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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Downward Dog and Dominant Paradigms: Are We Really The Change We Want To See?

As an activist and someone dedicated to working towards social change, I came to yoga as a stressed out cultural organizer and anti-violence program director. I have always been physically active as well being as involved in political organizing. For over ten years I developed self-defense curricula that had roots in traditional marital arts and progressive liberation theory. It was important for me to integrate a critical social justice framework into the various parts of my life. I brought it into how I developed and facilitated self-defense classes. It informed how I negotiated boundaries with friends, family, and co-workers. So, it made sense to me that I would think about how anti-oppression and yoga intersect, how they support each other, and even where they might oppose each other.

I have practiced yoga on and off for over twenty years and have been a more serious and dedicated yogini for the past eight years with a daily yoga and meditation practice. As an anti-violence organizer and counselor working with survivors of trauma and abuse, I have a rich history of exploring healing modalities and believe in the transformative practice of mindfulness that is at the root of both yoga and meditation. We become more powerful agents of change and more connected to each other when we learn to be in our bodies, learn to listen, to stay grounded in the midst of chaos, to not be swept away by quickly changing waves of emotion. Being mindful, non-judgmental, present, compassionate, and intentional with our words and actions can help us in all areas of our life.

The ideals, philosophies, principles, and practices of yoga and meditation can transform individuals, communities and institutions. These same qualities can help us engage in movement building while being a powerful force for social change. Social change and liberation is not, however, what is happening in most yoga classes. When I ask people how their yoga practice and/or meditation practice helps them create social change, interrupt racism and oppression, or dismantle systemic and institutional oppression, I am often met with a blank stare or a pat response along the lines of, Yoga helps me as an individual, which is part of changing the world.” Or, “My time on the mat is about me and my body.
This is not a bad or incorrect response. It’s fantastic that yoga helps people stay committed to human rights and social change work. Our ability to stay committed matters tremendously when burnout and secondary trauma drain our most dedicated folks. But this simple answer strikes me to what is really a more complex exploration of how we can connect the qualities, principles, and ideals of yoga and meditation practice to social change.

In most yoga studios there is not an intentional or articulated link made between what individuals or yoga communities are studying and practicing and social justice. Individual students, teachers, and studios may do this work on their own, and indeed some are with brilliant skill and success, but as a community of practitioners, we are not having this dialogue. In response to my question of how we connect yoga to social change, a fellow yogi suggested that oppression was simply ideology and that enlightenment allows you to see through or beyond oppression—ergo seeking enlightenment by practicing yoga and meditation is in and of itself moving beyond oppression. This perspective ignores the historical, cultural, and institutional legacy of oppression and supposes that we can somehow disengage from it (once we are enlightened enough to see it). The fact that I can see institutional racism or homophobia occurring in my workplace, family gatherings, or daily life means little if I am not equipped to interrupt and challenge it. 

Yoga is still an exclusive practice, accessible to mostly white middle class people. Even when I go into Chicago to my teacher's studio to take his classes, a studio that is in a hip, diverse area, the majority of students are white.[1] This lack of cultural diversity is one of the pressing issues of North American yoga, says Tawanna Kane, Because if the yoga community fails to reach out to people of color, or the poor, or the physically challenged, yoga could become simply another expensive pastime of the privileged.[2] Yoga Journal's 2003 study discovered that at least 15 million people practice yoga in the US with over 30% of them earning an annual household income of $75 000 or more, and 15% making over $100,000. The same research found that nearly 50% of people doing yoga have completed a college education and an additional 40% have some college education or hold an associate degree.[3]
In a place where people are seeking liberation and enlightenment, it’s important to include critical conversations around access, power, privilege, and oppression. There can be a “love sees no color” mindset in many yoga communities. This mindset is rooted in an ideal of equality and multiculturalism that may actually uphold racism and white supremacy by ignoring its systemic and historical nature. If we celebrate difference without understanding the role power plays, we inadvertently risk supporting systems of oppression. A work place can celebrate the diversity of their community while not addressing how institutional racism or sexism play out in who gets hired, fired, promoted, or salary and compensation decisions, for example. We are not all equally different in our relationship to systems of oppression.

I do not mean to speak poorly of yogi’s and yogini’s. There are some amazing, diverse, and culturally competent yoga studios linking social change, justice and personal asana practice. I am one of the many white yoginis after all and most of us do yoga to become better people. We appreciate how yoga helps up participate in our relationships with more humanity, respect and dignity. There is a true and deep desire to “do good” in most yoga practices. But unchecked, a white person’s idea of “doing good” can actually involve doing harm. Privilege may allow you to be unaware of things that other people see very clearly. Privilege allows us access to things we don’t even think about in terms of access. As a white woman, I can choose to be surrounded mostly if not entirely, by white people for example. I don’t have to worry about being the only white person in a work or personal situation unless I choose to. If I do end up being the only white person at a work place, social event, or yoga class and I feel uncomfortable, I can be sure to find understanding and support. An informative article on understanding white privilege is Peggy’s Macintosh’s, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There are other ways privilege plays out in our daily lives. I can choose to prioritize yoga. I can choose to buy organic foods. I can choose to leave work at home and say yes the personal is political but right now I get “time off.” These are privileges not everyone has access to.

Saying that we don’t have to (or shouldn’t) bring social justice, social change, or anti-oppression into our ninety minutes on our mat is something not every one has the luxury of doing. While an hour and a half to get away from your regular life and focus on your body, your breath, develop non-attachment and cultivate qualities of compassion, dedication, patience, and peace is an amazing thing, let’s be real—it’s a privilege. Not just because it’s often expensive, located in parts of town that are not accessible to certain community members, but also because there exists an unspoken acquiescence to suspend any notion of having to do social change/social justice work while we practice yoga. This means we are asking people who are targets of oppression (of all kinds) to enter a space we have designated as an anti-oppression free zone and feel safe enough to let go, breath and be vulnerable. That we ask them to do this not by addressing oppression specifically, but by suspending discussion of it silences people and ignores the reality of their experience.

What do we do? How do you interrupt racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, or any other oppression in the context of a yoga class? How do you bring it in the room and on the mat with you? How do you do this while not chasing your monkey mind? There isn’t one right way, but it starts with acknowledging that we can’t separate our yoga practice from our activism. It also involves challenging the notion that simply doing yoga, seeking enlightenment, or meditating is enough to create social change. Here are some ideas. These are a place to start, not a floor plan to how to do it right—just like yoga, it’s a process and the process is just as important as the goal.

Start a discussion group

Meet once a week, once a month to talk about these things. You can bring questions of your own, or develop questions from articles and anti-oppression trainings.

Some questions you can start with include:
1. Why is it important to make links between yoga, meditation, oppression and privilege? What do I gain if we do this work? What do I lose if we do not do this work?
2. Why do I think these discussions are not happening at yoga studios on a regular basis? What can I do to change that?
3. How can each of the eight limbs of yoga contribute to undoing oppression?
4. What are three things I can commit to doing as a yoga practitioner that will support social change?
5. How can this discussion group support social change?

Read anti-oppression and Buddhism/yoga articles together and discuss how they connect, contradict, or support each other. 

A list of books to get you started that address oppression, privilege, and power include: A People’s History of The United States by or You Can’t Stay Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, White Lies by Maurice Berger, Transliberation by Leslie Feinberg, Teaching Community A Pedagogy Of Hope by Bell Hooks, In The Time Of The Right- Reflections On Liberation by Suzanne Pharr, We Are All Suspects Now by Tram Nguyen, The Compassionate Life by The Dalai Lama, The Darker Nations and The Karma Of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, Kindred by Octavia Butler, White Like Me by Tim Wise, The Sprit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anné Fadiman. Some book about yoga, Buddhism might include books by Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar.

Ask your yoga studio/instructors to support community as part of their yoga practice and philosophy. Many yoga classes and teacher trainings are inaccessible for people. Things like childcare, location, scheduling for single parents and those who do not live near by, language, access for those with different physical abilities, are just a few examples. Doing trades or barter for fees is a great idea but unless in takes into account that the working poor often have both less time and money, it does little to make things more accessible. Look into supporting yoga classes in places that already serve communities that don’t have access to your studio. Think about sliding scale teacher trainings, or scholarships, or donating an instructor training slot. Support local leadership and local community healing that are already going on.

Don’t bring yoga to at-risk youth without doing your homework (and don’t use the term “at risk” youth—it’s deficit language that locates the problem within the individual rather than with social political, and economic systems). Setting up a yoga class for “at risk”[4] youth of color may seem like a great way to do good work, but white people risk reinforcing a culture of white privilege/white supremacy, even while sharing vales of love and respect. If we try to “help” people let go of anger that is truly righteous, for example, without understanding the depth of it, without realizing the pain it holds, and the history it speaks, we risk punishing people for their truth—which our privilege blinds us to, which is hardly a Buddhist moment.

Don’t do this work alone. Take responsibility to educate yourself but don’t expect others who are targets of oppression to educate you. Rather than ask them to help you, ask them what you can do to support them. If you can do it, do it!

Have fun! This is challenging work. If we take it (and ourselves) too seriously, we will undoubtedly burn out. Being committed to undoing oppression doesn’t mean you can’t seek contentment. It means your contentment is in part connected to undoing oppression!

We can’t refuse or give up our privilege. We can, however, choose how we are who we are. We can choose to be honest, transparent, accountable, and committed to dismantling oppression. Yoga and meditation are amazing tools to do this work. They bring us into our bodies. They help us deepen our understanding of the world around us, ourselves, and our relationships. They challenge us to be more open, accepting, caring, vulnerable, and giving. They are invaluable as a healing modality. Both yoga and meditation allow us to cultivate an inner compassionate witness. Being able to be a compassionate witness with the tools and means to act according to values around human rights and social justice are at the root of anti-oppression work. Yoga and meditation can enrich our work, our lives, our relationships, and our selves. It is up to us where and how we want to grow. I hope we choose to grow towards a liberation that includes an understanding of power and privilege and moves us towards social change that includes each and every one of us.

[1] The color of yoga, Linda’s Yoga Journal, August 2007

[2] Personal, Political, Everyday Yoga, by Lesley Marian Neilson. Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004

[3] Diversity in yoga: what do studies say? By Juniper Glass, Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004

[4] The term “at risk” can be undermining and offensive. It is not people who are “at risk”, but institutions, and systems that create environments that perpetuate modes of surviving that from the outside get labeled ‘at risk”.

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