I wonder how many of us have been practicing yoga in the past few weeks.
Have we come to our mats since George Floyd was murdered? And if we did, why? Did we come to find peace? Stress relief? The comfort of routine? To escape from the tension, the news, the heat?
Were we expecting our teachers to mention racism or discuss the wisdom of yoga as it pertains to white supremacy and racial oppression? Did they?
White people practicing, I’m talking to us.
I’m betting there aren’t many of us stepping onto our mats looking for more difficulty, intensity, and discomfort right now. But if we truly consider ourselves students of yoga, we will not dare use it as an escape, a Band-Aid, or a comfort measure when things get hard.
Yoga leads us into the fire.
In the same way we’ve been socialized to accept our place in a white supremacist society, we’ve been conditioned in the West to associate yoga with asana, stress-relief, and an antidote to physical ailments. These components have their place on the path. But out of context, they represent a narrow and disproportionate version of a tradition that is much more complex (this, by the way, would be a starting point for a different but related and desperately needed conversation in white, western yoga circles about yoga and colonization, commodification, and cultural appropriation).
Yoga has much more to say about the ways we think, relate, and work in this world than it does about alignment in Warrior II.
Practices of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, self-study, humility, unity, and liberation from ignorance are a few of the pieces that get much more airtime in the yogic texts than Downward-Facing Dog.
This is our life’s work, not just as students of yoga, but as human beings.
So while we keep showing up on the mat, we must also show up for inner work and social action. If we don’t, it simply isn’t yoga.
Here are a few ways to get started:
A regular asana practice takes discipline, determination, and dedication. Inner work and social action are the same way. We must recommit to it every single day. If we don’t, we won’t do it.
Write down your commitment. Use a calendar. Track your work by recording what you’ve done each day to unpack your own racism and contribute to systemic change. Set reminders. Whatever it takes to teach and train yourself to keep engaging, even when you forget that racism exists or stop feeling its presence. In yoga, this kind of discipline is called Tapas.
2. Make time and space.
Match the time you spend on the mat or replace it altogether (because in truth, it’s more important) with learning about white fragility, anti-racism, and our socialization into white supremacist America.
This is Svadhyaya, self-study. Don’t just “like” the articles, podcasts, books, and documentaries your friends are posting. Take a screenshot. Order, subscribe, follow, read, watch, listen, reflect. Unlearn. Relearn. Then rally, march, speak up, challenge, reach out, vote. On days when you don’t have time, make a donation. While you’re at it, set up recurring donations.
3. Choose discomfort.
We can learn to deal with being uncomfortable in our relationships and conversations for the sake of dismantling racism. You can start on your mat. Pick your least favorite pose—the one that makes you feel like you’re going to throw up, or explode, or cry. Choose it. Own it. Learn to feel uncomfortable without becoming the discomfort. Watch it, allow it, breathe, and relax into it.
Then the next time you bring up race in conversation or experience racial discomfort, use that practice. Feel uncomfortable without running, escaping, or letting it own you in the form of defensiveness or fear.
4. Practice humility.
Drop your ego. Know that this work will cause your defenses to rise, but decide that you will listen, receive feedback, and stay open to new ideas about your complicity without becoming defensive. Release any expectation or desire for thanks or recognition. If we require a pat on the back each time we engage with this work, we will not sustain it.
We need to persist when nobody’s posting about it, when it isn’t trending, and when nobody else will see or be aware that we’re doing something. This is the path of the Karma yogi, who works selflessly without reward.
5. Get curious.
Ask your white teachers and studio owners about how yoga connects with systemic racism, and what they might do to further engage with anti-racist work and social action as a yoga community. Does the thought of this make you squirm? See number three.
If your class/studio is racially mixed, be mindful. These conversations are vital, but people of color have been living with white ignorance their entire lives, as well as the struggle and trauma of being tokenized and/or tasked with educating white people about racism while having their voices repeatedly silenced. People of color in the yoga community deserve the option of participating in these conversations, as well as the option to avoid them if they choose.
I know this list is just a beginning, and I’m sure it has glitches. But it’s a start, and I’m willing to be wrong.
To quote Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, “There is nothing we can say and get this right. But that can never be the reason we don’t keep struggling to get it a little more right.”
We must choose this work. We must stay uncomfortable. We must opt for the heat, friction, and intensity. We must fiercely and fearlessly struggle, each day, to get it a little more right.
And then we can start to believe we’re on the path called yoga.