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