There Will Be No Correct Clothes
It took me almost three years of practicing on my own before I was willing to attend a group yoga class.
Originally drawn to yoga at a time in my life where the only constant seemed to be change, I loved the idea of a tool I could use to care for both my body and my mind. My estimation was that both were in dire need of care but the task of establishing a solid wellness routine seemed insurmountable. My “wear-a-suit-to-work-everyday” job in Government Affairs for Comcast was not sparking joy. I was so anxious for a change that I had agreed to move from Philadelphia to St. Louis to organize for Obama again and stay on my new boss’s couch while I looked for my own apartment. (Fun Fact: this boss later gained the nickname “Murderface” due to the vein that would pop when he got upset and because he exclusively listened to death metal)
I kept my practice private because, in my mind, a yoga studio was not a place for someone like me. First, I was convinced that I was so bad at yoga the teacher would likely take one look at me and tell me to give up. Second, I sweat a lot. I had literally never seen a person sweating while doing yoga and the thought of struggling on my mat around what I assumed would be a room full of perfect yogis was terrifying. Finally, I thought about what the small white girl I assumed I would have to set up my mat next to would think about the big black man next to her. Would having to practice next to me make her feel uncomfortable or unsafe? I knew I had nothing but good intentions in my practice but I also recognized there was a reason why, when words were said about each of us upon graduating our Teacher Training, the words said about me were “you have a surprising amount of lightness to you.” The words were clearly well intentioned but I was left wondering why my light was “surprising.”
. . .
The Only Sangha I Ever Knew
The studio I taught at was the only yoga sangha (community) I had ever known and it shut down a few months ago without any advance warning.
In my nearly decade long yoga practice, almost all of the group classes I took happened at this studio, I loved practicing there so much I decided to take their Teacher Training. Originally I simply intended to deepen my practice. However, as this happened so too did something unexpected — a feeling of power and confidence and connection with my body and emotions. I realized that this TT was not only empowering me in my own practice, it was also empowering me to empower others. I felt like I had no choice but to see if I could give this experience to at least one other person.
So TT ended and I submitted my limited availability to teach. At the studio you submitted your availability each week because the schedule constantly rotated. At the time I was working a 9–5 with an hour long commute and I was only available for the evening classes, so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get the 6 or 7:30 classes right away (they were the most popular and generally taught by experienced teachers) nor did I think it was strange to be asked to clean the studio when I was the last teacher of the night or teach 25 unpaid classes as an apprenticeship.
I was surprised that there was seemingly no rhyme or reason to why some weeks I was chosen to teach and some weeks I wasn’t. I was also surprised at how, even after TT ended and the need for the yogi’s who led it to be strict diminished, they still seemed to have little to no interest in connecting with me or any of the other new yogis. It wasn’t until recently I learned the forces they were shielding us from and got the gift of forgiveness. Now I marvel at the boundless strength of these women who created space for 26 of us to have seismic life changes while wondering how they themselves were going to make it through the day.
(I was also legitimately surprised that I never got the police called on me for blasting electronic music @ 10 PM on weeknights while I cleaned)
. . .
The Coming RAIN — Recognizing Conflict Between How the Space Should Feel and How it Did Feel
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” — James Baldwin
Part of what brought me to yoga was wanting to have better control of my emotions, in particular anger. I found myself drawn to the meditative and mindfulness practices surrounding the physical practice. My initial reaction to the occasional weeks or months that I didn’t get to teach was to assume there was something wrong with me that caused me to not be selected. It was an easy thought — I loved our studio for the diversity I saw in our students because I knew that I, like many other yogis in the studio, didn’t look like the “average” yoga student, much less the average yoga instructor.
One of my favorite mindfullness tools is called RAIN, an acronym learned from the amazing Tara Brach that stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. Having already completed the “recognize” step, the “allow” step involved reminding myself that it was “ok to feel feelings” and I was ready to investigate.
My investigation quickly lead to the realization that the interactions with the studio were far from the only place I felt like an “other.”
. . .
Long History of “othering” towards POC
“People of color often don’t feel safe in white-dominated spaces. Their skin color is enough to be seen as a threat by some white people.” — Yessenia Funes
I saw snow for the first time when I was four years old. My parents had just moved back to Minnesota after living in Honolulu for 20 years. The steps George Floyd took on the night he lost his life are steps I too have taken on those streets. So while I certainly felt deeply impacted by watching one of my black brothers have his life taken on familiar streets — it was made more impactful because it came shortly after a another incident.
The previous week a white woman had called the police on a black man named Christian Cooper because she felt “threatened” by him. I remembered having the word “threatened” seared into my memory when it was used as justification for the killings of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. This blatant display of cause and effect felt like a crushing underscore to the complete devaluation of the life of a person of color.
Othering can come in many forms and one of the most insidious and recognizable to a yogi is cultural appropriation. By its very nature of being an Eastern originated practice, Western yogis need to be extra aware of this risk. The whitewashing of yoga that has long been prevalent in Western yoga is reflected in the diversity (or lack thereof) of Western practitioners and teachers that still exists to this day.
. . .
More Than Just a Physical Practice
“Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha”
– Yoga Sutras 1.2
One of the most important things my TT taught me was how much more there was to yoga than just moving on a mat. The Yoga Sutras, written by a man named Patanjali, comprise one of the foundational yoga texts. Patanjali described yoga as having eight separate limbs which he describes in order of increasing importance. Your asana (physical practice) is the 3rd limb and your pranayama (breathing) is 4th. The implication is practicing with perfect form but ignoring breath will deny you the opportunity to have the best practice possible.
Taking this one step further, the final limb is samadhi (universal oneness) but you’ll never get there without the yamas & niyamas (right mindset). Any venture below the surface level of yoga reveals a practice that cares every bit as much about creating a healthy mind as it does a healthy body. One of the most famous lines — “yogas chitta vritti nirodha” — can be translated as “yoga is the calming of the movements of the mind.”
It was through this expansion of my understanding of yoga that I was able to see its true power. Yes, moving on the mat was yoga — but equally as important and equally as much “doing yoga” was allowing myself to move in a way that felt right right to me without caring what other people thought. I felt liberated.
I realized that this current of liberation had always been present in my practice. My final memory of my first group class was lying in the warm summer sun, eyes closed, arms stretched out, hearing the instructor suggest that if we our hands bumped into or neighbor’s that maybe we should give it a friendly squeeze, and feeling the cute girl next to me take that suggestion. It was a level of complete, unquestioning acceptance that a large bi-racial man who grew up in the midwest is not accustomed to receiving.
. . .
Thats Why I Teach
“I have been a seeker and I still am. but I
stopped asking the books and the stars. I started
listening to the teacher of my soul.”
Yoga is a tool. If the studios and sanghas built by that tool aren’t up to the necessary standard, don’t blame the tool, blame the builder (or preferably gently share with the builder how you can work together and don’t blame anybody). Sometimes the only way to fight an existing perception is to present an alternative. I knew I had to be the change I wanted to see.
When Kris took over as the head of the previous studio I finally felt empowered enough to ask if I could help with the Teacher Trainings. I remembered not seeing other teachers that looked like me and I was incredibly grateful when she said yes… and incredibly sad when we lost what we all were building.
“I have a feeling this sangha isn’t done flowing together” — Kris
I still remember seeing that response and feeling comforted. In times of strife, Buddhists are instructed to look for comfort in the “Three Jewels” of sangha (community), buddha nature (innate goodness), and dharma (doing what one is ‘meant’ to). I felt the dharma of bringing the yoga to the people is what lead this sangha to manifest in the first place. All of us are United by Yoga — and if this speaks to you we hope you’ll unite with us.
This article was written by Unite By Yoga’s Diversity Ambassador and Power Vinyasa teacher, Lion.