This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on Power, Privilege and Responsibility in Yoga.
by Kerrie Kauer
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel with some amazing scholars, activists, yoga teachers, and educators discussing issues of power and privilege in yoga. This was part of an ongoing discussion series called the Practice of Leadership that was held at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado. Fellow panelists included Lezlie Frye (RYT-200, Yoga Teacher, Anti-Oppression trainer), Tyrone Beverly (founder and executive director of Im’Unique), Jacoby Ballard (E-RYT 500, co-founder of Third Root Community Health Center), Hala Khouri (co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World), Chelsea Jackson, PhD (Chelsea Loves Yoga), and Paige Elenson (co-founder and Director of Africa Yoga Project).
Having conversations centered around privilege and oppression are difficult, but as Tyrone Beverly of Im’Unique stated, it is time. Actually, it is well past the time that we had this conversation as communities of yogis because I believe these groups have a responsibility to begin – or in some cases continue – doing the real work of yoga. Fortunately, in many communities of yoga, this work has been happening for some time.
To start, it is important to realize that power and oppression are never solely intellectual or emotional encounters, and they are always played out through sexed, raced, classed, and gendered bodies. If yoga truly is about embodiment, it is this community that needs to take the lead around encouraging and implementing social justice practices. Panelist Dr. Chelsea Jackson shed light on this subject when she discussed her own experiences as a black woman in yoga, and her research with young black girls – much of this work was her impetus for being part of the panel and continuing to use yoga as a form of critical literacy.
As Tyrone mentioned, yoga can become a vehicle to question and dismantle the cultural and historical roots of oppression in the United States. Through the self-reflection and personal inquiry that yoga or meditation practice can engender, we need to start asking these critical questions about who is included and who is excluded, and how those of us with privilege benefit unfairly from this system.
Panelist Jacoby Ballard also discussed feeling marginalized and excluded from mainstream yoga, and his trepidation in attending the YJ conference at all. His presence was so important as he discussed the forms of oppression and discrimination he’s experienced as a transgendered person within yoga spaces, and the work he is doing that coalesces action towards dismantling multiple forms of oppression. This isolation and marginalization fueled Jacoby to do some amazing work around diversity and social justice to help educate teachers and students. (You can find him at the upcoming Yoga Service Council conference in May.)
Lezlie Frye spoke eloquently about the ways our current yoga culture needs to be more inclusive of disabled students and teachers, creating space and transforming yoga studios so that all people feel welcomed and have physical access. As a white, able-bodied woman, myself, I discussed how it was important that I acknowledge my white privilege and the advantages, mostly unearned, I have as a yoga student and teacher. I am most likely to see my own race reflected in magazines, advertisements, and in my yoga classes.
So how does this translate to privilege? Yoga in North America is situated within a culture that equates yoga with health, fitness, and wellness. Therefore, the sea of images of thin white women practicing yoga sends a very clear message about the health and wellness of that racial group (myself included), and a subtle message about those groups who are on the margins or excluded entirely from these images. I am assumed, regardless of what is actually the truth, to be inside the frame of fitness, wellness, and good health, upholding my individual, moral responsibility to engage in practices that mark me as responsible, successful, good, attractive, fit, and perhaps even enlightened.
Because health and wellness have been so (mis)construed with both an idealized body image and one’s morality in this culture, those who are left out of the frame (e.g., people of color, transgendered, disabled people) are assumed to be unhealthy, lazy, or even marked as immoral. That’s an unearned advantage I have. And systemic advantage and privilege have enormous psychological benefits. I can also walk into most yoga classes all over North America and expect that the majority of the students, and most likely the teacher, will reflect my race. If I’m late for a yoga class, I don’t have to worry about that triggering a stereotype about my entire race, and I rarely feel out of place because of my whiteness.
Continuing the Conversation
Power and privilege are complex, yet we all have agency to create change if we choose to acknowledge and reflect on the ways in which we might be reproducing power and privilege. I think it’s important to recognize that the point of this panel, and this topic more broadly, isn’t about making yoga teachers, organizations, or media conglomerates feel guilty. Getting stuck in feelings of guilt doesn’t allow for the possibility of transformation and action. But it is about responsibility. If, as leaders in the yoga community, as teachers, journal editors, and students, corporate CEOs, we don’t begin to take responsibility about how our privileged position with regard to race, class, power, sexuality, and ability effect what we put on the cover of magazines, in advertisements, or how we engage with our yoga students, we subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) continue to reproduce the very violence that marginalized and oppressed groups have endured throughout the history of North America.
* Special thanks to Jacoby Ballard for his editorial contributions to this piece.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series. STAY TUNED for PART 2 on “Sexing the Yoga Body.”
Kerrie J. Kauer, Ph.D., visiting scholar in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (University of Pittsburgh), 200 RYT, advisor to Yoga and Body Image Coalition and contributor to Yoga and Body Image Anthology.