February 22, 2017

How Not to be a Spiritual Jerk in 10 Steps.

10 Thoughts on Disconnecting Your Yoga Practice from Privilege, Appropriation, and Spiritual Materialism.

1. Get mad.

Positivity and optimism are more important than ever these days. But it is just as crucial to acknowledge and understand their opposites. Anger, hurt, and fear are legitimate feelings, and being a healthy, balanced person means holding space for them. There is a belief within the wellness and yoga world that being angry makes you hateful, or toxic. But it only becomes toxic when we pretend it’s not there.

To do yoga is to work with opposites—strength and flexibility, inhale and exhale, yin and yang. Yogic texts like the Sutras and 8 Limbs refer to a concept called ahimsa, which is usually translated as nonviolence, or not doing harm. It can be interpreted many ways, but all require a level of honesty. How might your actions or words, however well-intentioned, be harming someone else? False positivity doesn’t help anyone, and particularly in these fraught political times, it can read like a subtle form of gaslighting.

Yoga is not a practice exclusively about peace and love. It is about honesty, and responding to what is with righteousness, compassion, and clarity, even if it means being uncomfortable.

If the recent election has taught us anything, it’s that we are not all One. We are Many, stuck in the middle between the death of an ideal and the reality of facts. Sure, we are connected as beings on a planet, but it’s a major spiritual bypass to gloss over the narratives of the many people hurt or held down by the supremacist systems at the core of this planet’s societies. Acknowledge and do the work to understand and incorporate difference—in feeling, in culture, in perspective—into your own story.

2. Every time you send love and light, donate a dollar to Planned Parenthood.

The universe can’t do it all.

This shows up in yoga practices, too. We put crystals in our pockets, and Instagram a lot about love, but as Cornel West wrote, “justice is what love looks like in public.” There is so much to do, and so much to engage with. Know your neighbors. Volunteer. Write a letter to your senator. Give someone a platform, or just your ear. Stay #blessed, and stay accountable, too. The universe provides, but we still gotta act. It’s the best way to make change.

3. You don’t need those $100 pants, they need you.

Despite its foundations in de-materialism and de-commodification, yoga has become a billion-dollar industry in the West. In the age of Instagram and influencers, two major ways have emerged to sell yoga: One, via the body and a sense of mutual belonging (keywords: tribe, fitfam, sweat life), and two, via exclusivity and luxury (keywords: minimal, process, cultivation). The latter says that what you have or are is not enough (we are selling goodness but not for you), and the former wants to access and improve upon something you already have (a body, a community). Both exist within an economic reality that use all the mechanisms of marketing in an attempt to harness the inherently commodity-resistant qualities of yoga.

Yoga isn’t a luxury brand item, or a minimum viable product, but I do disagree that it can never be a business or product. But the present health and wellness aesthetic—primarily white, thin bodies, curated moments of luxury, high priced workout retreats—is boring at best, and offensive at worst. It’s all filter and white wash, appropriation and perception.

Like anyone, I have a deep desire to belong, and a love of fancy tights. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be picky. Demand diversity and innovation, not just in fabrics, but also in process, representation, and marketing. Choose companies that align with your values, have sustainable practices, and emphasize diversity. How we spend our money matters more than ever in the era of big business and neofascism. Better yet, don’t spend any money: organize a clothing swap at your yoga studio—many yoga clothes use fabrics that are long lasting, and swapping is an easy and practical way to save money, reduce waste, and step out of the stretch pants industrial complex for a brief moment.

4. Representation matters.

All of this speaks to the question of who yoga is for, and who has access to it. It’s easy for someone like me to find yoga and mindful practices—I’m a middle class, able-bodied, educated white woman in my early 30s with an Instagram addiction. There is a neon sign blinking over my head that says “I LIKE YOGA.”

We all need yoga—I’m not saying we shouldn’t market yoga to moms on the Upper East Side and college girls on juice cleanses. But yoga is for every body and everyone. If the only kind of body a person sees is a body that looks like mine, they will think it is the kind of body you need to have to do yoga. Yoga doesn’t care what you look like, or what you wear. Seek practice communities that are open, welcoming, and accessible to all bodies and incomes.

5. And since we’re on the subject, rid yourself of the notion that yoga is only for women.

I met a guy who told me he’s never practiced yoga, but is pretty interested in it. “The thing is,” he said, eyes darting over my head, “I think a lot of women go to yoga. Is that true? Are there a lot of women in your classes?” “Yes,” I said. “There are many women who practice yoga.” He sucked in his teeth. “Yep, that’s what I thought. Just too many women.” There was a long, heavy pause. His eyes moved from over my head to just next to my feet. I was dumbfounded. What is wrong with being in a room full of women?!

I’m not actually dumbfounded, I know why he didn’t want to be in a room full of women. But let the record show that some of the best men I know do yoga. The more men—strike that, the more people who have access to mindful practices like yoga, the better. That means everyone: folks in prisons, kids in schools, lower income families, people with disabilities, old people, and even white male Republicans.

6. Your yoga teacher probably does not want to have sex with you.

It’s not something cute we do to be better in bed. And no, I don’t want to share a bottle of red while you tell me about your experience with Kundalini Rising. (True story. The jokes make themselves.) The man from whom I rented my previous studio space, after witnessing a weekend of busy classes, asked if the reason there were so many male students was because they were attracted to me.

I don’t have a sense of humor about that one.

I use my body to teach. We do yoga with bodies. And on our bodies we have breasts and bellies and legs and scars, and they are beautiful and useful, but also clumsy and rigged with trapdoors, history, and trauma. Bodies—particularly female bodies—are beacons for projections, expectations, and insecurities. The pursuit of liberation is not a hall pass for disengaging with the ideas of power, agency, and consent; in fact, it requires more. Likewise, a sports bra is not an invitation.

7. Words mean something.

In ancient languages, and in modern ones. Know what you are saying, and the tradition it comes from, and what it means to you, and what it might mean to someone from that tradition to hear you say it, or see it tattooed on your body, or listen to it sung like Mariah Carey in a hot room with muted hiphop in the background.

Language is power, and that power changes meaning when it changes mouths. Mimicry might be the mother tongue of white, Western privilege but there are plenty of opportunities for real understanding. Sanskrit courses are more readily available than ever, and committing to learning the language your practice comes from, or at least attempting to, deepens the teachings and how you experience them in your daily life.

8. Spiritual materialism is a kind of colonization.

“O, to be permitted the luxury/of only worrying about one thing at a time/O, to be white in America, to wake up knowing every god is your god.” ~ From “shiv,” by Rachel McKibbens 

There’s a line of thinking among humans on a so-called spiritual path that in order to become a new thing we must cease being the old thing. A common one is switching to a plant-based diet after a few months of yoga practice. Another frequent move: trading in the spiritual traditions we grew up with for mala beads and OM tattoos.

It’s simple enough to put on an outfit and temporarily insert ourselves into a role. It’s exciting—suddenly we are new and changed! But as easily as we put it on, we can take it off, leaving behind the challenges associated with “otherness.” People flock to India each year, thirsty for “authenticity” and spiritual enlightenment, spend a few weeks absorbing difference like a sponge, and then return to a position of power and comfort, feeling elevated by an experience bought or borrowed, with none of the negative realities lived by the people who showed it to them.

I understand the urge to find spirituality or identity in another culture, to see it as a refreshing balm to frustration and anxiety, but projection is a slippery slope, and often misguided. To take on the clothing, practices, and traditions of an entire culture is a dangerous kind of spiritual materialism, a term coined and thoughtfully dissected by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

I’m not advocating that we stay in our lanes, spiritually speaking, but simply that it is hugely helpful to look closely at yourself, and your intentions, when incorporating new traditions into your practice. Why when we study something must we also seize it for ourselves? What are we truly trying to attain? There is much to gain from cultural exchange and experience, but without deep consideration of intent, origin, and lineage, it is just unexamined need for exoticness, which harms everyone.

It is difficult work to parse a complicated thing like ego from the tangled threads of colonialism, racism, appropriation, and spiritual materialism. Many religions and spiritual traditions are cut from a similar cloth, and something we all share is the desire to be good. Yoga teaches us to listen, and to observe—the body in motion, the sensation of breath, the flow of thought. It is a practice of intense and constant inquiry, but as a friend once said to me, it is the job of askers to teach the questions to listen. Why would we not apply these concepts to our behavior in the world? We ask so much from things, but there is little spiritual capital to be found in using tokens, clothes, or people as a tool to prove your own goodness. Trying to become someone or something else is a disservice to ourselves, and potentially harmful.

Endeavor to embody the practices, not simply dress up in them.

9. India is not a cosmic land filled with mystical beings and ideas.

It is a deeply spiritual, intensely modern, and frustratingly old-fashioned country that should be afforded all the nuance and perspective of any other country. Being in India was a profound and powerful experience in my life; arguably, it was life-changing. I did not do a lick of asana. But every day there, every vibrant, intense second, felt like an undiscovered first, a practice unlike anything I’ve done on my mat.

But at the same time, nothing is as sacred as we want it to be. Roopa Singh, founder of South Asian-American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), asked, “What happens when people rely on a country or culture as a panacea for their own wounds with respect to race, lineage, and home? No one comes out of this kind of political or personal violence unscathed, and segregation in yoga is injurious to us all.”

Much like spiritual materialism, the thirst for ritual or spiritual experience can turn us into thieves, or actors off script in a scene we have no right to direct. But this doesn’t mean don’t go. By all means, go. (But please, dear well-intentioned white people, don’t refer to India as the “motherland.” Whose mother? Whose land?)

Go, and engage wholeheartedly with new ideas, people, and cultures. Study the roots of yoga, and the multifaceted, dynamic place it comes from. But take time to examine your expectations, and where they are rooted in privilege, colonialism, or othering. Authenticity is slippery and shaded in by differing histories, and privilege is not just something given to you by society over which you have no control, but something that is taken, over and over again, in complicated and unconscious ways. Hone the ability to discern when you are taking, and when you are receiving.

Figure out your own privilege, and challenge yourself to work within it and against it, as a foreigner learning a long and honored tradition, in a country still negotiating with the slow exhale of colonialism and a sharp inhale of modernity.

10. Positive change demands a direct experience with life.

Yoga and mindfulness is described as a path to freedom, a tool for the elevation and betterment of all beings (and, bonus, it makes your body feel good, too!). But consider what Sartre said: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Spiritual bypasses, gaslighting, and appropriation stand directly in the way to helping humans feel free.

But the good news is that we are all on this path because we want change, and the even better news is that change is inevitable. With study and thoughtfulness, yoga engenders powerful change. Use yoga not just as a way to feel good in your body, but to engage deeply with how your body, and the self inside, moves through the world.

This work means we must be engaged with life, and be okay with discomfort, and never not learning. Practice listening deeply to the world around you, and remember that this kind of deep listening is never done. It renders us made and unmade, a cycle on repeat. And so too, does the work of dismantling privilege and biases.

Some things cannot be changed: the shape of bones, the color of skin, the trauma of history. But so many things can be changed, and it is here, at this intersection of transformation and acceptance, that the practice happens.

It’s not easy, but neither is yoga. The important, and right, thing to do is try.


Author: Sarah M. Lowe

Image: stuartpilbrow/Flickr 

Editor: Emily Bartran


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