Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Yogic Racial Journey

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,

Friday, April 19, 2019

Afterglow: Exploring the Path of Practice, IYNAUS 2019

It’s hard to speak truth to happy people. It’s painful to be the “complainer,” when everyone else is patting themselves on the back. The first serious research paper I remember writing in high school was about the mental health reform movement in the 19th century. Being a reformer is in my bones. Moving and shaking are inherent to my nature. Luckily I belong to the Iyengar Yoga tradition, in which “divine discontent” (a la Guruji) constantly drives us forward.

The 2019 IYNAUS convention was, by several standards, groundbreaking. The teachings, by Abhijata, were astounding, comprehensive, transformative, and healing. It’s the first time I recall the general membership meeting convening in a circle on the floor, instead of seating in rows with board members on a stage. We opened our hearts to each other, shed tears, and spoke openly. It’s the first time social justice has been explicitly explored in a workshop at a convention, and the thorny issue of race named head-on. It’s the first time we closed the gathering in a forum with our teacher, talking about our communities, expressing our needs, and sharing our resources.

But in other ways, this gathering was as painful as every other large convening of Iyengar Yoga teachers in the USA. If you’re willing to hear me out, please keep reading.

Do white people know what it feels like to be an extreme racial minority? East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian folks were moderately represented at the gathering, but in so many ways, we Asian Americans have been taught to ignore one another and instead identify with the white majority. Why? Because for many of us, our immigrant parents trained us to succeed in the white mainstream world. They came here in pursuit of the American Dream, or perhaps driven by political oppression, believing their children would be better off assimilating into the dominant culture.

The handful of Black folks at the convention were an even more extreme minority. If I felt marginalized as a Korean American, I can only imagine what it felt like for them. The event was also overwhelmingly cisgender folks, and the yoga practice itself, based in cis language and culture. All these factors make these events challenging for many of us.

When members of marginalized groups don’t see themselves reflected back to them in their surroundings, they may inwardly shrink, detach, or dissociate. I tend to feel suffocated, and feel a need to get away. I’ve never stayed at an IYNAUS convention hotel for this reason, as well as the exorbitant costs. There’s a way in which I put on a cloak of protection when I am in majority white settings, and I need a safe space to take off that cloak.

It’s extremely painful to come from the majority Black city of Detroit into the vast ocean of whiteness which is an Iyengar Yoga convention. Let’s be clear: white spaces are constructed through generations of systemic oppression. I can only guess that it was the power of the yogic practice that gave Guruji the inner strength to withstand the rampant racism of traveling through white nations in his early years: denied housing, appropriate food, and transportation; treated as a mascot; and objectified, exoticized, and fetishized.

And despite my mrdu practice, I too, lean into my yoga practice to withstand the torrent of white culture in these settings. It’s gotten more difficult as I age instead of easier, because I am more sensitive to disparities, imbalances, and injustices than when I was younger, just surviving, and doing my best to raise my three children.

Does anyone else experience the immersion into middle and upper class culture as violence? Can anyone else relate to capitalism as systemic oppression? The Iyengar Yoga world is not exempt from the need to produce and consume, which drives our nation’s economy. Mega hotels and convention centers thrive on this need and culture. Packed into artificially-lit, window-less ballrooms for days on end, forced to purchase over-priced foods sourced unethically from industrial farms and international distributors, drinking water from Nestle jugs, in buildings staffed by immigrants and people of color…. Are you with me? Think about the garbage produced by this event. Where does it go? Think about the waste inherent in the hotel industry, including the dependence on fossil fuels and fresh water, our precious natural resources. What would it take to convene in a more carbon-neutral setting?

Am I going too far? Are you feeling a need to shut down? I ask you to stay in this discomfort with me a moment longer. After all, we are Iyengar Yoga practitioners.

The Iyengar Yoga hierarchy which we depend on to learn, grow, and evolve is also the hierarchy that kept survivors silent for decades regarding sexual abuse. How do we value, appreciate, and continue to learn from our teachers without tolerating the harm they may cause, intentionally or accidentally? Apparently, we Iyengar Yoga students in the USA are not exempt from patriarchy, considering how a prominent alpha male, Manouso Manos, was allowed to harm students for so long.

Finally, let us with humility and a wide lens, be willing to examine the question of cultural appropriation and Iyengar Yoga in the USA. In what ways are we prioritizing white American teachers over our Indian counterparts? In what ways are we butchering, misinterpreting, or misrepresenting our tradition and lineage? In what ways are we personally profiting from this Indian practice, without acknowledging or giving back to our roots? In what ways may we be complicit in caste-ism by upholding a Brahmin practice? Guruji and the Iyengars themselves were explicitly not caste-bound, and Guruji famously welcomed everyone of all castes, races, and religions into the study of yoga. Yet caste oppression still beleaguers Indians, according to my politically-aware Indian friends. In fact, the name Iyengar in India, especially in South India, I am told, is practically synonymous with Brahminism. How do we feel about that, and how do we deal with that? Is it any wonder that here in the USA, Iyengar Yoga is also associated with the well-to-do, and largely inaccessible to lower classes?

I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but I have a ton of ideas, and I bet you do too, if you’ve come this far in this essay. I believe the momentum is behind us to evolve Iyengar Yoga in the 21st century into a more just, balanced, healing path for our communities and our world. If you are very comfortable with all of this, I’d venture to guess you are approaching all of this from your head and not your heart. We need to go deeper into the discomfort, like holding a 5-minute Paśchimottanāsana, and resist the temptation to come out sooner, or to use too many props, or distract ourselves from the discomfort. I don’t claim that any of this is easy for me either. In fact, writing this makes me extremely vulnerable, and I know for a fact that many disagree with these ideas, and some will resent me. But how else does reform come about? Can we do this together? Contact me at

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Building and Expanding and Embracing: Thoughts on Relationships

for Kai and Malachi on the occasion of their marriage, 17 February 2019

Beloved Kai and Malachi,

I hope you will receive my words, then do with them as you wish. As a mother, a wife of many years, and one who has experienced close friendships and partnerships, I feel I have much to share. My advice is not pithy nor simple and will not fit on a card or in a guestbook. Neither is it glossy, easy, nor romantic.

Like many others, I cried at your beautiful commitment ceremony of marriage. What are those tears about? It’s welcoming y’all into the “club,” the sacrament, the covenant. It’s the oxytocin rush of witnessing your tenderness with each other and with all of us. It’s the joy and relief of seeing you in partnership, committing to holding each other up and supporting each other no matter what. It’s celebrating the beautiful family y’all have already started, the luminous Coco Malie, and the beauty of joining with the Leong ohana. It’s a reconnection, for me, of my island roots in Hawai’i.

If I keep pondering, the tears at your wedding are also acknowledging the bittersweetness and struggle of long-term relationship, and knowing I cannot protect either of you from them. In fact the complexity of the commitment is what lends it beauty, meaning, and the tremendous growth each of you will experience over the decades, if you are willing.

What each of us brings to any committed relationship are both our best and worst selves. The degree to which we are willing to self-examine and self-assess is the degree to which the relationship will thrive, or not. Your partner becomes a mirror. As we are falling in love, they reflect back to us all that is wondrous and good about ourselves. They make us feel so good and bring out the best version of ourselves. Over time, they begin to reflect back to us all that is messy, unresolved, and wounded within ourselves. We don’t like how they make us feel and who we are when we are with them.

May this feeling be a call for self-reflection, self-care, and healing. We are all the walking wounded. As people of color, we carry the wounds of colonization and white supremacy/white degeneracy. White folks are not exempt from these wounds, as perpetrators, witting or unwitting. The injustice of having benefitted from racism also weighs heavily on white people. All Americans carry the burden and wounds of genocide committed on the indigenous people, as well as the wounds of 400 years of chattel slavery. These wounds may not be conscious, but if we genuinely open our hearts and minds, and take the time to educate ourselves, we can begin to recognize these wounds, and perhaps begin to heal them.

The collective suffering of our people and our nation cannot help but infiltrate and influence our intimate relationships. Speaking for myself, my internalized racism and generations of colonization as a Korean resulted in my allowing myself to feel like a second class citizen, even in my marriage. I had to step away from my marriage in order to heal.

I know this was very difficult and painful for you, Malachi, but I hope over time, it is understandable, forgivable, and that you can agree with me that it was all for the best. Out of this challenging marriage came three brilliant adult children, who embody the contradictions of love, and possiblities of reparations.

So, all that said, here are my recommendations for y’all to create a beautiful, lifelong relationship:

1.     Self-reflect: Avoid projecting and blaming. Take responsibility, without self-flagellation. Each day is an opportunity to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. The degree to which you can forgive yourself is the degree to which you can forgive others. Why not assume that each person is doing their absolute best at any given moment? Of course, we will each fall short. Be gentle with one another for their shortcomings. Our shortcomings are what make us each fully human, complex, mysterious, and thus more beautiful.

2.     Protect each others’ hearts: Be vulnerable with each other and trust that they will respond with compassion and care. Instead of lashing out with anger or blame, share your wounds, and allow the entire spectrum of human emotion to flourish. Practice being emotionally honest. Be quick to ask for help from family, friends, and professionals as needed. If you are on a path of growth, it’s healthy to seek outside counsel from time to time, whether it’s a spiritual teacher, a relative, a mentor, or a psychotherapist. Make each other’s healing a priority, and remember, PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS.

3.     Give each other space:“S/he’s in the shower!”: that is, they are still in the process of growing and becoming. Why yell at someone for being dirty when they are in the shower, washing themselves up? Let them take the time to fully clean up. After they come out of the shower, you might say, “Oh look, you missed a spot. Since it’s so hard to reach, shall I help you scrub it?” They might say yes, they might say no. Don’t take it personally either way. Everyone needs to progress in their own ways at their own pace. Also each person needs their own friendships, relationships, and activities outside marriage. No one person can or should try to entirely meet another’s emotional, spiritual, and artistic needs. Never expect another person to make you happy or fulfilled. That is up to you.

4.     Side by side, not face to face: I believe the most successful partnerships are ones where equally powerful beings stand shoulder to shoulder, working together, looking outward together. It’s not about being totally face to face, focused only on each other and expecting the other to devote themselves to you and fulfill your needs. It’s a matter of shared values, and perhaps shared projects. For many years, the shared projects will be raising your children. After that, if you have each done your inner work and partner work, you will have other shared projects. Hopefully you will not distract yourselves with materialistic indulgence, but rather with meaningful and purposeful activities that are healing and long-lasting, not only for yourselves, but for your people and communities.

5.     Call out, call in: Along with all the above practices, be willing to be called out, when your blind spots show up. Do your best to respond with, “I hear you. Let me think about it,” instead of getting defensive. No need to hash it out right then and there. Take your time. At the same time, do not accept put-downs, name-calling, gaslighting, and other forms of abuse. Vow to not stoop to that level. When you feel yourself and the situation you are in escalating, step back, step out, or whatever you need to do to de-escalate.

6.     Equity, not equality: Recognize the power structures that permeate your marriage. It is not exempt from racism, colorism, sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, classism, colonization, etc. Learn to recognize these systemic oppressions. Women’s rights are not the same as men’s rights. Do not try to treat everyone the same. Not everyone has experienced the same traumas and abuses, whether individually or intergenerationally. Let the marriage be “liberated territory.” Create the world you want to live in through your marriage and family.

7.     Something larger than yourselves: At our most difficult moments, may we all remember that we are but specks in the universe, and “THIS TOO SHALL PASS.” Everything is impermanent except God. When our problems seem big, may we gently remind each other to step back and take the longer view. It helps to be connected to the larger community as well as to the natural world, and not limit ourselves to our immediate surroundings.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things later, and that y’all will have things to add as well.

I love you both unconditionally and support you both unconditionally. I am here for y’all and your family. I am so grateful for everything y’all have already taught me. I look forward to growing together over the years.

much love,