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Yoga Has A Privilege Problem

I often say to my students that yoga is the antidote to modern living. The postures can open the body and work to undo the physical effects of stress, trauma, and a mostly sedentary lifestyle. The focus on the breath can bring the nervous system into balance and in turn regulate emotions. The philosophy can open doorways to a new understanding of self - specifically focused on stripping back the layers of identity and discovering what is present underneath. In order for this to be true, there needs to be a feeling of safety for every one that attends a yoga class. Unfortunately, the privilege that is still present in the yoga space, is a barrier to many people that could be receiving the healing power of the practice.

What is Privilege?

Privilege refers to certain social advantages possessed by an individual belonging to certain social groups. The privileged positions are the direct consequences of people who have historically occupied positions of dominance. In other words, they are the remnants of a society ruled by white, heterosexual, male, wealthy, christians. This history has left some who are alive now to have an unearned access to certain resources, and such privilege is often invisible to those who have it.

Privileged people are more likely to be in positions of power - they are more likely to dominate politics, have influence over the media, hold executive positions, and cultivate more wealth - and use their positions to benefit people like themselves. This leads to less privileged social groups to be left out and given limited access to resources and social power.

But it’s not as simple as one social group having access to more than another. All aspects of our identities interact with one another, we experience them collectively and simultaneously, not individually. This interaction between our identities is called Intersectionality - originally coined by Kimberle Crenshaw who used it to describe the experiences of black women – who experience both sexism and racism. While all women experience sexism, the sexism that black women experience is unique in that it is informed by racism.

How and Where does privilege exist in the yoga space?

There is a largely unspoken ‘whiteness’ in the yoga space. In most classes I have attended, the practitioners and teachers are predominately white. The face of yoga in the western world is white - it is designed to white bodies, exists in white neighbourhoods, and reflects white perspectives on the world. The ‘yoga lifestyle’ has been presented as a privilege for those who can afford classes. It presents itself as another unearned resource, available to those who represent and carry the legacy of the events of the past.

The philosophy of yoga states we are all made of the same stuff - housed in different containers, shapes, and temples, but embracing the same essence. To accept this truth is to also accept that we (human beings) are naturally compassionate towards one another and all living things. The systems and structures that operate around us condition us away from our natural state of unity and compassion. To ignore that yoga functions as an unearned resource is to ignore your humanity. Existing in a space that feels unsafe for people of colour and bodies of culture without admitting there is an issue, goes against our natural state of compassion. I truly believe that the philosophy and practice of yoga can work as a tool to uncover and transform oppression, but it requires awareness before a choice in the right direction can be made.

Dharma and Race

What is Dharma?

Dharma is a hindu, buddhist, and yogic principle. You may have heard defined before as an individuals ‘unique purpose’. However, this definition is missing a key aspect of Dharm. What it actually refers to is the principle or law that orders the universe and individual conduct in conformity with this principle. This means that your purpose must align with the purpose of the universe. We are all here to bring the world back into divine balance.

The oppression of human beings, cognitive dissociation (willingly ignoring the oppression we see around us), and disconnection from each other goes against the natural order of things, and against our naturally compassionate nature. Your Dharma must work to resist, and transform oppressions and injustice - not just for the benefit of others, but as a radical reclaiming of your own humanity.

The following are a few ways that Dr. Bonnie Duran says that Dharma helps us in that wholesome project:

“Integrity: Finding Right Speech

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are the elements of the Eightfold Path that deal with virtue or integrity. Right Speech has three elements: truthfulness, timeliness, and usefulness. Applied to anti-racist work, naming the truth of racist words or deeds is a tricky business. Skillfulness is a function not only of recognizing when racism is at play, but also knowing the most useful time to bring it to awareness and the most lucid language to invoke understanding. In regard to admonishing another or ourself, the Buddha advised that we should investigate five conditions:

Do I speak at the right time, or not?

Do I speak of facts, or not?

Do I speak gently or harshly?

Do I speak useful words or not?

Do I speak with a kindly heart, or am I inwardly malicious?

Wisdom: “Be Less Not More”

Right View tells us that race exists on the level of “relative” reality. Race is based upon dualist thinking: black/white, male/female, self/other, good/bad, praise/blame, etc. On an ultimate level, race/ethnicity is a fiction, and identification with it is unskillful. Nondualism is beyond binary oppositions that inevitably create separation, hierarchies, and oppressions.

Concentration: Finding the Wisdom to Let Go

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration fall under the heading of concentration. Racism and other forms of discrimination are so fundamental to how the modern world organizes itself, that without some form of continued spiritual practice (Right Effort) promoting clarity and love, it will be very difficult to make a meaningful and lasting difference. Social justice efforts that do not include the cultivation of clarity and love are doomed to failure. Meditation is key to uncovering the many stories we play in our own minds that are centred in fear. As we meditate, we can see our own propensities towards self-hate, racism, sexism, homophobia float away and we also see more clearly how these work in others. When we cultivate the Brahmaviharas (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity) we are substituting afflictive emotions with skillful means.

As we develop skills to name, accept, decondition, and depersonalise these unskillful habits, we learn skillful ways to work more efficiently in our relationships, jobs, communities, and political life. As we cultivate wisdom and compassion, it infuses all aspects of our life.”

(Read the full article here)

Here at Breath Body Earth, we acknowledge that the yoga industry - and the wellness industry at large - has a privilege problem. As part of our mission, we want to make yoga more accessible, and make sure that our trainings & programs feel safe for ANYONE who wants to learn the path of Yoga. In this way, yoga can be the antidote and a tool to help us all find balance.

If you have ever felt judged or excluded, because of who you are (gender, ethnicity, age, weight etc) and you desire to take a YTT, please reach out to us. Yoga for All.

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