Yoga, Equity, and Social Justice


My yoga has taught me so many incredible things.

This practice has brought me great happiness, and also deep sadness. It has made me acutely aware of the world I live in, and it has introduced me to a number of influential individuals who have become profound sources of inspiration in my daily life. But I have also met a lot of opportunists through yoga. Many of these self-proclaimed spiritual gurus are people who use "yoga," and the individuals who teach it, for their own selfish gains.

It is so true that yoga reflects all aspects of an individual, as well as all aspects of life itself.

I see this relationship played out through my yoga practice almost every day.

Are we really ready to lean into this difficult conversation?

Recently I spoke at the Race and Yoga Conference at the University of California in Berkeley. I was so nervous when I was invited to speak. Race and the image of yoga are hot topics that get hotter and more complicated every day. Inevitably, when we speak about race and privilege walls go up, opinions flare up, and people shut down. Are we really ready to lean into this difficult conversation? When I was invited to speak about what yoga and race mean to me, I decided to be compassionately honest (I don’t believe in brutal honesty) and share the experiences I’ve encountered on my yoga mat. It was tough not to get emotional, but this conversation needs to happen if we are going to more forward.

As a person of color, I am intensely aware of my place within this world. I know that attaining justice and acceptance is harder for me—simply because my skin is brown. As I watch the racial divide increase in North American culture, my sadness for our future generations increases. The fact that I have to teach my boys that the system is stacked against them deeply pains me. My boys are so young and impressionable, and I wish we didn’t have to have this incomprehensible conversation in the year 2015. But it is a conversation that must be had.

I have noticed that since America has elected a black president, racial tensions have increased exponentially. America was not ready for a black president. Our society, collectively, is not ready to have hard and uncomfortable conversations about race. There are many people across the world trying to spark these conversations, but their efforts are ending very poorly. Even Starbucks is getting on board with their ill-conceived ideas around #racetogether. It was a nice try, Starbucks, but it was an epic failure. Most people don’t intrinsically understand the conversations around race and systematic oppression. Admittedly, it's a lot to ask of a barista in a crowded and busy Starbucks to weigh in on such a deep, proliferating conversation. Since its inception, Starbucks has been a coveted beacon of white culture, and sadly, conversations on radical shifts in North American culture simply cannot be had in the four minutes it takes to make a latte. Yes, it is unfair to put such a heavy burden on Starbucks employees during work hours, but what about the rest of us?

Since the very beginning, I have been fighting for increased diversity in yoga. It has been my number one cause throughout my entire yogic journey, and it is the inspiration that has always kept me going. It is my dharma—my noble purpose. While I am all for saving the planet and the animals, I recognize that I also really need to save both myself and my culture as well.

When people speak up about their feelings of being excluded and marginalized by the dominant yoga culture, why do so many in the community become so defensive?

So why aren’t yoga studios and yoga teachers becoming more accommodating to people of color and individuals from unique cultural backgrounds? Why can’t yoga studios and yoga teachers be more inclusive to people of differing gender identities, body sizes, sexuality, and ethnicities? When people speak up about their feelings of being excluded and marginalized by the dominant yoga culture, why do so many in the community become so defensive? Why aren’t the oppressors listening compassionately to those with the courage to openly share their experiences? Why don’t we allow the marginalized to truly express themselves, and why aren’t their experiences encouraging the rest of the community to change their behaviors?

How did yoga, a word that means "unity," become so exclusive?

It is because we are missing a huge piece of what the yoga practice is meant to be. The yoga community, and more detrimentally the yoga industry as a whole, is missing the pinnacle niyamasvadhyaya, or self-study. Collectively, we are not practicing or celebrating the act of self-reflection and compassion that is self-study. Too many of us fail to acknowledge our own biases, privileges, and limiting beliefs. We fail to critically analyze the messages we are seeing and hearing as we navigate through the world.

We are in no way offended as we continue to be bombarded with homogeneous images of yoga and the world at large. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t even register in our consciousness how debilitating and detrimental these images are! We are completely unconscious of our actions, our words, and our influences on the people and the environment around us.

But here’s the thing: yoga is about raising our consciousnessand that is the first step to justice and equality.

Justice, after all, is self-love, and true compassion expresses itself out loud.

As a person of color, I am always studying myself and the world around me. I am always acknowledging my privilege (yes, I have privilege), and I am always checking in with myself as I continue to seek education and enlightenment on how I can make the world a better place for all of us. It is exhausting work, but it is the work of being conscious. Being a thought leader in the yoga community, and in turn, a leader in the world at large, should be about much more then executing advanced asana and accumulating millions of unconscious followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Yoga teachers, studio owners, and yoga practitioners in all corners of the world: You have work to do. Educate yourselves, be compassionate, listen to those around you and the messages you are being fed, and please, learn to understand and explore your own ideas about who you are.

We need to acknowledge when something is wrong.

What should yoga and yoga culture really be about? It should be about making effective change in regard to how we treat each other and the planet we live on. Together, we need to acknowledge when something is wrong, and we must be moved to action when we feel passionately about that injustice. We all can sense when something is fundamentally wrong, and we have a duty and an obligation not to ignore or silence the issues.

So let’s stop being driven by ancient values and old ideals that support the inhumane treatment of others. Instead, let’s agree to study who we are and what we stand for. Yoga teachers use a lot of tools to convey the messages and benefits of the practice. Together, let’s use this practice to change ourselves beyond the physical. Let’s connect with the universal and create a world where we can all experience the liberating freedom of being ourselves—without limitations, constraints, or apologies.

About the Teacher

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Dianne Bondy
Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga... Read more