Karma Yoga Demands a Deep and Heart-Felt Examination of Power, Privilege, and Oppression

Yoga and service is a big topic in the western yoga world right now. It comes out of a lineage of karma yoga, of seva, that has roots in India. What is implied but less explored within this is that ‘service’ within yoga almost always involves a teacher offering yoga to a group of people that they are not a part of, and that the yoga teacher is in a privileged position in society. Usually these service projects are designed to be taught by a volunteer teacher; the teacher does not receive monetary payment. What the teacher does receive is the profound cultural exchange and awareness of what a community of people very unlike them (in socio-economic factors) goes through in the world, and how that shows up in their mental, emotional, and physical health. Now, just sharing these profound teachings is a gift, and we exist in a capitalist world where yoga teachers need to be paid; thus service projects are largely available to people who rely on other sources of income.

I have attended trainings by some of the leading organizations in yoga service in the US-Off the Mat Into the World, Street Yoga, and the Lineage Project. In these trainings, the participants and facilitators have been overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, middle-class, and straight, and we are talking about teaching yoga to low-income or homeless people of color in prisons, domestic violence shelters, veteran hospitals, queer youth projects, schools, etc. I personally come from a working-class background, and am white, able-bodied, queer, and transgendered. However, there is not a thorough training within any of these models about privilege and oppression, which inevitably is part of our experience in teaching yoga to ‘underserved’ populations. Within social justice and healing justice organizations that I am part of, members, staff, and others are regularly given anti-oppression trainings, as a ‘practice’. These trainings are an opportunity to reflect and digest the ways in which oppression and privilege affect all of our communities, and to hear and hold each others’ pain, and also to understand it in a systemic, institutional sense.

For me, as a working class, white, queer, transgendered person, I want to bring yoga back to my own community. I think this is the case for many people of color, queer, and low-income people that attend these service yoga trainings-that for us, we are looking to return to our community with the skills of yoga and service, which is very different than offering it up to communities that we are not a part of. So then, the cultural exchange that is expected to be part of the compensation for teaching yoga is not present. Of course we always have more to learn within our own communities, but the familiarity and the acceptance mean that the dynamic and exchange is different. We are expected to do this work for free, in most models of service yoga-yet don’t upper class white women get paid well for teaching to their own communities?

Part of my interest in attending these trainings is that they are among the only organizations within the yoga world that begin to talk about dynamics of power and social justice-in the world and in the yoga classroom. Given who I am in the world, the concerns within my community, and what yoga has meant to me (as a method of individual and collective liberation), I find conversations about privilege and oppression sorely lacking within yoga. Thus, without our awareness, the social realities of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism that we are all steeped in roar their heads in the yoga classroom, teacher trainings, yoga ‘community’, and workshops. Because of who is largely in the room, who can afford access, and who feels welcome, these dynamics of power go largely unnoticed.

Being aware of these dynamics of power and actively working on them in my own life (though I am far from finished!), in nearly every other yoga class I attend, I notice something ableist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, or racist is said by the teacher or by other students responding to the teacher. I have seen a male teacher say something inappropriate to a woman he is adjusting in a heart opener; teachers repeatedly talk about ten fingers and toes or having a straight spine (which not all yogis do, or can!); to describe a pose, a teacher has talked about holding your food behind your hip so you ‘look like a peg leg’ (referring to a dis/abled person); teachers talk about Indian gods and goddesses but yet know nothing about British colonization and the effect that that had on Ayurveda and Yoga; and many teachers like to make jokes, while we are in poses that are useful in pregnancy, about how men don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant (when men around me in my community are indeed becoming pregnant and have even been on Oprah), and the whole classroom laughs at them (and, at me).

I see this as a lack of awareness by the teacher of their own prejudices and ignorance (which are, indeed, samskaras, the imprint of past experiences and behavior on who you are now, and what you have to work on; perhaps this prejudice and ignorance is a cultural samskara) and hindrances to their loving everyone, which is ultimately a goal of yoga-to see no separation. We cannot bypass the important work of decolonizing our minds from systems of power, privilege, and oppression on the way to loving everyone. And, that we are racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist-it’s not our fault, and shame and guilt are not helpful paths to tread. But we must take responsibility for the world that our ancestors have created, and continue to transform it into one that celebrates all people, all bodies, all experiences in the world. In order to really love, we need to know how to be an ally to people in an oppressed position, how to work through internalized oppression, and how to ask for allies for ourselves when people have privilege over us. This includes our practice of yoga. As teachers, there are always people in the room, visible or not, who have been oppressed their whole lives, and this is a trauma that lives in the body, and so we must know how to hold space for them, and hold them well when we are asking them to open their hearts.

I have been teaching Queer and Trans Yoga and Yoga for All Genders for the past 6 years-the first class at my cooperative health center, Third Root Community Health Center, and the second at the NYC LGBT Center. I have also taught Queer and Trans Yoga in Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, Vermont, Oakland, and Philadelphia, and recently began teaching at a queer youth foster home in my neighborhood. I treasure these classes, and the community built within them, through embodiment, through heart-opening, through holding space for all that we are as individuals and as a community. Part of how I want to see these classes for specific communities is to have a teacher from within their community, because the trust and empowerment is incredible. I have seen for myself the ways in which my community brings all of their joy and excitement into the room: through the chatter before class begins or the dates made after class, through the amazing colorful spandex, the queer political t-shirts, as they bring more friends into the fold. And, I have the honor of holding space for an assault on the train based on someone’s gender presentation, the fear and sadness around holidays as we approach blood family and chosen family, the breakups within a small queer community, and the trauma of homophobia, racism, and transphobia that we sweat, stretch, and exhale out.

Service yoga has a lot of potential to develop this conversation from an embodied and heart-felt space, which is much different than most of the social justice work done around privilege and oppression that tends to be mostly in the mind (though some innovative work is being done around embodiment, somatics, and healing). Feeling the trauma of privilege and oppression in our bodies as well as talking about it is difficult and necessary. It demands our attention if we truly want to love everyone through each word we speak, each time we lay down our mats, blocks, and blankets, each class we teach, each adjustment we give.

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