Society in the US has been constructed on a foundation of imbalance, and these systemic oppressions permeate our world, and live inside us, too. They spoil it for everyone. Although our culture is obsessed with individualism, what happens in the collective, social, political affects our connection to our hearts, our embodied aliveness, each other – and vis versa. I see yoga and social justice to be deeply intwined, inseparable, even.
Although yoga in the US has been deliberately whitewashed, divorced from it’s source, and rebranded as a “feel good” luxury lifestyle for the privileged few (I blame consumer capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, to name a few) we know that it was never meant for escapism or erasure, or to sell fancy yoga clothes. Yoga is about awakening, liberation, healing – and the ways oppression and imbalance in our outer world live inside us ARE the very things that yoga seeks to address: the kleshas, the illusion of isolation, the unchecked repetition of the ways we perpetuate harm without realizing. Arjuna was called to action, after all, to fight injustice.
It’s very important we address these uncomfortable realities, squarely and honestly. For instance, in the US the attempted genocide and colonization of Indigenous people and forced importation of African people for slavery laid the foundation for our country and its cultural values. In far reaching ways white supremacy has been baked in to our culture at a systemic, institutional level, and it affects all aspects of our life, including our yoga classes.
As a white person, I benefit from these systems which privilege my life and liberty over black and brown folks. White people have been socialized not to see these dynamics, even as we contribute to them. We’ve been socialized to believe all sorts of dangerous beliefs around who deserves power, protection, respect, and who doesn’t, based on gender, class, body size, ability, citizenship status, and how well others perform rules around gender expression and heteronormativity. This is avidya. This conditioning keeps us blindfolded, and entrenched in suffering.
From a place of privilege, how do we lift these veils of ignorance, face our fragility, overcome our defensiveness, our wanting to skip to good “spiritual” feelings? From the places where we are marginalized, how do we reclaim our dignity, ease, authenticity, shed the internalized bondage of society’s sickness? How do we truly anchor ourselves in bhavana, in tender humanity? How do we support each other in this work? Even now, how are you feeling as you read this: are you shutting down, intellectualizing, assuming it’s not about you? While you and I did not choose these systems of oppression, I do feel a responsibility to understand and dismantle them, especially in my beloved yoga communities, and I hope we can keep exploring together what this means.
Where are the transgender, black, brown, queer, fat, poor, undocumented folks in our classes, workshops, trainings? In what ways do marginalized students and teachers of Iyengar yoga have to code switch, shut down, hide, or armor themselves in order to show up? In what ways do our actions, assumptions, etc perpetuate this imbalance?
“Inclusivity and diversity” is a hot topic in yoga in the west but we need to use both paksa and pratipaksa to address the harm in our yoga spaces. Yes, being welcoming and kind is great but we need to seek out the root cause, understand these systemic problems and how they affect us, so that we can create something different. In his commentary on sutra II.33 Guruji writes, “Instead of trying to cultivate the opposite condition, he should go deep into the cause of the anger or violence. This is paksabhava. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.”
This inner work and outer action is a powerful combination. It is not enough to be kind. It’s not OK expect diverse folks to assimilate into our yoga culture, so that we don’t have to change, or tokenize, or expect people from marginalized groups to be a representative or spokesperson. What needs to transform within our selves, our studios? As Sonali Fiske says “You cannot be inclusive without examining your exclusivity.” Healing justice opens doors to deep svadhyaya, deep ahimsa. And deep liberation, not only for others, but for us, too. These systems of inequity hurt everyone. We are all in this together.
I trust that as we explore this aspect of practice, our ‘on the mat’ work can become even more rich. I envision an Iyengar community strengthened, uplifted and beautifully expanded by the vulnerability, courage, and growth that healing justice work involves. Positive change takes many forms, and we each hold a piece of the equation.
10. How might we as a community come together to uphold each other in practice?
I really appreciate space for vulnerability, for real listening, curiosity, unpacking conditioning, opening to new possibilities, with others. It’s wonderful to practice with Iyengar friends, to study together, have group projects that keep me accountable. I’m excited about an NEW collaborative blog exploring Iyengar Yoga and Social Justice: Ahimsa in Action which will be a hub for local and national organizing and inspiration. The more we have the courage to bring our whole selves to the yoga space, the more integration is possible.
11. How have you worked to build up community in your area? How it might be a model for other communities?