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Is That Your Male Privilege Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

in Featured, YogOpinions


by J. Brown

A confluence of conversations has emerged in the yoga world regarding purpose, safety, and abuse of power. The politics involved are playing themselves out, and the sides of the debate are being formed along disparate lines. The microcosm of what has been occurring in practice rooms for more than a decade is now bursting forth in a macrocosmic confusion around where people stand. As communities struggle to make sense of confusing emotions and contradictory viewpoints, a careful examination of where we might actually be able to effect change is in order.

Being a white man, and the product of a culture with a rich history of oppressing others, I often find myself on shaky ground these days. The grassroots voices of teachers and students are questioning and challenging patriarchy in new ways. My privilege is unavoidable and sometimes feels like an obstacle to open dialogue. I have been writing, and inviting people on my podcast, to better educate myself about my own blinders and embrace the changing paradigm. But my earnest attempt to listen and share my experience has received mixed responses. The warriors out there fighting to overturn deeply entrenched power dynamics are not all too interested in hearing what yet another white man thinks or feels about anything, and understandably so.

Yet, white men need to be part of these conversations. After all, we are the oppressors. We are the ones privileged just because of our gender and skin. We are responsible for often reinforcing unjust power differentials. So, we are going to need to be a big part of whatever solutions might be had. Otherwise, the empowerment that people are looking for is likely to be met with continued obfuscation. Men, in general, tend to be a defensive bunch when the power we’ve become accustomed to is challenged.

Maybe white men can do more than just perpetuate oppression.

To many, white men are the root of the problem. There is no reason to believe that they will give up the privilege and power they’ve been born into. The rampant misogyny in our society has created deep wounds in us all. Even to such an extent that earnest attempts to heal often fail due to unconscious behaviors that put us right back into the roles we are wishing to escape. Therefore, these wrongs must be fiercely called out and justice must be served.

But for others, the current wave of calls to action is mostly a form of liberal orthodoxy that is ultimately detrimental. Not unlike sentiments echoed by professional comedians who no longer wish to perform on college campuses where it seems political correctness has now trumped the ability of people to appreciate an irreverent joke, some are of the view that too much “trauma-sensitivity” is really just coddling that takes power away from people rather than give it back.

The history of oppression by white men is undeniable. But, however mixed the motives and results, white men have also played important roles in promoting human rights and social equality. There must be a way to acknowledge wrongs and stop further disempowerment without simply making people feel guilty for things in our complicated and contradictory history that they had nothing to do with. Raising awareness of the injustices that separate us, to the exclusion of what unites, is counter-productive.

Is including trauma-sensitivity in yoga teacher training the answer?

A chorus of voices are pushing, and scrambling to secure a market share, for the inclusion of trauma-sensitivity training in the standards for yoga teachers. The hope is that if we better train teachers to be more sensitive to issues of abuse and ethical behavior then we can prevent the harm that so many are reckoning with. Generally speaking, this involves changing the language we use to be more inclusive and less potentially “triggering” for people with trauma, and a more stringent set of guidelines for touching students and relationships outside of the classroom.

At risk of riding on my privilege, I am not convinced that trauma-sensitivity training is the answer to these deep dysfunctions. I just don’t trust that adding a new category, with a set of hours, to the Yoga Alliance “standards” is really going to do what people are hoping it will. Don’t get me wrong, I support a pledge of ethics and education on creating safe spaces and avenues of redress. But outside of these measures, there is little else that can be done. As much as we might like to have a governing body that could regulate people better, no such entity exists. Nor is it plausible that the yoga industry will find consensus enough to adopt an agency with the power to license and punish.

Crossed boundaries and mistreatment in yoga spaces are not merely the result of human frailty or a lack of regulation, but also of a flawed paradigm of practice. The long-standing convention of pushing ourselves and others to accomplish physical or spiritual goals, often in service or deference to an outside authority, is the fertile ground that enables the misgivings we lament to grow. We have disassociated people from poses. We have made touching impersonal. We have embraced goals outside of functional body health and embracing our given condition. Perhaps if this can be undone, we can know the safety and nurturing we all deserve.


J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere.  Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

15 comments… add one
  • not bikram

    shameless podcast plug exploiting current affairs.

  • Holden Litgo

    What’s this rant about again? It started promisingly enough, talking about “male privilege” in what is – as anyone who teaches yoga can tell you – a female dominated industry, but went off the rails when race was introduced. Then you veered into even shakier ground, insinuating that teaching men not to be abusive (sensitivity training) is not going to keep them from being abusive (or help them become more sensitive.) Not to mention that using a picture of Bikram Choudhury in an article ostensibly about “white oppression” in yoga doesn’t do much to make your point about “male privlege” in yoga. Or is it just the only picture of “male oppression” in yoga you could find? You’d do better to start over, realizing that “male privilege” has little, if anything, to do with race and that sensitivity training – i.e. learning appropriate behavior or “the Golden Rule” – is always a good thing. And that goes for any industry, not just Western Yoga.

    • I could not agree more with your comment. You underlined all the problem with this article.

  • yoga_dude

    Your self loathing is a sad reflection of you.

  • S.

    There seems to be quite a bit of “male bashing” in the Brown/Remski circle of late. Funny how most of the noise is coming from white males themselves. I know plenty of benevolent, caring male yoga teachers and have seen my share of oppressive female teachers (and vice versa). Statistically speaking, given a big enough population you will see good and bad with both genders of teachers.

    Yoga has nothing to do with hatred. Ahimsa is embedded deeply within the system. Why are so many teachers of both sexes straying from this? Perhaps what they are teaching isn’t actually “yoga.” We have Yoga Alliance’s piss poor standards to blame for this. Direct the activism there instead.

  • Wishing for more content here. I’ll offer some suggested reading:

    The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer

  • dave

    Pile of crap. Do you really think people are really this stupid.

    • Kay

      People are….

      Whoever posted this is also stupid enough to get sucked into the “white male privilege patriarchal systemic society” nonsense that’s been worming its way into society.

      This website just lost a reader. This is the second SJW pandering piece of propaganda I’ve seen in the last 3 minutes since not having read the page in a couple of months and just returning to it now.

      I’m a female, an egalitarian humanist, and this site just embraced bull.

  • kristin

    “At the risk of riding on my privilege” – indeed. Just as another commenter said, this started so promising but veered off into shaky ground. When you put “triggering” in quotation marks it suggests you really don’t understand what it’s like to be triggered (which is lucky for you, but for those of us who know what it means on a visceral level, it’s a different story). Likewise it’s disheartening to see you dismiss the need for training that builds sensitivity – is it your place to make this call? Ahimsa can also be a call to show up to sensitivity training – just like we show up to our mats whether we think we “need” it or not (we do). Don’t know if we can post links here, but this was meaningful to me: http://www.yogabuzz.org/blog/please-dont-touch-trauma-consent-mat/

  • What do you mean when you said you are White and you have privilege? Today, all people are trying to erase racial discrimination. And you are putting yourself out of this society.

  • Nah. “At the risk of riding on my privilege” -indeed. You can see armband of Rooney writes “No racism”.

  • I don’t think you are right about it. I don’t understand discrimination. To me, it’s evil. How can you not think that all people are the same? It doesn’t matter what kind of discrimination it is, it’s all terrible.

  • I don’t know what is your purpose when posting this. I think it’s sensitive when using the word “privilege” associating with “white men”, especially in a flat world as today.

  • Marlon mcgann

    Great shot of Bikram, his student is enjoying the adjustment.
    I’ve had the privilege of many similar pushing adjustments from the guru.
    Bikram understands the body better than any of the many yoga teachers that I’ve practiced with.
    It’s sad- our world is so PC, so many complainers, really just a way for them to get attention

  • Ha! Ha! I rarely visit this formerly interesting website anymore, but today, reading the comments to another sappy, self-promoting post from Mr. Brown, it was worth it. The tide is turning against 3rd wave feminist gender marxism that has infected Mr. Brown’s thinking. I’m looking forward to his confessional column where he admits the error of his ways.

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