked down on and untouchable – just like they are made to feel every day by most of society? When we talk about accessibility, do we just mean prices, or are we actually attempting to create safer space where people can leave the judgments others have of them at the door? Our words have power and in this case they serve to illuminate a massive perceived separation between the people being served and the people doing the service.

Second, this piece is quite de-humanizing and degrading to the people being described. Yes, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are homeless, suffering from addiction or involved in the sex trade, but they are people having these experience. They are not simply “homeless” or “drunks”. The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”. Emma Laroque explains:

“As an inherent part of the colonial project, Europeans categorized themselves as the “civilized” and Indigenous peoples as the “savages,” the underlying assumption being that as savages, “Indians” were at the bottom of human development. From this institutionalized bias a complex set of images, terminology, policies and legislation has set Aboriginal peoples apart, both geographically (on reserves and residential schools), and as inferior peoples. In the larger society such assumptions are perpetuated through the media and the marketplace, through Hollywood, comics, ads and tourist sites. Such racism is deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society (emphasis added).”

Considering this historically established relationship of dominance, can you see why I would find the description East Hastings troubling? Reverence for this history is of particular import when we are offer yoga classes on un-ceded Coast Salish territory. Even more so when such a high proportion of indigenous people make up the demographics of East Hastings.

I think this situation offers us a crucial opportunity to think about our status as outsiders – both as settlers on indigenous territory, but also as teachers coming from outside the community of the Downtown Eastside. When you come from outside a community, especially when you assume they need your help, there is a tendency to impose solutions on the people you are trying to help – solutions they may not need or even be open to. This happened with Christian missionaries hundreds of years ago and it’s happening now as the Downtown Eastside is transformed through gentrification. Harsha Walia, an activist and organizer from the Downtown Eastside explains:

“Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers.”

Whenever newcomers set up shop in a neighbourhood that is experiencing gentrification, especially when we are trying to do good work, it is important that we are mindful of the realities of the neighbourhood which we now “call home”. In fact, it is all too common that predatory condo developers shroud their intentions in language similar to service – language like “renewal” and ”revitalization”. Harsha Walia explains:

“In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind [an] ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment… (emphasis added)”.

Gentrification is a vital part of this discussion because, I feel, it is the responsibility of groups like Karma Teachers to understand the lived realities of the communities they are hoping to serve. The Downtown Eastside is constantly swarmed by outsiders, who claim to have good intentions, but are usually much more predatory than they appear.  This neighborhood has a rich history of community organizing and resistance against predatory condo developers and the opportunist governments who work in partnership with them. Examples of this resistance and community organizing include the Woodwards squat, the Annual Downtown Eastside women’s housing march, the 2010 Olympic tent village and the campaign to save the Pantages Theatre– and this is just barely scratching the surface.

There is a big difference, I think, between for-profit condo developers displacing Downtown Eastside residents (and consistently failing to produce promised “affordable” housing) and the work Karma Teacher’s is doing. That being said, gentrification is an aspect of the political reality of the community they hope to serve. Considering this I think it’s crucially important that Karma Teachers be mindful of the language they use to describe where they work and who they work with. For example, note their intention, as quoted from their website:

“We make yoga accessible to those groups that might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in yoga classes. In doing so, we are helping to revitalize Vancouver’s lower east side community (emphasis added).”

No one I have ever met who lives or works in the Downtown Eastside refers to it as the “lower east side”. “Lower east side” is not geographically accurate and it works to erase the rich history and vibrant, relentless resistance of this community.

“Revitalization” is a stated goal of many condo developers as well as Gregor Robertson’s administration, both of which have contested, antagonistic and predatory relationships to the Downtown Eastside. Who is this revitalization serving? Does it work to accomplish anything positive for the people who are living and surviving in the Downtown Eastside? Many community groups and residents would say no. Considering this, perhaps this rhetoric should be avoided in the intentions of anyone hoping to provide service to this community. I don’t think this intention was meant as alignment with condo-developers, but I think this language is indicative of an outsider’s relationship to the Downtown Eastside.

I realize that this may read like a very harsh criticism. I want to make clear that while I feel strongly that this language is a problem and indicative of a power and privilege imbalance that needs to be addressed, I am not saying that their isn’t an opportunity for good work to be done here. I think offering accessible yoga is valuable and sacred work. It’s work that I feel called to do, however imperfectly. I’m simply suggesting that we need to be mindful of what we are trying to accomplish when we set our intentions for this work – are we suggesting that the community we hope to serve is broken? Are we saying that they must change or be “revitalized”? Or are we meeting people exactly where they are at and doing our best to empower them?  I believe this work can be made manifest in a powerful and beneficial way when we see ourselves as allies – not as givers of charity or missionaries with all the answers.

This work is not easy – but that’s why we do it. We want to do more than just feel our breath inside our bodies – we want to help others discover theirs, no matter who they are or where they come from. We want people to connect with a higher purpose and be able to remember the dignity bestowed upon them simply by existing. This is a beautiful and pure intention. With this intention in our hearts we would do well to remember that all those we wish to serve have stories of struggle and resilience, just like us. Their stories are held in their bodies and woven through their communities. These stories were written long before we came to serve and they are endlessly complex. If we open our hearts their richness will teach us the meaning of true service: solidarity, connection, empowerment.

Whose Practice? Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

It was not easy for me to write this piece. I’ve struggled with how best to articulate my thoughts on this complicated and complex subject. In the end, I’ve written something of a meditation. This is my attempt to ask the tough questions; to put myself in a position to be implicated; to admit my complicity and to challenge others to do the same.

To start, I am a white settler in a colonial country. Lots of people whose families came to Canada generations ago don’t think of themselves as settlers – “I was born here”,  we say. I think that it’s important for me to acknowledge my family’s lineage and how that shapes my privilege in the place I call home. My family came here after loosing land in their home countries of Scotland and the Ukraine. They were displaced and sought to build new lives in Canada. What is often forgotten in my family narrative is that their new lives were built on stolen native land. Land that at the time was seen as “empty”, though it certainly was not.  The reality is that theft and displacement made it possible for my family to farm and build lucrative careers in Canada. Because of this I am now in arguably one of the most privileged positions in the world. I’m a white, middle class, Canadian citizen living in Vancouver.

Canadians find it convenient to believe that colonization is a thing of the past. We build museum displays and tourist attractions to celebrate our industrious past and the majestic lives of indigenous people. We conveniently leave out the physical and cultural genocide that made this country what it is today. In keeping with our propensity to turn a blind eye to our wrong doing, we choose to ignore that colonial inquisition is not still ongoing today. You only need to look at the current conditions on reserves; the list of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and the myriad of pipelines set to snake through indigenous territories in BC, to see that Canada is a nation which was built and operates on racism, violence and theft.

So what does this have to do with yoga? In the most basic sense, I teach and practice on unceded indigenous territories. This means treaties were never signed between the Coast Salish people and the Canadian state, so the land title was never officially relinquished (and even if it had been, treaties are linked to lots of sneaky, backhanded manipulation on the part of the government). Considering that I am a settler on unceded land I think it is my responsibility to think through the implications of my teaching yoga. Particularly since yoga is a spiritual practice that originated from a culture and place whose current geopolitical borders didn’t even exist before British colonization and partition.

So what does cultural appropriation have to do with all this? First off, cultural appropriation happens when the dominant (usually white) culture adopts aspects of a minority group’s culture, usually to the detriment of the minority group. Cultural appropriation allows the dominant group to believe they are charitable or sensitive toward the minority group, displaying a “genuine interest” in their culture, even while they are taking advantage of and oppressing them. Perhaps now you can see why, as a white settler and a yoga teacher, I should be concerned about this?

In the yoga world, cultural appropriation can be as simple as a white women wearing a bindi on their forehead or as complicated as us learning, practicing and teaching yoga in the first place. In the “west” (a problematic, geographically inaccurate term) most of the yoga we’re exposed to is asana – the physical postures done in preparation for meditation. Though, it’s not uncommon for westerners to skip the meditation part. As a result of this focus on the physical aspects of the practice, mainstream yoga has become a commodified and often hypersexualized fitness regimen, rather than a complex, life-long spiritual practice. Focusing simply on asana makes our practice shallow and neglects the richness of the broader yogic tradition.

Yoga has become so popular in the “west” that it is even used in marketing to denote certain products as healthy, holistic or “good for you”. The people in the ads don’t even need to be doing yoga, they can simply hold a mat to demonstrate their fitness, health and belonging to the yoga community. The mat has become iconic. An object that was never used in the original practice has come to essentialize yoga. This my friends, is but one small example of cultural appropriation of yoga in the “west”.

Yoga was brought here as a gift. People from the “east” wanted to share this practice with us. It is a good thing, I think, for us to practice yoga. It can even be argued that yoga’s popularity is a demonstration of our society’s longing for connection, stillness and spiritual fulfilment.  That being said, I think it is our responsibility to offer a practice that holds reverence for the lineage, history and culture it arose from. Let us teach in a way that honours the complexity of yoga, in all it’s expressions and various paths. Let us get off our mats and see yoga as a practice in our lives, not just in studios and gyms. Critically, let us resist the commodification and cultural appropriation of the spiritual tradition to which we owe so much, so that we might pass it on to others, in the integrity with which it was brought to us.

Yoga Studios: Open to everyone?

The first time I walked into a yoga studio I was terrified. I had just had three panic attacks in 2 days and spent my lunch break at work that day crying in the bathroom. My anxiety had become so bad I confessed to my mom what was going on and she suggested I go to a yoga class. I can honestly say (like many people who practice yoga) that that class changed my life. That night, for the first time in months, I fell asleep within minutes and slept through the whole night. When I woke up I felt like more of my body was sunk into the mattress than usual. I was letting go and relaxing in a way I wasn’t at all used to but I desperately needed.

Since then I’ve practiced yoga fairly regularly for almost 6 years. I’m now a yoga teacher and my friends make fun of me for wearing tights and yoga pants all the time, but I honestly just don’t feel comfortable in anything else. I need to be able to move in my clothes and jeans just don’t do it for me. But here’s the thing, even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the western yoga world is an un-safe and un-welcoming place for many people.

In many ways, I am the target demographic for yoga studios. I’m white, from a middle class back ground, thin, able-bodied and cis-gendered (that means I identify and am perceived as the gender I was assigned at birth). When you speak to people who work at yoga studios you will commonly hear them say things like “everyone is welcome here”. Many studios hold the intention to be welcoming, healing places for everyone, the reality is that yoga studios set some exclusive and damaging standards for who belongs and who doesn’t.

For example check out the websites from Semperviva and YYoga in Vancouver. Take a look at the people on their sites. They are all thin. Pretty much all of them are white or fair skinned. Based on their clothing and the prices they pay at these studios, you could guess most of them are financially comfortable. None of them appear to be trans* and many of the photographs show people who are unusually flexible. What do you think these photos teach people about who belongs in the yoga world? Can you see why many people would feel unwelcome? When you fit this mold it’s easy to feel like our spaces are welcoming: because they are welcoming, to you.

These photos are just the tip of the iceberg to this problem, but instead of listing more examples here are some steps yoga studios could take to move closer to truly “opening their doors to everyone”:

Offer by-donation classes
Lots of people can’t afford a $20 drop in or a $100 ten class pass (I know I can’t). If you want people to practice, give them opportunities to do so that they can afford. Consider asking new teachers to offer the classes. They’d probably love a chance to practice their new skills.

Make your studio an LGBTQ safe space
It’s one thing to say your studio is safe for queer, trans* or just generally non-gendernormative or non-heternormative people. You can easily do this with a sticker or a tag line on your pamphlets. But like I said before, what you say is not as important as what you do. For example do you assume your students’ genders or do you ask for and respect their preferred pronouns? Does your studio have gender-segregated bathrooms? Some people would feel safer and more welcome if they didn’t have to choose.

Multi-language posters/teachers
This one is pretty straight-forward. If all your marketing and classes are in English then only people who speak English will come. Non-english speaking teachers and classes allow immigrants (legal or otherwise), ESL students and people who speak other languages to practice yoga and build a community that they might not otherwise be able to do in English.

Celebrate fat bodies and body diversity
There are lots of healthy, happy fat people who kick butt at yoga and many fat people who are terrified of studios because they think they don’t belong. Make sure your teachers know how to offer adjustments and alternatives for fat bodies. Consider offering fat classes and avoid making judgmental comments about people’s weight or eating habits. You have no idea about the quality of someone’s health based on their weight and you’re not going to make them more physically active or healthy by shaming them.

Offer meditation classes
In the west, asana (all the poses you do in a yoga class) have been transformed into an en-vogue fitness trend, rather than a stepping stone towards meditation. Not only does this shift contribute to the consumer-capitalist cultural appropriation of yoga, it also demands that yoga practitioners be able to do physical asanas. Think about how many more people would come to yoga studios if they offered affordable meditation classes that could literally be useful to everyone.

Make your studio accessible to people with non-normative physical abilities
Can people in wheel chairs or who use walking aids make it into your studio? If not, could you do a simple renovation to fix this? More importantly, do you offer classes that can be taken by people who don’t have a “normal” range of movement. Think about offering classes in meditation or chair yoga and make sure to include accessibility info in your advertising (eg: do students need to go up stairs to enter your space? What are the size of your doorways?). It’s important though, not to assume that because someone has a non-normative body they can’t do asana. Talk to them before or after class and listen to what they know about their bodies. Try to make them feel comfortable asking questions and offer creative, non-patronizing adjustments if needed.

Offer trauma sensistive classes
If you practice yoga you know that your body holds stress, tension, bad memories, samskaras, you name it. Lots of people don’t want to do yoga because being in their body simply doesn’t feel safe. On top of that yoga studios can feel unsafe for people because they are filled with potential triggers (eg: aggressive teaching instructions, vulnerable poses, teachers touching them without asking, ropes hanging from the wall.. trust me, the list goes on). Do your best to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and offer classes that respect your student’s boundaries. You can help them feel safe, rather than scared and re-traumatized.

Don’t set up in a gentrified neighbourhood
I live in Vancouver so I understand that finding a space to teach can be expensive and that this can translate into high prices for students, but please don’t set up in a neighbourhood filled with people you don’t intend to teach to simply because the rent is low. We may feel that we are working to ”revitalize” a neighbourhood, but often our presence works in tandem with opportunistic and vicious property development companies to displace low-income people and racialized communities from the places they call home. I understand that many studios do intend to teach to the people whose communities they intruded on, but I’ve rarely seen this succeed when classes are filled with people wearing lululemon and class prices are unaffordable to residents.

Offer YTT scholarships
If your studio gives teacher trainings find ways to offer scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. Prioritize people who have greater barriers to overcome than others. Teacher trainings are expensive. By offering scholarships you will encourage a more diverse group of teachers and their future student bodies to blossom and feel welcome.

This is a long list. Many of the things I wrote about here are vastly more complicated than a couple of sentences could explain. I plan to write about many of these issues in more detail in the coming weeks, so check back if you’re interested or want more info. If you have any other ideas about increasing accessibility feel free to send them my way, or better yet, take steps to implement them in your studios. The only way we can make more people feel welcome is if we think critically about our behaviour, our privlege and the kind of spaces we want to create.

Actions speak louder than words people, so please, open your doors, your hearts and your studios. Everyone is welcome, right?

 

Kula Yoga in Toronto is an example of a studio taking concrete steps towards increasing accessibility.