Why I Really Want to Give Up on Yoga. ~ Lakshmi Nair

Via on Sep 5, 2012

The Story of My Yoga Heartache

I read Irasna Rising’s rage against the yoga machine, “Why I Left Yoga & Why I Think a Helluva Lot of People Are Being Duped,” and I felt validated. It felt good to read it the way it feels good when your girlfriends call the person who trampled all over your heart “a good for nothing jerk-face.”

Irasna Rising’s article brought up many issues that have always bothered me, for instance, the very valid concern over the general lack of diversity in most mainstream yoga scenes. But they were like the warning signs that you ignore when you are blinded by love.

I looked away and ignored the red flags until finally “yoga” broke my heart.

I tell this story not to publicly shame anyone, but because it is a perfect illustration of where yoga has gone wrong today. First of all, as with any romance story, you need to know the main characters. You already know “yoga,” or at least you think you do. Let me introduce you to the sad sack in the story….me.

I’m an Indian-American yoga teacher in a moderately sized middle American metro. I grew up with yoga. I say that not just because I’m Indian. There are plenty of Indians out there who know nothing about yoga at all. But I really did grow up with yoga because of my father who has been an avid practitioner for 35 years.

I know the beauty of yoga is its power to heal all manner of soul wounds.

For me, personally, some of the biggest wounds to my spirit came from growing up as a child of color in suburban middle America and the racism I experienced as a young person. Already a sensitive introvert by nature, these experiences made me withdraw even deeper into my shell. The few times I ever tried to speak out against the words and actions of others that hurt me, I was rewarded with outright social rejection.

I learned quickly that speaking my truth wasn’t safe. This became one of the core issues of my life. It later manifested in various throat chakra issues. I know from working with communities that are affected by racism that racism, like all oppressions, deeply imbalances the whole chakra complex.

Through my yoga practice, I’ve identified that in my case, the central three—the solar plexus, the heart and the throat were hardest hit. These early experiences of racism later led me to embrace my heritage and the very things that I felt ostracized for—my brown-ness and my Indian-ness.

I got a degree in South Asian Studies and I worked for several years in the Bay Area with youth from African-American and immigrant communities. Eventually, I found my way back to yoga as well. There was so much comfort in yoga for me because it was familiar. It was personal. It was cultural.

It felt like coming back home.

A few years ago, I returned to the state where I grew up, not really by choice, but by circumstance or karma. Moving from the vibrant, diverse environments where I spent my young adulthood back to a place where I was again so identifiably a “minority” triggered a lot of spiritual restlessness.

Diversity had been so important to me. I felt as if I had spent my childhood as a tropical seed transplanted into desert soil. As a young adult, I sought out diverse environments because I sensed that those environments had the nutrients I needed for my soul to bloom. Coming back to the desert, I could feel myself withering.

So in an attempt to address it, I began volunteering with an organization that brings yoga to urban youth who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to yoga, which in this city is still primarily an activity by and for the privileged. It seemed like a perfect solution, bringing together all the essential parts of myself—social justice and yoga.

It allowed me to be in a diverse environment, which I so badly needed for my soul, and it allowed me to share such a deep part of my tradition and heritage with others. I put my whole heart into it. When the organization had their annual fundraiser, I did everything I could think of to raise as much money as I could for them.

At the fundraiser, I was one of very few people of color in the audience. Most of the others were brought there by me. This, though annoying, didn’t faze me too much, as this was a pretty common scenario in the yoga scene here. “No matter, it’s for a good cause,” I thought. But I was in for a rude awakening.

One of the speakers, a successful local yoga teacher and published yoga author told a story as she guided us in sun salutations. My whole body prickled during her narration. She began by saying that her white, suburban teenage sons’ greatest desire in life is to be “Black” and ended by saying that her teenage son was voted the “most Black” in his entire class.

Now, if you are not sure whether these statements are worthy of getting upset over, try substituting “most Jewish” or “most Asian” or “most Lesbian” or any other group. What does that mean to be voted “most” anything, particularly when the group in question is under-represented or perhaps even entirely absent? What traits are you judging to be “most” representative of the group?

In this case, she described her signifiers of “Black…” a gorgeous boy walking shirtless down a main street in an economically depressed area, strutting and smiling and showing off his grills. From that picture, we don’t get the sense that her sons aspired to be the President of the United States.

Surely, this is just youthful ignorance on the part of the teenagers, which certainly reflects deeper problems in society, but why should an adult repeat it to a such a large audience, where again the group in question is under-represented or absent? And proudly, at that? As if it offers some kind of cultural cachet?

I bristled at this but as usual, I shut down my visceral response only to process it later in the privacy of my own home. See, I am a conflict-avoider. This has been one of my core issues in life. I went home and slept on it and it woke me up in the middle of the night. My gut was saying, No! This is not ok.

Things like this should not be said in the name of yoga!

I decided I had to say something. Even after so many years of working on these issues, it still felt scary to speak out. But I felt it was important for me, for my own personal growth to take the risk and speak my truth. It was also important for me to stand up for those who weren’t represented.

I wrote what I thought was a fairly kind and “yogic” e-mail to “yoga” teacher X expressing my feelings about her story. She replied by saying that I wasn’t listening to her story, which was meant to be uplifting. If I heard racism in her words, I was listening to my own story. My feelings are my problem. She was not responsible for my feelings.

I’ve heard this in the contexts of relationships, but was it true? My reaction to her story may certainly have been colored by own story, but that is only because my story has allowed me to empathize deeply with the struggles other minorities experience. There is always a gift in pain, and this is the gift of mine.

In this case, I felt that she was perpetuating a media stereotype of African-American people that is dangerous for the community. Weren’t we still reeling as a society from the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin? I cried so much for Trayvon’s parents looking at pictures of his sweet face. I saw my own sweet and adorable son in that face.

The “gangster” stereotype, no matter how cool it may seem to young people of all ethnicities is dangerous if it is the only image we get of Black people, reiterated over and over again.

So were my feelings about this my problem alone?

I don’t think so. I think it’s not even as big a problem for me as it is for so many other people, though I would fear for my dark-skinned son when he grows up should he happen to don a hoodie or some other pop culture signifier of “blackness.” If my son were to romanticize those things the way young white boys do, it could mean real danger for him. For young Black men, it means real danger.

I was just the one to speak up about it because there weren’t others there to do so.

So I wrote back inviting her to seriously consider whether she would be able to tell that same story to a mostly Black/non-white audience. I even suggested that I could arrange for her to do so. I thought it would be a good experiment. If she were right and I was just overreacting, then I would accept that. But if I was right and it was actually offensive, then she too would learn something important.

I was essentially asking her to consider the dynamics of white privilege, that her story would go unchallenged in a largely white audience not because there’s nothing objectionable about it, but because a largely white audience may not be able to identify what is wrong with it. So let’s test it out on a different audience and see.

“Yoga” teacher X’s response: “If you are of African descent, then please, correct me. I have checked with my African American friends, and they do not consider a child of India to be black.”

She also said she would need legal representation. For what? I’m still confused. Legal representation to teach a yoga class to a mostly non-white audience? Is there a threat in that?

We exchanged several e-mails back and forth that day, during the course of which I tried to dial down my anger (which I felt was more than justified) and come back to a civil level of conversation. I realized too late that if I really wanted her to hear me, I would need to approach her like you would approach a wild animal who was feeling threatened.

While she wanted to speak on the phone, I resisted, feeling that I would be railroaded. Even just through e-mail, I could feel my throat closing up. The pain and frustration were backing up into my heart, and I cried several times that day. But at least I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of her knowing that she was making me cry.

Nonetheless, she took my declining her offer to speak on the phone as “unprofessional.” After a few more e-mails, the conversation basically just shut down. She didn’t hear what I was trying to say and I backed off deciding it was futile to try and explain it to her. She had proved beyond doubt that she was entrenched in a well of privilege so deep, she was blind to any other perspective. Still, I had botched it.

I took a chance and spoke my truth, but I failed to communicate effectively and I just got my head bitten off.

It still disturbed me deeply that a person could perpetuate racial stereotypes in the name of yoga, that a person so full of ego and lacking in empathy could be teaching yoga. Being Indian, especially, I was appalled by that thought, the same way that I’m sure many Christians and Muslims are appalled at some of the spiritually bereft B.S. spewed in the name of Jesus and Allah.

But I let it go. She’s not working with the kids. I am. So forget her, I thought. She is just one bad apple. But then I discovered how deep the rot goes. A few months later, I reached out to the organization hoping they might consider hiring me as a paid teacher so that I could still do the work I loved so much, but could also help my family a little too.

I was basically told that I had created a lot of “drama” for the organization. As it was, “yoga” teacher X was close friends with an influential board member who donates tons of money to the organization, and that I was perceived to be a loose cannon. The organization did not know the extent of the conversation that had transpired between me and X, nor did they want to know.

They only heard “yoga” teacher X’s version of the story which was that I am a stalker and my entire mission in life is to defame her. They were willing to perfunctorily listen to my side of the story, but in the end, X’s louder voice counted for more because she has name and fame and friends with money.

That is when my heart was broken by “yoga.”

I sat and listened and behaved exactly like I was getting dumped without warning by someone I thought I loved. I sat, this time face to face with someone, with tears streaming uncontrollably down my face, unable to speak, at what was supposed to have been a job interview. I felt shattered, embarrassed, utterly humiliated.

And now we have crossed the line from one individual’s racial insensitivity in the name of yoga to institutionalized racism in the name of yoga.

I was losing an opportunity for work because I spoke up. That’s when I realized what I had always known, but had been ignoring. After all, it feels good in a way after being ostracized for being of a particular ethnicity to find yourself being idolized for the same.

But after this experience, I could no longer deny the extent to which yoga has been co-opted by a dominant paradigm whose fundamental values are not the values of yoga, but the values of the Kali Yuga (the fourth world age in which virtuousness has been reduced to a small minority and injustice dominates).

I thought to myself, without yoga, where do I turn now?

Again, my intention in writing about this incident is not to hash out the incident itself. I sincerely don’t want to re-ignite any flames and I don’t want to negatively affect the organization because I still believe they are doing good work even though they turned away a well-wisher like me. That is why I tried to avoid names. In fact, I really tried to think about how I could express the thoughts I’ve been having lately without speaking of this incident at all. But this incident triggered something deeper in me and it was an important illustration of a larger point that I wanted to make which comes in Part Two.  This was written as one article but had to be split into two because of length. My intention is not to hurt or to shame. My intention is only to open my heart about something that happened to me and the spiritual crisis I went through as a result. I hope that this will initiate a heart-opening discussion in the larger community about the issues it brings out, not about the people or groups involved. So please do continue to the second part or you will only get the most insignificant part of this story.

Click here for Part Two.


Lakshmi Nair is a yoga teacher, educator, artist, mother and seeker who is living, loving and learning in Denver, CO.




Editor: Carolyn Gilligan


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34 Responses to “Why I Really Want to Give Up on Yoga. ~ Lakshmi Nair”

  1. blissful216 says:

    This was incredibly moving. Thanks for speaking up and sharing your thoughts, point of view and experiences! And thanks for writing a part two! 😉 namaste

  2. Sara Young sara says:

    Wow. I am so sorry. Ironic that the very thing you were hoping to address came back to punish you in the end. Stupid bullying paradigm. You are such a brave, strong person. Take heart in that.

  3. cathy says:

    It would be very tough to sit on a deeply emotional truth and in trying to discuss it to be ineffecitve and to lose something you feel your soul needs.

    EJ provides authors opportunities to open up their thoughts and situations with reflection and thus, by being public, to open avenues for discussion.

    I wish to comment,.. you said you were annoyed over the composition of the group. I think that colored your interpretation of the speaker's words. It sounds like the number of emails .. whether 8 or 15 went way over what most people would/could feel is ok.. 3 or 4. Sometimes we have to agree that another will not and for the time, can not understand our perspective or world view.. or whatever it is.. even if it is more liberal, forgiving, enlightened.. the understanding and appreciation will not come. Then its time to say or express, some gratitude for attempts and look for and discover the commonalities or directions which both or each follow to their own truths, whether together or not.

    I am still learning about this.

  4. Steve Clark says:

    I have never heard an example of two people working something out through emailing. It's best not to even consider emailing a real form of communicative expression. So what I'm doing here won't work either. It's especially problematic in regards to fear issues, which you admit to having. Using emails to communicate difficult feelings is a disaster. The yoga teacher did ask to have an actual conversation with her. Your refusal and subsequent continuation of emailing was a big mistake. Blogging like this is also an issue, so I'll leave it at that.

  5. missbernklau says:

    I'm so sorry this happened. I don't know if it's fair to forsake the entire "yoga world" because of this one community in which you had a bad experience. I think if they hadn't sided with "yoga" teacher X, they could have learned a lot from you and kept their community from alienating more people with their ignorance.

    If you (and others like you that are aware and sensitive to oppressed people) leave the community at large, how will people like "yoga" teacher X ever be educated or change their ways? While I'm saddened by her reaction to your emails, I'm not surprised by her response. If someone who believes they have good intentions are told that they have offended, they are going to be offended and they probably may never understand exactly what they did wrong because they're so ignorant. A lot of white people really have trouble hearing it when someone calls them out for saying something offensive or being accused of being racist (because what they hear when this happens is that they're being called a racist, a white robe wearing, cross burning, racist; they don't realize that in telling them what they said or did was offensive that you're trying to educate them, not merely admonish them as a racist.), but if you don't speak up, people like "yoga" teacher X will continue telling stupid stories like that to more people and they will alienate more people from Yoga. And like you said, Yoga has helped you work through your chakra blockages in your heart and throat which stemmed from a lifetime of feeling alienated and oppressed because of your race…if people like "yoga" teacher X continue to do what they're doing, there's less chance for others that have been through what you've been through to experience healing.

    I understand that you have your own issues and didn't feel you could speak with her on the phone, but I wonder if you spoke with her and she heard how upset you were if she really would have heard what you were trying to say. It seems at this point it's too late, but, maybe not. If she really practices Yoga, she will be happy you're reaching out and trying to create understanding on both ends. If you can get her to understand what I just expressed (that she is keeping others from experiencing the spiritual and emotional benefits of Yoga with her words) then I think she would be happy to change, and maybe you'd have another opportunity at working with those kids that could use this practice to enrich their lives.

    This story was so hard to read and I really don't want to believe it's true. I do hope that you find the strength and courage to reach out to her again and try to get her to understand what she did wrong. If you come from a place of love and not fear when you call her (rather than focusing on worrying about not finding the right words or fearing her reaction, focus on the fact that you're trying to generate more love in this world by having this conversation, and whether or not she does understand in the end, you've done your best), it will be okay no matter what.


  6. cathy says:

    the concept 'privilege' is a difficult one to tackle. It is very emotionally charged from most perspectives.

    I live and work in a maor city and the school district. I have been a part of diversity trainings which opened minds as well as many in which some emotional outbursts and anger, angst around 'white privilege' almost broke apart faculties. The next day after a training in which people exploded their fear, anger, pent up words.. youreturn to work with people who screamed at you in the inteests of 'understanding'.

  7. cathy says:

    well, how were many supposed to 'get' it when screamed and yelled at with virtually no restraint in a professional development session… with no time to talk or express feelings or compassion or empahty or anything? And then blam, the next day.. going about normal work activities.. what I learned sadly is that in the work place diversity training as well as feelings can become so explosive that they shut down communication and thus, understanding… And in a way I learned what I already knew in my heart.. that anyone who yells at me continually and leaves me no time to speak, acknowledge .. is not communicating in a way which will help me to wish to be more understanding, work more closely with or trust in certain areas of discussion.. to honor rules set for professional meetings.

  8. Carl B says:

    Anything that divides is the product of ignorance.

  9. Steve Clark says:

    That's divisive, Carl. Kidding. Sort of.

  10. Katie S. says:

    As a specialist in interactive voice media (IVR) and from my own experience, I too, thought "Oh no!" when Lakshmi did not take the opportunity to speak on the phone. Email has no tone — how many times have I asked someone "Are you being sarcastic?" because I couldn't tell by the words on the screen. Also, there is no back and fourth to ask for clarification.

    I was appalled by her words and I agree, she most likely would not have said the same story to a different audience although we don't know that for sure. I thought it was a good point to make. To offer to rustle up such an audience seemed like an angry thing to do.

    Maybe it would have been productive for both of you to take a day off and cool down?

    I live in one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world and I also see fewer people of color in my yoga class than I do walking down the street. I'm not sure why. You would think someone would be interested in doing market research about this, especially since in North America, yoga is a billion dollar business.

    Finally, I know what it is like to be the underdog, but please take responsibility. "But at least I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of her knowing that she was making me cry." Dear Lakshmi, you cried because your feelings generated a belief by her comments and the emails. Was she was being heartless? Disrespectful? Mean to you? Only you know what you believed at the time. Your reacted the way you did and cried – awareness about your belief and a decision to question it or to react differently may empower you around this and other incidents which are, understandably, emotionally charged.
    PS. my daughter is half-aboriginal. In my experience ignorance does not preclude any race or religion.

  11. nunh says:

    I'd love to her the whole story. Sorry for your hurt though. Your refusal to have a conversation seems odd. Then, to blog about the incident makes me wonder what your motives are. The majority of the black youth I grow up with and around were gangsters (and are). I am not saying that they are all evil but, the majority I grew up around were/ are involved in drugs, crime and violence in general (I was once as well – and I am no priviledged white person either – I am latin / Spanish). I never do understand true hate for another person regardless of their lawlessness, race, religion, or sexuality unless they direct violence at you and your loved ones. I try to have nothing but, love – it is difficult at times. Once you experience this side of the life you can talk about both sides of the street and equality( I mean you as in anyone not you the writer of this article). Looking forward to reading your second half of this.

  12. I can really appreciate your points on privilege and position – well worth the thought and consideration. I also appreciate your ownership of how you handled the situation, and your acknowledgment that you could've done better.

    What I most object to is the sensationalistic melodrama of "yoga broke your heart" – not the yoga I teach or do or study. not the yoga I know. not the yoga millions of people are experiencing in themselves, by themselves and with themselves.

    Be true, speak your real truth and not in dramatic terms… People, shitty people, scared or frightened or just plain ole people did you wrong, broke your heart, made you sad. Not yoga – it's doesn't make sense. Your blanketing of your one social experience with a group of folks who practice yoga as YOGA is just plain ignorant, and from your writing, I can see that you do know better.

    I don't think that it's sarcasm or literary device, I think you really believe it was yoga – but the moment we believe that people in our community will act any differently than any other community, we indulge in SEPARATION, which is the antithesis of yoga.

    Don't confound your good point with a poorly expressed tantrum.

  13. […] he would die when he heard he was about to do yoga came over, and I prepared myself to hear his excuses for not showing up next time. He started by telling me about the prejudices he had about yoga, and how awful he […]

  14. Mariucc says:

    I really liked your posts (part 1 AND 2); I too have issues with verbal confrontations – I usually shake or just break down and cry even when I know the person needs to hear what I have to say. Your story about the Yoga teacher's racist remarks were angering. It is VERY difficult to got someone to admit privilege; you would probably need a mediator since she sounds like she got very defensive, but she would have to have been willing to do that. I have an amazing spiritual mentor who has had me close my eyes, picture the person I have a conflict with (if I am unable to speak to them directly) and speak (or shout) what I feel to the person (uncensored, since they are not physically there). In the past it has helped me so much. Since we are all part of the same energetic world, on some level, she will hear you. I did this once, and the NEXT day, my boss who I had been having issues with apologized to me. You may not ever hear from her again, but you might be able to let go of it (and feel better); it did help me.

  15. cathy says:

    I have reflected on this a bit and posted on it.. Is the point really to make someone admit privilege? Or is it somewhat about the wierd story of being voted 'blackest teen"? or its it about the lack of minorities in yoga? Or, is it about how white yoga and studio yoga are not the REAL the way some peoples' Indian parents from India practice?

  16. So sorry that you felt more judged than heard. I live in L.A. and yoga IS fairly white and blonde, which seem to be qualities that allow some teachers to rise in popularity above others, talent being equal. An observation, not necessarily supported by data which will never be gathered.

    As a Caucasian male who happens to be a licensed psychologist, I have no doubt that there is plenty of inherent racism in each dominant culture and there are many, many, MANY blind spots around it.

    Has society changed a lot in the last 50 years? Yes. Has it changed enough? No. Even in my case (and I'm not complaining), being a Jew is fairly secure when living in major coastal cities in the U.S. Anything in the middle of the country or many places in the world, plenty of rampant anti-Semitism and plenty of subtle as well everywhere.

    Is there an expectation that more supposedly "enlightened" communities such as the yoga community will take off their blinders? Of course there is, which is why you were so disappointed in the "take responsibility for your feelings" response.

    Interesting all of the "apologies" to women, to the divine female, and the rest of what I see as hypocritical bullshit for the most part that is out there on the web. Guess it hasn't made it to people of color yet.

    I have no solution besides a willingness to look inside. As a trainer of new therapists at a community mental health center in Los Angeles, most of the interns are white females and most of the clients are low SES and minority. Bringing up the differences is the first order of business in establishing rapport with new clients.

    I appreciate your willingness to share your pain.


  17. simone elise charles says:

    that was the best! oh, i am so sorry at the depth of racism, defined as a person of one group stopping, halting or dleting the progress of another. and dear…black is a situation as well as a color and this denver black woman considers that u got niggerized in a major way.

  18. Erica Mather says:

    How amazingly upsetting. But don't confuse Yoga with "yoga people." Give up on "yoga people," but hold Yoga dear in your heart.

  19. Tony says:

    I think one lesson is to never empower someone so much over such a thing. There are bigger and better battles, and
    this is not the best example of racism. And…

    If the child has an affinity for a subset of black culture, that the teacher shared in a joking way seems to show a sort of solidarity with black culture. How did this child gain this affinity if the parent didn't provide an environment that let it grow?

    I lived in the South. There was solidarity and a meshing of cultures between black and white that is rarely revealed to folks
    outside of the South. Many blacks there embrace white culture and many whites embrace black culture. Interracial relationships are more common there than anywhere that I've ever lived. Folks there are candid and often joke amongst themselves about our cultural differences. As our cultures mesh, should we all be so polite that we can't observe and joke about the meshing?

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