Let’s face it. The USA was largely founded on 2 major events that continue to reverberate throughout society: 1. The genocide of indigenous people and the theft of their land, and 2. 400 years of chattel slavery which formed the economic basis of our nation.
We continue to see the effect of these acts of white supremacy daily in the USA. Just off the top of my head: unchecked police brutality toward Black people, the separation of families at the Mexican border, mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, environmental devastation in communities of color, and so much more.
So I hope we can all begin with the agreement that white supremacy and systemic racism inform and persist to the present day in our nation.
Systemic racism means that these biases are in the air, in the water, and in the soil of this land, so to speak. For instance, when I immigrated to the USA from South Korea at age 5, I must’ve noticed, I’m sure unconsciously, that most of the stars on TV and in movies were white, that Black and Brown people were disproportionately depicted in the news as criminals, that neighborhoods were segregated by race, and the lighter the skin of the residents, the nicer the houses and stores were. In my child’s mind, these observations were building an internalized bias in favor of whiteness.
Interpersonal and internalized racism results from systemic racism. If I have been shaped by my society, I can’t help but be a cog in the wheel of racism. For instance, if I have been conditioned by mainstream media to view Black folks as dangerous, I may unconsciously clutch my child’s hand a tad tighter when a dark-skinned person is walking toward us on the sidewalk. If I have been taught to associate whiteness with power, wealth, and beauty, I may strive to be associated with whiteness.
My race journey has been evolving over decades. I was not able to look at the issues of race and recognize the ways I had internalized racism until my 30s and 40s (coinciding, I am realizing at this moment, with my yoga journey). Now at age 55, I still find I need to uproot the generations of racist, colonized mindset within myself. Yoga has been a tremendous tool for becoming more self-aware, being able to sit in discomfort, and have the courage to do what is right and necessary to heal myself from these deep inner wounds.
None of this background was included in our recent Ahimsa in Action workshop at the 2019 Iyengar Yoga convention. We knew there would be a wide range of experiences and points of view in the room, and that we only had 2 hours. We wrongly assumed that we would have 30-40 attenders selecting to be there, who would be coming with a particular view and understanding of race and justice in America. We did not adequately bring the nearly 200 attenders to the same page as a basis of our discussion. Not everyone was able to roll with us, and some individuals felt alienated, confused, hurt, and dismayed, especially when we asked everyone to divide into white and people of color caucuses.
We could have spent more time together defining race and discussing what race means in our national context and history. We could’ve briefly discussed Bacon’s Rebellion, which many scholars reference as the event that first defined “whiteness” in our nation (not yet the USA). We could’ve spent more time discussing the reasons why segregating by race can be constructive. We also could have provided a third option for those who did not want to self-select into a racial category. We could’ve spent more time in our small groups processing how it felt to define ourselves by race, in a heartfelt way.
Our decision to focus on race came after much discussion and consideration among the workshop organizers. We agreed that race continues to be the defining issue of the USA, and that Iyengar Yoga culture in the USA was not exempt from the harm of racism.
We plan to continue this work through and with the national Iyengar Yoga community. We are in discussion about having a monthly column, or link to a blog in the IYNAUS e-newsletter. We are discussing ways to encourage and foster small group discussions in each region. We are brainstorming and gathering resources for further work. We feel we are on the cusp of necessary change and evolution.
Many of our cities are already majority people of color, and the racial demographic of our whole nation is headed in this direction. Yet, for the most part, this is not reflected in Iyengar Yoga settings. We strongly feel that for Iyengar Yoga to be relevant and useful for younger generations and generations to come, we need to change the racial dynamics in our yoga communities.
To be honest, many people like me, born in the 1960s or earlier, were never taught the history of race in America, besides a superficial acknowledgement of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many baby boomers and Gen Xers were schooled in “colorblindness,” actually, and we were trained to exercise equality, instead of equity: that the correct thing was to treat everyone the same, without recognition of the vastly unlevel playing field. Because I did not deliberately seek them out, I had no exposure to writers and thinkers like James Baldwin or Malcolm X as I was coming up. Busy raising kids and householding, my education of racism and recognition of my own internalized racism didn’t come until graduate school in the late 1990s. At that time, I felt as if the scales on my eyes were falling away, as I was reading groundbreaking text after text by people of color.
However, Gen Y, millenials, and our current “Generation Z” have grown up with much more racial consciousness, and awareness of inequity. They are comfortable questioning race, status, class, sexuality, and even gender. I hear frustration from some of them about how the culture of Iyengar Yoga is stodgy, conservative, authoritarian, and unwelcoming.
I feel it is incumbent on us to take a good hard look at ourselves, our communities, and our studios, and that the first place to look is race. What are the racial dynamics in each of our cities? How does that play out in our studios? What makes a space feel like it’s for white folks? What is white culture? How is it expressed? How is it experienced by people of color? All of this requires that whiteness be named, and that white people recognize and acknowledge their whiteness.
Our workshop was an attempt to begin this conversation, perhaps prematurely. Many Iyengar Yoga practitioners are not versed in the culture and vocabulary of social change, cultural politics, and activism. We have thousands of hours of practice developing awareness of our bodies, but have we underdeveloped our awareness of our social bodies and political/historical bodies? Sensitivity about who each of us is in the context of society and history?
If I have an expansive awareness of my social and political bodies, I can identify with the separation of families at the Mexican border, and the foreclosing of my Black neighbor’s house based on racist bank policies, and the sex trafficking of Asian immigrant women in Florida, even though none of these events are happening directly to me. I can also empathize with Black students dropping into an Iyengar Yoga class who may find the culture unfriendly, or disrespectful of boundaries, or tokenizing, or any number of things. In other words, I deeply experience the racism of our nation when I pay attention to my social and historic bodies.
Just as it’s incumbent on me when I notice an imbalance in my body (often signaled by pain) to understand it and correct it, it’s also my responsibility to understand and correct imbalances in our society and in our communities, to the best of my abilities. It’s my responsibility to bring it to the attention of others, and to collaborate with others who find the imbalances intolerable.
OK, this work may not be for everybody. But we’re taking it on, because we believe the health and vitality of Iyengar Yoga in the USA depends on it.
Are you with me?
Much love in the struggle,