Privilege and Good Intentions

By on Nov 12, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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It is really easy to see the worst in someone.

It is much easier to see the worst in someone we don’t know, rather than in ourselves.

Maybe this is why we offer each other so much advice.

I read (or hear) the perspective of the folks who feel alienated by the American Yoga machine and I sympathize with their plight.  Yoga as it is presented in American culture can be super intimidating.  Whether it is the advanced asana that we see on instagram or the svelt, fair, perfectly manicured practitioner herself. The sheer abundance of pretty, white yoginis who can make some impression shapes can get overwhelming.

I have never really been one of these ‘hey look at me!’ types, not as far as an abundance of photos and beauty product/lifestyle promotions go (snarky blogs and stand-up comedy antics are another story). I have some fear over becoming GOOPy Gwenyth and losing perspective on the reality of the privilege that makes my life possible. I am white. I am healthy and naturally inclined toward a moderately strong and flexible body.  I have the familial financial security to risk seven years prioritizing the study of a practice that might not have turned into any sort of career.

Basically, no amount of work or authentic modesty on my part can negate the fact that my relationship to my practice was facilitated out of privilege.

What hurts my heart is that I feel like I’m being told that my privilege negates the authenticity of my practice. Because I am white, it means I am appropriating.  Because my body is healthy and capable, it means I am showing off.  Because many of my students are affluent and white (though not overwhelmingly female), I am not offering something to the greater community of diverse human beings. No matter how much I mean it, no matter how hard I work or whose blessing I have, someone will shout that I am a part of the problem.

I was talking to a friend last week about how confusing and awkward it was to have my boyfriend as a student in the Mysore room.  He asked if the difficulty lay in the desire to give my partner extra attention and affection and I nearly laughed (jk, I totally laughed) because that was about as far from the problem as one can get. When I am the ‘teacher’ the students are just that, students of Yoga.  They stop being my friend, or boyfriend, brother, or coworker.  They exist only as their own unique selves with their individual relationship to the practice. My relationship to them morphs into a neutral, compassionate, (overly) enthusiastic helper. In the Mysore room they stop being my rich neighbor or my vietnamese friend or my most beloved boo.

I teach yoga to the heart and soul that walks into the room.  We can deal with any conflict that come up in terms of learning from the series.  I am confident when I say that the biggest conflicts do not come from the color of the skin, or the language they speak, or their body mass index. The true conflicts, the real work that I desperately want to offer assistance with (who knows how good of a job I do), is the work of the heart and mind: the facing of intimidation, the idea that we are somehow unworthy, the ingrained belief that we have limits.

This is the painful, uplifting and transformative work of the practice.  Each practitioner has their own specific struggles to face, each unique and valid in their suffering.

I can not imagine what my life would be like if I had not grown up white, healthy, and financially secure. I do not have those fears and sorrows to process on my mat.  I have my own struggles which sometimes overwhelm me in ways that are specific, but certainly not unique to me.  I am comfortable admitting that the work I have to do is easier than the work of some other people.

But I will be damned if I let someone tell that I am selfish or privileged in my desire to do that work. 

I have some amazing Yogi friends, women of color who are the biggest instagram success stories, plus sized beauties who inspire their communities with their grace and fortitude, amazing men who fought back from abuse and addiction to become the most grounded inspiring dudes I know. They each have different struggles and separate gifts and unique insights. They practice different methods and have separate teachers. Each communicates about their practice and the good it has done them in separate ways.

The fact of the matter is, Yoga is all inclusive but yoga is not. Each method, each teacher, each perspective is going to serve a small part of the human population. No one studio or class can be the exact right balance for everyone and it is unfair to require or expect that.

My teacher said once, in response to a question about appropriation, “Yoga is a human practice.” It does not belong to one culture, one color, or one body type.  You can not own it or copyright it. We also cannot make a single method all inclusive.

Each method of practice (and each teacher within) will benefit the student in different ways.  Some practices require brutal, head on confrontation of deep rooted fear and pain.  Some methods encourage gentle acceptance that leads to softening and release of pain.  Some methods serve as a distraction from pain (I’m dubious as to the effects of this, but SO many people are into it, I’m not gonna say it doesn’t work).  Each philosophy is for anyone, but not everyone.

When we step on the mat we are not confronting the color of our skin, our social or economic privilege or the shape of our body.  We are confronting our mind and our heart and what it projects (or accepts) into our lives around these and other things.  We are confronting the sense of separation that we create out of a desire to survive.

If your practice is powerful for you because it helps to confront the separation you feel as a result of your skin color, or physical size, or level of affluence, then teach classes for people who have similar struggles, similar pain.  You will help them and they will help you and world will be better for it.  If you are inspired by seeing people do and say beautiful things in one-off instagram posts, then communicate with your students and followers in the way that resonates with you.

Most importantly, if a yoga class does not resonate with you, don’t force it.  Classes geared toward certain ethnicities, faiths, or samskaras are not exclusive if they are not geared toward you, they are simply specialized in a way that you don’t need.  If you can’t relate to isolation felt by being a minority, then you don’t need to do the work that is being prioritized in that environment.

If instagram posts intimidate you rather than inspire you, then don’t look at them. The biggest mistake I see being made is thinking that every yoga communication should be generalized and all inclusive, but the reality of our existence is that we are all frustratingly individualized beings each working toward the general goal of freedom from suffering.

The work that we need (or want) to do will be different for each of us.  The real tragedy is that we are beginning to say that if something doesn’t inspire me, it shouldn’t inspire anyone. If I don’t need something, then no one should need it. Rather than looking for reasons to dislike something someone else is doing, I challenge the lot of us to do what each of us can to overcome our own suffering without resenting anyone else’s desire to do the same (even if we don’t understand or relate to their method).