Decolonizing Yoga for People of Color and the Trope of the White Yoga Teacher

Person of color doing a yoga asana in a courtyard, Image credit Morgue File: martinlouis
“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” 
 ― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Seriously, can we talk about spiritual white folks, especially white women, for a moment?

There is a series of tropes of these women and quite frankly, each of them, is dangerous to womxn and people of color.

I was recently in a discussion with a group of poc and someone started to mention ‘a spiritual white woman.’ Cue collective eye roll. Cue rage. Cue stepping into our power. No more is needed for our imaginations to fill in our most recent encounter with one of these women and the harm that we have suffered at their hands.

They take OUR cultures, OUR practices, OUR traditions and use them as COSTUMES. They PROFIT from it. And then, when it’s inconvenient they can discard the whole image. When wrapped together with LOA or other white washed spirituality, it becomes infinitely more oppressive. I’ll touch on those tropes later in the series.

While we walk around in these yellow, brown and black bodies and face a daily ONSLAUGHT of racism and fear for our lives and our safety. And if we bring up our cultures, our practices, we are harmed at worse, ignored which is generally neutral, and tokenized at best. And in this world, neutral means often siding with the oppressor.

To say that this fills me with rage is an understatement. My belly burns when I see this and other spiritual white women tropes in action. And when I see fellow poc being hurt or thrown under the bus to protect these ww, the gloves come off.

In this series, I hope to walk you through some of the common tropes of spiritual white women and the unintentional, and intentional harm done through their work. These tropes are very much based on real women that I have encountered. While I can name names, it is more the trope that I am interested to share at this time. In the future, depending on how this goes, we’ll talk about real people in this space, name names of those causing harm.

Initially, I was writing to ww. But I have reconsidered that stance. I now write to protect poc and marginalized individuals from further harm. We see a sheen of ‘goodness’ or we believe the hype. We get sucked in. Then inevitably we get hurt. We incur more harm, on top of the lifetimes of pain we have already endured and been passed down from our ancestors. Without further ado…

Trope # 1 The White Yoga Teacher

I recently met a (white) English woman who could easily be classified as spiritual. For simplicity I’ll call her ‘S’, but pay attention to the trope. ‘S’ was a wearing a flowing dress that needless to say, came from the Indian subcontinent. She is a yoga teacher and healer. She was expressly there (at a retreat) to teach movement, a type of yoga, meditation and perhaps some of her ‘healing’ that seemed to be a collection of practices from all over the world. She taught this ‘womb’ yoga. The type of yoga here is irrelevant. It was presented as if ‘S’ herself had created it. And the entire introduction of herself and the work, centered on her and her situation. She briefly asked if there were health conditions to be aware of. And she gave 3 rules. The first was ‘ahimsa’, which is a Sanskrit word for a non-violent approach or nonviolence. She said comparing your ability to others or pushing yourself past your own comfort were forms of this. I honestly can’t remember the other two rules. She started the yoga. Womb yoga, without introduction to the materials, to its source, the specific practice and its history, just the movements with a white washed ‘gathering womb energy’ type of guidance. From the start I had reservations. I did actively participate for about 15 minutes, but within minutes my attention was waning and my rage growing. I chose to sit out the rest of the class. She continued in this vein for 50+ minutes.

Later, after the class. I was open to a discussion, as was she. She listened to some of what I share below. We left it in a positive place, (from my perspective). Yet, unfortunately, this individual chose to leave the retreat and did not clarify what had happened to the other participants. Neither did the retreat host (but that is another story completely). The burden fell to me and as a result, I bore the brunt of the negative response that followed. This last part is a typical response to such situations after being called out. This happens in both online and offline.

Let me unpack this for you.

Note, it was quite literally a costume that could be discarded. She was living in Europe, so she could have donned clothes from that area but chose not to. There are also a great many English or western textiles and fashions to choose from as well.

Secondly, these clothes were no doubt made from cheap, unfair trade labor from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. I don’t know if you have visited some of these areas, but impoverished is a kind way to put it. Clean running water (into the home), toilets, and consistent electricity are regular issues. Every time you choose fast fashion, know that some brown or black individual is doing this labor for pennies on the dollar, compared to the minimum wage in Western countries.

Thirdly, the cotton or other fabrics are damaging the planet. Cotton farming esp in Andhra, where my father is from is huge. It’s a cash crop. It’s a labor intense crop to harvest and requires a great deal of water to grow. With the advent of GM cotton, these farmers are not able to preserve their old ways, ie seed saving. They are running into huge debts that can’t be paid and are committing suicide. Family lands are sold to paid down debts and like farmers around the world, the next generation often leaves the rural areas in search of jobs, education and better prospects. Often replaced by monoculture and agribusiness style farms that deplete soils and profit multinationals, not small farmers.

Other fabrics, rayon and so, are synthetic. They are by and large made from petroleum products. (It’s a cool lab experiment often done in organic chemistry experiments, the former science teacher in me says). But I hear you say, what about bamboo? Well after the initial processing, it behaves very much like rayon. Fairtrade, organic, and sustainable fabrics like tencel and hemp are better, but best to check into the supply chains so there is accountability throughout.

Climate change, too, has ravaged these areas (and other areas predominately inhabited by blacks and browns) rather than those causing the most damage in the (white) west. Basically, it causes more pain, death, and discomfort to bipoc worldwide. These individuals often with the least resources (because of wealth extraction from capitalism, colonialism and greed), do not have the means to move, survive, put up sea walls and other protections from the ravages of climate change.

Next, let us not forget, the British came to India via colonization. The takeover was violent and forever changed the Indian Subcontinent and its history. It’s a bloody history. Make no mistake, it was done to claim, to take, to steal wealth for the British Empire. It was not kind. And when people continue to profit from the plundering, it is not just cultural appropriation, but grotesque stealing. And then parading it around as if to say, ‘try and stop me.’

I want to add here, gems, like many found in the crown jewels are stolen from the ‘empire’ and even after returning their countries, they still hold on to these items. Tokens from their plundering ways. And just like those, the rich textiles, culinary masterpieces, and ways of being are kept in the same vein. And in modern times, such mechanisms are still in force as is the racism worldwide against these individuals and their diaspora. This teacher (as do many) failed to notice or acknowledge this part of history and the ongoing narrative.

White bodies are also revered in these places. It’s a direct impact of colonialism. Colorism, the discrimination of peoples based on shades of skin color is real in colonized countries. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable. Many skin bleaching creams on the markets and the trope of lighter skin equalling more attractive is alive and well. Then when, white people do yoga, they are playing directly on this trope.

Further, though I don’t all the history of yoga, but I have done an in-depth inquiry into Bharata Natyam (and the change in rhetorical situation as a direct result of colonization) for my M.A. in Rhetoric and for the Ph.D. that I did not complete. I also have been trained as a Bharata Natyam dancer since the age of 4. There are certain parallels between the arts of India. Like many of the arts of India, as a direct result of Victorian morals, began the downfall and whitewashing of many of the arts. Meanwhile, whites would come to observe (and steal) these arts. Sometimes they came to learn (and pay) the teachers to learn. Then they had a history of doing these performances in the US and UK (among other places) for pay, bringing the it to the West. It is part of the history of Orientalism — the love of the exotic East tinged with imperialism of the West.

There is a lineage with in the arts. All of them, including dance and yoga, have a lineage. The chain of guru-shishya (shishya= student) is how the art is passed down. Without acknowledging my gurus in both Carnatic Music and Bharata Natyam, I am doing a disservice and in fact, I am insulting those who came before me. Without acknowledging this tradition, her gurus, the lineage, the style and so on, she is disrespecting the entire this tradition and those who have come before her.

Not to mention, the guru-shishya relationship (as any teacher/student) relationship, involves a hierarchy, a power differential. That needs to be understood and acknowledged. There is often power on both sides, but when race, gender, ability, education, age and so on are not addressed, it creates an unsafe space. There are more about power dynamics of teachers, I have seen and been a part of as an educator for 8+ years in the classroom. Once again, this power differential went unmentioned.

Also, there is maleness in yogic traditions (as well as other arts). These were often Brahmin men practicing these ancient techniques and they were not shared with the masses. These men often withheld this wisdom from the other castes and from womxn. Inherent in that is classism. A classism reflected in the Western Yogic practice, with white teachers, primarily middle or upper class white women in attendance, lack of support or systems to include the marginalized, and little to no teaching that reflects the true history of the art itself.

And with the advent of colonialism, arts like Bharata Natyam that were a low caste art that died and reborn from its ashes, was a turned from temple art reserved for a specific (low) caste to a high-class stage art. Once again using classism to erase and marginalize those whose life blood and lineage build the art in the first place. I do not know the impacts on colonialism on yoga specifically, but I’m sure that too was impacted. This is a place for further inquiry on my end. But as temple dancing was banned during British rule, many other arts (even yoga and Ayurveda according to one source)were banned as well.

Erasure and marginalization of WOC is true. Men, often free of the burden of children, could pursue such a life of the ascetic. And often benefited from the women’s labor for sure. My own paternal grandfather, a Brahmin male, upheld the rules that women were of less value and benefited from their labor. I am not sure how this happened in ancient India, but I am sure of it did happen. According to the Samskaras (Hindu text of religious customs), of which I have only read parts, traditions like the men naming their children, the number of days and actions of defilement (days of mourning) vary greatly for men and women as well as class, and childcare/food preparation done primarily by women. Another gap in my education on how these systems impacted the yogic traditions. Also, Brahmins perhaps had means (and duty) to send their sons away to learn the Vedas and other Hindu traditions that women would be been denied (and in fact, girls seen as a burden for marriage and needed at home to do domestic chores at least in more modern times).

It was not until individuals like the students of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya or Yogi Bhajan, brought it out to the West (and hence the world) in the 1950’s and later. Then the academics had their hand in it, bringing it to the West to those types attracted and privileged to attend universities. Once again, not accessible to many based in India or poc around the world. The ability to have travel to India and pay to learn these techniques is a badge of honor for many whites.

Worth noting here: Yoga in the West is devoid of Hindu thought or principles. It is taken as a simple movement. Sometimes, as in the words of Alexis P. Morgan, ‘spiritual bleach’ a whitened version of the Hindu spiritual principles. Without the culture, the respect, the deeper understanding of the practices themselves, it is very sanitary, devoid of the true essence. Yoga is more than a movement or asana. It is a lifestyle and a way of being, deeply rooted in the teachings of the Vedas.

An aside. Though Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian, those practices are hard to maintain outside of India. Because of the monoculture of agriculture and CAFO for dairy operations instead of the permaculture and holistic farm practices, eating the way they ate and maintained their body is unavailable in the West. Meaning bite for bite, food grown in nourished soils, heirloom varieties, Ayurvedic and other ancient cooking techniques and ingredients, maximize nutritional content of food. Being vegetarian in this way and shaming those that are not, cannot is unfair. This is another element of the trope. Often these individuals are vegetarian or vegan and push their ideas on others, whose constitutions or belief systems or budget will not accommodate this are shamed.

Womb yoga. It also undermines those who have had hysterectomies or unable to have children, and individuals who have gone through menopause. It inherently excludes individuals that may identify as womxn but do not have a womb. That last part in itself is considered TERF, a type of feminism that excludes transwomen. Inclusion is an important element to consider here. While this space had only cis women, as far as I knew, it did subtly elevate those who had a womb and had actively had used it for childbearing.

After generations of abuse, there is a PTSD from colonization. A type of internalized oppression that is passed down from generation to generation. It’s an ancestral wound that continues to fester. And the flames of rage that come from this and repeated racism/sexism that is inherent for WOC, is a perfect storm to create a rage when faced with this type of spiritual white woman. And after generations of being silenced, it is difficult to learn to speak up. If this has happened to you, forgive yourself for your lack of eloquence, your seething rage, your silence, your inability to communicate your point or any other feelings/expressions.

When confronted, this type of woman will appear to listen and speak from compassion. They will center the discussion on them and their feelings to distract. And ultimately, to avoid a scene they will back away and leave you with their typical, ‘love and light’ comments. We’ll discuss this more in another piece. Notice certain features, marginalization by omission of power structures, histories, and lineage, lack of in-depth understanding of names, positions, and larger contexts, a centering behaviour both inside and outside the classroom. In general, they avoid going in depth, avoid politics, and avoid anything vibrationally, ‘heavy’. They have a superficial understanding of Hinduism and the teaching therein. When confronted, they have a tendency to disappear. This lack of acknowledgement and erasure causes undo harm to the POC they marginalize.

An interesting aside. A WOC challenged me afterward saying, ‘does that mean every time they teach a class, they should say yoga is from India?’ in a rather condescending tone. Here in defence of the white yoga teacher. This is internalized oppression, once again for another day to discuss.

What can you do?

If you are a POC or marginalized individual here are some ideas to take this deeper.

Keep your eyes open for common themes. Our great leader, Audre Lorde, makes an excellent point (in the quote above) about draining our power, resources, and so on. As People of Color, it’s our job to refocus that energy back on ourselves. One way to do this is to start to name these tropes. Unpack and see exactly how white supremacy, toxic behaviors, and marginalization happens, as to be able to see it clearly for what it is, be judicious with our energies and circle, and learn to dismantle our own programming. Part of that journey is to reclaim our heritage, cultures and re-center ourselves in our lives.

Secondly, tell stories and share your experiences bravely.

And, if you have a story of harm created from spiritual ww, I’ll provide an hour of my time to listen to you to process. If you’d like help to write the story, share your story in anyway or just process the trauma in a safe space. I’m here for it. Just reach out and we’ll set up the time. Info@manifestbydesign.com is the best place to reach me. And its completely free service.

Let’s turn the tables on these WW.

1) Take POC led classes. When possible, take courses like yoga from poc first. If you are unable to find one after truly looking, find the most knowledgeable white one in your area and inquire about these power structures and culture before joining to gauge receptivity.

2) Listen. Listen to woc/poc and learn about their own cultures, histories/herstories, spiritual practices, and how they have been experienced injustice at the intersection of feminism and racism. And then pay them for their time.

3) If you learned from these words or the resulting thread/comments then pay me. Here’s the link: paypal.me/manifestbydesign.com

4) If you want to support a marginalized individual or poc to work with me so they can follow their calling and do their work in the world. I’d love to have you support me, so I can support them. Ask me how you can do this.

5) Spiritual white women and men. I’d love to help you do this work, if you’re willing to listen. We can use the time together to look into your own actions, perceptions, marketing copy, sales process, or course curriculum. A minimum of 5 hours of work is recommended.

Resources for further study:

http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/decolonize-yoga-practice/

http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/yoga-hate-6-ways-to-end-exclusion-in-yoga/

http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/when-people-of-color-say-they-want-their-own-yoga-white-people-should-listen/

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/why-we-practice-a-short-history-of-yoga-in-the-west