On “peace ”
Within just over a week, peace has taken on the feeling of a dirty word — something I cringe at as I scroll through my Facebook feed, read Instagram captions, or listen to well-meaning people. It feels dirty because it seems dismissive to people who are scared and angry and hurting — to people of color, to Muslims, to immigrants, to disabled folks, to women, and to people in the LGBT/queer community, of which I am a part. Most often, I’ve seen and heard it from white folks in the yoga community, of which I am also a part, so this response stems from that, but I hope that it can reach out to people outside of the yoga world as well. Everything below is coming from my heart with all the love I have.
I want to start by being clear that I don’t disagree with peace as a concept. I fully support it. But I do think we, as people privileged in systemic ways, need to open a dialogue about a different way of looking at it. I looked up the word itself to root the conversation in a universal understanding of what peace means.
I’ve heard from and seen posts, mostly by by white liberals, both men and women, urging for peace and acceptance of the election results. These posts and comments seem to be focused on just two aspects of the first definition from above: “1: a state of tranquility” and “1A: freedom from civil disturbance,” and I want to really parse these out.
A State of Tranquility
The first definition, “a state of tranquility” is a sort of inner peace, which, the Yoga Sutras tell us, begin with two of the five niyamas — practices or observances. The two are santosha (acceptance or contentment) and isvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God/the divine). I believe deeply in both of these practices and have taught classes centered on both, and I’ve spent months at a time with a santosha sticky note on my mirror — which is just to say, I’m here for the niyamas.
The issue that I see with focusing on acceptance and surrender right now is this:
Let’s say as teachers, we encourage our students, and Facebook friends, and the folks that follow blogs we write for, and people who follow our studios’ Instagram accounts, and whoever else to really focus on acceptance in the wake of this election season. I truly want to play that out because I think acceptance is a beautiful gift.
(Below is an image of the eight limbs of yoga for folks who don’t know. The yamas are a starting point, but we move up and down through the limbs many times throughout the day and generally over our lifetimes.)
When I start thinking about the theme of acceptance and tracing the path and effects of centering that theme right now as people move up and down through the eight-limbs of yoga, here is what happens: in making contentment and surrender the focal points of my own personal practice I have sometimes found that I hit one of the obstacles B.K.S. Iyengar says “hinder the aspirant’s practice of Yoga” — samsaya or doubt. However, this is not a doubt that just shows up on my mat when I question my strength in a pose or my ability to continue a breathwork pattern that frustrates my ego.
It’s doubt that comes up every day. And while it is something that’s internalized, it didn’t come from me to begin with. It is the type of doubt that questions the validity of your identity, and it has been constructed by society to “other” groups of people throughout history. To put it simply: groups are told that they are less than for long enough that they start to believe that rhetoric. Philosopher Frantz Fanon says of this, “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” For different groups, these beliefs are constructed differently and continue to be reconstructed over time; and they are often constructed in subtle and subliminal ways (but often they are more direct).
For women in the modern world, this may look like men being surprised that you are the business-owner, rather than the assistant. It may look like teenage boys telling you they will need to touch your breasts to believe that they are real (this is one of the ways that it manifested for me). It may look like getting cat-called or interrupted repeatedly. It may look like sitting in a room filled with men and being uncomfortably hyperaware of your gender. It may look like being in spaces surrounded by primarily women, where the single man in the room still takes up the most space. All of these things, daily, combine to create an understanding that in some way, you are less. Perhaps it means that you doubt the validity of your emotions because you have been told again and again not to be dramatic. Perhaps it means that you doubt the validity of your body to exist and take up space because men have told you that your clothing is distracting (and yes, this has happened to me in yoga spaces as well). We now have a president-elect who says to the women who have doubted their validity and importance: you are right to doubt.
For people of color, the construction of self-doubt may look slightly different. Historically, we [white people] have planted doubts about identity in the minds of many, many groups. As a country built from imperialism and colonization, we certainly should’t ignore the influence that these things have on the identities of everyone in this country. It is a privilege to even consider the possibility of disregarding it. Many people can’t ignore it — for so many people of color, colonialism did violence to their cultural identities. Homi Bhabha describes the historical process of mimicry in colonialism in this way: colonizers demanded that the “Others” they colonized reform themselves to look and act like the colonizer, but the colonizer never planned to let the colonized actually achieve the goal. They would be forever be “almost the same, but not quite” and then they would be shamed for the inability to achieve whiteness. (I think it’s important to note that Bhabha also discusses in detail the subversive potential in mimicry. Check it out!). When people’s identities have been historically invalidated and current structures augment this invalidation — from stereotypes to racial profiling to police brutality to white people standing by and watching — standing up to the forces that perform this invalidation is a matter of self-preservation. Standing by is not an option when your life and identity are threatened. It is a white privilege to consider standing by with “acceptance” because we now have a president-elect who says to the people of color who have been and continue to be marginalized and invalidated: you are right to feel less than.
We must also remember as white practitioners and teachers of a beautiful practice that was developed in India, we forever toe the line between appreciation and appropriation. It’s crucial that recognize the gift that has been shared with us and refuse to do imperialism to yoga by using its words to undermine the pain and fear and anger of people of color.
For queer people, the construction of self-doubt may manifest in other ways. It could be family, friends or acquaintances assuming straightness or gender identity — assumptions which demands a queer person promptly decide whether or not to “come out” in order to correct them. It could be shock or disbelief at your queerness or careful avoidance of the subject altogether. It could be movies, books, TV shows, and advertisements that tell us what “normal” families and relationships look like.
I am a person who’s very intentional about the practices of self-acceptance and self-love, but the moment that someone stares at my girlfriend and I holding hands, I feel immediately unsafe, embarrassed, shameful. And I love my girlfriend. And I am proud to be queer. But pride wouldn’t even need to exist with relation to identity in the same way if identity wasn’t othered to begin with. When this othering becomes internalized, it creates samsaya. It creates self-doubt. And while I understand that internalized homophobia is something that exists within my own head and something that I strive to combat constantly, I didn’t plant it there. It was planted by the subtle and insidious ways that heterosexuality is normalized, and it is being watered by a vice-president elect who says to queer people: you are right to question your worth.
As yoga teachers, part of our job is to help clear the boundaries that prevent students from turning inward in their practices of yoga. This includes working to counter the structures that tell students their identities are invalid and plant deep-seated doubts in their minds.
We all live under systems that serve to benefit some and harm others. It seems to me that privilege, particularly in the Westernized yoga community — in which four out of five practitioners were white as of 2012 — , is also an obstacle on the path of yoga. This manifests as bhranti darsana, false perception or delusion. Living in the society that we do, we have all been conditioned into ideas about gender roles, what is “normal” for loving relationships, stereotypes on race, etc. I truly believe that folks teaching yoga are coming to the practice with good and loving intentions. But it seems that sometimes privilege allows us to remain deluded about equality — thinking only “I’m not racist!” “I believe everyone should be able to love who they love!” or “I [a man] would never cat-call a woman!” With these thoughts or statements, we delude ourselves about systems that oppress, and thus teach from Tamas (ignorance) rather than from Sattva (goodness).
Thinking solely of the ways that we are “not the bad guy” is not enough, and I want to talk about why.
On a personal level: Yoga is my place of safety and one of my greatest loves. But when people in my yoga community who are not personally feeling the fear and pain of queerness right now like I am suggest to me that I find acceptance of the current political climate, I feel gaslighted and betrayed.
Homophobia happens every day, both from the inside and from the outside. It’s not new. It’s both the small ways that our society suggests to you that you are less than/other/undeserving and the blatant ways that our society threatens your safety.
Mostly, I don’t talk about my queerness in yoga spaces at all. I have had some teachers for years that I never came out to (p.s. hi everyone/I’m gay!), but this isn’t because I’m not out in general. It’s more because of the sense that our spaces are often constructed on a “holiness” that subconsciously becomes aligned with normative and marginalizing societal ideals about beauty, normativity, and acceptability and makes people feel excluded or unwelcome. That leads to the second definition of peace that seems to be very prevalent in posts and conversations right now.
Freedom from Civil Disturbance
Yoga teachers post about peace. Civil disturbance does not align with our stereotypical Western yoga spaces. It’s loud. For a lot of people it’s dangerous (statistically far more dangerous for people of color and trans and gender non-conforming people). We shy away from or object to civil disturbance when it doesn’t conform to our definition of “peaceful protest.” However, in doing so, we ignore the fact that acts of solidarity and expressions of pride in group identities often create the healing necessary to make space for deep self-love to grow. We have a common ideology in yoga that self-realization comes from internal work, and that we must love ourselves to love others, but this ignores that sometimes the threats to our internal selves are simply too heavy to carry alone, and solace must be sought in community and in rebelling against the weights that oppress. In the epigraph of her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine quotes Aime Cesaire:
“Most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear…”
In the face of protests, so many of us are preaching ahimsa — non-violence — (the first of the five Yamas, or restraints) again and again. After all, Patanjali said in the Sutras that harm and violence cause “ignorance and misery.” But we are erasing grief.
Sri Swami Satchidananda explains that non-violence is more complicated than simply one person not harming another:
“We need not even cause the pain directly for the reaction to occur. We can effect this just by approving of another’s pain-bearing actions due to our own avariciousness, anger, or ignorance” (commentary on Book 2, Sutra 34).
In preaching acceptance and peace to our students and communities we have forgotten our own practice of ahimsa, and we leave them to defend their own identities against a system that invalidates and threatens them.
I think it’s also especially important for privileged people to remember in the context of protesting that it is very easy for a person who is the least threatened to preach peace. But in doing so, we may actually further endanger folks who have been categorized as stereotypically “angry” and “dangerous.” By drawing attention to privileged peacefulness, we gaslight the the real anger and fear of people of color and other marginalized people. Without meaning to, we say: your anger is not peaceful, which is simply not the case. In the face of oppression, anger is the thing that says to self-doubt and systems that perpetuate it: you are wrong.
In the current circumstances, I keep drawing myself back again and again to the third definition of peace from the dictionary: “freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.” As yoga teachers, I think our biggest responsibility right now is to provide the space and safety for our students and communities to seek this type of peace. This includes supporting protests. It includes supporting folks in coming to the mat and feeling validated in heartbreak or distress. It includes sitting in our own discomfort. It includes showing up to our own mats as students with all the humility that we can muster and asking again and again how we can be better teachers and humans, and what we can give to a version of peace that is inclusive and just and radical.
“As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”
-Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury