Yet another yoga studio is opening. Not just a yoga studio. A yoga church. In an actual church. The Church of Yoga NOLA is a place for “the party and the prayer” so the slogan goes, and the revelers congregate in a former Baptist church that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ oldest black neighborhood. Brought to us by Dana Trixie Flynn and her Laughing Lotus Krewe, The Church of Yoga had its grand opening celebration this past weekend. Just in time for Mardi Gras. Praise be! Hallelujah.
There is glory. There is glitter. There is gentrification. There is backlash.
It’s a yoga party in an old church. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, apparently. The community—the actual community of Bayou Treme (people who live and work there)—isn’t exactly hip to this party scene.
Dana’s lit up the 7th Ward and not in a good way (see: the barrage of comments on Facebook). Not in the way she intended. With love—and glitter. In fact, the uproar is not praise and thanks be, but criticism rising up like a chorus in protest.
Criticism ranges from claims of appropriation to sacrilege. An excerpt from one of the most popular Facebook comments (but certainly not the most scathing) sums up the biggest issues and concerns, by local Laura Stein:
If you truly want to share your love of yoga, take the feedback you are receiving to heart. Change your branding to something that is authentically YOU rather than using New Orleans culture to your business advantage. Understand that you have deep privilege: skin color privilege, economic privilege, the privilege of networks outside of New Orleans that allowed you to raise $26K to renovate a building. Examine how you can use that privilege to resource local movements and programs led by New Orleanians and people of color. LISTEN. No one is asking for you, or me, or any other white person from outside of New Orleans, to save the city and heal the people. Examine why you are doing what you’re doing. Be accountable by building AUTHENTIC relationships with your neighbors. Don’t assume that you know everything there is to know about social and racial justice because you are a good person at heart.
Anyone who knows Dana personally, and even those who know her only from afar, can tell she’s all about the love. That’s clear in her publicity, marketing and promotional materials, public appearances across the country, and all of her social media. And there’s lots of it.
Love is everywhere in Dana World. She loves everybody, everybody loves her. We’re all her Lovers. And her Church of Yoga is bringing the Gospel of Love to NOLA, straight outta New York City (and San Francisco).
But this isn’t New York City (or San Francisco). And that lesson was hard learned.
We don’t claim to be experts on race, politics, colonialism or cultural appropriation, but we do know we’d need to do some BIG research and LOTS of homework in order to open a yoga studio in the culture-rich Big Easy, especially if we chose* to borrow (appropriate) so much from local customs, culture, traditions, and spirituality. It appears Dana Trixie Flynn did not. This, despite the Love and best intentions. (*We wouldn’t, but this is hypothetical.)
Supporters see this as bringing light and love to an area that could use it. As “giving back.” Critics see it as a well-intentioned, but highly unfortunate White Savior scenario.
And the intentions do seem good. A yoga studio providing free and donation-based classes is lovely, really, but suddenly landing in New Orleans like Glinda the Good Yogi, claiming an old Baptist church for your own definition of spirituality, co-opting religious symbolism, promising gospel performances, and serving up vegan Cajun food at the “Church Lady Café” might not have been the most mindful way to go about it.
Flynn had planned the grandest of openings for her Church with all the bells and whistles and horns and hoopla of Mardi Gras with a parade…a parade! But in planning her massive culture-soaked celebration, she forgot the sensitivity.
And boy did she hear about it. A lot of us live in yoga bubbles, and Dana Flynn is no exception. In fact, one could say she lives in a one-love, glitter globe of a Laughing Lotus bubble inside a New York City (and San Francisco) metro-coastal yoga bubble. It’s a noble thing to bring that “love” to other communities, especially if it’s meant to better those communities and serve them. Know what’s even nobler? Understanding what it really means to serve that particular community first, before deciding yourself what it is they need. (Say it with us, now: Yoga is not everyone’s savior!)
As for her part, Dana Flynn has responded to the criticism by scaling back her opening day events and committing to a reformed Church of sorts. Via facebook she wrote:
Thank you for giving me time to listen. Our concern for the voices of the community not being heard has led us to shift Saturday’s Grand Opening into a gradual opening of a space that will belong to the community of the Seventh Ward.
As dialogue continues to stay open from my end, I hope that my actions to slow down and adjust the grand opening are small examples of my commitment to listening and learning.
Here are the first steps we are taking in a long process of transforming our actions:
• moving grand opening (including canceling second line)
• simplifying our schedule until the community’s needs are addressed
• creating safe space for the community to provide feedback and what they would like to see the space being used as
• reaching out to community leaders to gain an understanding of who the local business are and how we can support each other
• partnering with other nonprofits
• attending and hosting Undoing Racism Workshop, as suggested, via PISAB
• continuing to listen and create dialogue both individually and in a group setting with community meetings
Thank you for growing my heart.
With Great Respect and Love,
There’s a lot to learn, for all of us. From the sound of it, there may be other “Churches” of yoga in the works so we hope this painful process will be a helpful lesson for Dana, and for others.
What’s the takeaway? Perhaps it’s speaking up and calling each other out, when necessary. And listening. And maybe making some mistakes. And correcting mistakes. And continuing to learn. And doing some sensitivity training before entering a community deeply rooted in culture and spirituality that you’re blissfully co-opting. Sigh.
It’s all love.
Further reading: Decolonizing Yoga category/White-Privilege