by Krista Lee Hanson
I am a white woman in south-central Seattle, a yoga instructor, and someone who loves having all kinds of people come to my open, community classes. I work to understand the ways that my subtle or unconscious biases can shape my language and style to make some people feel more or less welcome in the class. I read and study and ask and listen so that I can create welcoming spaces where diverse groups of people can enjoy practicing mindful, joyful yoga together. But just saying my class is welcoming to everyone does not make it true. Just like saying that racism is over does not make it true.
Two weeks ago a local radio personality here in Seattle, Dori Monson, found out about a yoga class for LGBTQ People of Color. The class was set to meet once a month at Rainier Beach Yoga, in a new yoga studio in racially diverse south Seattle. Monson used his radio program to attack the studio owner for what he called exclusion of white people. Monson said, “the fact is, this yoga class is every bit as racist as a bunch of white people who say they don’t want to be around somebody of color.”
When I found out about the attack, my first response was puzzlement. Someone is concerned about white people being excluded from yoga? If you look around the yoga scene in Seattle or around the country, it is overflowing with opportunities for all of us to practice yoga. There are literally hundreds of yoga studios, plus community centers, community colleges, senior centers, hospitals, churches and museums with yoga classes that are welcoming to white people. In fact, the dominant images associated with yoga today are not images of spiritual leaders in India meditating (a more accurate image of yoga’s long history). Do a google search and you’ll find that yoga images are 99% white people. I have often been concerned about the dominance of white people in yoga spaces, not the other way around.
But despite the fact that white people are welcome to practice yoga almost everywhere, Monson seems to have hit a nerve with some white people. After his show and a follow-up article, the blogosphere was suddenly buzzing with angry comments from white people who were upset at feeling excluded from this one People of Color (POC) Yoga class. The owner of the yoga studio got threatening phone calls. Anyone who voiced support for the POC yoga class online was immediately attacked. The calls and threats to the studio escalated to the point that the studio owner felt forced to temporarily close the studio and cancel the class to ensure everyone’s physical safety.
As a person concerned about the harms of racism – including the growing video evidence of regular, brutal harm and death wrought on people of color with impunity – I went from surprise at the original radio piece to alarm at the online anger directed at this studio owner and POC yoga instructor. If I had doubts about whether racism is a serious threat to people of color in the U.S. today, the anger and threats of violence directed at this class are their own proof that we have a long, long way to go to overcome racism. South Seattle-based journalist Reagan Jackson may have said it best in the title to her article, “Vitriol against People of Color Yoga Shows Exactly Why Its Necessary.”
I came to yoga because it helped me relax, helped me feel comfortable and even good in my body for the first time. Then yoga helped me heal from trauma, including the traumatic birth of my first child. The healing I found in breathing and moving mindfully during the time he was in the ICU and barely surviving his first year of life was unparalleled. I was so moved that I went on to study therapeutic yoga and I became a yoga teacher. I want everyone who wants it to have that opportunity for healing that I’ve found in yoga.
Since becoming a teacher I’ve taught classes like Yoga for New Parents, Yoga for Women in Addiction Recovery, and Yoga for Parents of Children with Disabilities. In each of these classes, students are able to bring their full selves more honestly and vulnerably into the practice. Even if the students never say a word about their experiences in class, just knowing that other people in the room have come to heal similar wounds or celebrate similar victories gives immense power to the practice. These are “exclusive” classes – we ask that people who do not fit this identity choose another yoga class. I’ve been contacted, for example, by medical professionals who care for kids with disabilities to ask if they could come to my workshop for parents. And I said no. Because I know that some families with disabilities have been deeply harmed by thoughtless, reckless, or negligent medical professionals. So even though this one caregiver contacting me is different than the caregivers who caused harm, her presence in the room could make it a less healing space for others.
You can see where I’m going with this. People of color suffer minor and major traumas of living in a racist society every day. Elle Magazine just published an article with the title asking the very question, “Do We Need Yoga Classes Dedicated to Women of Color?” The author interviewed three yoga instructors of color who each talk about the challenge of practicing yoga in predominantly white classes, and the power or relief they felt being in a room of people living similar experiences. Lauren Ash, a yoga teacher from Chicago, says, “We live in this world where unfortunately some of us don’t feel like we can be our authentic selves. To really be able to go to a space that you know is for you and you can just show up and be yourself is really powerful and important.”
Obviously some people of color are happy practicing yoga in multi-racial spaces. No one is calling for all of yoga to be segregated. Jacoby Ballard, a yoga teacher who leads Queer and Trans Yoga classes and workshops around the country, explains that he doesn’t see these identity-specific classes he teaches as an “end point.” “Ultimately, I hope that we can practice in the same room. But for now, we need spaces to heal, to gather the strength to have relationships and practice with folks outside of our own experience.”
I have been surprised by how many of the insults slung by angry people online have called those of us defending POC yoga weak, sniveling, and passive. If my spiritual path through yoga has taught me anything about myself, it is that sitting with discomfort takes much more strength and courage than lashing out. I am working on my own courage – including writing this article as an invitation to conversation, and opening myself up to listening to constructive criticism. I absolutely believe that we can move toward significant healing and undoing of racism. But we have so far to go. I invite everyone into a community of support for examining our own experiences of privileges, power, oppression, wounds, and dreams.
I hope we can all find the courage to practice deep, heart-centered yoga, a practice that prioritizes compassion over any other shape our bodies can make. From this basis of compassion I believe we can begin to envision the path we need to build together so that every person might one day feel absolutely safe in their community and in their body.
Also on Decolonizing Yoga: Why We Need Safe Spaces in Yoga