This question popped up on my Instagram feed the other day.
The person who posted it is a Black, Queer Femme who is not at all interested in offering white people any comfort as we slowly – ever so painfully slowly – wake up to the harm and violence that white supremacy has caused in the world. The overwhelming answer to her question, based on the comments, was no.
As a white person who teaches yoga, I had to disagree. I mean, I had to, right? Having devoted nearly two decades to yoga study (not to mention tens of thousands of dollars), it was too much of a hard pill to swallow to say otherwise. Especially because the yoga that I study and subsequently teach is solidly based in the foundational texts of yoga, especially Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. This isn’t “feel-good” goat yoga. (I recently saw an ad for “rage yoga” the other day where people yell and curse…ummm…no. Just no.) I’m in it for the life changing study of the mind. But does that matter? Some people in her comments said no, it doesn’t matter: yt get out. You have done enough damage and are not wanted here.
I had the good fortune to see this post as I was spending time with a dear friend who also co-leads an anti-bias group at the Zen monastery where I practice (she is white). Yes, the question of, should white people practice Zen also came up. But let’s stick to yoga because I actually get paid to teach yoga. Also the historical relationship between white people of European descent and people living in India is different from the history of Japan. In short, people who looked a lot like me colonized India. Fact.
Here are two things that my friend offered me as I wrestled to understand both my sincere interest in yoga and sharing the benefits of yoga with others (and that I occasionally do help people help themselves with my teaching) and the acknowledgement that the brutal history of white supremacy in India gives me no right to teach yoga.
First, she asked me if I could hold those two things as both being true? In that moment, my honest answer was, “No, I’m not there yet.” As time has passed and I have had more time to reflect on it, I am getting there. She told me about a Black friend who will sometimes go deep into an anti-white people rant to her. She said, “Yes, it can sting sometimes AND they are still her friend.” Can she hold both as true? For her, that her friend feels safe enough to let loose with her lived truth is a sign of love and trust. She encouraged me to consider that there is a way that we can see how things are generally, systemically, and still be there for the individual. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
No one said it would be easy.
The second thing that she said was about the entitlement that white people have to enter spaces without thinking twice. I could see this in my own path. I started taking yoga classes without any hesitation about my right to take a yoga class. Eventually, I wanted others to enjoy yoga too so I took a teacher training program (and then another and then another). Again because it was there and I could. For reasons that I still don’t understand, I fell into a particular vein of yoga that stays true to the source rather than being driven by a famous personality’s take on yoga – just an aside to acknowledge that not all teacher trainings are created equal. Then I started teaching. People didn’t always love my teaching but the issue of whether or not I should even be allowed to teach never came up and I never once thought about it on those terms. That “never once thought about it” is my privilege in action.
I also have been to India four times. I went expecting to be safe and well-treated. It didn’t always happen but those negative experiences were surprising to me. I had a baseline level of expectation that my presence would be greeted favourably.
All of that happened without me asking why I had access to these teachings or whether it was appropriate for me to pursue this path. To be honest, it is only recently that I have begun exploring how the meaning of the ideas presented in the Yoga Sutra are understood through my cross-cultural lens. How am I passing that along to my students? I am not saying that it is wrong – it is inevitable! – but we should notice this and be aware of it.
To take this out of yoga for a moment, I can see similar thinking about my wanting to travel in the Canadian north – Labrador, the Yukon and North West Territories. These are very special, compelling places that I long to visit. My autopilot thinking has been: why shouldn’t I if I can find the time and money? But is that correct? Those are not my lands. Why would I assume that I will be welcomed?
The truth is that white people insert ourselves in places without asking – always have – on the assumption that our presence is good; that we are adding benefit just by being there. In fact, the opposite is almost always true! Witness: almost all of human history.
A friend who lives in Chennai has been talking to me about us leading a yoga workshop together there. When she first suggested it, I had a deep cringe moment. I am not comfortable being a white woman teaching yoga to Indians! She dismissed that saying that I brought a different perspective that she thought people would benefit from hearing. While I appreciate her generous thinking, I am not so sure it would be okay. Maybe there is another way to work together to connect with other people interested in yoga where I do not have be in a role at the front of the room?
Clearly, I have more questions than answers.
To bring it back to the Yoga Sutra, the way we practice as outlined in YS II.1 is to make some effort (tapas) so that we have experiences that cause discomfort because they are changing our patterns of thought and behavior. Noticing these patterns, we can study them, understand and become familiar with them (svadyaya). And finally, there needs to be some element of acceptance in the process, a relinquishing of control and expectation that we can micro-manage the whole thing (isvarapranidana).
This way of living life is very useful. I can apply it to something as simple as my asana practice. I also can apply it here in this sticky, difficult, charged conversation around racism, cultural appropriation and white supremacy (and yoga). I still have to work at it and make the effort but I can acknowledge that clear cut answers may not be forthcoming. My job is to notice my own patterning and make changes to my behavior accordingly and with the guidance of a reliable outside source, like my friend and like my teacher(s).
It is a ceaseless practice. I must begin, over and over again.
What are your thoughts and experiences on this topic?