The Yoga + Social Justice Collaborative is an organization dedicated to exploring the relationship between spiritual practice and social justice through collaborative gatherings, education, and service. The blog series shares the thoughts and practices of our members and supporters. We invite you to join the conversation!
The horrifying and deeply saddening stream of videos showing police killings of young black men and women, punctuated violently by the recent U.S. presidential election giving support to hate and separation, has been a wake-up call to many and a clear reminder of what we already knew to be the case for many others. It grows harder and harder not to feel a sense of urgency, questioning, frustration, and disorientation. It becomes difficult to ignore the fact that we are a society in need of radical change and healing.
So, can practicing yoga and meditation help us in times like these? Or is it just another way for people to ignore what is really going on by suggesting we can meditate our way to peace?
The current situation reveals some of the core problems in the mainstream yoga and dharma worlds. There have been many opinion pieces from well-known yoga and dharma teachers: Still blinded by their privilege, they ask us to love our enemies, or to find patience—as bad times, like good times, will always pass. These sentiments are no comfort to people who have been traumatized by institutional oppression most of their lives, and who may see a clear and present threat to their physical safety (e.g., fearing deportation or hate crimes). Pablo Das has an insightful exploration into this in his article “Why This Gay Buddhist Teacher Is Dubious About Buddhist Refuge in the Trump Era.”
Yet I still believe yoga has much to offer. It is important to see that these problems of relevance, exclusion, and spiritual bypassing are those of the implementation of the practice by a privileged few, not problems with the practice itself. There are powerful and relevant teachings in yoga and dharma practices to help us navigate these times, to help us awaken to what is, to see and hear each other, and to support social justice work.
The association of spiritual practice and modern social justice work is nothing new. The work of our elders—like that of Thich Nhat Hanh during the Vietnam War, Dr. King’s demand for civil rights, Dr. Ambedkar’s fight for a free India, and Audre Lorde’s fight for a free body and mind—are all inspirations for us to draw on. Their call for spiritual justice is continued today by teachers like Ericka Huggins, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Lama Rod Owens, and Rev. angel Kyodo williams, who are part of the long line of teachers showing that love and resistance are not incompatible. In fact, we cannot live in a “Worldwide Culture of Love,” as bell hooks calls it, without actively and skillfully resisting oppression. This is not only the oppression we all feel as individuals, but that of our neighbors—the friends and strangers we live with—as well.
These are some of the ways spiritual practices can play an essential role in supporting social justice work:
• To create a culture of individual self-care and community self-care and service.
• To truly know that our own liberation is only possible with the liberation of all.
• To free ourselves from reacting from our unconscious conditioning in order to become skillful actors for change.
• To understand that to work in community, to see and value everyone's contribution, is the only way to create strong, lasting change.
• To identify where our actions and thoughts may be supporting the very systems and beliefs we want to change.
• To show that issues of race, gender, sexuality, and poverty affect everyone—not just those outside dominant normative culture.
If the larger yoga community is going to be relevant in creating change, we first must look at our own involvement in supporting privilege and injustice. Much yoga that is offered today is confused about whether materialism or liberation is its core purpose. We like to use lofty terms such as ahimsa (non-violence) and apply them to ideas of universal peace, while at the same time many yoga studios feel unsafe and unwelcoming to those who are not part of the mainstream, dominant culture. Despite being represented as centers for healing, such venues often fail to integrate an understanding of race, gender, and sexuality, and seem to view the real-life implications of these issues as irrelevant or marginal to yoga practice. In addition, the financial cost of entry has made a yoga practice prohibitive for many. Because of this, many people of color, as well as those who identify as queer, disabled, poor, or who for other reasons feel outside the mainstream of our culture, do not believe these transformative teachings are for them. Historical marginalization has also led many of us to doubt that we even have a right to healing, self-care, wholeness, and love.
We like to use lofty terms such as ahimsa (non-violence) and apply them to ideas of universal peace, while at the same time many yoga studios feel unsafe and unwelcoming to those who are not part of the mainstream, dominant culture.
This is compounded by the fact that there is a growth of social justice articles, conversations, and trainings from the same individuals and institutions that have been setting the agenda all along: communities that have been unwilling or unable to hold the difficult conversations around race and privilege—those who have been advocating spiritual bypasses or asking peoples whose suffering they don’t understand to just sit with it.
There are teachers who have done a great job bringing yoga and meditation into mainstream culture but are still challenged in seeing their privilege, who need to step aside and remember we all need to be students and learn from others. Voice and position has to be shared with those who have been doing this work for years, unseen and often unwelcome by the mainstream.
So how can we make our yoga and dharma communities more relevant? We have to start seeing and listening to people, valuing their stories, acknowledging that they are important and have great knowledge. We cannot teach “We are all one” on a high spiritual plane if our physical bodies are not safe and equally valued in the communities we live in. The name Black Lives Matter has been criticized by many as being excluding, or (impossibly) even racist. But until all people of color, queer people, and those with different bodies and abilities, feel that their lives do matter equally—and until we have equal access to health and healing, to jobs and housing and education, and can feel safe and seen in our streets—we cannot begin to talk of spiritual oneness. Until black lives do matter to everyone, it remains a powerful mantra for all of us. As an organization, Black Lives Matter has a lot to teach the yoga and dharma worlds when it comes to commitment to broad leadership, valuing diverse voices, and centralizing to self-care and spiritual values.
So what can we in the yoga community do? I can offer what we did at Piedmont Yoga as a community. We started four years ago as a group of teachers and students—mostly people of color—having conversations as to how we can create a yoga space that is truly welcoming to people of color, the queer community, and those of all body types and abilities. We looked at who came to our classes and who didn’t, how we talked about yoga and how people might hear that, and we asked people what they felt prevented them from practicing yoga, or returning to the studio after their initial visit. We made sure we had a diverse teacher roster. Listening and learning along the way, we offered classes and workshops that we hoped would be relevant to a wide group of people. We expanded these informal conversations into the Conversations with Modern Yogis series, where we discussed topics such as Yoga in Action: Where Spiritual Practice Meets Social Change, and Cultural Appropriation and the Commodification of Yoga. We hosted workshops supporting Self-Care for People of Color, and that looked at Exploring White Privilege: Moving from Resistance to Resilience through Yoga and Meditation.
As our community grew and strengthened we began to broaden our collaborations. Casual discussions with my friend Melanie Klein grew into bringing our Conversations and Yoga in Action series to Los Angeles with support from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. At the same time one of Piedmont Yoga’s students, Sabrina Strings, co-led the Race and Yoga Working Group, pushing the boundaries of the exploration of yoga, justice, and critical study, giving all of us the opportunity to dig deeper and to be more informed and accountable.
This culminated in our first Yoga and Social Justice Conference in June 2016. We brought together people working with disability access to healthcare and well-being, POC and queer practitioners, and teachers who were also committed activists. We also made sure the conference was accessible to those with limited financial means.
People were hungry to connect, to realize they were not the only ones feeling as they did, and eager to work together. At the conference, as with our conversations and workshops, we challenge the notion that a teacher is the ultimate possessor of knowledge. Instead, we believe that knowledge and moral, ethical, and spiritual authority flow between different members of the group as we try to find the most powerful solutions and grow in collective wisdom and experience.
Since we hosted the conference people from around the country have been contacting us. They were excited to discover that there were others like themselves who saw the beauty and power in the practice of yoga and its potential for supporting their own self-care and that of their communities, but felt excluded by the yoga community in their neighborhoods. They felt they had no safe spaces for practice. After our conference, I had the pleasure of connecting with a yoga teacher named Farah. Inspired and supported by our work, she is now teaching a POC yoga class in her town and teaching us all about community building and connecting yoga and justice. Tragically, she requests that I do not use her full name or location, as she is concerned about reprisals (as we saw in Seattle last year and with other POC yoga classes around the country).
If the yoga community wants to support change, we would be more effective offering support to people like Farah. We would look at ourselves and see if we are the ones who are afraid of a Muslim woman organizing people of color to sit together in healing. We would offer space in our studios and dharma halls to hold classes for those traditionally not included—to be lead by members of their own community. To invite leaders of black and brown and LGBTQ communities to co-create events, rather than inviting them only to create the appearance of diversity while dictating what it is they present.
As we launch the Yoga and Social Justice Collaborative website we are expanding this work, hosting conferences, immersions, and workshops in Oakland, Los Angeles, and New York, building relationships and learning as we go. We hope to hear from many more people learning and working together in collaboration.
If we want to see yoga as a tool for justice, the first step must be to recognize this injustice in our studios, our active or passive complicity with it, and the importance of addressing our own privilege. While less dramatic, offering support and space to the communities around us is more transformational than going to Africa to teach yoga (or on eco yoga retreats to Jamaica or Costa Rica). We need to look hard at our intentions, considering whether the work we think is supporting social justice might instead be just tourism, entertainment, or missionary work. My friend Richelle Donigan, a beautiful teacher and community leader in Oakland, says that if all the yoga teachers out there were teaching yoga, we would be in a very different place. Hard to disagree with this.
If we want to support lasting change, it’s time for the yoga community to prioritize the liberation of all. It’s time to understand that this cannot happen through the vision of only a privileged few—especially a privileged few who are unwilling or unable to listen to others or to recognize their own privilege. A broad, fluid leadership and a deep valuing and including of diverse voices are needed to support creative thinking and solutions, so that all voices and experiences count. The anger many of us feel is something we can use to direct our energies, to demand to be seen and be heard, and to act together with our combined wisdom and love to create the deep and transformational change we so need.