I avoided yoga studios for years. As a student, and then even as a teacher. Once I had a 200-hour certification, I refused to teach in yoga studios because I didn’t see people like me in them, and because I was not always treated with kindness, compassion, and care. I found others spaces to teach where I felt more welcomed: private homes, art galleries, homeless shelters, and non-profit offices. I would like to think of yoga studios, meditation halls, yoga retreats as a safe space, but I have been harmed in these very sacred spaces where I sought healing. And so, it has become part of my work to reduce the harm created in these spaces and contribute to transformative practices being not only available, but inviting to people of color, immigrants, disabled communities, queer and trans communities, low income people, and fat people as well as the people who already feel embraced and cared for within yoga studios, trainings, and retreats.
I have sought out spaces to learn and train that explicitly embrace specific communities. Kashi Atlanta, where I received my 200-hour training, is an ashram where more people are queer than not, and it’s said that you receive less attention from the guru and swami if you are straight. I received my 500-hour certification from Kripalu, where they offer “diversity scholarships”, and provide “Teach for Diversity” grants. These spaces are not perfect, and I have been harmed there, but I also found there the space for my own growth and evolving leadership. I have learned from Off the Mat, Into the World Founder Seane Corn that I have to change my relationship to homophobia and transphobia, because it is not going away. I have to engage with it in a way that does less harm to me, as a practice of selfcare. Insight Meditation Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe speaks about forgiveness as a selfish act for marginalized communities, because we don’t want to be carrying that crap around-we must let it go for our own liberation and survival.
And so I reluctantly return to yoga conferences, trainings, studios, and retreats, knowing that I will be triggered, and knowing that these spaces and I have a lot to learn from each other. I am trying to turn toward pain in order for it to dissipate, as the teachings suggest.
I hesitate to write “yoga community” as is written in so many books, films, and articles about yoga. I hesitate, because this is coded language-who do we imagine in our minds when we say “yoga community”? Do we imagine queer people with hot pink spandex, assymetrical haircuts, and political t-shirts? Do we imagine disabled people who limp or roll into a classroom, people who use crutches, people with any number of fingers, toes, or limbs? Do we imagine raucous young people of color wearing jeans and colorful sneakers on their mat? Do we imagine a room full of South Asian American practitioners, where the class is taught in Hindi?
My guess is that the answers to these questions is generally, no. These are not who we picture when we say “yoga community”. I will allow you to fill in the blank of who you imagine or consider to be “yoga community”. I am then not going to use the phrase “yoga community” in this article, because of the connotation and code of who we are thinking of, and also because I do not know us or experience yogis-practitioners of yoga-to be one united community. Yet, the practice of and very translation of yoga means “united” or “unity”. And it is this reason, this potential, this aspiration, that keeps me invested in yoga-because the practice moves us toward wholeness. I believe the practice has revolutionary potential, and is already enacting beautiful change in the world. But, we practitioners of yoga, have work to do.
Service is not justice.
I flinch at the word “service”. Though at its roots in India, karma yoga, the yoga of serving others, of attending to the care and wellbeing of those around us, excluding no one, is a primary lineage within yoga, the manifestations of service in the United States are much different. As L.Booker mentioned in a recent article in Yoga Teacher Magazine, so much of service within yoga in the United States in the past 20 years has been based on the model of charity work: to “serve those poor people”- thereby an assertion of separation. Yoga to me means a recognition that the experiences of homelessness, unemployment, hunger, domestic violence are human experiences. “Those people” that one might “serve” are people; they are fathers, children, sisters, grandmas, and just like me, they want to be happy, they want to be healthy, they want to be safe from harm. If we believe in interdependence as yogis, which is central to so many scriptures, then as long as any one of us live under oppression, not a single one of us can be free.
Two days after the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, I taught yoga at the YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In the media were stories about who should and should not own guns, about safety in our schools, about mental illness, and I knew that there was (at least) one piece missing. One thing that I taught that day, and continue to teach, is that part of our work in yoga, not just the yoga on our mats, but yoga in the world, is to recognize the parts in ourselves that could and do commit harm. Our work is to reduce those thoughts, words, and actions, to recognize that hurt people hurt people, and so as we heal ourselves, we are doing justice in the world. And if we see that harm is created from a place of pain, then we must have compassion, we must step towards the pain, rather than deny it, avoid it, resist it, and confront those parts in ourselves that want to turn away from suffering. What we resist, persists. We cannot separate ourselves from those who commit great harms like the shooting in Sandy Hook-I refuse to think of that shooter as “mentally ill” or “evil”-because to do so pretends that the seeds of that action do not also reside within me. The work that any of us do each day on the mat and cushion, through our thoughts, words and deeds, is to extricate those seeds that can grow into harm, and to water the seeds of patience, love, compassion, rather than the seeds of betrayal, fear, and anger. As Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
Who are our teachers?
In our society there is this outdated notion that people of color must teach white people about racism, that poor people must teach the wealthy about classism, that queer people must teach straight folks about homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia, that disabled people much teach able-bodied people about ableism. This expectation exists within yoga, in fact some of my favorite teachers have said this to me. I resist expectation because it upholds the status quo-it does not shift power, and demands more work out of people already working so hard to just survive a harsh society in which we are unwanted and mistreated. It reduces the energy that any of us facing oppression have for other work in the world. I do not deny that because of who I am, I must create space for myself, and teach others how to love me. However, the work that I do in this world cannot be limited to just this. Just like everyone else, I am a full human being with lots of work to do in the world, and I need allies of every identity to also be doing the work of education and liberation out of the oppressive tendencies that we have learned in our society.
Audre Lorde has written in Sister Outsider, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” All of us must to the work to eradicate oppression, wherever it arises, in our words in the yoga classroom, in the ways that we look at others in the changing room, in the language with which we speak about our bodies. Our work is to love ourselves and each other, without exception, every moment of every day, and to become aware of our biases, our privilege, the patterns of oppression within us: this is a mindfulness practice. And so ALL of us must take that work on. It takes all of us to unlearn racism, ableism, transphobia, and all forms of oppression. How might our yoga classrooms, retreats, trainings look if indeed everyone was invited, anticipated, and welcomed?
Beyond the Binary: Liberation Is a Collective Act
Yoga is about both collective and individual transformation and liberation. We are moving toward love-loving all of the disparate, arrhythmic, sharp aspects of ourselves as we heal. We are also moving toward love externally-so that every thought, word, and action contributes to is the collective good. What I have witnessed in 15 years of taking yoga and 13 years of teaching yoga, is that the same oppressions that I face in the world, on the street, in the grocery stores and post offices every day is what I face in the yoga classroom. This means that as yogis, we are not doing the work to love every representation of humanity, if we are reproducing dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression. This is active work, mindful work, to recognize and transform society’s harmful patterns that live within us.
Alongside being a committed yogi and Buddhist, I am also a social justice organizer, educator, and fundraiser with 15 years of experience. For me, my practices of justice and mindfulness have arisen and evolved side-by-side, but they haven’t always intersected (except within me). I spent years of not speaking about my yoga practice to social justice colleagues, and years of feeling alone within yoga trainings, driven to speak about justice in the classroom. Gratefully, there are now conversations of collective care within social justice organizations and networks, and conversations about transformative justice within Buddhist and yoga communities. Off the Mat, Into the World, and other members of the Yoga Service Council, are part of these conversations.
Part of my own growth and healing has been to go back to these yoga and Buddhist practice spaces, to inquire what it brings up for me to not feel like I belong, to not be welcomed, recognized, mirrored, or invited. I have learned that it is my dharma, to be a “bridge between” as Off the Mat Founder Suzanne Sterling has reflected to me. This means I must be in uncomfortable spaces in order to grow, as part of my process to wholeness, and as part of the evolution of yoga in the United States. Part of my work is being with people unlike me, and finding love and connection (perhaps through struggle, pain, and sorrow), and to teach mindfulness practitioners and teachers how to embrace the queer and trans community that I come from. Initially, I resided in these spaces with anger and resentment, being so enraged at the homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ableism present in these spaces purported to be about healing.
What it took me years to realize is that my anger in these spaces was not healing what I was angry about-my anger was unproductive, and ultimately separated me from others-the opposite of yoga. This does not mean that I stifle my anger-anger provides very important information-that something is wrong. I continue to be triggered in yoga classes and trainings, but I have learned to anticipate that, to care for myself in the moment, and connect to those who created harm when I feel safe enough to do so, assuming their best intention, and assuming that they, like me, want to grow to love everyone. And they, like me, need a teacher. In the moment, I can choose to be that teacher, helping them see their oversight, bias, poor judgment, or lack of skillfulness. I can also choose to step away, but I have learned that it creates trust to come back, to return once I am ready, and connect through the heart, through the strength of the practices that brought us together in the first place.
This quote from Muhammad demonstrates this well:
Muhammad said, “Assist your Muslim brother, whether he be an oppressor or oppressed. “But how shall we do it when he is an oppressor?” enquired a companion. Muhammad replied, “Assisting an oppressor by forbidding and withholding him from oppression.”
Justice within yoga is not about “getting it right”. Yoga is not about getting it right. Yoga and justice are both processes and practices, and my suggestion that one without the other cannot move us toward love.
If these words speak to you, if you recognize that you indeed have work to do, then please join Off the Mat, Into the World, in our online social justice training for yogis: Beyond the Binary.
This article also appears here.