Why I Love my Black Yoga Teacher… And You Should Too.

If we want to change the outside, we’ve got to change the inside. That’s one of the reasons I practice yoga — to help me work with all the shadow and light inside of me.

Similarly, if we want to disconnect from white privilege and dismantle white supremacy culture, then we’ve got to take responsibility for what we put into our minds. It’s not enough to say that I live in a segregated world though that is a great start. The next step is to actively create the multi-racial, inclusive community you want. Look at whose services you buy or where you go for entertainment or renewal. Recently I committed to using or reading a black expert, mentor, coach etc each day to disrupt the norm of white expertise and white thought leadership. Whether you are a person of color or white, please do this, and I promise you, you will run into implicit biases and/or great joy.

I am a registered yoga teacher and have practiced various kinds of yoga since 1994. In twenty-two years, I can only remember being taught by two Black male teachers: Louis Jackson and Kent Nazareth. Happily, today I get to practice with Kent Nazareth, a teacher from Jamaica.

I tried to tell my husband, who is white, about the flood of pleasure and reassurance I feel when Kent walks into the heated Bikram studio. It’s not just his great voice, specific instruction and good timing that make practicing with Kent affirming, it’s his dark brown chocolate skin and accent as well. So often, I’m the only person of my complexion in yoga studios. When I look in the mirror or when I hear the instruction which presumes a white skin tone, I have to mentally translate or reassure myself that I’m in the right place. However, when Kent teaches, I get to see myself in the expert, the leader/facilitator.

However, just as I share a group identity with Kent that gets reaffirmed when he teaches, I also experience racial stress as I worry about how white yogis are viewing him, and, by extension, us. For example, I wonder if white folks will perceive Kent as unfair when he directs his attention toward me. I also feel protective of Kent if he’s late or makes a mistake in the sequence. Will they use that against him or accord him less credibility? These thoughts can sap my energy until I just let them go and return to my practice. These thoughts are a product of white supremacy which is all around us.

Yes, it’s truly a gift to have a Black yoga teacher for me but it’s also a gift for my mostly white fellow yogis. We can’t underestimate how important it is for white people to be exposed to a Black authority figure. How often do white people get stopped by black cops, interviewed by Black managers or CEOs, get asked for identification by Black tellers, or receive treatment from Black doctors and psychologists? Even white people concerned about racial justice or equity, will often lament their segregated lives. The consequence of this lack of exposure is that it implicitly buttresses the assumption of Black inferiority and white superiority. Studies show that contact and exposure to successful accomplished people of color, undermines the impact of implicit biases among people of color and whites.

Moreover, when we deny ourselves Black authority, expertise, and facilitation we are implicitly going along with white supremacy. Many of us do not choose white supremacy and may even organize explicitly against it, but ALL of us are unconsciously subjected to it if we do not ACTIVELY seek out leadership/expertise of people of color. So, give it a try. For the next 30 days, commit to purchasing or following people of color every single day. If you already do this, then take on a specific group within people of color such as trans people of color, women of color, or disabled people of color. Notice where you feel joy or stress. Then, as Kent would say “Keep it simple… Come back to the breath, everyone.”