By Andrea MacDonald
This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for a while. These words reflect my ongoing process of coming to terms with my privilege. These words have laid dormant, wrapped up in fear and pondering; caution and consideration. I have been endlessly nervous and unsure of myself in articulating these sentiments because I worry what people will think – what the unintended consequences of my words might be. The reality is though, that I am privileged. Really privileged. And I want to be more accountable for what that means.
To start, I think it’s important for me to position myself. I am a white, thin, cis-gendered, flexible, femme identified “yoga” teacher. I am a settler, living in Vancouver Canada. My family came here 3 generations ago from Scotland (father’s side) and the Ukraine (mother’s side). I attend university here and I come from a middle class family, with whom I have a loving and financially supportive relationship. I am in many ways grateful for all these things. At the same time the more I become conscious of my privilege, the more I find myself feeling uncomfortable with it. I find myself wrestling with guilt, with the unintended, unspoken consequences of having so much when others have so little.
Feeling guilt, and lots of it, is a fairly common reaction. It’s easy to get stuck there. That is a privilege in itself – to have the time and space to get lost and bathe in guilt, as if doing that were enough. As if the guilt were somehow penance for all the violence and injustice that grants me greater safety and access than others. That said, we need to learn to move past guilt. Feeling guilt is not the same as taking action. I know guilt will never be enough, but I often wonder how to move forward. For now I’ve realized that all I can do is live and organize with integrity and maybe more importantly, be willing to be wrong. I’m trying to stop being scared of stepping into the vulnerability required to do this work, to write these words, both which put me at risk of getting called out by people I respect. So, here goes.
Much of what I’ve written and what populates the yoga “blogosphere” is conversations about asana. We call this a discussion about “yoga”, but really, most of the time, we’re talking about asana (the poses we move through in “yoga” classes). So often, and I think of this as a direct result of imperialism and cultural appropriation, we get lost in the shallow, shiny, feel good, physical aspects of the practice. My friend and a fellow teacher at Community Yoga Vancouver, Blair Hayashi, recently wrote a facebook status that illuminates this really well:
something i overheard at the end of class ;
“how is your handstand doing?”
how come no one ever asks;
“How is your brahmacharya doing?”
Yeah – how is my bramacharya doing? How am I managing my energy and what am I dedicating it to? Lately, I have spent less time on my physical asana practice and more time with my breathe. My practice is making eye contact and listening – being present. My practice is being honest with myself and others, even when it hurts. My practice is learning to be gentle and treat myself and others with the love and compassion that we all deserve – the love we already know we are, but so often lose sight of. My practice is my politics – learning to be open and compassionate towards the lived experiences of people whose lives are different from mine, even when that learning demands I know longer cling to the comfort of believing that I’m innocent.
Learning yoga can and should be about so much more than handstands, fancy balancing poses and the coveted “yoga butt”. We get stuck on these things though, because for many of us they are more straight-forward to achieve than doing the so deeply needed self reflection that the rest of practicing yoga calls for and teaches. Getting caught up in a showy asana practice creates an impression that acrobatic asana is all our practice is and can be. We’re modeling these misguided goals for our students and each other and we are getting lost. Practicing like this not only shuts people out whose bodies don’t conform to our rigid standards – it also limits us in discovering and deepening our relationship with our spirit and our relationships with each other.
There is another element at play here. Getting stuck in and only developing a physical practice is itself a result of privilege. When you don’t have basic survival needs to worry about its easy and routine to get distracted by appearances – by how other people see us and how we see ourselves. This happens because we aren’t often faced with situations that force us to dig deep and learn who we are underneath those appearances. On top of that, most of western yoga studios, the spaces where many of us are learning – and I would argue often being pressured into – showy asana practices, cater to people with privilege. People who are “able” bodied. People who can afford expensive drop-ins. People who feel like they belong in a yoga studio.
Much of what is taught in the mainstream western yoga world focuses on teaching us to build better relationships with ourselves. We are told to “turn inward” and “be the light we are”. Put simply, we are learning to cultivate self love. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for self love – that’s something I am working very hard to build in my own life and it is an ongoing and challenging process. That being said, my position is this – self love isn’t enough. Not even close. It is just the beginning, a fundamental beginning, but just the beginning. Loving yourself, taking care of yourself – these things are important, they are undeniably necessary – but if all we do is turn inward, if our goal is only to take care of ourselves, then we are limiting our practice and we are missing out on accountability to each other, our communities and our shared struggles and resilience. We are missing opportunities to build communities of care.
Self care is, put simply, about taking care of yourself. This is an off shoot of an individualist society that puts the individual before the collective – a colonial, consumer capitalism society that teaches us ruthless self reliance, no matter the cost to others. Self care practices, particularly spiritual practices, that teach us only to go inward, I feel, are missing a key lesson. If we believe that “we’re all one”, why are we missing the part where we learn and practice care and accountability to each other? Not just to people like us, but everyone we’re supposedly referencing when we say, “we’re all one”.
Often I hear people in the yoga “community” make comments like “you chose your destiny” or “your thoughts shape your reality”. Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water here, these concepts can be useful. But here’s the problem – we aren’t often engaging these concepts critically. We say things like “we’re all one” and “Namaste” – I say them myself. I believe these things, but that doesn’t mean the way we use them isn’t sometimes deeply problematic. These phrases and concepts, especially when gestured to by privileged people, tend to erase or minimize the real, tangible differences in our lived realities. When you say “your thoughts shape your reality” or “this person is just angry at me because they are carrying this or that attachment” we are minimizing all the systemic factors that shape people’s experiences. We are minimizing forces like racism, sexism, homophobia and importantly for the yoga world – ableism. Without intending to, we are being condescending and dismissive. We are causing harm because, without even meaning to, we are reinforcing our privilege.
Now, here’s the thing I have recently been discovering about privilege. While it does give us undeserved advantages, this is not without harmful consequences. Privilege breeds isolation. It teaches those of us who have privilege (which is everyone, to some extent) that our common lack of empathy and self reflexivity is normal and even necessary. For our privilege to go unchallenged it is necessary that we learn not to consider other people – that we learn to see ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity and the world. The lived experience of privilege and the process of replicating and reproducing it teaches us to continue looking out for ourselves – to continue breeding individualism and isolation. Privilege can make us lonely because it prevents us from relying on and trusting community.
One of my profs, Glen Coulthard, recently said something in class that I found really helpful in understanding this idea:
“Power doesn’t just impose it’s will on you, it’s also productive. It normalizes injustice”.
There is a lot to parse through in this statement. For my purposes I find it useful, when thinking about power, to remember we aren’t just thinking about oppression and who is marginalized. We’re also thinking about the privilege and advantages that power produces. From there we can start to think about how the differences in our social locations are not only produced but normalized. Privilege is co-optive, because it’s comfort and it’s ability to veil injustice distract us from our responsibilities to each other. The more privileged we are, often the less we are willing to step outside our own experience and connect to our humanity. We get scared. We are fearful of losing our unearned privilege. We don’t want to be challenged, because if we truly learn to feel for one another we could not possibly let injustice continue like we do.
I recently read something by Lee Maracle that really helped me understand my own relationship to systems of power and domination:
“We need a country free of racism, but we do not need to struggle with white people on our backs to eradicate it. White people have this need as well. They need to stop our continued robbery, to rectify colonialism in order to decolonize their lives and feel at home in this land. Racism has dehumanized us all. It once filled me with shame and nearly drove me to death. It separated me from my brother, my sisters and my beautiful mother. It keeps white people separated from each other. It keeps white people either feeling sorry for us or using us as a scapegoat for whatever frustrations this society creates for us.” – pg 240 and 241 of Bobbi Lee, emphasis added.
I think part of what Lee Maracle is gesturing to here, when she says that racism is dehumanizing and harmful even for white people, is that the privilege racism produces carries a destructive burden. Privilege suggests that stepping on others and having more then others is normal – even necessary. Privilege works to normalize our profound lack of empathy. It can work to dissolve our humanity and leave us inward turning, isolated and fearful. It breeds attachment and often it prevents us from building community – because we don’t need it and we haven’t been taught the skills to tend it. Often when you have lots of privilege you are only taught how to look after yourself and maybe a small circle of loved ones. You are taught the skills to maintain your position of privilege This is why simply seeking self care, as a person in a position of privilege, can be so problematic.
Now, I’m not saying that taking care of yourself isn’t in and of itself an act of resistance and decolonization – especially for marginalized people and communities. I believe self care is healing and revolutionary, that is why I teach it. But I also firmly believe – I know in my bones – that my self care and resistance becomes richer, more healing, more resilient, more effective when it is given space to grow within the rich, supportive soil of community. My self care is richer when it tends to and is supported by means other than those granted to me by my privilege.
When we say namaste often what we mean is “the divine light in me acknowledges and bows to that same light in you”. It’s a way to acknowledge and bask in our connection. It is a powerful word that invokes the commonly held spirit that connects us. What I’m calling for is that we do the work to understand, acknowledge and break down all the systems of power and oppression that make us forget this fundamental connective spirit.
For me, part of being grounded is fully acknowledging and being accountable to the lived realities and experiences of not only me, but everyone I share this planet with. We can do more to acknowledge and resist the forces that operate to create violent disconnection and separation between us. I’m asking that we remember our humanity so that we can reignite our empathy and rediscover our connections to each other and to all living beings. I believe we can do this by not only taking care of ourselves, but fighting for the space, time and resources to take care of each other. So yes, let’s spend some time going inward. But let’s take those practices into the world with clear eyes and open hearts, so that we might tend to each other as well.
This article originally appeared at Moonlitmoth. Reposted with permission.
Andrea is one of the founders of Community Yoga Vancouver, an accessible and anti-oppressive collective of teacher, eccentrics, and healers. Before becoming a yoga teacher, Andrea spent several years as an organizer and volunteer coordinator. She worked on many issues, from oil-tankers to affordable housing. She brings a passion for social justice and community building to her teaching and strives to make her classes safe, accessible and empowering. Her teaching utilizes a consent based-approach and encourages students to discover authentic embodiment by honouring their desires, needs and boundaries. Her writing has been published on Elephant Journal and in UBC’s Ignite Journal. You can read her pieces and see her updated teaching schedule and anti-oppression policy at moonlitmoth.wordpress.com. She lives in Vancouver BC and is currently finishing up a BA in Women and Gender Studies and First Nations Studies.