Beyond the Binary: A Yogic Perspective on Dismantling Racism


Yoga is movement. For many, this movement begins with the physical body. However, because mind, body, and spirit are connected on a continuum, the movement soon starts to influence us on other levels.

I have also found yoga to be provocative. It has challenged and stimulated me in ways I never imagined when I first began my practice more than 30 years ago. At that time, I was clueless about the way my mat practice and my ideals about life, energy, and spirituality would begin to connect. I simply wanted relief from the gnawing pain of sciatica.

As my practice deepened, over time my sciatic pain did lighten. However, another strangely familiar gnawing began to emerge. It started as constant, yet dull, and then grew in sharpness and intensity. These were sensations that I had experienced as a much younger woman. I recognized them as the fire of activism.

An activist is a person who sees a need for large-scale change and takes personal action to move toward it. As a young Black woman, I’d been deeply involved in the struggle for justice and equality in the post-civil rights era.

The gains of the civil rights movement were many, including access to education, position, and status, and as a young woman I benefited from those gains. However, while the material component is necessary, I began to see that it is not sufficient in addressing injustice and inequality.

As my yogic study deepened, so did my understanding that lasting change is never based in materiality. And with this deepening, what became glaringly obvious to me was how intrinsically embedded “isms” (i.e., racism, sexisim, ableism) are in not only nearly every aspect of American life, but also in contemporary yoga culture.

Over the course of my now almost three decades of studying and teaching yoga, I have witnessed and directly experienced countless overt displays and micro-expressions of racism. Two of the most insidious forms are white saviorism and color blindness.

White saviorism shows up when people assert that yoga is something that can be used to “fix” the “problems” of an under-resourced community without an understanding of the needs and history of the community. Well-intentioned yogis have repeatedly created programs intended to “help those people” without the necessary inquiry into the implicit bias intrinsic to the intention. Centering intention over impact perpetuates racism.

Color blindness shows up in comments like “I don’t see color” or “I don’t think of you as Black.” The problem with color blindness is that it negates the life experience of people of color and denies the societal impact of racism.

At its heart, racism is a product of how we are conditioned.

Culture, Constructs, and Conditioning

To safeguard a group's ability to function or operate in a particular way, the group (e.g., a family, institution, or community) will construct or conceptualize beliefs, norms, and standards.

Constructs and concepts (terms that can be used interchangeably) are the mental representations or impressions that become the fundamental building block of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. Everyone uses constructs to make sense of the world. Learning is relating concepts together. In our primary education, we learn basic math, like 1 + 1 = 2. Neurons in our brain that house the concept 1 activate and then connect with the neurons that house the other concepts in the equation: + and 2. So when we learn, we build connections or pathways between neurons in the brain.

The connections become stronger the more we hear, think about, or encounter the concepts together. When we practice or rehearse something we’ve learned, the speed of the connection between the neurons becomes quicker. The process that allows nerve impulses to move along pathways more quickly is called myelination.

Yoga philosophy refers to constructs and concepts as samskaras. Samskaras are mental representations, impressions, habits, patterns, and innate tendencies in the body/mind/spirit continuum. The ancients said that samskaras function as the lens of perception that conditions how we see and respond.

Yogic philosophy says that samskaras are:

• inborn (passed on genetically), acquired (learned), or imposed (forced) 

• not inherently connected with intellect

• like concepts, not inherently good or bad 

However, like the myelinated neuronal connections, as the patterns are repeated, the pathways deepen; as the groove deepens, the samskara becomes difficult to change or resist. According to the ancients, samskaras and their deeper variation, called vasanas, drive our thoughts, speech, and actions. Said another way, samskaras and vasanas drive our conditioning, and ultimately our conditioning drives us.

The ancients recognized the conditioned mind as the root of our functional and dysfunctional patterns. Yogic philosophy maintains that the ultimate goal of raja yoga (the “royal path” outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra) is kaivalya, or liberation. Yoga teaches that reaching kaivalya requires deeply examining our conditioning. More definitively put, yoga says that examining our conditioning is an essential requirement on the path to freedom.

Race is a construct that by design ignores and/or removes human complexities.

How does this relate to race?

Race is a construct. As the developer of the 1619 project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, said on the New York Times podcast 1619: “I was made black by someone who considered themselves to be white.” Race is a construct that by design ignores and/or removes human complexities. It is one of many constructs in the binary matrix (i.e., good/bad, right/wrong, inferior/superior, us/them, better/worse) that serves as a foundation to our human sense-driven world. Binary qualities are set up to justify superiority of one group over another.

In Between the World and Me, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” The idea of race and racial inferiority were created to justify unequal treatment. The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, states, “All men are created equal,” but those who wrote it were slavers, and the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia just over 150 years earlier, in 1619.

Removing complexities was/is used to dehumanize, to justify power grabs, and offer a way to get out of admitting the impossibility of fully understanding the subjective reality of another person. The misperception that we know—when we really don’t—can dangerously obscure a person's thought, speech, and action.

In yoga philosophy, the term used to describe this kind of misperception or ignorance is avidya. In the Yoga Sutra, avidya is described as the root klesha (affliction), or seed of disconnection. The kleshas are sometimes likened to weeds in a garden and avidya to the soil. The Yoga Sutra says that avidya is the source of all suffering (dukha).

The work of the yogi, according to the Sutra, is to render the kleshas, the garden weeds, dormant. Doing that work first requires that we acknowledge the seeds are there; it requires admitting that, as humans, we process reality through the lens of our conditioning, formed by concepts. Simply put: You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.

And like weeding the garden isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing, it’s important to recognize that the conditioning never completely goes away, except maybe in the case of total enlightenment. This is why self-awareness practices don’t have an expiration date—they are never complete.

You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.

Spiritual and Human 

So that this isn’t just words on a page or theory, let's take a look through a lens of experience. As previously stated: Samskaras form at personal, cultural, institutional, and systemic levels.

On a personal level in my humanity, I have constructed identities. I identify as an able-bodied, Black, 65-year-old woman born and raised in the Midwestern United States. I am also a mother, teacher, daughter, friend, and more. Yoga philosophy teaches that ultimately these identities or constructs/concepts have no meaning on their own; their meaning is created or assigned. In the world of spirit, identities are meaningless.

Théologien Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience.” For me that is like saying there is Truth and there is Reality. In spirit, constructs are insignificant; in this human-created binary matrix, they are real.

In my embodied experience, I know that I am both simultaneously human and spirit. I also know that when/if I deny, ignore, or create pretense, or attempt to in any way bypass either my spirituality or my humanity, I will create harm and suffering (dukha).

In the matrix, value and meaning are attached to each identity fragment. Black is less than white, young is better than old, male is better than female, able has more value than disabled, and the Midwest is either better or worse than some other locale. You could think of the values assigned to the constructs as cultural prejudices.

Prejudices are learned prejudgments. We all have them; they are built into how we are socialized. Prejudices become problematic when they are ignored or normalized. At that point, prejudices become preferences, and repeatedly acting on the preferences myelinates the pathway. Then as we become attached, we connect them with the neuron housing “good,” forgetting that they are constructs. Attachment to our preferences sets up discrimination based on them.

Wikipedia defines discrimination as “the prejudicial treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category.” Things like avoidance, harassment, exclusion, ridicule, slander, threats, violence, and racist jokes are all examples of discriminatory behavior. According to the ancient wisdom, these actions stem from avidya.

It gets even deeper: The binary matrix uses prejudice and discriminatory practices to delineate power. And it is power (access to resources, ability to influence others, access to decision-makers) that turns prejudice and discrimination into an “ism.”

From power comes written and, even more insidious, unwritten policy (political samskara).

Prejudice + Discrimination + Power = Oppression.

Relative to this discussion, prejudice and discrimination get culturally and institutionally built in strategically through law and policy and become nearly invisible as they come to be normalized. The “ism” is now a systemic samskara, born from avidya.

The mass incarceration of African-American males is a glaring example of systemic oppression. An examination of the disparities in drug sentencing reveals that while five times as many white people use drugs as Black people, Black people are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people (according to the American Civil Liberties Union). The normalization of this became apparent to me when a white friend confronted her adolescent son about his drug use. In response to her, he argued, “Mom, if your concern is that I might get arrested and go to jail, you really don’t need to worry about it. After all, we’re not Black.”

And here’s the deal, oppression does not require explicit action. When we ignore, deny, or marginalize a samskara’s existence, we participate in its perpetuation.

Unconscious thoughts, speech, and actions, whether our own or those of someone else, preserve and reinforce the samskara, deepening its groove.

And this hurts everyone. Yes, everyone—even those in the dominant group. Internalized superiority separates and dehumanizes. Seductively lulled through a system of advantage, those in the dominant group start to believe that they are something that they are not. A false sense of superiority often expresses itself as unfounded and unjust fear. Not only does that harm personal health and well-being, it ignores the connectedness among all living things. It negates the richness and fullness of humanity that is experienced through deep communion with others.

Because of the social, political, and institutional implications, the cultural conversation about racism can turn into a three-ring circus at best, a horror show at worst.

The goal of yoga according to all the classical texts is transformation. In a nutshell, the texts say that transformation requires:

1. Acknowledgment and acceptance of the exact nature of our attachment/addiction to dysfunctional behaviors and patterns, and in particular the addiction to power and control.

2. Purification (removal of contaminants) from our living and thinking.

3. Changing our operating systemAtmavidya, self beyond identification and attachment, is said to be the highest goal of yoga.

The model of transformation presented in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is rooted in four principles: (radical) honesty, humility, willingness, and surrender (of our attachments).

Bringing compassionate inquiry and awareness—the cornerstones of the yoga practice—into the investigation of our socially conditioned life demands taking a very deep look at what we often accept as normal.

Undoing the samskara of racism is neither simple nor easy. It is perhaps the hardest work many of us will ever do because ultimately it is not an intellectual undertaking. It requires waking up from the dream/nightmare while we are still in it. And then we need to “stay woke,” not allowing ourselves to get lulled back to sleep. This one will require us to skillfully use every tool we’ve learned in our practice. That said, if there has ever been a community that is up for the task, I believe it’s this one.

About the Teacher

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Nikki Myers
Nikki Myers is an accomplished teacher and practitioner. She is a Yoga Therapist, Somatic Experiencing... Read more