Yoga, Healing, and Social Justice During a Pandemic


Editor’s note: Because of the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since publication of this article on May 5, 2020.

Choosing how to act when encountering the unknown can test the very foundations of one’s self. With the spread of COVID-19, we face a global pandemic that presents what at times seem to be insurmountable challenges, perhaps the most terrifying of which being uncertainty. The media is flooded with fluctuating facts and speculations: the economy crashing, populations at risk, being locked indoors for months, and a possible shortage of basic supplies. 

Yet behind all of this anxiety lingers the ordinary yet profound truth of our vulnerability, including our reliance on others and susceptibility to forces outside of our control.

Although we do not always view efforts toward social justice as part of yoga practice, yoga itself was founded upon a philosophy that strives toward an awareness of, and challenge to, social inequity and human suffering.

As a community committed to both individual and larger societal healing, many yoga practitioners may be grappling with how to respond during this crisis. Teachers and studios are asking how to best (and most rapidly) move their classes online. And many of us, students and teachers alike, worry about how to support those who are most likely to face hardship or illness. Although we do not always view efforts toward social justice as part of yoga practice, yoga itself was founded upon a philosophy that strives toward an awareness of, and challenge to, social inequity and human suffering.

A social affliction

When the news of COVID-19 first grabbed my attention, my initial concern was not related to the spread of the illness. I remember speaking to my alarmed mother on the phone during the time when the virus had not yet arrived in Canada, where we live. I was trying to explain that although she may think that the dangers of this unprecedented “flu” deserve heightened attention, we should turn our attention instead to its societal implications. I persuaded her to remember that, similar to the SARS outbreak of 2003, we were actually faced with a renewed raging epidemic of anti-East Asian racism. And although my mom agreed, I could tell she quietly remained fearful. 

My own skepticism about my mother’s concern didn’t last longer than a few weeks. Most people I speak with have their own personal variation of shock upon receiving updates about the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Everything seemingly changed overnight, and although my attention has been aggressively pulled toward acute health and safety concerns, it has not been removed from the vast socio-political implications of this virus. 

As quickly as sickness multiplies, so too does collective panic, public symptoms of unresolved fear, and subsequently, heightened acts of discrimination.

Like most aspects of the pandemic, news moves so quickly that it’s impossible to stay on top of all the complex repercussions for those who hold less social privilege. Houseless people, who are already at higher risk of poor health outcomes, are not materially equipped to practice social distancing and isolation. The media attention that surrounded the Wet’suwet’en blockades has been diverted, allowing the Coastal GasLink pipeline to continue construction on indigenous lands undeterred. Many of the most precariously employed lost their income, including part-time, self-employed, and service industry workers. Renters who cannot afford their housing are organizing rent strikes. Overt racism continues against East Asian people, while indigenous people and people of color face magnified precariousness and vulnerability. Inadequate healthcare systems put LGBTQ people and people with disabilities at higher risk. And all those who face identity-based and social marginalization are more likely to have their mental health negatively impacted, facing intensified trauma responses, depression, anxiety, isolation, and even internalized stigma. 

Reacting differently

It is this labyrinth of consequences, built upon a rocky foundation of prejudices, that is inviting us as a community to step up in a bigger way than ever before. But this pandemic is also highlighting an uncomfortable social truth: that we may be more likely to stand for others when our own livelihood is at risk. After all, it is often the comfort of similarity that brings people together with greater ease than people’s differences—perhaps especially when that similarity is an experience of distress and suffering. 

I confront this dynamic in many of my anti-oppression trainings for yoga teachers. Lacking the experience of marginalization, those with privilege are often unable to understand marginalization without directly relating. And while that relating can facilitate understanding, it also acts to hide the very real differences between people, such as how their lives are impacted, or not, by systemic oppression. 

The disability justice movement highlights the double edge of this situation. People with disabilities have long been fighting for the accessibility measures that are now finally being implemented with unparalleled speed and tenacity. But where were these commitments before? As interdisciplinary artist Aislinn Thomas underscores, we must move forward creatively, as interdependent communities of care facing uncertainty, into a future where no one can be left behind. And leaving none behind also means acknowledging the voices that have been enduringly speaking these truths, and questioning why, for some, it’s taken a pandemic to put these changes in motion. 

So, while this troubling and complex time may provide an unmatched opportunity for our yoga communities to do something noteworthy, we must ask ourselves how we can react mindfully instead of out of fear and internalized prejudice. 

Space as a teacher

COVID-19 is a specter of distance. We live apart, become physically detached in measurable ways (6 feet!) that are unfamiliar to many, especially those accustomed to practicing and teaching in contemporary yoga studios. We face isolation, which may fill us with dread and feelings of loneliness. Yet still, we are being brought together across these newly forming chasms, imagining collective well-being at a time when struggle is commonplace, and the only reliable fact is the unknown. A space makes room for something.

As yoga teachers, we therefore stand at a crossroads. The direction we take now can determine how we move forward as a collective. Particular changes, such as moving classes online, are already gaining momentum. However, while moving our classes online will certainly increase availability and keep some livelihoods afloat during social distancing, doing so indiscriminately will only highlight pre-existing issues related to accessibility, transphobia, and the centering of whiteness.

As we brace for continued ambiguity, rupture, and transformation, there is no clear, single answer on the best way forward. Instead—with this novel, wide-open empty space as our teacher—I propose that we put social justice front and center, and act intentionally with these two guiding principles in mind. 

1. Build community through collective knowledge

One essential lesson garnered from feminist, BIPOC, and disability justice movements is that the communities who are most susceptible to societal violences hold the greatest knowledge of not only how to survive those violences, but also, how to imagine and generate innovative futures outside of them. The capacity to dream of a different future arises from a sharp understanding of the current state of affairs; we must know the structure in order to properly demolish it. 

It is vital that the transnational yoga community draw upon the multifaceted understandings already held within, through its vast network of brilliant healers, educators, and guides. Yet many of those yogis who are most attuned to affliction and social injustice—people of color, those who migrate across borders, indigenous people, fat/larger bodied folks, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, poor and working class people—are those who still often practice yoga on the peripheries. By centering and propping up these voices and experiences, a new collectivity can emerge. 

A redefinition of who holds knowledge of survival, and of flourishing during strife, may allow yoga communities to face the pandemic with an unparalleled strength. 

2. Leverage your personal or your institutional privilege and power 

The fact that some of us hold more power than others is a difficult dynamic to acknowledge, even when we’re not in the middle of a crushing, global crisis. Consequently, it’s a safe assumption that seeing one’s own privilege will be a particularly steep challenge as of now, when no one is immune to fears of death, illness, and material loss. For many in the yoga community, the pandemic has meant a forfeiture of work, dire risks to small business, and a dismantling of essential healing spaces. 

Yet now more than ever, it is critical to consider the disproportionate consequences of the virus’s effects. First, try to refocus on becoming aware of your personal or institutional privileges. Consider how identity (such as being white or cisgender), structural privilege and history (such as class background or citizenship), or institutional affiliation (where you work, your networks) may influence your lived experience of COVID-19. Meditate on it and without judgment, make note of your emotional reactions as key information. From this place, you may better consider how you might leverage your privilege—meaning finding the best way to employ that advantage in the service of others.

Using yoga as a catalyst for change

In a time of widespread panic, when each person’s concern for safety is rapidly justified, it may feel difficult to know what deserves our attention—especially when our capacities are drastically affected or limited. Yet it is also moments like these that illuminate the reality of normalized, everyday oppression and its disproportionate effects on some people over others. The more that yoga communities use the effects of COVID-19 as a catalyst for becoming knowledgeable about power and injustice, the more we choose to have the hard conversations about privilege and to center marginalized people, the better equipped we will be to face the pandemic’s unknowns from a place of union and love.

About the Teacher

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Tobias Wiggins
Tobias Wiggins, PhD is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University,... Read more