Why an Anti-Racist Activist Conducts a Yoga Retreat in Mexico

For the past 14 years, I have been an activist in the anti-globalization movement. This has meant different things at different moments. In 2000, it meant showing up with thousands of others in the streets of Washington D.C. to protest the International Monetary Fund. In 2003, this meant traveling to Guatemala to study the effect of globalization on the indigenous Mam people of the valley beneath Volcan Tajamulco. In 2004, it meant going to Washington D.C. with a close friend to attend the March for Reproductive Justice, one of the largest mobilizations in Washington D.C. history. From 2000-2005, this meant annually protesting the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, one of the training centers for the military that enforce globalization in the U.S. and all over Latin America. In 2008, this meant founding a community health center with a focus on the local: medicine, food, people. For the past 5 years, this has meant being a member of a CSA, in which I meet my neighbors who care about local, quality food, and I get to meet the farmer (depending on which CSA in my neighborhood in Brooklyn) and in which we are less reliant on the unjust and unsustainable global food system, and are eating in accordance with our climate, which makes our bodies healthier.

And, in 2012, I started offering a yoga retreat in Tulum, Mexico. Yes, there are contradictions, and yes it is complicated.

I have learned through the years of organizing and activism, that try as I may, purity is impossible. When I moved to New York, I was taken aback by the fact that the hard-core organizers would go buy Nike sneakers at Urban Outfitters. I judged them, and wondered if they were really “down for the cause.” Over the years of continuing to work in social justice, I have realized that I can’t opt out of racism, homophobia, sexism, or even capitalism because it is all around us and within us. I cannot boycott gentrification and expect it to have an influence on the system as a whole. I cannot avoid racist white people; it makes more change to move towards them and work with them. What I can do, though, is live with intention and integrity, with the vision that everything in my life be aligned with my values which spring from love and justice, from my clothing, to the creator of this website, to those who I spend continue my yoga training with. I can’t be ‘right’ or ‘good’ all of the time-the entire system of globalization is set up against me, and so I forgive myself and others when we falter or diverge from these commitments.

Through my 13 years of teaching yoga, I have learned how to soften my heart, and not only accept the falters of those around me, but accept the ways in which I am still learning to love. I have healed from the activist reaction of throwing someone “fucked up” out of the community; I have learned restorative and transformative justice. I have learned how to remain in intimacy with friends, community, family, despite real conflicts and differences. Through yoga, I have learned that the hardest group for me to accept and move towards and love is middle-class white women, because it has been members of that group of people who have hurt me the worst. Through yoga, I have come out as trans, as a survivor, and have moved through the shame of who I am in the world.

There exists this idea in the U.S. that yoga is a luxury, that I think was created because in the past 20 years, it has been mostly upper-class white people who can afford to attend trainings, retreats, and even daily classes. And these things are costly, prohibitively so to most people! The Yoga community is just beginning to look at these patterns (and I’m giving them a lil nonviolent shove to do so), and a network of ‘yoga service’ organizations have sprung up. People with wealth and privilege might treat yoga as a luxury, a reason to travel, another skill or second career to acquire, but that doesn’t mean that yoga itself is a luxury. Its vital teachings have survived thousands of years precisely because they continue to be valuable and move practitioners towards great love. And, the way that yoga is sometimes taught in the U.S. is focused on the body and physical achievement, rather than resolving our fears and sorrows to be more intentional and purposeful in the ways that we show up in the world. Good yoga, yoga that is true to the millennia old teachings, though, moves us toward love: of ourselves, of others, of ‘difficult people’, of strangers, working from the inside out.

There are certainly class dynamics, classist dynamics, in society as a whole that inevitably show their face in the yoga classroom. The relationships that upper- and middle-class people cultivate with those below their class bracket is largely one of receiving (and expecting) service from them. Here is an air of entitlement, that they deserve better conditions than those in working class or poverty class conditions. We see this in the yoga world in the U.S., in studios in New York where yogis don’t introduce themselves to one another, we see it with who is hired to clean a yoga studio (but could never afford to take a class), we see it with the new realm of ‘yoga service’ that intends to serve those who are really suffering in society, but neglects to address and recognize the structures of power.

Despite these complaints and truly disturbing dynamics, I also see incredible strides being made through yoga. The President of the Give Back Yoga Foundation is a former World Bank executive. The Executive Director of Off the Mat, Into the World, comes from the corporate world, and left it, for yoga. Tim Ryan, a U.S. Congressman, is also a devout Buddhist and toured this fall in the ‘Yoga Votes’ campaign with Seane Corn. People are leaving their elite jobs to teach yoga because it resonates with them, because it fills up their hearts in a way that the capitalist marketplace does not. And, I see the opposite trend in social justice organizing; I see people leaving organizing and fundraising to become nurses, acupuncturists, herbalists.  Thus, I want to present the possibility that even yoga practiced by the owning class of this country has the potential and even the probability to lead toward care, community, and ultimately participation in struggles for justice.

Thus, a yoga retreat isn’t necessarily a luxury, and it isn’t necessarily reinforcing colonization or colonialism. There are inevitable privileges in crossing the border without danger or harm that many Mexicans do not have. And, whether a retreat participates in capitalist racism depends on who is going, how it is taught, what the relationship to locals is, what the intention of the time spent is. On my yoga retreats in Tulum, the focus was on the Brahma Viharas: lovingkindness, forgiveness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity practices. Participants bring their greatest hurts and wounds to the beach to examine and perhaps begin to dissolve. This is not easy work, and it serves everyone in their lives because the more that they are aware of their own wounds and healing work, the more they can act intentionally in the world-in their lives at home, and in their interactions there in Tulum. Doing work like this at a yoga retreat means they can show up with greater awareness and familiarity of themselves and others in their lives. I think we need more of this in the world, not less.

There is a way to conduct a retreat that doesn’t play into the ideas and practices of resorts, that creates connection with Mexicans in Tulum rather than separation and occupation of their land. I have some suggestions, and then will discuss the way I try to utilize these practices in my retreats.

  1. Host a retreat at a small hotel. The larger the hotel, the more likely that each worker is not seen as an individual, but just another worker, not just by the jefe, but by those on the yoga retreat. If it’s small, you can learn each staff person’s name and the realities of their life. You can get to know them.
  2. Consider whether the hotel is owned by Mexicans, preferably locals. This means that the money you spend is being recirculated in the local economy, and isn’t invested in a large bank that could care less for the Mexican economy.
  3. Observe whether the workers are happy. This is very telling about working conditions-if they are paid well, if they are given benefits, the relationship with the business owner.
  4. Discuss the retreaters’ relationship with the staff and the locals in the retreat.
  5. Speak in Spanish to the workers, get to know them. If you are going to Mexico, learn the language, at least exert the effort. This honors the people, and is representative of how you want to relate-on their terms.
  6. Research local conditions of the people-know where you are, what the local conditions of living are, what the local politics are.
  7. If you are going to buy something to take home, or a gift, have it be something made by an artisan, as direct of a purchase as possible. The more a ‘souvenir’ is mass-produced, the less it means to you and the less it means to the Mexican economy. Artisan work, however, is culturally and economically important.
  8. Tip well, as a generosity practice. Pay extra especially to people cleaning up-they earn a fraction of what you earn. This money will mean much more to them than it does to you, and it recognizes the inequitable distribution of wealth in a global economy.
  9. Treat the local Mexican people well, treat them kindly, learn about their lives, try to establish a connection with them. This is radical because the system of globalization relies on us not caring about these fellow human beings.
  10. Learn about Mexican people in your own community. Know where they come from, how they get here, what they face in migration and immigration policies and procedures.
  11. Eat where the locals eat, where Spanish is spoken, where you feel uncomfortable. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. feel this every day, and this is more likely to be a business owned by a local and keep the money circulating locally.
  12. Support struggles for human rights in Mexico. With money, preferably. Research who is the best to support and do it intentionally.

My retreat is hosted at a small hotel (21 people maximum) that is owned by a Mexican man. Roberto is from Mexico City, and is committed to providing his staff with fair working conditions. How this is demonstrated to me is that when I am at the hotel for a retreat, the staff are smiling and enjoy their jobs, and have worked there for a long time. The same people are there each year I go back, because they like their job. Roberto has also built schools in the community, which the Mexican government has torn down, and fined him thousands of dollars. Twice.  He set up another school after paying one fine, and then again it was shut down and he received another fine. He does profit immensely from the hotel, and he is clearly concerned about the welfare of the locals.

On my retreat, all of the meals are provided by the hotel itself, based from recipes of the families of the staff that work there. They serve local fish and produce, and Roberto can lecture for hours on the fish migration patterns in the area.

In the orientation of my retreat on the first evening, where we will be diving deeply into the practices of Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upeksha, I intentionally bring up the fact that we are on colonized land, indigenous land, and I in each practice, I offer students the possibility to consider the conditions of this part of Mexico, and offer up compassion. I instruct my students to forgive themselves for any racism that may emerge being here, and to forgive any way in which they will be harmed or targeted by locals, out of their anger and resentment from colonial powers.  I invite my students to take joy in the local delights-the food, the cenotes, the beach, the lagoon, the artisans, and to celebrate what the local people celebrate.

When I travel to other countries, I don’t buy anything that I don’t need that is not made by an artisan who crafted the item with care. This year, I bought a bracelet from a woman in the town of Tulum, a handsome bracelet made by an artisan from leather and the ligaments of a cow. I felt good about this, not only was the meat of the animal being used, but so was the meat and the ligaments.

I donate to the Mexican Solidarity Network. I see this as part of my responsibility in having a yoga retreat in Mexico, is to contribute to the wellbeing and justice and movements of the Mexican people. On future retreats, I hope to commit a specific percentage of profits to MSN or other solidarity organizations working for justice in Mexico.

And, I am open to critique. I am interested in improvement. I continue to grow into a better human being only through the assistance of those around me. I don’t have all the answers, especially when what is wrong and what is right is complicated. And holding that difficulty is part of my practice.

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