Little Brown Girls & the Whitewashing of Yoga.

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An unforgettable, teachable moment in a New York public school.

Cobble Hill, Brooklyn was once a diverse neighborhood.

In the last several decades, the demographic of the neighborhood residents has changed drastically, however.

While it may be less apparent when walking down the street—because many immigrants and minorities still frequent this neighborhood to go to work as nannies, restaurant, and other local business staff—the reality of gentrification’s transformation of this neighborhood is remarkable when you enter one of the neighborhood schools to teach yoga and mindfulness there, like I do.

Of the six classes in which I teach over 150 children, I have counted a mere three African American girls and one African American boy in this beloved and fully resourced neighborhood public school. This year, I discovered there is at least one Indian girl as well, though from her presenting features, she could be Middle Eastern, Latin American, or even Native American, if I had to guess.

This year, I had a reflection-provoking encounter with her and another little girl while there to teach yoga.

On my third day of classes at this new site, I had been gifted with a kid’s yoga book called We Are All One by one of my students, whose mother happens to be the book’s illustrator. It is a great little story, full of colorful children playfully and harmoniously exploring yoga together.

True to the intention of yoga, the book emphasizes the fundamental yoga principle of union, or connection in its message. It also incorporates an interactive and flowing yoga sequence throughout so kids can explore the yoga postures described as the story is read aloud.

On the day I brought We Are All One to read to this mostly homogeneous community school in Brooklyn, the irony of the actual circumstances of many New York neighborhoods—that are in a state of gentrification and fall short of such intentions like community, equity, and justice—was not lost on me as I read these opening sentences:

“Have you heard the word yoga? It’s really very fun. It was started in India and means we are all one.”

Before I had even finished that last sentence, the little Indian girl blurted out, “Yoga is from India?!”

“Why, yes!” I responded.

“I didn’t know yoga was from India! That is where I was born!” She exclaimed with a burst of pride and a dimple-filled grin from ear to ear.

“Yes, sweetheart,” I practically squealed back with her infectious delight. “Yoga came from people who look just like you.”

There was a stir in the classroom from the other students and a few surprised stares, too.

“I never knew that,” she continued beaming. “My father didn’t tell me!”

“Well, where did you think it came from, my sweet?” I inquired.

“Uh, from America?”

Oh, what truth comes from the innocent mouth of babes.

A little uneasy, I went on to fill in the glaringly absent details that I neglected to convey more powerfully until this moment about yoga being a more than 2,000-year-old practice, and that we are all so lucky that East Indian people have generously shared yoga with us: a tool that brings us peace, health, and the ability to focus and connect more fully to ourselves and all around us.

I shared how new yoga actually is to America, though the people here who’ve seemed to take ownership of it are not its creators, nor its greatest experts. “We may have to go to the land of India to learn it best,” I boldly claimed, and realized the truth of this statement just as it exited my lips.

Still, the beauty and spontaneity of this teachable moment and its horror hit me all at once.

How is it that this little brown baby, who comes from India and lives in a neighborhood filled with yoga teacher moms and yoga studios, had no prior knowledge about the fact that these rich and empowering practices that we do together every week come from her people? (I later found out from her teacher that she and her brother were adopted from India.) How often in the past have I and other yoga teachers bypassed the honoring of the roots of and paying respect to this rich tradition and the people from which it comes?

The limitations and bias in yoga curriculums for kids.

When I’ve had the privilege of working as the yoga specialist in a school, whether I wrote my own curriculum, or was assigned an extended duration of the school year to teach my own yoga program, I made certain to dive into content on India as yoga’s birthplace.

But in recent years, much of my school teaching is sourced from other organizations and their curriculums, and I have not been consistent in teaching my unit on India that I once taught with splendor.

Moreover, in a thoughtful push to secularize yoga in schools in the spirit of respecting all students’ and their families’ religious and nonreligious beliefs, the removal of Sanskrit (and thereby its frequent references to Hindu deities) has had the adverse effect of eliminating the most obvious nod to the grand Indian heritage from which yoga comes.

Such a terrible loss, but is it perhaps a necessary one? I am not so certain because this cultural appropriation, this whitewashing of all things yoga is not okay, and especially not for our vulnerable black and brown kids.

Representation creates perception.

There is a profound inner expansion in the body, heart, and imagination that occurs in a child’s sense of what’s possible when she connects with the very real and important contributions that have been added to the world’s wonders by the likes of herself and her ancestors.

I saw it in my student’s face that day, and I observe it in the way she now grabs a mat up front and center for every yoga class, always eager, smiling, and fully engaged in every lesson.

How many children—and humans in general—have been robbed of this kind of enthusiastic connection to a world around them because we only tell a single story: that whiteness is supreme, and white people are responsible for everything noteworthy or great?

Were you to Google yoga right now, the image results are absurd when you note that the word “yoga” actually means union. You would likely see images of skinny white women in contorted physical shapes, dressed in nothing but a bathing suit, expensive “athleisure” clothing, or in some cases, nude.

The mechanism that drives this perception of yoga affects every perception we have. Evidently, even the most sourced and “trustworthy” internet search engines of the world are biased in favor of whiteness and everything white. Wondering why there are no great stock photos of an Indian girl in a Western school classroom doing yoga in this blog post? When I Google “yoga” or even “kid’s yoga,” it is practically impossible to see any children, adolescents, or adult students or teachers of color—without changing the key words to “black yogis” or “Latino yoga,” despite the fact that there are plenty who exist.

Being seen and telling the whole story.

At the Cobble Hill school during that same week in another classroom, as I was setting up before yoga class started, to my surprise, one of the four African American students among the classes I teach ran up and hugged me when she saw me.

She looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said, “You look like me!”

I looked right back at her and we shared a moment of truly being seen. I nearly teared up as I hugged her back and said, “I know baby! I am so glad you noticed because you are beautiful.”

I am so grateful today to be reminded that living in a black body and teaching this brown yoga tradition is in and of itself a radical altering of that singular story about who contemporary yoga belongs to. The truth of yoga’s expansion into the modern world asserts that yoga belongs to all of us. But we—as yoga service educators—must do better about honoring yoga’s history and roots.

The time is overdue for us to share the more complete, diverse, and fascinating story of yoga’s evolution from East to West.

~

author: Crystal McCreary

Image: Author's Own

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Crystal McCreary

Crystal McCreary has taught yoga and mindfulness since 2007. She is committed to creating and holding safe spaces for people to connect, heal, learn, and build resilience in a world that often takes relentless hold of our bodies, minds, and hearts. Crystal serves on the Yoga Alliance Diversity & Inclusion committee as an advisor for the upcoming revised Yoga Teacher Training program standards. She also speaks and facilitates professional development workshops on yoga and mindfulness as tools for well-being internationally. Crystal leads 100-hour kids yoga and mindfulness teacher trainings for Little Flower Yoga and Bent On Learning, and facilitates trauma-informed yoga for court-involved youth in juvenile detention centers with Lineage Project. Crystal implements yoga programs in New York City schools, youth development organizations, and in nonprofits and corporations committed to cultivating sustainable and compassionate work environments. She participates regularly as a curriculum consultant and lead teacher for research studies on yoga and mindfulness conducted by CUNY-Hunter’s public health department, and teaches public classes in New York City. She is registered with Yoga Alliance as an ERYT500 and RCYT. To learn more about Crystal visit her website.

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Sierra Stange Sep 7, 2018 4:23pm

Great article, so true! Yoga is slowly evolving to be more inclusive, but it is still packaged and marketed to white, middle class people. I teach Kirtan and Hindu Deitiy classes in rural Northern California, and I have one or two students attend. Definitely strong religious and ethnic racism in this country, where everything, including Buddhism, Eastern Philosophies, Tantra and even Christianity itself has been whitewashed to be acceptable. Christianity was whitewashed back at the end of the Roman Empire to be marketed to a white, uninformed 'European' amalgamation of pagan tribes; Celts, Gauls, Goths, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Vandals, etc., for unity and control by Rome. Yoga in America wants to focus on the last few hundred years, but constantly preaches that it follows a 5000 year old tradition, very misleading, because there is no real proof that the yoga we teach here - postural, yogasana, was ever practiced 5000 years ago. Yogic philosophies were beginning to form, but those were religious, to commune with Divinity - not stretch. Any poses performed were austeries, sacrificing the body, practicing non-attachment to the unreal - body and mind, to gain the Real, Higher Self. Thank you again for this snapshot of yoga in america!

Nityda Gessel Aug 10, 2018 12:56pm

Joy Scola, please listen to this: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/yoga-talk-podcast-episode-36-yoga-and-social-justice-part-i-with-sam-miller

Catherine Romanick Jul 1, 2018 3:46pm

Crystal, I am curious about stating that “East Indian people shared yoga with us”. Just East Indian people? I’m also curious about who you mean by “us”?

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 30, 2018 10:15pm

Yes, indeed, Nityda. I teach in such a huge variety of settings, Nityda, not just in an affluent Brooklyn public school setting, so I am quite fortunate to SEE so much. (Most NYDOE schools have discretionary funds that make it possible for every kind of school to choose a program like yoga, if they desire.) That is the gift of teaching a diverse population. It gives a teacher insight, cultivates understanding and empathy toward others, and most importantly, it challenges a yoga teacher to do what we are supposed to do: truly teach. And in my experience, my students of color are happy to see me no matter the setting. It's like we've all been waiting to exhale, and let go of that need to hold our bodies in a state of tension against what we've grown accustomed to being imminent: some overt form of bias, or racial microaggression. Instead of bracing ourselves because of lack of a connection to who's teaching, we can soften and be present. It's a gift and it'd be nice to see more of this in the contemporary studio setting in general. XO

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 30, 2018 10:07pm

Gigi Boetto Would love to have you! XO

Peri Gonulsen Pugh Jun 30, 2018 4:17pm

I love this! THIS IS IT.

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 30, 2018 12:37am

The Trauma-Conscious Yoga Institute Hey Nityda! Thank you for reading XOXOX

Gigi Boetto Jun 29, 2018 5:37pm

Crystal Noelle McCreary Blessings to you, Crystal. Thank you for your writing. I'm in NYC as well. I'll have to join one of your classes sometime. <3

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 29, 2018 1:52pm

Gigi Boetto Thank you so, Gigi. Blessings to you.

The Trauma-Conscious Yoga Institute Jun 29, 2018 1:44pm

Joy Scola, to say that we should "stop seeing color and just start seeing people. Race is just a pigment of the skin," is a statment of White Privilege and eximplifies a lack of consideration and understanding of the Black or Person of Color Experience. I believe your intentions are good but more education is needed on this subject- courses on race, power and privilege and white fragility are out there and sometimes even taught by white people who get it! Sometimes you need to hear it from someone who looks like you!! Peace, love and light. Namaste.

The Trauma-Conscious Yoga Institute Jun 29, 2018 1:38pm

Thank you for writing this, Crystal. I agree that it truly is radical that you, as a Woman of Color, are going into these gentrified/gentrifying neighborhoods to gift these teachings- you unspokeningly represent that yoga is for all of us (of course, this does not negate the issue that less genetrified neighborhoods/schools usually don't receive these same curriculums). But, as you've noted, it's even more powerful to make this explicit and fully understood. I'm grateful for you and so glad these little Brown and Black girls have you to identify with and bring to the light what is so often left in the dark. The handful of times I've taught classes specifically for People of Color, attendees have testified how safe, supportive and loving the space felt- it often does not feel that way for people of color in yoga settings. So again, thank you. Namaste.

Gigi Boetto Jun 28, 2018 7:37pm

Oof. Joy, your comments are difficult to read. What do you mean by "lower-minority"? This is not a real phrase. You made it up. And it has racist implications. Language matters. Here are some legitimate terms that I think you(and me and other white people) should know- systemic racism, white privilege, and white fragility. If only "not seeing color" could fix racism, but it doesn't work that way, and inviting the idea, only speaks to your white privilege. Systemic racism is a problem that isn't going away unless us white folks do the work to educate ourselves and unlearn many ideas that were taught to us by our society. You taking Crystal's article personally only speaks to your white fragility. This article isn't about you. It's about the unpacking of systemic racism that exits in all industries in the U.S., including the yoga industry. You and I benefit from this system simply because of our skin color. It is our job to help dismantle this system wherever possible, and part of that job is listening to and learning from BIPOC, even if(or especially if) it makes us uncomfortable. I am a part of a Facebook group that was started by a black woman for white women to explore their ideas around race so that we can be better allies. I think you should join this group. DM me if you are interested. They've set it up so that you can ask questions anonymously to make asking the difficult questions a little easier. There are loads of great articles and videos too. It's very educational, supportive, and responses to posts are respectful. I hope you join.

Lauren Solomon Jun 28, 2018 2:45pm

Joy Scola, As a yoga instructor and woman of color, the baseness of your response is equally as “hard to read”. The fragility of your ego has revealed the depths of your ignorance, insincerity and lack of empathy. As a result, you have demonstrated how miserably inadequate your contribution is to this very timely and relevant conversation. In your desperate need to to be right, defend/justify your comments reek of white supremacy and gaslighting. Futile and violent attempts to invalidate the perceptions and experiences of those that differ from yours. This poor behavior will not be tolerated in the guise of “love and light”.

Sheltered Yoga Jun 28, 2018 11:49am

Yoga has become grossly yuppy and white and so far removed from its reasons for practicing. Ebb and Flow of life I guess...I am hopeful it will come back around and bring with it all the primary reasons for its practice which will nurture the true meaning of union on many levels.

Verta Maloney Jun 28, 2018 3:42am

joy, love and light? where pray tell is this love and light of which you speak? you are exuding racism (aka hate) and darknesses with this comment boo! if you practice yoga in these yet to be united states of america, you must understand that this is “hard for you to read” because you are delusional and living in the fishbowl called whiteness. you believe that because you practice yoga you have tapped into a level of humanity that CANNOT even exist for you if you don’t see race. full. stop. i want to quote your second paragraph but realize i cannot even bring myself to retype the very racist and biased questions you pose. you need to ask yourself where is YOUR humanity and quite honestly what planet do you live on? here’s the thing. white women have benefitted from and perpetuated acts of violence against black, indigenous and women/people of color for centuries and have been allowed to say pathetic, ignorant things like “this is hard to read” for way too long. do you know that it is hard to simply exist in our black and brown bodies let alone find an honest, beautifully written article “hard to read”? do you know that many of our ancestors did not actually survive because of white women like you who quietly folded and handed out blankets filled with small pox with one hand while allegedly spreading love and light through religion and gospel with the other? please read a book, do some research to understand history (especially within your chosen practice for yoga) and consider www.shetalkswetalk.com or any of the other opportunities the other women suggested to learn and perhaps one day become a white, anti-racist, co-liberator yogi cause we need as many as we can get. love and light, verta

Des Cabral Jun 28, 2018 2:19am

I suppose if you must begin your statement with I’m sorry then within you must be some level of acknowledgement that you took the piece rather personally because the truth resonated and therefore you immediately needed to discount someone’s experience. Here’s the thing, if your going to be doing this work on any level other than surface then you should explore further the concepts and experiences put forth here. Perhaps look up Boarder Crossers and Undoing Racism(pisab.org) and enroll yourself in one of their courses and review their suggested readings. Your response is ladened with bias in particular your entire second paragraph. Your need to ask such questions and choice of words are disturbing given your claim to be a yogi. Race my dear is beyond pigment it’s a social construct on which white supremacy thrives among other things. Your response is indicative of why such a piece needed to be written and shared. Do yourself and others who’s practice you influence a favor and dig deeper into your need to dismiss, minimize and defend. Perhaps if you take the kind suggestions you’ll recognize what you attempted to do here and why. Wishing you clarity and racial awakening.

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 28, 2018 1:40am

Gayle, truly loved your article! And recognize what a unique position you've been in and the privilege you're in to watch this evolution of Western yoga into what it is today. Thank you so again!

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 27, 2018 8:43pm

Gayle Fleming Thank you so much for your comments, Gayle! In my experience, it's a little sad when white people and white yogis say things like "it's hard to read" or "hard to talk about" with regard to racism. I find it beyond wimpy and pretty pathetic, acutally, considering black and brown bodies are murdered, incarcerated, kidnapped, imprisoned everyday just for NOT being white, as we can see everyday on the news and replayed in social media. (Again, why is it so hard to simply read an article about the effects of racism on a little Indian American girl's experience of yoga? Get over yourself.) What is actually hard, is FACING that reality and sourcing tools to find a way to LIVE that reality with grace and dignity. This is the charge of black and brown people (though it is unjust that it must be), AND it is also the charge for yogis because, alas, yoga gives us the toolkit to navigate such overwhelming challenging circumstances like racism and having to wake up to realizing one is a racist. What a gift and a tremendous responsibility we have! My article didn't share a "perspective," it actually shared a lived, and very real experience. I think privilege, in this case, white privilege is the culprit for deluding people into believing that life should never force us to face "hard" truths. Privilege blinds people. It anesthetizes people. And then when tough circumstances come to light, it takes intention, a commitment to love and empathy and the refusal to bear witness to harm done to a fellow human being to face the hard truths about racism, bias, privilege and the biggest culprit and cause of them all, white supremacy. In my experience, what's at the root of the answer to your question about why it's so hard to face the fact that there is a lack of diversity in the contemporary yoga studio world (because there are actually a ton of us practicing yoga, but not necessarily in studios) is simply: lack of care and an inability to see us as humans having experiences that are real and inhumane time and again. It's hard to face the possible truth that one just doesn't care about whose not in the yoga studio, or who might be suffering disproportionately more than others for reasons that he/she has the power to stop. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in the mind, especially when said person has been telling themselves the story that he/she does "care". And lack of care will keep us in a uncaring community and world. Haven't you had enough of the uncaring and violent madness? I have. And I, for one, intend to use this powerful gift of yoga to support people to face the beautiful and ugly truths about themselves, others, and life, so that we get down to the good stuff: connection, love, integration, which is what yoga is all about. Peace, my sweet sister!

Gayle Fleming Jun 27, 2018 8:00pm

Crystal, thanks for writing this important article. See my comment below to Joy. Also, this is an article I wrote for EJ several years ago. https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/05/yogis-werent-always-white-women-young-or-skinny/

Gayle Fleming Jun 27, 2018 7:55pm

Why do white yogis always get so defensive when it is pointed out that there is a lack of diversity in the yoga community both in teachers and students.As a black yoga teacher with twenty years of teaching and forty plus as a yoga practitioner, I totally understand the author's point. And yes, whiteness most assuredly is the face of yoga in the US. The first article I ever wrote for EJ was to point that out. I had a similar experience when I to a majority minority elementary school to teach. The students were surprised that I wasn't white. I am the only black teacher at the studio where I teach and I don't have a single black student. I don't blame the studio or white people for the lack of diversity, but it is a fact. So why was her article "a little hard to read", exactly? Because race is something many white people want to pretend is not an issue throughout society AND in the yoga community? I suggest you take some time to contemplate exactly why her article bothered you. This is the first article I wrote for EJ, FYI: https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/05/yogis-werent-always-white-women-young-or-skinny/ Peace and Light

Crystal Noelle McCreary Jun 27, 2018 7:52pm

Thanks so much for reading. Consider doing an anti-racism training to understand more about white supremacy. Truly, Crystal Noelle McCreary.

Joy Scola Magerkurth Jun 27, 2018 7:11pm

I'm sorry. This was a little hard to read. I don't think "white people" are trying to take ownership over Yoga. Although I do see more mixed-race people practicing Yoga, I don't think we have a lack of students of other nationalities because of it. It's up to each individual and teacher to show their children what is available to them. As a Yoga instructor myself, I always honor the original teachers and the land in which it came from. We have to ask what are the focuses of lower-minority groups/neighborhoods? What do they glorify in their minds and to their children? I'm grateful to you for spreading Yoga and am glad to see more yoga and meditation being practiced in schools but "white people" are not an enemy and are not responisble for others not practicing/knowing about Yoga. Also, let's stop seeing color and just start seeing people. Race is just a pigment of the skin. Once we can let go of black vs white or the illusion of being separate (and therefore, being worse/better than someone because of it), we'll stop being so divided. Love and light!