Open Letter to my (White) Yoga Teacher

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Dear Teacher,*

I come to you with a thought that I've had trouble expressing. For years I think I've been trying to articulate this, and because it's been hard for me to get out--kind of a complicated idea, where tantra meets maya meets identity politics--I think it's been hard for you to hear. But I think I've finally got it, and I hope you'll give it some attention. 

We've recently talked about the parts of ourselves that drive the boat, in this case the fear in us that motivates our actions, our appetites, our attachments and aversions, and that we live in a world where most of us aren’t consistently fearing for our lives. The second time you said this, I spoke up that I do, in fact, consistently fear for my life, though more consistently in Chicago than in other places, because “I know more what Chicago is.” Do you remember this? The conversation kind of turned there, and you were able to hold the idea that certain neighborhoods in Chicago might encourage me to fear for my life. I feel like I need to clarify my point. I don’t fear for my life because I may live or work in rough neighborhoods in Chicago: this isn’t an issue of the rough side of the tracks versus “a safer part of town.” In fact, I fear for my life because I’m a black woman in America, and I have learned that my city (indeed my country, and yours too), doesn’t value my life as much as others, as much as yours. I have learned that both law enforcement and civilians are free to beat, hurt, rape and even murder me, because I am black, and they can do so without any concern that their own freedom will be altered. Black people, unarmed citizens who are just living, who are no threat to anyone, are routinely killed by police and citizens alike: it happens in New York, in Missouri, in Chicago, in LA, in Texas, in Minnesota, and it happens in San Francisco. When I walk down the street, regardless of what neighborhood, I walk with Eric Garner, with Michael Brown, with Sandra Bland and LaQuan MacDonald and Reykia Boyd. My life is so disposable that I can be killed and my killer could never face justice. Being black in America is hazardous to your health.

This is not just a perception. Black Americans are less likely to receive quality health care; they are more likely to have health care providers not take them seriously, to have docs believe they are overexaggerating their pain, which means they’re less likely to receive pain medication. They are more likely to struggle with illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension; and mortality rates of infants and mothers in childbirth, and breast cancer are all higher in black communities than any other in the country. Add to this various stigma, the profoundly dangerous struggles with white supremacy, the regular stress of being a person, and the uncertainty of folks around you who may perceive you as a threat and end your life, and you can begin to see what a literal, physical struggle it is to be black in America, how easy it is to fear for your own life.

In the yoga community, I struggle with the idea of neutrality, I struggle with the idea of surrender of my attachment to my own identity—which feels like surrender of my body—because on some level the machine of white supremacy is asking of me the same thing. White supremacy is asking me to agree with it and its agents, complicit or explicit, that my life is expendable. In fact, if I dare to tell white supremacy and its agents that my life is worth as much as others, that my black life matters, then I risk the wrath and violence of white supremacy: if I don’t give up my life, the machine of white supremacy will come and take it from me.

All of my yoga teachers** are white. (I don’t know if this is a statement about the yoga culture in America, about what gatekeepers exist between black folks and yoga—as a physical, mental and spiritual practice—that either accidentally or on purpose, hold us back and away from the yoga community, or if it’s just a statement that I haven’t worked hard enough to people my yoga community with more folks who look like me. I tend to believe it’s the former, not the latter.) This isn’t a surprise, and while it isn’t easy for me, I’ve often been the only black person, if not one of few black people, in most of the spaces I’m in, and it’s been that way a long, long time. I’m accustomed to it, although I struggle with it. I struggle because I’m not sure what’s happening in the minds of my white teachers. I don’t know how many of them, of you, are conscious of the subtle but powerful lens that your own whiteness plays when you ask yogis of color like me to step into a space of identifying less with my flesh, which feels so vital to my existence. Can you hold, and see, that sometimes even the ask is an act of violence? It is an easy ask for those of us in the majority culture to ask those of us in the minority to shed our identity: it sounds like assimilation, which is a tool of colonialism, of appropriation. It may be well-intentioned and pointed toward evolution, but when the culture at every turn seeks to annihilate your existence, it still feels like a threat. I hope that my teachers can begin to examine how that lens of whiteness is at work in their teaching, not just because for them to do so might make me feel safer in their classroom, but for all the other students of color who step into their classrooms and training spaces, and need to be seen and be whole, and to acknowledge that sometimes the request to shed their identity compromises that.

...if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
— James Baldwin

It is true that to continue to bring my blackness up to folks, to my teachers and colleagues, is exhausting. It’s exhausting because when I do, it feels like I’m the only person who seems to see the weight of what identity politics in America holds; in majority-white yoga spaces I feel a kind of pitying gaze, as though I am the only person bound by this shadow, this imaginary idea of race, and that the rest of the yogis are already free of it. This is white privilege at work. This is one of the ways in which white supremacy is continuing to root itself in our hearts and our communities. I think this week I heard you use language about reminding ourselves that sometimes we might see or know what others don’t yet see or know, and that this fact should not elicit our pity, but our patience, and our humility, because once upon a time we didn’t know (and likely in a short time we won’t know; we are always learning). I would hear this language and hear the language of James Baldwin bouncing around inside my skull: “Please try to be clear…about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent suggestion that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it.”

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
— Albert Camus

What does it mean to do the work of both moving deeper into a space that allows yogis of color like me to feel free, safe, even emboldened to touch and rejoice in our identity, while at the same time living no greater than or less than, while acknowledging that race, gender, socioeconomic status are all social construct, in fact as much as whiteness is, all are a kind of bondage of the manifest world? I believe my work (and it may be the work of my brothers and sisters in ancestry) is to delight in, and live fully, loudly, and unapologetically my blackness: to be black without being small, without respectability or assimilation oppressing me. On some level this means reminding people of the institutionalized and enduring inequity which has defined our existence as Americans since before our country was born. Even so, I also must keep practicing so that I can move deeper into dwelling in the space where there is no “I”, where I can dwell in the Unmanifest, entirely free.

As yogis, our community has work to do. While I believe to my core in the power of ritual, I don’t think ritual is enough. I don’t believe asana, or pranayama, or mantra on its own will do all of the work that we need to do to free us from the insidious poison of white supremacy. Our majority-white community needs to engage in listening—by which I mean listening to under- or unrepresented voices in our community; it takes humility and a willingness to be criticized, an ability to hold the anger of those of us who have felt and have been wronged; it takes a willingness to seek the teachings, and from teachers we may not be familiar with: James Baldwin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Michelle Alexander, Ava DuVernay, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Hehisi Coates, and others who have humbling and necessary lessons for us of the consequences of whiteness in America, and in our world. Stay in our practice, we must. And sometimes, we must also lay down the familiar practices of yoga and pick up the challenges that exist in our sangha.

I recognize my fear, my struggle, as a granthi, given how you defined it. It absolutely feels tied to my ability to plant my feet on the earth, take up space, and breathe air, as well as tied to my personal identity and what power I may have or feel robbed of by our world. I hope that this letter loosens that knot, if only a little: that I can embody my black woman-ness with strength and joy, and in so doing, continue to be remember that my body to which I identify so fiercely is both divine and as ordinary and temporary as dust. I also hope that my white colleagues and teachers can understand that social constructs like race and gender that are so powerful don’t just fade away at the threshold of the yoga studio, and we must learn to work skillfully with these constructs and not ignore them, in order to be free of them.

I love you. I respect you. Because both are true, I feel I can be honest with you, and because if I avoid honesty with you I harm us both. I have my work, and you have yours; I hope our praxis will allow us to connect in a way that heals generations, centuries, even millennia of injury.

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

 

 

 

*this teacher is a kind of amalgam of yoga teachers I've had and still have. Not a message to any particular person, but a kind of message to all particular persons. If you think you need to hear it, you do.

**using this term in the accepted sense, in the sense of someone I practice with, I study with, I learn from, whom I've given permission to speak into my life both as a colleague and a mentor. There are all kinds of folks who've taught me about yoga, and we've never done any physical practice together.