Liberating Yoga Spaces
A conversation with Michelle Cassandra Johnson
by Mary Higgs
If yoga can be something bigger than what we do on our mats, something that can make the world a better place, author and yoga teacher Michelle C. Johnson is contributing to that shift. Michelle uses the platform of yoga to help create social change. Entering one of Michelle’s classes, you find human rights, fairness, and equity at its core. Michelle believes the principles of yoga and social justice are interconnected, and she is doing some amazing work to further the conversation around the two.
As a social justice activist, licensed clinical social worker, Dismantling Racism trainer, and creator of the 200-hour Skill in Action teacher training program, Michelle approaches her life and work from a place of empowerment, embodiment, and integration. She has a deep understanding of trauma and its impacts on the individual and collective experience. Much of her work focuses on helping people better understand how power and privilege operate in their lives.
Recently, I sat down with Michelle to discuss this work.
MH: I’m a really big fan of yours, Michelle, and fascinated with the topic of yoga and social justice. What helped you discover a connection between the two?
MJ: Justice and yoga feel one and the same to me. The principles of yoga and the practice of transformation are aligned with principles for creating movements for social change. We live in a culture that marginalizes people based on identity, and my experience of yoga/spiritual spaces has been one of further marginalization based on who is set up to have access to wellness in our culture. I spent time in many rooms that didn't reflect my experience as a black woman or speak to the social issues the collective is struggling through.
MH: So, how did your yoga experience evolve into the creation of the Skill in Action teacher training program? Can you share some of the goals of your work?
MJ: I created Skill in Action to shed light on the way the institution of yoga in this country mirrors the larger cultural context. Yoga is an exclusive experience that is causing harm to many and furthering the limited access to wellness that folks on the margins experience. My work evolved after writing Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World. As I started to share my work in yoga studios and community centers with teacher trainings and very seasoned yoga teachers, my work began to merge anti-racism, justice, and yoga.
My goal is to have Skill in Action be part of every teacher training—in this country and beyond. And to transform yoga spaces from the inside out by having teachers and students explore their identities, their privilege, and their relationship to power, along with the ways in which they are potentially marginalizing people by creating exclusive spaces. My goal is to teach yoga teachers how to create liberating spaces for all—particularly in relationship with the folks most on the margins.
MH: Skill in Action beautifully describes how culture lands in our bodies. Your book deals with white privilege and oppression but also expands the concept of what yoga practice is and how we align with the collective. Can you explain this further?
MJ: The country you and I live in was founded on the principle of white, straight males of wealth being superior, and everyone else being inferior. [It] was set up in a misaligned way that didn't allow for everyone to experience freedom [which] impacts our minds, hearts, spirits, and bodies. We live with this misalignment, trying to move and relate to one another from a place of dis-ease caused by that misalignment.
What furthers misalignment is the cultural pressure to deny what we know to be true—pressure to be silent about inequity. I invite people to notice how the cultural landscape is landing in their physical body, and in their heart, mind, and spirit.
We are in connection with one another and the culture and it's important to understand our position and our proximity to power in order to figure out how we can create alignment with the collective. The physical practice of yoga invites us to explore alignment and to notice when we are out of alignment and then to adjust accordingly. Similarly, I believe we can adjust, dismantle, and disrupt systems of oppression in order for the collective to move into alignment. The philosophy of yoga teaches us about the yamas and niyamas, ways of being that are very rooted in creating a just world.
MH: How does intention encourage the collective to move into alignment? More specifically, how does intention relate to social justice or inclusivity?
MJ: If we skip setting an intention or vision for our work in the world then we are working without any anchor to bring us back home to who we are and what we want to create. This is true both when teaching yoga and when creating social change in the world. Things fall apart when we don't have something to ground us in the “why” we are doing our work. Teachers often ask students to set an intention at the beginning of class. I invite students to set an intention and dedication to a being or groups of beings with the awareness that yoga is about something bigger than me, you, or any individual person practicing.
Equity work isn't about fame or checking off a box—it's about real change to sustain the collective well-being of all.
People exploring how to create inclusive spaces need to do so from an intention grounded in creating sustainable and long-term change. If yoga spaces want to seem more diverse and inclusive but are doing it because it's the “hot topic” or trendy, the community will not feel that their intention is authentic. However, if they want to create social change (inclusivity) because it is the key to disrupting a system of oppression, and if they are committed for the long haul, then the community will feel the intention and desire as authentic. Equity work isn't about fame or checking off a box—it's about real change to sustain the collective well-being of all.
MH: I love the idea of collective well-being; it broadens our understanding of yoga and brings humanity into the classroom. Can you describe this further, and perhaps share how yoga can be a vehicle for social change?
MJ: The work isn't easy and it's messy. But I would ask teachers to consider the risk they are taking when they don't prioritize creating equity in their spaces, classes, and community. What do they risk losing by not doing the work? Spiritually they lose everything because they further the misalignment in culture by turning away from the realities people live with as they try to navigate culture. On the other hand, the benefits of working to create equity are limitless. Teachers begin to feel aligned, they create relationships in their communities, they deepen their relationship with their students by calling their students into action.
I don't think there are drawbacks to doing equity work in a spiritual context but I do believe the work isn't easy. People with the most power and privilege, who have a desire for change, need to be willing to make mistakes and continue on with the work. Those who experience oppression in our culture have consistently extended grace to folks authentically trying to make the world a place where oppression ceases to be.
MH: Can you speak about the issue of spiritual bypassing in yoga communities? How does it lead to cultural misalignment and inequity?
MJ: Spiritual bypassing in a yoga context means using the spiritual practice to escape from or avoid the reality of the misalignment, imbalance, and abuse of power in our culture. In addition, spiritual bypassing posits that we can pray, breathe, move, practice asana, and meditate oppression away. We cannot.
When a yoga teacher says everything happens for a reason, my mind goes to: Why then does war happen? Why do black babies die at a much higher rate than white babies? Why do black men have such a high rate of hypertension? Why do I have enough food to eat while others are starving? Why are so many people experiencing homelessness? Why am I afraid of the police? Why does white supremacy exist? Why are trans people being targeted and murdered for being trans?
There are more questions I have and I could go on here. There are also reasons we can point to that explain why there is so much inequity. But when a person says everything happens for a reason, they typically have no intention of exploring the real reasons things are so mixed up in our culture. I move through yoga in my black body, while so many yoga spaces avoid any mention of white supremacy, and the spiritual bypassing that results erases my experience of living in a culture that doesn't value blackness.
If one says (particularly from a position of power) that everything happens for a reason, then they need to be willing to explore the possible reason and to be accountable for their part in righting the injustices their embodied privilege creates.
MH: Guided meditation is integral in your work, and the mindfulness tools in Skill in Action are excellent. In regard to social justice, can you explain the significance of the breath?
MJ: The breath is deeply political because some of us don't have space to breathe. Policies are made that limit access to our capacity to be well and find ease. In classes I guide a meditation about the breath and about it being a radical act to breathe because we live in a culture where oppression takes the breath away. I also lead a meditation in Skill in Action workshops that is based on where we come from and our identities, and how those live in our bodies. In addition, I lead a meditation on suffering and liberation—our relationship to our own suffering and the collective suffering as a pathway to liberation.
MH: Finding liberation can bring people to yoga. I would love for you to speak about the phrase “bringing yoga off the mat and into the world.” How can we do this? Where do we begin?
MJ: We begin by breathing with the awareness that some people aren't afforded the space to breathe. We begin by waking up and cutting through the illusion that whiteness has created. We begin by feeling heartbroken enough to take action. We begin by being willing to see our lives as a practice of trying to move our culture back into alignment. We begin by talking to our family members, friends, yoga students, and the people closest to us about what matters to us, and inspiring them to change.
My practice of yoga is always about something bigger than me because it is continually tethered to a belief that this world can be a better place. And because I have a body, mind, enlivened heart, and strong spirit, it is my duty to make the world a better place.
For more info about Michelle’s work, or if you’d like to add Skill in Action to your yoga teacher training, visit her website: michellecjohnson.com.
You can take Michelle's class A Practice to Connect here on Yoga International. Look for more yoga classes and guided meditations from Michelle coming soon!