Can Yoga Really Address Social Injustice?

Reflecting on Who, Where, and Why We Teach

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first started practicing yoga, I felt so much gratitude for the new sense of ease I felt in my body and the calm awareness I experienced after savasana. My gratitude led to an expansive heart that wanted to share yoga with others.

As time went on, and as I considered training as a teacher, I started to see opportunities to share the beauty of mindfulness and asana practices everywhere. School kids should learn mindfulness, I thought, as I watched my young son play with his friends. Farm workers should have yoga breaks, I thought, as I drove up Interstate 5 in California and saw laborers bent over the fields picking strawberries. Prisoners should learn yogic breathing to help mitigate the stresses of incarceration, I thought, as I read about prison life. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, someone needed yoga.

This was not incorrect, though my simplistic view of what other people “should” have was in need of nuance. I still believe that a wide array of people can benefit from the teachings and practice of yoga. Indeed, if one’s work involves crouching over a row of strawberries, and picking for hours each day, then yes, in a very real way, stretches that open the chest could likely improve their quality of life.

Furthermore, bringing yoga into settings like schools and prisons democratizes the practice. It’s not just that yoga is good for individuals who live in cities and towns and can attend classes in studios with soft music and instructors in fancy microfiber pants. Yoga is for people in t-shirts and track pants and for people beaten down by low pay, lack of mobility, and few opportunities. My focus on expanding the reach of yoga and paying attention to social justice was laudable as I considered the deprived masses in the schools, prisons, and farms.

Right?

Slow down. Take a deep breath. Remember that every social pattern, every colonization, and every bias exists in a drop of water as well as the sea: My culture’s failings are also my own. Even as we work against the status quo, it remains true for each of us. We are learning to hold ambiguity—the paradox of not always behaving in a way that’s congruent with our beliefs—as we calm the fluctuations of the mind (vrittis).

What does this paradox mean for the joyful desire to share yoga outside of traditional settings? I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop ourselves from sharing and striving. I’m suggesting that we allow our mindfulness practices to take us into the deeper truth of our interconnectedness, to evaluate our motives and how we might use conscious action to transform the institutions themselves, rather than just offering asana practices and engaging no further.

It’s possible to think big and work small at the same time. It’s possible to notice and tease out the threads that connect our desires from the ones that cause harm to others.

During most of the years I’ve been teaching yoga, I’ve also been teaching Sociology of Education at the university level. I know very well that the U.S. education system has never been equitable, despite the popular view that education is the great equalizer. Work hard and you can get ahead. Cultivate talent and it will be recognized. These edicts have never been true for all who are talented and hardworking.

Some people are held back by poverty, racism, sexism, and the like, while mediocrity is promoted thanks to the expectation that only certain individuals will—and should—achieve their aims. Jonathan Kozol has been meticulously and vividly documenting the inequalities of the U.S. educational system for decades, just to mention one resource. These inequalities are primarily associated with poverty and uneven school funding, and the high likelihood that people of color will attend underfunded schools that use zero-tolerance policies to track kids into low-paying jobs and worse. This information about the U.S. education system is not difficult to obtain, and if you are a person who received a well-funded public education, as I did, and you spend any time in underfunded schools, the difference is immediately discernible.

So, when the yoga teacher loads props from their $20-per-drop-in-class studio into their car and unloads them to use them to teach in the dilapidated gym of an underfunded school once a week, simply because they want to share the joy of yoga, is their act of mindful service complete?

Framing and follow-through on their part will make all the difference in this scenario. The urge to share yoga outside of the studio and with diverse audiences is superb, but there are ways to frame that sharing so that we're part of the fabric of positive change, rather than a part of re-inscribing the status quo. I’m offering five areas for further contemplation and action below.

1. Pay attention to what motivates you to help.

Your first motivation is likely gratitude and love. What’s beneath that?

Is it a desire to feel you’ve been of service? An ego-related desire to share “the magic solution” that will ease suffering? What’s beneath that? If yoga is not part of your cultural upbringing (that is, if you’re not Indian, or Southeast Asian, or you weren’t raised with a yoga practice), what fuels your sense of entitlement to share a yoga practice with others? If you have nothing in common with the people you’re teaching, what fuels your sense of entitlement to teach these students? Do you treat your students differently based on their location? What influences your decisions about whether to include mantra or meditation, for instance?

Your ability to reflect honestly on questions like these, over time, will lead to more authentic and relevant interactions with your students and with your own practice of service.

2. Pay attention to the circumstances that cause a “need” for yoga. How can they be more just?

If you’re teaching in an after-school program, for instance, and you notice that kids are too exhausted to do a vinyasa flow practice that you had planned, how can you integrate the wisdom of “what is” into your plan? What’s beneath that exhaustion? If you notice that students are tired because of hunger or having been awake since 5 a.m. in order to get to school on time, and now it’s 5 p.m., how can you be present to the suffering you see without rushing for an easy solution? How can you engage with a layered, gentler experience and advocate for better conditions for your students?

How will you learn about what is before you in order to gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances in which you teach?

3. Pay attention to what resources are being offered, other than yoga, when you see suffering.

In addition to yoga and meditation, do your students also have access to healthcare, adequate food and housing, and trauma recovery? Are you helping to enable systems in which access to assistance is uneven—maybe even by providing yoga? That is, might someone be justifying a lack of counseling or medical services by noting that meditation or yoga is calming and healing? Of course it is, but occasional yoga classes will never be the same as access to resources that those with more money often take for granted.

Continue to ask yourself: Are my students being treated with the same humanity and dignity that I expect for my own children, my friends, myself? If the answer is no, experience the pain of that and decide how action will arise in you.

4. Pay attention to how some benefit from the oppressive circumstances that bind others.

For instance, if your children attend a well-funded school and you teach yoga in a poorly funded school—yet both schools are within the same district—it could be said that your children are benefiting from the suffering of the children you teach. Might it be part of your mindfulness practice to advocate for a more equitable distribution of district funding?

In another example, if you are teaching yoga to prisoners who are incarcerated for illegal drug use or sales and you too sold some marijuana in high school but weren’t caught (or perhaps you own a share in the new neighborhood dispensary, now that marijuana is legal in your state), how is your freedom and profit related to the suffering of your students who live in captivity? How might your awareness lead to greater equity?

5. Notice what arises from practices of mindfulness and interconnection and then discuss collective action with others.

Be gentle with yourself during the process of gaining awareness and learning. Allies and accomplices can help you gain knowledge about funding and policies. Develop communities in which you can openly discuss social inequities that are based on resources, race, gender, and ability.

Not only does having these discussions “off the mat” lead to greater awareness and learning as well as greater opportunities to collaborate for equity, they help us to become better yoga teachers. We become more aware of who feels comfortable in or excluded from the practice itself and how we might promote greater access.

Mindfulness practice is not just about the benefits of calming our own vrittis, it’s about coming to see clearly, feel deeply, and act responsibly. There will always be different interpretations of social circumstances and discomfort is bound to arise, but as yoga teachers, we can do our best to acknowledge not only a desire to help, but our interconnectedness and privileges.

Bringing our teaching practice to diverse yoga communities is a gift, especially in cultures where economic and racial segregation are the norm, as they are in the United States. Chances are, we will come to notice how our yoga practices and traditions have been colonized by ego, greed, and loneliness too, and that awareness, once passed on, will help the next generation of practitioners deepen their practice and ability to serve as well.

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About the teacher

Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist, storyteller and yoga teacher. She works to reveal the hidden... Read more

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