Holiday Meditation Flash Mob

FlashMobPoster

Help spread the word..
Count yourself in and share the event on Facebook.
Invite your friends and loved ones.
Click on the image above and print it off. It’s a poster for the event.

Advertisements

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

252037_229658363835266_629022381_n

Community Yoga Vancouver

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

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

Matthew Remski in 21st Century Yoga

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

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

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

p1160871_21

Poke Community Acupuncture in Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Yoga's consent cards

Community Yoga’s consent cards

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

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

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

POCA_rosie

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

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

One breath at a time.

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

 

Community-based yoga studios:

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

Europe
Edinburgh Community Yoga – Edinburgh, Scotland

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

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

Sacred Justice Workshop Tour

Poster for the workshop in Vancouver.

Poster for the workshop in Vancouver.

This summer I’m travelling across Canada teaching Sacred Justice workshops. Details are available on facebook here.

This workshop will illuminate the connections between solidarity work and yoga. With meditation, asana and group discussion we’ll explore dynamics of power and privilege and how these affect the ways we relate to each other and build community. So often we hear the phrase, “we’re all one”, but what does this really mean? How can we come to a grounded understanding of interconnection without glossing over the real differences in our lived experiences and political realities? Perhaps we can use the concepts of community support and solidarity as tools to acknowledge the fundamental sense of union that our yoga practice teaches us to explore and honour. All levels of experience with yoga and social justice activism are welcome.

Locations:

In Vancouver details here: http://unityyoga.ca/events/

In Toronto: details here: http://www.mykulatoronto.ca/workshops

In Kitchener details here: http://queenstreetyoga.com/workshops#justice

In Montreal details here: http://www.ambaayoga.com/events-0

If you don’t see a workshop in your city, or would like to host one in your studio or community space, you can contact us at communityyogavancouver@gmail.com

Accessibility details for each location are available upon request or on the Facebook page (see above) or here.

Full moon yoga

-moon-a

Next Saturday, June 22nd, I will be teaching a by-donation class under the (almost) full moon at Trout Lake park. We’ll meet at the corner of 15th and Victoria at 8:30.

No mats needed. Dress warm and bring friends. All levels of experience welcome. Class is weather dependent. Bringing a blanket is usually a good idea.

We’ll work through moon salutations and long-held yin poses with some meditation on either end of the class. The focus will be on grounding out, tuning in and keeping close to the earth while we soak up the moonlight.

Count yourself in on Facebook.

Cultural Appropriation and Yoga – A List of Resources

tumblr_mg12pg17im1rmvhpzo1_500

Recently I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on cultural appropriation and yoga. I’m planning to write a piece about what inspired this research, which I will post here soon. I’m also in the process of putting the finishing touches on a video that addresses this topic. Below I’ve listed some resources I’ve found that shine a light on this topic, most of which are written by people of Indian descent.

People of colour and particularly people of Indian descent have been offering critiques of “western yoga” for a long time. I’ve realized that if I want to build a truly inclusive community around my yoga practice I need to delve more deeply into this topic. At the same time, I want to avoid positioning myself as an authoritative voice on this topic. The best I can do is connect people with the powerful voices who have already articulated these critiques and work to acknowledge my own complicity and privilege in the ongoing processes of colonization, commodification and imperialism. I put this resource list together as one small act of resistance to these processes. If you have other suggestions to enrich and build the list, please send them my way.

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

The Yoga Debate – An Existentially Challenged Desi Chimes in

On “Cultural Imperialism”

Is De-culturing Yoga and Act of Good Faith or a Promotion of Xeno-phobic ideology? A light and Easy Topic

Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think a Helluva Lot of People are being Duped)

Why I Really Want to Give Up On Yoga and.. Why I Will Never Give Up On Yoga

Why Cultural Appropriation Matters

Examining Power and Privilege in Yoga

Andrea Smith’s book Conquest has a powerful chapter on the links between gendered violence and cultural appropriation.

and if you’re interested you can also read my first piece on this topic:
Whose Practice? Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

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

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 12.55.28 AM

 

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

timthumb

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.