Yoga, Race, and Culture

July 18, 2017    BY Dianne Bondy

When I first saw the email from Katherine Chow inviting me to speak at Princeton, I closed my computer. I pretended I hadn’t seen it. I was sure the email wasn’t meant for me.

However, when I tentatively opened my computer the next day, the email was still there and it was still addressed to me.

My imposter syndrome was working overtime, so I decided to call just to be sure. As it turned out, Ms. Chow had read all my articles and my blog and wanted me to speak on the topics of yoga, race, and accessibility. She had recently been to a yoga studio that she described as “bougie.”

I had to laugh because I knew that feeling all too well. The yoga spaces that I have been to are inherently white, and as a person of color, the experience of practicing in a white space is often very uncomfortable. “Bougie” was a great way to explain this dynamic.

Speaking Up About Race and Equality

My talk at Princeton would not be the first time I’ve talked about race. My dharma seems to be having significant and intensive conversations around race and equity with people who are not people of color all the time. I refer to them as the dominant culture of whiteness. In fact, some of the most difficult conversations happen in my own family. You see, I am married to a white man, and I always feel like an outsider when I’m with his family.

My dharma seems to be having significant and intensive conversations around race and equity.

My race is at the forefront of a lot of interactions, and I am forever dodging the micro and macro aggressions that I’m expected to tolerate because of the other person’s age or lack of understanding; when I call them out on their actions, I am considered to be too sensitive.

In these situations I am reminded that white supremacy always wins.

Lately, I have been more outspoken. I have brown kids and I need to change the world for them. However, the sentiment in my husband’s family is that we can’t make old white folks uncomfortable. I get to witness the privileges that come with white fragility and advanced age. I have heard these privileges described as weapons of whiteness.

I’m expected to make allowances for these privileges while my needs go unconsidered. As a person of color, it can be hard to navigate the world these days. The current political climate has emboldened prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Most of the time, I feel very raw and exposed.

I don’t think white people understand how difficult it is to be a person of color in today’s world. I know that things are better now than they were when my ancestors were coming up; however, change is happening way too slowly for me—I am truly disappointed when I see there is still a long way to go. I feel I am carrying the torch toward the future with the help of my ancestors.

Challenging the Status Quo 

My yoga practice enables my torch-bearing because it has opened my eyes through self-study (svadhyaya), truthfulness (satya), and surrender to a higher power (Ishvara pranidhana), helping me become more and more conscious of the world.

Before I became a regular yoga practitioner, I felt as though I was asleep and unaware of the world around me. I was without connection or consciousness, just going through the motions of surviving and living. I lived with the idea I must tolerate this world as it is because it was better than it was before. Change is slow. Wait my turn, things will get better, don't make a fuss. My yoga practice has made me aware of the world and my place within it.

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

My yoga practice has also taught me much about race, culture, and diversity. First of all, I have learned that blacks folks, people of color, people with disabilities, and people with non-binary genders aren’t always welcomed in yoga spaces. Yoga and other spiritual practices seem to be endeavors reserved for wealthy, white, cisgendered folks, even though yoga is meant to reflect all aspects of an individual and all aspects of life itself.

Since the very beginning of my yoga journey, I have been fighting for increased diversity and representation on the mat. When I showed up to my first studio yoga class, the teacher told me that the class was going to be hard in a way that implied that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I was also directed to karma classes because they were only $5.

Since the very beginning of my yoga journey, I have been fighting for increased diversity and representation on the mat.

Experiences like these made it clear that there wasn’t a place for me in my local yoga community.

So I decided to create a brave space for yoga on my own terms.

That’s what black folks/people of color do when we’re excluded or underrepresented. We create our own representation, and we stand up for our culture. Just look at the civil rights movement, HBCUs, BET, and Essence and Ebony magazines.

I created my own physical brick and mortar studio, as well as a virtual space to welcome and celebrate yoga practitioners of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Instead of waiting for Yogaglo to invite me to teach, I created Yogasteya.com—an online studio specializing in yoga for diverse communities.

Instead of waiting to see diversity in mainstream yoga publications, I helped to create the Yoga and Body Image Coalition—where we use public-facing images that challenge what yoga looks like and who is practicing yoga.

Increasing Diversity and Representation

Increasing diversity and representation has been my number one cause throughout my entire yogic journey, and it is the inspiration that always keeps me going.

It is my dharma—my noble purpose. Meanwhile, I am often discredited in the eyes of some by the very things that make me a great teacher—my size, my culture, and my skin color. According to the mainstream yoga culture, these qualities make me a less qualified teacher.

As a fat, black yoga teacher of West Indian heritage, I feel a connection to yoga in my blood—it is part of my culture—but I often become an object of curiosity (“Wow, look at how flexible and strong that fat black girl is!”) because I don’t fit mainstream conceptions of the norm.

But it’s the very characteristics that set me apart from the “norm” that allow me to truly live my practice. I do this by appreciating my body in spite of society’s exclusionary messages. Non-marginalized individuals can’t understand, firsthand, living the practice in that context because they haven’t had the same experience of being discounted by others because of their size, skin color, or background.

Because people stare at me like they have never seen a black person do yoga before, I have learned to sit in my discomfort and use the practice of self-study. Such experiences have also encouraged me to speak out about preconceived notions of what is “different” (versus what is within “the norm”) in the yoga community.

While yoga is a South Asian practice, it has become a North American commodity. The practice of yoga here elevates “whiteness” to a sort of automatic expertise and leaves people of color as mere afterthoughts—or curiosities.

But here’s the thing: the yoga world is a reflection and a microcosm of what goes on in the world as a whole; that is why this vision of “whiteness” as the norm continues to show up in our yoga spaces.

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 people in the community become so defensive? 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?

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 behaviours?

The answer to all of these questions is the same: fragility. It is hard to look at yourself critically, and sometimes sharing power feels like losing power and the knee jerk reaction is to push back!

Self-study can solve this.

But that is not the yogi way. We are missing a huge piece of what the yoga practice is intended to be. The yoga community, and more detrimentally the yoga industry as a whole, is missing the pinnacle niyama—svadhyaya, 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 biases, privileges, and limiting beliefs.

We are terrified that admitting our bias and limiting makes us bad people, instead acknowledging that these beliefs have to be structurally taught and enforced. We do not manage to critically analyze the messages we are seeing and hearing as we navigate through the world. Thus, we are in no way offended as we continue to be bombarded with homogeneous images of yoga and the world as a whole. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t even register in our consciousness how debilitating and detrimental these images are!

White privilege includes the ability to comfortably be yourself in every situation; you never have to worry that your skin color will separate you from others.

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 consciousness—and that is the first step to justice and equality.

Raising Your Consciousness

How do you raise your consciousness? By boldly becoming aware of bias and privilege and how they might be affecting your treatment of others.

Bias is everywhere. It’s hard not to judge based on the preconceived notions we may have. Pre-judging, aka prejudice, shows up everywhere whenever a person makes assumptions about another individual or a group without getting to know the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings behind that person’s or group’s words and actions. Everyone can have prejudice just like everyone can have privilege. But white privilege includes the ability to comfortably be yourself in every situation; you never have to worry that your skin color will separate you from others.

White privilege gives one the comfort and security of finding classes that are accessible to you. It means you get to practice with and be taught by people who look like you. It means that everything revolves around you.

White is viewed as the norm. But for those who are ready to step out of that warm and cozy bubble, the practice of self-study is the way to do it.

Start with acknowledging this historical reality: Since arriving on North American soil, white people have used their power to create preferential access to survival resources (like housing, education, jobs, food, healthcare, and legal protection). For as long as they’ve been here, white folks have always held all the power in North America.

Important questions to reflect on include: “How do we continue to keep our culture, yoga classes, and conferences white-centric?” and “If yoga is about unity, why does that power differential show up on our mats?”

Bypassing or dismissing tough questions is not allowed in fruitful self-study. Talking about real events and difficult situations around race and discrimination on the mat can often be dismissed by a comment like “You are focusing on the negative,” or sometimes even by using “karma” as the excuse for marginalized people’s lack of access to education or wealth, ignoring the historical reasons for unequal access and failing to truly engage in an examination of how bias and privilege operate to maintain inequality.

Prejudice leads us to make assumptions based on skin color (or some other quality), but self-study means examining the origin of those assumptions and letting them go if they are faulty.

I ask that you don't make assumptions about me, my abilities, or my education based on my skin color or body size.

Another important reflection might be to ask ourselves, “How are we mean-spirited in our yoga practice?”

Strong prejudices lead to an intolerance of others known as bigotry, which is often accompanied by discriminatory treatment of others. Looking for any mean-spirited treatment of others in our lives is a way to identify discrimination so we can work to avoid it.

Justice Is Love Expressed Out Loud

What should yoga and the culture surrounding it be about? It should be about making an effective change regarding 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 spot injustice.

So, let’s stop being driven by old ideas that support the inhumane treatment of others. Instead, let’s agree to study who we are and what we stand for.

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 everyone. It is exhausting work, but it is the work of being conscious.

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. Digest the messages you are being fed, and please, learn to understand and explore your ideas about who you are and how you show up—on and off the mat.

Together, let’s use our yoga practice to change ourselves beyond just 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.

#yoga in action Photography: Andrea Killam

Dianne Bondy
Dianne Bondy – Dianne Bondy is a celebrated yoga teacher, social justice activist and leading voice of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive view of yoga asana and philosophy inspires and empowers thousands of followers around the world - regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability.

She applies over 1000 hours of training to help her students find freedom, self-expression and radical self-love in their yoga practice. She shares her message and provides millions of... Read more>>

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