Dear White Yogis, here’s how to join the Race Conversation without being Defensive or Tone Deaf.


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Racism is implicit, systemic, and endemic in American society.

We would like to think that the world of yoga is exempt from the ugly issue of race in America. Sadly, it is not.

As a person of color (POC) who has practiced and taught yoga for more than 40 years, I, like many yogis, have been insulated from the overt issues of racism in the yoga community. But lately, certain comments made by white yogis have given me great pause.

There is no doubt that the deliberately toxic racial divide fostered by the current occupier of the White House is having an effect on even those parts of our lives we felt were not susceptible to such ugliness, i.e. yoga. But just as the problem of racism shouldn’t be ignored in our everyday lives, neither should it be in the yoga community.

I am the only black teacher at the yoga studio where I teach. Virtually 100 percent of my yoga students are white. This is no one’s fault per se—it’s just a fact. The face of yoga in the United States is white—not Indian from its origins and certainly not inclusive of other POC. The first article I wrote for Elephant Journal addressed this issue.

Now before you become defensive and try to whitesplain how wrong I am, take a moment and just sit with this. Be guided by your inner awareness and not your thinking mind, which will undoubtedly provoke a defense.

A few days ago, yoga teacher Crystal McCreary wrote an article called Little Brown Girls & the Whitewashing of Yoga. The article has a powerful message to all yoga teachers about the need to be more aware of the whitewashing of a tradition rooted in the culture of a country of brown people and of the lack of diversity in the practice we all love so much.

McCreary teaches yoga to elementary school children in New York City, but despite the diversity of the city, her students are almost all white. Her article highlights a little Indian girl who had no idea yoga was from India and a little black girl who hugged McCreary tightly and said, “You look like me.”

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,“ McCreary writes.

I posted McCreary’s article on my own Facebook page and on a yoga teacher’s page, and I was struck by the deafening silence. I am an avid Facebook user and my posts generally garner significant responses in likes and comments. There was one comment on the teacher page and this person said what a “sweet” article it was. Sweet! Really? It was as if she simply chose to ignore the deeper meaning of it.

On Elephant Journal, the first comment posted was from a white, female yoga teacher who found the article “hard to read.” Then she went on a defensive, tone deaf, and racist screed. This is some of what she said:

We have to ask what are the focuses of lower-minority groups/neighborhoods? What do they glorify in their minds and to their children?…Also, let’s stop seeing color and just start seeing people. Race is just a pigment of the skin.”

For any person reading this who doesn’t see what’s wrong with her comment, you are the reason I’m writing this article. It is simply not appropriate for white people to define how racism is experienced by black people. Ignoring or choosing to remain silent on the issue of racism will not make the problem go away.

Last year, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one woman dead, I gave a speech at a solidarity rally the next day calling upon white people to speak out against bigotry. That speech later became an article: White People, the Solution Lies with You.

And recently, a conversation ensued on Doug Keller’s Facebook page that was yet another example of white people deliberately denying or downplaying the experience of POC. Doug, a renowned international yoga teacher, is pointedly political on his page, so he posted a New York Times opinion piece called, Roseanne Barr’s Right to Offend and Our Right to Say No.

The very first comment was from a white woman who said:

“I feel they keep us on the subject of racism instead of the subject of casting and wealth wars against the poor. It’s the richest of rich creating the greatest divisions that will never undo. It’s the money not the race—we need to start conversations about the money not the skin…”

When she was roundly opposed for this view by quite a few commenters, myself included, she doubled down and chose to unfriend and block Doug. She insisted that everyone who commented was wrong and that race was not the issue.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the second yama of the yamas and niyamas is satya—truthfulness. We don’t get to the truth unless we are willing to deepen our inner awareness and let go of our need to be right. Yogiraj Achala, a disciple of Swami Rama asks the question, “What are you not seeing because you are seeing what you are seeing.”

In her wonderful book, The Yamas and the Niyamas—Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, Deborah Adele writes, “The guideline to truthfulness asks us to update our beliefs and values and views in order to stay current with ourselves and our surroundings.”

So how can white yogis address the issue of race and racism in the larger world and in the yoga community? Think about the fourth niyama: svadhyaya, or self-study. Educate yourself.

Here are some websites and books that can help:

SheTalks WeTalk Race Talks for Women
Undoing Racism—The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
So You Want to Talk About Race.
Black Like Me. (a 1961 classic)

What you shouldn’t do is attempt to deny or diminish the lived experience of millions of POC—and don’t ask your black friends to educate you. This is your journey.


author: Gayle Fleming

Image: Tamarcus Brown/Unsplash

Editor: Nicole Cameron


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Gayle Fleming Jul 26, 2018 6:44pm

Thank you for reading and understanding. Expense is a very real part of the equation of inequality in yoga today.

Jess Oh Jul 20, 2018 5:24am

Thanks for this article. As a white woman who has practiced yoga (on and off) for the past 5 or so years, I have always been pretty uncomfortable with the ‘whiteness’ of the classes, as well as the expense (again, related to the whiteness!) Even in the school I practice at, which is Iyengar and pretty purist. I think there needs to be a lot more conversation about the accessibility of yoga in general, as well as the relationship between yoga and capitalism.

Gayle Fleming Jul 19, 2018 8:21pm

Barbara, my sister—thank you so much for your insightful understanding. I am forever grateful for my "woke" white friends and sisters. I just left a meeting with the owner of the studio where I teach.We were brainstorming about how the studio, whose intention is to be welcoming and inclusive, can better reach POC as students and teachers. We are planning a workshop for the fall on yoga, mindfulness and race. I will continue to try to connect this wonderful practice to its wider and more inclusive meaning—the oness that connects us all.

BJ Barbara Justice-Kamp Jul 7, 2018 9:33pm

Gayle’s article reminds us in the dominant culture how racism is, indeed, systemic and how most of us will never experience it; regardless of our sense of “understanding” what it is like to live it, daily. There appear to me two different dimensions with regards to the group practice of yoga and POC. One is studio practice access and the attitude of marketing to, actively recruiting and welcoming individuals of color to participate (which speaks to the endemic racism question). The second is the question of access to communities that are POC. I recently saw an interesting piece on Public TV PBS News Hour about GirlTrek ( “In the footsteps of a civil rights legacy, GirlTrek is a national health movement that activates thousands of Black women to be change makers in their lives and communities — through walking.” I’m thinking that the practice of yoga for women of color, Black women in particular, could be introduced through and benefit from a similar initiative, and perhaps even piggyback on the GirlTrek movement. Insightful article, Gayle. Continue to keep us informed, reminded and activated (where possible.)

Muse Sharon Jul 5, 2018 5:40pm

Valerie Jabin Alon I noticed that you and Gayle communicated and that's excellent. If I understand your question, then my answer would be that we [whatever our privilege] don't get to say whether something is offensive to others. If we're told something that we are saying or doing is offensive, and we don't listen to people who care enough and labor enough to help us understand, then we become offensive. For your fear of offending, we people of color have the frustration of having only the King's English to communicate what the King never experienced...

Gayle Fleming Jul 5, 2018 4:43pm

Valerie Jabin Alon I am glad that you spoke. Please don't take my comments to mean I want to silence you. I hope you got that from my last comment. The problem is that we have been silent for too long and have tried so hard not to have a discussion. And "peace out" would be perfectly appropriate. As yogis we are in a unique position to use the teachings of yoga to foster better understanding. As I write this to you now, I have just had an idea to do a workshop at the yoga studio where I teach called "Let's meditate on race." I am already formulating it in my mind. So thank you for this conversation. I really mean that.

Valerie Jabin Alon Jul 5, 2018 3:45pm

Good morning, Sharon. I'm afraid to have a conversation. By "Peace" I just meant that I'm not trying to antagonize. (The "kids" say "Peace Out", but I wasn't sure if that was the correct usage in this case.) Also please know that Gayle's article grabbed my attention enough that I responded. (Despite my better judgement--"Open mouth, already a problem" as they say...)

Gayle Fleming Jul 5, 2018 1:59pm

Valerie Jabin Alon I'm not sure who I disagreed with and who was trying to sympathize. The two examples I gave iin the article were of people saying blatantly offensive things. Those were not well meaning comments—full stop. There is blame on both sides? I presume you mean one side that is black. Correct me if I am wrong. Just this morning I read four stories of white people calling the police on or harassing black people for no good reason. Racism in this country is born out of slavery. It was created so that white people could have an excuse for enslaving others and after slavery it was used to keep an entire race in their place. Today I read a story of a white woman calling the police on some teens for being at a community pool that they had every right to be at after calling them names, using racist slurs and slapping one of the boys. To their credit, the police arrested her and she bit one officer and pushed another one into a wall. She wasn't shot and is still alive. A black man can be shot and killed for much less. Butr I digress. I addressed this article in particular to white people who consider themselves yogis. Racism in the rest of the world is as I said in the beginning of my article is "implicit, sytemic and endemic." I wouldn't have expected that to be the case in yoga. I really do want white people to understand why they can't say that race isn't an issue, or both sides are to blame, or that they are color blind. All of these things are untrue. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. I gave several resources that I really hope you will avail yourself of them. I don't want you to not speak. But I would expect that you can understand and be open to the perspective of a persons of color who havw lived the experiences of which we speak. I understand that most white people who would even be reading EJ would not want to consider themselves as racist. And in general they probably aren't. However I particularly addressed the traits of being tone deaf and defensive because that I what I see a lot of.

Valerie Jabin Alon Jul 5, 2018 12:44pm

Gayle Fleming Good morning Gayle. I'm afraid to have a conversation with you because there is a 85% chance I will say something that offends you. I apologize. But I'll try. You disagreed with people who tried to sympathize with you because you didn't like their reasoning. I understand that there is a problem, but there is blame on both sides. Both sides need to clean house. God bless you in your endeavors.

Gayle Fleming Jul 5, 2018 9:45am

I really don’t understand your comment although I have read it several times. Can you clarupify what you mean.

Muse Sharon Jul 4, 2018 9:31pm

@valerie.alon saying that commenters default to "'great article' and not whatever they really may think" then ending your comment with "Peace" is pointing a finger at commenters while three fingers point back at you. The word "peace" is contrary to the point you were trying to make which is to say that apparently I don't say what I really think. My words are direct and clear in this comment and my previous comment. From your comment though, it does not seem clear at all that you want a conversation

Valerie Jabin Alon Jul 4, 2018 2:32pm

Honestly, I think by saying that any comment, no matter how well-meaning, will likely be seen as either self-serving or ignorant, shuts down the possibilty of any conversation at all. Even most commenters here default to "great article" and not whatever they really may think. Peace.

Will Inco Jul 3, 2018 9:16pm

Great article, thanks for writing this and for your perspective!

Muse Sharon Jul 3, 2018 3:50pm

Thank you for literally spelling it out here!! I have had several very similar conversations in the past days. I rejoiced when a few white people got it; and I despaired at the white people who purposefully chose not to get it. The ones who understood took action, amplified our voices and clapped back at those who chose not to get it. This union and togetherness is what defines true yoga. However, I noticed that among those who chose not to understand were people who lacked ability to apologize and to self-examine [svadhyaya]. Attacking black people was disturbingly easier for them rather than to admit some implicit bias or to address their issues.

Gayle Fleming Jul 3, 2018 3:46pm

Thank you for reading and for understanding.

Marilyn Regan Jul 3, 2018 3:31pm

Thank you Gayle. I agree with everything you said regarding the image of yoga being skinny, white and for contortionists, it is not inclusive. The yoga world is addressing the age and weight issue and needs to address the race issue as well. I've already read "Black Like Me" and will check out your other resources.

Patricia Cook Jul 3, 2018 2:15pm

Thank you for this, Gayle! Appreciate the list of resources, and will be diving in to learn more.

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Gayle Fleming

Gayle Fleming is a writer who has finally come out of the closet. A lifelong wordsmith, she has decided to live her authentic, creative life out loud. She is on the hunt for a literary agent for her novel, Omission, one of two books she has written. Gayle has been a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner for many years. She is passionate about social justice and the environment. She is the grandmother to three smart and funny girls who never cease to bring her joy. Connect with Gayle  on Twitter at ecogayle and on Facebook at Gayle Fleming Writer.