A Yogic Invitation to Do Better: Transphobia + J Brown’s Yoga Talks Podcast
“What I know is not important. It is what I don’t know that is important.”
-Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar
I’ve been involved in a recent call-in campaign that is requesting accountability from J. Brown and his podcast guest, Katchie Ananda, for a deeply harmful, transphobic interview titled “Gender Spectrum and Biological Sex.” This podcast uses false science and toxic, obsolete cultural narratives that simultaneously position trans and nonbinary people as a dangerous threat, and as victims who need saving.
This article is a supplement to this and other open letters with calls to action. Let’s unpack this harm from a yogic perspective. Divesting and deplatforming are important tools, especially in cases like this where previous asks for accountability have been ignored and resisted over and over. I am also committed to the inquiry: what does accountability look like beyond cancelling someone’s platform, in service to reducing future harm, fostering humility and a potential commitment to do better by those who have caused harm?
I stand firm in the truth that there is abundant room for all of us in the struggle for gender justice and collective liberation, that our struggles are connected. Uplifting trans rights and divesting from binary gender doesn’t harm cis people, in fact it frees us all. I have to believe that people can change, that healing is possible.
What are the obstacles (kleshas) at play, such as fear, attachment, and self-righteousness, and what work may be necessary to help these yoga teachers and others who share this thinking become able to shift? How can yoga practice actually help? Katchie positions herself as a dharma teacher, but there is nothing dharmic about public statements that are cruel.
How dare you publicly say that people’s gender transition ruins them?
That people’s transitions deny them the ability to experience sexual pleasure? How could you ever begin to understand the exquisite perfection, sacredness, and profound beauty of trans love?
This podcast and the article Katchie wrote on this topic stir up nausea, sadness, anger, and exhaustion. Pointing out and countering each of the many harmful aspects of this interview would require far too much emotional labor than would be healthy for me. Rather, I want to back up and look at why someone would choose to become so entrenched in violent rhetoric, and how a change of perspective may be possible.
I write this from the perspective of a white, queer, nonbinary person who is a long-time yoga practitioner and teacher. I was AFAB (assigned female at birth) and I am a sexual assault survivor. My identity falls under the trans umbrella, but nonbinary better describes my fraught, nonlinear relationship to gender. I come to this conversation with sensitivity around how liberatory frameworks evolve along with society, and that different generations have different understandings of struggle. I had the blessing of being raised by a feminist mother. I have the good fortune of trans lovers, friends, family, and community that has helped me learn and grow in infinite ways; it’s no exaggeration that trans women have helped me truly understand what feminism, misogyny, and patriarchy are.
I’m sharing this to locate myself with honesty and humility in this conversation. While white supremacy culture upholds objectivity and ‘one right way,’ yogic traditions highlight the value of owning our subjectivity, pluralism, and more nuanced ways of understanding what is real. Yoga also upholds non-harming before all else, as a universal principle (see sutras 2.30-2.35).
Yoga scholar Dr. Shyam Ranganathan shared an illuminating lecture in a recent Yoga Alliance training titled Yoga Philosophy and the West: Yoga in an Age of Confronting Systemic Discrimination. I don’t seek to conflate colonialism and transphobia, though they are connected; this framing is very helpful regarding this inquiry.
“Either we relate to our mind as though it is something that influences us, or we control mental influence so that we can be autonomous (abide in our essence as knowers). (Sutras 1.1-1.4)
Interpretation is imperialistic as it imposes the explainer’s beliefs on the explained. Interpretation is colonialism, as it treats the explained as a prop for the explainer.
He further shared, “With respect to any belief you have, turn it into a conclusion and ask what reasons you have to support this … If there are no good reasons, it’s a samskara.”
Much of this podcast is rooted in negative samskaras – hidden imprints in consciousness from the past, that keep us individually and collectively entrenched in harmful norms. Over and over again, this podcast interview centered these two cis people’s assumptions, which are largely based not on logic but on false ideas that have been perpetuated for generations to ostracize, dehumanize, and criminalize trans people.
For instance, the recent documentary Disclosure brilliantly documents how we (anyone raised in popular culture) have been brainwashed to see trans women as dangerous perpetrators, when in fact it is well documented that trans women, especially Black Inidigenous trans women of color, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately on the receiving end of sexual violence.
Gender is mutable, and part of prakriti, nature. So long as we are approaching something in the realm of prakriti – the ever changing – we will have different versions of the truth. Just like the Jain story of the many blind men touching a different body part of an elephant and describing their idea of what the elephant (truth, or God) is, people will have different and evolving reference points for truth, an idea that may be threatening even as it is liberating. This is why ahimsa, nonviolence, is a foundational teaching in Patanjali’s system.
As yoga practitioners we need to interrogate our versions of truth that are directly causing harm to others. The arrogance of claiming objectivity (and trying to prove it with false science) perpetuates violent, transphobic beliefs, which are the very framework propping up dozens of heatbreaking anti trans laws being voted on right now across the country. They also act as a barrier to growth, connection, and evolution.
Conflating gender and sex is widely disproven, and much has been written and talked about to frame that – yes, trans people are real, and whole, and deserve to exist. We do not pose a risk to the movement for women’s empowerment and do not need to be rescued by cis people. So, my focus is not on arguing this debate, but rather: why are J Brown and Katchie so attached to it?
They speak as if trans-ness is a problem to be solved (by cis people, no doubt) rather than people who need support and basic human rights. Within the first few minutes of the show, J Brown makes it obvious he has not educated himself on this context or history. Katchie begins the discussion defensively, positioning herself as a progressive ‘good’ person, proven by mentioning relationships she has with people of color and lesbians. Right away this poses a problem by tokenizing people with underestimated identities.
Additionally, to engage in discussions involving marginalized people and their realities without including them in the discussion is to run the risk of amplifying perspectives based on one’s own social conditioning. We all have been soaked in social conditioning, and it is our responsibility as yoga practitioners to awaken to and divest from structures that maintain violent imbalances. Such conditioning is rooted in systems of oppression and designed to fracture and exploit while maintaining hierarchical power for the few.
Certainly, no one should be pressured into transition, which is discussed at length in this podcast. However, the dangerous misconception that the medical industry has people on some sort of ‘transition conveyor belt’ is problematic because it obscures the truth: for the vast majority of people who transition medically, these procedures provide life-saving and very real relief, which is often not at all easy to access. Transition more accurately often requires years of work – community fundraising, jumping through hoops, navigating transphobic medical and insurance systems, out of state travel… and this is the problem we should be addressing if we care about trans lives.
Most importantly however, is the deeply problematic cis obsession with fixed, “biological” sex and with trans peoples bodies and parts, which serves invalidate and dehumanize people. And to what end. What do cis people really have to loose if trans people are allowed to thrive?
Which, by the way, we are.
I want to name a false scarcity, that positions rights and protections for cis women and girls in competition with rights for trans people and kids, especially trans femmes and nonbinary people who were AFAB (assigned female at birth). Trans people are not the enemy.
Trans people are precious, wise, and sacred – and have been respected and included in pre-colonial societies on every continent on earth. Our modern culture, built on imperialism, genocide, and racial capitalism is the problem, not trans poeple. Trans femmes, nonbinary people, and neurodivergant poeple were also burned at the stake alongside cis women during Europe’s legacy of witch hunts. Our stories are interwoven. White supremecist cis-het patrirachy thrives off fracturing us, and undermines our resistance by keeping people scraping, hustling, and competing for power that comes from proximity to to wealth, whiteness, and cis hetereo mormativity.
There’s abundant room for all of us in the struggle for gender justice and liberation. If trans people are respected and included and get to live and thrive on their own terms, it doesn’t mean there’s not room for empowerment about vaginas or cis women spaces to process patriarchy. Trans people having access to healthcare and youth sports and housing and work etc does not mean we can’t have a wide-open affirming gender culture that celebrates masculine women, feminine men, gender nonconforming people of all genders, non binary folks, and trans people who decide not to medically transition. We can have a critical analysis of hypersexualized femininity without scapegoating transmasculine youth. To everyone who holds any sort of privilege, especially cis privilege – can we please ditch this scarcity and be open to learn and heal together?
This is where yoga practice comes in. Cis fragility and hyper defensiveness needs to be processed and healed, if ahimsa (nonviolence) is a shared value amongst yoga community members. If people are entrenched in fear (abhinivesha) and ego (asmita) and their nervous systems stuck in transphobic samskaras, then the self-replicating waves of intergenerational trauma response will self replicate without interruption. The limbic system will override the possibility of thinking and relating in a new way.
They will see trans people a threat to who they know themselves to be. When faced with challenging change, such as unpacking unexamined cis privilege held up by deeply engrained binary gender essentialism, embodied practices can be extremely helpful. Practice for this purpose not only is key to harm reduction, but it will free the practitioner as well.
Asana practice can be used to build capacity for the unknown. BKS Iyengar famously said, “You know the known, so go a little into the unknown. The mind that is caught up in the known – extended a little beyond reason. …Releasing the bondage of your mind to extend further, reach the unknown a little more. The further you go, you realize that the known is limited and the unknown is vast.”
Asana is an effective tool for nervous system regulation, so we are less reactive and more grounded, which increases our capacity for compassion for self and others. Importantly, it helps us divest from false identification with harmful norms that exist in the mind. Yogah citta vrrti nirodhah. Patanjali was clear, and laid it out in the first few sutras. As Dr. Shyam discussed (and I paraphrase), when we stop identifying with the fluctuations of the mind, then self-governance becomes possible. He also shared a definition of truth I appreciate – that truth is what we can agree on when we are in conflict about something. We can agree that patriarchy and misogyny need to be torn down, healed from. What if that remained the focus, rather than playing the role of police, judge, and savior towards trans people who at the end of the day are really just trying to live their lives?
But it’s hard to discern if we are rooted in self-governance or caught up in self-righteous harm. That’s why a commitment to yoga’s ethics based in nonviolence – and regular consumption of – listening to people from the margins is so key. Listen to trans people, to nonbinary people. Listen to trans Immigrants. Listen to Black trans women. Listen to trans youth and trans elders. Be open to receive. And compensate them for their wisdom and time! This will allow you to change – and being open to change is crucial. It is immensely important for us to be able to say, ‘whew I fucked up,’ to feel that, apologize, and keep learning and advocating.
A decade ago, I closely followed heated debates that had a similar flavor. The Michigan Women’s Music Festival was an empowering women’s gathering that for decades attracted thousands of queer and feminist community members from all over the country, including many who made the pilgrimage annually who would look to this week in the woods together as a time to celebrate, recharge, and recoup from surviving hetero-patriarchy. Ultimately the conflict over whether or not to openly include trans women in that space led to its demise. The fixed belief that trans women should not be allowed, held by a minority of cis women in powerful positions, meant that after years of activism on both sides, the space disappeared for everyone. This was a huge and unnecessary loss. Much of the same transphobic ideology and falsehoods used to argue that only ‘women born women’ belonged at Michfest surface here, a decade later in this “yoga” interview.
We need to do better. Yoga practitioners are well equipped with tools to do this work. May we consistently recommit to shedding avidya (ignorance). I’m rooting for you to have the courage to look deeper, J Brown and Katchie. This harmful rhetoric needs to stop. And needs to stop now.
Thanks for reading this article. If you learned something consider making a donation. I appreciate your support for this work! Big appreciation to those friends who helped with the editing process.
About the author: Avery Kalapa is a community weaver, wellness advocate, and yoga teacher (CIYT, eRYT500, YACEP) with 20 years of experience, who is passionate about deep, affirming, embodied healing spaces that don’t require assimilation. They teach joyful Iyengar Yoga rooted in collective liberation.