The past weeks since George Floyd's murder have been a necessary space of uprising, listening, and stepping back. I say this as a white woman. While I'll use this space to share some tidbits of information related to recent happenings, protests, and police brutality, I'll also encourage you to explore the work, art, and stories of a few BIPOC (black + indigenous people of color) voices in the yoga and wellness world in your own time.
The White-Washing of Yoga
When Yoga came to the West, partly due to the hippie movement of the 1960s and the Beatles' stint at a now-defunct ashram in Rishikesh, India, it remained wholly Eastern and rooted in its ancient values for a good bit of time. But, as history has shown us (when you dig beyond what we read in our school textbooks), Western culture loves to paint itself (sloppily) over the truth of other cultures' rituals, ways, and belief systems. So, what was once the eight-limbed path of yoga — with Yamas, Niyamas, meditation, noble silences — became a movement practice. A workout you can do in the gym or at home. A way to move your body and lose weight.
Yoga, the all-encompassing, permeating practice that you find in the East, and in the West under noble practitioners and guides, became white-washed. It was grabbed up by the masses and spit back out into something more palatable when viewed under a societal microscope.
I start here because the white-washing of yoga has been done with other cultures for years. We take what we like and we leave the rest. You can see as much when viewing certain aspects of black culture in pop culture, but where are the black people in all their joy and artistic-revelry? Why are their white people with dreadlocks? Why are non-black people rapping racial slurs that were reclaimed by a culture, a race that is not their own?
White people do not have the same repercussions as BIPOC people. We have minimal repercussions for the majority of the time. Our privilege allows us to go ahead and steal what we want from one culture, or philosophy system, and leave the rest. We wanted the yoga asana, we didn't want to make meditation and mindfulness mainstream until later on when it was 'societally relevant.' Still, the Yamas and Niyamas have been shoved aside in teacher training curriculum (most of the time) and hardly mentioned in many asana classes.
We, as white people with minimal repercussions to come from our actions, have the duty now to wake up. To stretch beyond the love and light and dig into the shadow work. Ahimsa — being compassionate and non-violent — is still there. Where is ahimsa not present? In the complicit nature of white people. In our silence. You saw it on the protest signs, I'm sure — Silence is violence. Now is not the time to be Switzerland. Now is the time to get to work.
Ahimsa, Anger, and Yoga
So, ahimsa. It's a popular concept and cherished by many. We apply it to what we put on our plates and think of it before squishing a bug that flew into the room. There should not be any confines for ahimsa, though. Let it be all-encompassing, permeating, as your yoga practice should be. Yoga does not stop when you step off the mat or say namaste. Yoga began when you stepped onto this path and ends when your physical body comes to rest in full.
Ahimsa includes the entire spectrum of emotions. When you feel anger, how do you process it? And sadness, how do you process that? You can be kind to yourself along the way as you gaze at the shadow parts of yourself. There, you will find ingrained stories of whiteness that are false. You will be asked to witness your internalized racism and unpack it. Be kind to yourself, practice non-violence with yourself so that your practice of ahimsa can grow beyond what you once knew. As it grows within, you can spread non-violence — be it through the verbiage, physical movement, thoughts — as you engage in anti-racist work and ally-ship in turn. This form of ahimsa is the unifying body of yoga that the Eastern minds and spirits birthed centuries ago. Here, we return to the heart of yoga. The gritty work of witnessing all our flaws, all our beauty, and the in-between moments, too. Ask questions. Shift as need. Flow-through and rise.
Amplifying BIPOC Voices and Sustainable Allyship
Within your journey with ally-ship and in anti-racist work/being an anti-racist (more than just being not a racist, you must actively be against racism), how can you bring others up with you? White people tend to listen best to other white people. That's how the history books tell it, and how they were written, edited, and published, so I think that's clear to see. Speak to friends. Have difficult conversations and seek guidance — from books, movies, others doing the work — to grow together for the betterment of all.
As you bring BIPOC voices up with you, how can you be of service to them? They have been working on these civil rights issues for centuries. They are tired. It's our turn to do the work. While I encourage you to engage with the folks below, please do not ask them to do work for you without payment. This is our work now, too, and they are our guides in many ways, but it is our responsibility to keep going. To wake up every morning and remember why we are fighting for these changes in our society. What is your 'why?' Write it down, make it your phone background, and don't change it.
Lastly, how can you make these shifts sustainable? Ask yourself this question. Most white folks are new to this sort of work. How can you move through these new spaces, answer often uncomfortable questions, and maintain your presence as an activated ally for years, decades to come? Build a game plan. It will look unique to you, but it's worth building all the same. Now is the time for self-sufficiency. That, too, is yoga.
All in all — Engage with their offerings. Support them monetarily if you can. If you ask them to come on a project or new endeavor of yours, pay them properly, and promote their work to the maximum. Now is the time to make changes in how we move in yoga and wellness spaces. If you are non-black, and especially if you are white, engage - support - rise - listen - evolve. That's the yoga we need right now. Not the white-washed asana-only workout class. Embrace these shifts and embody yoga.
Nicole Cardoza - Yoga Foster