My friends like to joke that my university degree was in rainbows and kaleidoscopes.
From the perspective of folks with a degree in business or finance, my friends are probably not too far off (my degree was Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Human Rights & Social Justice….so yeah, rainbows).
By the time I was graduating college, I didn’t have a clear direction of what to do next. My motto had always been to “do the best you can in the space you’re in, and the rest will fall into place.” So, I began applying to a bunch of volunteer positions with AmeriCorps (a program that aims at supporting communities in need). By the time of my graduation in 2010, I had been accepted into a yearlong program with an organization in New York City.
The job? A full-time volunteer position as the Program Coordinator for an after-school program for 6th and 7th graders in the Bronx (leading, recruiting, and organizing it all).
Had I ever worked in education? Not really. A couple of tutoring and short-term volunteer jobs.
Had I ever lived in/visited the Bronx? Was I familiar with the community/schools there? No. I had never stepped foot in New York City.
Was working with youth my #1 choice on my application? No. I preferred and had more experience with adults, specifically women.
Was I open to learning and compassionate about social justice? Absolutely, even though I was extremely under-qualified for the job.
During my volunteer year I met Group Leaders and Program Aides who had grown up next door to the young people we were educating/supporting. They had already spent years working in the school while I was still getting lost on my way to the gymnasium. They knew Alyssa’s younger siblings while I was trying to remember Alyssa’s name. They looked like the kids. They didn’t look like an anxious, but hopeful blonde white woman from Michigan. And I was in the higher position.
I made beautiful connections with my students and the staff that year, but I want to be clear: I was another under-qualified white volunteer with good intentions passing through for a year to do the best that I could.
It took me many years to recognize how problematic my time in the Bronx was. I did stay in NYC and continued working in education with the same non-profit organization, but rarely did I or the other white educators in those spaces push each other to have harder discussions around race and why so many in power were (and are) white when the communities were (and are) not. I’m not minimizing my compassionate heart or the relationships I cherish to no end—but I am saying that I didn’t deserve it. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean my work wasn’t meaningful; it shaped who I am today.
“Do the best you can in the space that you’re in, and the rest will fall into place”—that motto of mine was rooted in white supremacy. That trust in the unknown existed because, beyond the rainbows and the work done, the hopeful intentions of my white skin were always prioritized over the potential of those already doing the work.
#satya #truthtelling #yoga
This past week has been just terrible. Moments of overwhelm & sadness. Murky memories rupturing into my present experience when they should be gathering dust. I stopped & sobbed & watched another woman choose bravery. And as I finally found my feet grounding me & remembered my breath breathing me alive, I thought about how to start again. I suppose I start where I always return: the practice.
If we’re not taught consent on the playground when he pulls your hair because he “likes you” then I have to be explicit in my yoga teaching that I DO NOT have a right to your body or your space without your consent. Consent has to be taught & it has to be ongoing.
Because honoring personal boundaries is a matter of basic respect.
Because it’s violent to assume that trauma dissipates when we step into a yoga space.
Because ahimsa (non-harming) begins with honoring choice & reinforcing wholeness.
Because I’ve been that student who felt weird about saying “no” (when the teacher’s hands were already on me) & was injured from her assumption that I could be “more flexible” in that forward fold. It was a similar feeling to letting that guy’s hand stay on my inner thigh—it didn’t feel good, but it’s wasn’t worth making a scene.
Because I’d rather be overly cautious than add one more drop of self-doubt or shame. The world doubts & shames us enough. Enough.
And because I know that touch—intentional & consensual touch—can be profoundly powerful & healing.
Consent cards aren’t perfect. But they are a start.
The yoga practice asks us to bring awareness to the different dances within and around us: Am I ruminating or predicting? Am I prioritizing form over feeling? Does the heat of comparison overtake the warmth of connection?
And every time I look to involve myself on social media, am I writing from satya (truth-telling) or am I centering whiteness? Am I taking action or am I just taking up space? Do my intentions align with my impact?
Is it ego or is it justice?
I am beautifully tangled up in these questions. And with each passing day of spiritual practice I choose to stay bound up in the reality of human suffering and the possibility of collective liberation because I am not separate. White supremacy aims to (no, it absolutely does) prioritize my comfort and cushion my spiritual path. So I have to actively stay uncomfortable because, as Michelle Johnson wrote in @skillinaction , discomfort is the key to transformation.
The work is listening. The work is love & spirit in action. The work is a mirror and the mirror probably has a sh*t ton of filth all over it.
And if the work becomes dharma?
Then the work is never done.
I forget sometimes that my very presence can be a trigger for someone because of the dynamics of power and privilege.
I forget sometimes because my intentions to share the yoga practice are from a kind place. I assume I am always welcome. I assume my smile will soften the edges of what my white ancestors have done.
Maybe more often than I realize I get in the way by asserting myself in spaces where folks are marginalized—that is, under-resourced and not seen by systems of oppression—or where I wasn’t explicitly invited.
Lately I’ve been unpacking the reality that I’m not needed in every yoga space. As white yoga teachers, this is a hard fact to face. I know my passion can cloud prioritizing the already capable & powerful lived experience of others.
Stepping back does not equate to inaction (there are plenty of white spaces where I need to speak up). If I’m not inserting myself into every space I will still be working to heighten the redistribution of resources/knowledge of this yoga practice—so folks are empowered from their own experience and not an external (albeit benevolent) intention of “serving” or “helping”.
A principle of the yoga practice is satya—being truthful in thoughts, words, and actions.
Sometimes (more than you think) getting out of the way and listening truth.
Less helping (implying power over) and more being in relationship.
Relationship over outcome and ego.
A student & seeker on the path of breath and the collective.
Yesterday I received an email that really upset me. It was from a wellness clothing company & the language/message/images were, well, problematic.
I called them out....and they reached out.
They apologized and asked for feedback and clarity. This usually doesn’t happen and I appreciate it when it does (especially because it holds me accountable to dialogue over assuming/dismissing). For some transparency (not to pat myself on the back, but to remind privileged folks that we need to do this work), here’s what I wrote back (from the heart & not the most articulate):
Thank you for responding! There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll say this. Many folks (myself and maybe you too) have had or do have a negative body image & seeing images of a tan and skinny “summer body” can be triggering. Saying “look good naked!” sends a message that folks don’t already look good naked (which means they don’t feel good naked) & that’s harmful. It isn’t empowering and is rooted in systems of oppression. It’s a story that says only certain bodies are worthy and worth celebrating.
Healthy does not always mean skinny and getting a “summer body” sends a message that who you are now isn’t good enough and you need to: eat this, avoid this, buy this, judge that, & starve that to be happy.
That message isn’t what acceptance/yoga/healing is about.
We need to exist without being at war with ourselves. I don’t think your intention was to harm (& I understand that you’re a business and there are additional pressures there), but if we all want to honor and liberate each other we have to celebrate and love who we are—then we can raise consciousness/move from kindness, not perpetuate a cultural messaging of judgment.
Our bodies are worthy. Our existence—today & right now—is enough.
Question anything that doesn’t uphold that wholeness.
Find your body, resting in space. Find your breath in your body. Become aware of the fact that you are alive; your breath is the evidence of that.
So much has brought you to this moment. A collection of stories and experiences, culminating in your identity. We forget that we are constantly evolving. Millions of years of survival. Each breath is evidence of your ancestors. Your next breath is evidence that you want to survive. This energy of life is always there, moving you towards something. What is that something?
Meditate on your dharma--your divine duty--beyond the archaic duty of gender or the constructs of society; it is your purpose. A deep purpose. A Truth that moves not from ego, but from love. Love for yourself and, in turn, love for others. Filling and then giving from that overflowing cup.
Focus on making your yoga practice a practice that fills the cup of your dharma. Svadharma. A practice that supports & supplements how you want to live your life. With each breath a chance to move from a place of truth, love, and purpose—not ego or judgment or approval.
Before you open your eyes, maybe ask yourself: Why am I here? What’s most important to me in the deepest part of my heart? What would life look like yoked to my dharma? What would it look like to consciously move from a place of purpose?
A reminder that you don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to know. But seek. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says it’s better to carry out your dharma imperfectly than to perfectly carry out another’s.
Rub your hands together, generating heat and place your hands over your eyes. Gentle open your eyes & feel the heat enter. Bring your warm palms to your cheeks, like a loved one holding your head in their hands. Finally, palms to your heart. Centering and offering. Thank yourself for showing up.
What does it really look like to show up for social justice? To show up for social justice in yoga?
What would it mean to voluntarily give up some of my privilege in order to make space for a bit more equity?
How much am I willing to risk in order to show that change needs to happen?
My layers of privilege (aka power) are stacked pretty high, permeating more parts of my experience than I will ever know. I only deviate in one perceivable way (woman). And that isn’t even the case within a Western Yoga context.
Currently I am financially and emotionally held and supported. Taking bigger risks and falling hard on my ass (again and again) should be the expectation. If I’m not continuously & uncomfortably speaking up (especially in a season of my life where I WILL BE OKAY regardless), then I’m a part of the problem. I can’t keep blaming systems without equally holding myself accountable.
And I need to turn the dial down any time I sense I’m doing it for my own satisfaction or self-gratification. Showing up for social justice is not and will never be about me. And I get that writing these words from and around my perspective is kinda, well, still about me to some extent. Damn. Is expressing this publicly just another white feminist excuse to heighten my visibility (if so, tell me…well…if you’re white maybe we listen first)? Or is it my space to express a bitty bit of vulnerability from unpacking and reflecting?
I guess a step is a step, but the convenience of contemplation still speaks for itself.
& revealing wholeness
& thank you to the two women yesterday who reminded me of the great power in spaces of sisterhood (& human hood, but my work is still sisterhood). I love you.
Privilege is the awareness that my discomfort is a choice. It is a place from where I voluntarily maneuver. The world is organized in many ways around my comfort and survival. Too many folks in marginalized bodies wake up every day without this basic privilege of choice.
So I choose to show up to discomfort because to not show up would be an act of violence, bolstering a veil of self-care without acknowledging that there cannot be unity & liberation without a capacity to be intimate with the suffering of all beings. It is spiritual. To have a spiritual practice without a fire towards showing up to the suffering of others is like the inhale without the exhale.
I have to hold myself accountable to my discomfort. My yoga practice is not & cannot be separate from my politics, my relationships, my access, my teaching, my bones, my spirit. And this reality makes me feel even more alive.
“Maintaining our spiritual practice is essential to our collective liberation.”
"In the contemplative yoga practices, we are asked to breathe, notice, and sit with the questions, deeply consider them, and create from them still more questions with 'stretch, resonance, and flexibility.' We must hold this responsibility dear, and not proceed breathlessly profitable in the modern yoga gold rush; as though there was a color blind, post-racial, post-colonial vacuum in which only yoga exists, forcing yoga into the shape of a perfect alibi for whiteness to persist."
// Roopa Kaushik-Brown
My love for yoga cannot be separated from my love for social justice work. It just can't. It would be body without mind & mind without spirit; fragmented and without wholeness.
And I'm grateful for that.
My darkness is also my dharma.
I am flawed, but learning.
I am compassionate, but sometimes complicit.
And this is my work.
This is my heart.
Thank you to those who understand or work to understand.