Should White People Teach Yoga?

Whoa. How does it feel to read that question? Did your mind just come up with a million reasons why this question shouldn’t even be asked, why I’m wrong for asking it, how maybe the question itself is “racist”?

I’m a white yoga teacher who, truth be told, never asked myself this question when I decided to become a yoga teacher 15+ years ago. It felt pretty uncomfortable when I realized it was time to start asking it.

So, if you’re a white yoga teacher, I hear you: you might be feeling irritated or even defensive right now. Perhaps I’ve made you uncomfortable, and I take responsibility for that. Discomfort, as you’ve probably told your own students many times, is often a sign of growth. Notice everything you’re thinking and feeling, and how quickly it turns to hurt and blame. Breathe with that. Imagine you’re in your hardest yoga pose, your personal version of a free standing scorpion pose in the sand. Take several long deep breaths. You know how to deal with discomfort. Relax into it. Be compassionate with yourself. Feel the tenderness that arises in your heart. Keep breathing and read on.

If you’re a person of South Asian descent you might be thinking, “Why don’t more white people ask themselves this question before they sign up for yoga teacher training?”

If you’re a person of color you might think, “Hello white people, it’s Cultural Appropriation calling. Again. It’s for you.”

Notice what we notice

I didn’t ask myself if it was okay for white folks like me to teach yoga before I signed up for my first yoga teacher training or for many years after that. Why is that?

As a white person who grew up in the U.S., I unconsciously digested the message that world culture is my culture and that I could pick and choose from the whole smorgasbord of religions, customs, holidays, and dress as I desire. In fact, I’ve been mistakenly led to believe that my interest and involvement in cultural traditions other than my own is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and flattering to the cultures they come from. Plus, because my own culture’s traditions have been lost, diluted, and commercialized over time, I feel compelled to search for more meaningful rituals in colonized indigenous cultures and then take them on as my own. Finally, because my culture has left me feeling disconnected from the earth, life, and the people around me, my search for connection and healing feels imperative and necessary, no matter what the effects might be on those from the cultures I’m exploring.

The people I saw “doing yoga” in magazines, in film, in yoga classes, mostly looked like me: white women who felt comfortable in spandex leggings. I unconsciously understood that the proliferation of these images of pale, tall, long-haired models meant yoga was “for me.” In addition, most of my yoga teachers were white, some with Indian teachers and gurus, and none seemed worried that their lack of familial or cultural roots in the tradition limited their credibility or understanding of the material they were teaching.

In addition, I believed that racism meant discrimination based on one’s skin color, so telling a white person they couldn’t teach yoga would of course count as racist. If I understood the more accurate definition of racism — discrimination within a system that benefits one skin color over all others — I would have realized that the question of whether it was okay for me as a white person to teach yoga is much bigger than I’d imagined, implicating the global history of colonialism as well as the racially divisive history of my own country.

Give breath and attention to discomfort

Very few white yoga teachers and teacher trainees ask ourselves whether we should teach yoga. Now is the time to start asking this challenging question of ourselves and each other. Let’s gather up all of the compassion, courage, and vulnerability the practice of yoga has inspired in us and proceed with open minds and open hearts.

In fact, let’s restate the question with more detail: Given that yoga teaching takes place within the larger context of colonialism and institutionalized racism throughout the world, is teaching yoga as a white person a form of cultural appropriation in which the harm outweighs the good?

First let’s explore “cultural appropriation” by using a person of color’s definition of cultural appropriation, in this case Black writer and blogger Ijeoma Oluo. She defines it as “the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture” in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race.

Next — and I’m hoping this doesn’t really need to be said, but just in case — let’s agree that white culture is the dominant culture in the U.S. Arguably, this is true of the planet, looking at the (socially created) race of most of the world’s modern colonizers: European. The race of those who run, benefit from, and are portrayed by the most profitable media empires in the world are white. The people (mostly men) who hold the most capital, the most power, and the most globalized businesses? Also primarily white. (If you’d like to learn more about the extent and harm of white dominance or take issue with the facts in this paragraph, please read What Does It Means To Be White? by Robin DiAngelo.)

As it relates to yoga, it’s important to understand that when Britain moved its colonial forces into India, it suppressed and punished the practice of yoga in its country of origin. We whitewash out of the history of yoga the fact that one reason Swami Vivekananda brought yoga practices to the west was to seek support and money to resist the oppression of the British colonial government. (See “The Gender, Race, and Class Barriers: Enclosing Yoga as White Public Space” by Enoch H. Page in Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis, eds. Berila, Klein, and Roberts 2016.) The violent dominance of white culture is one reason yoga came to the U.S., only to encounter more white dominance on this continent.

And so we come to an uncomfortably obvious conclusion.

We’ve adopted yoga. We’ve made it our own, identified ourselves with it as yoga students and teachers, even made our livelihoods from it. Sure, we’ve also healed from it, shared it, given back to it in some cases — but we’ve definitely adopted it. Some white folks have even exploited yoga by profiting from it, trying to copyright it, and making a fortune from it by stripping it from its roots and selling it back to mostly other white folks at a premium.

You’ll notice what Oluo’s definition of cultural appropriation doesn’t include. It isn’t concerned about whether an Indian/Nepali/Tibetan teacher gave you explicit permission to teach. No one person can give permission on behalf of an entire culture, right? It isn’t worried about how much money you paid for your training, or how many hours you’ve spent practicing or teaching, how much your business model depends on the popularity of yoga terminology, or how many times you’ve had the privilege of traveling to yoga’s countries of origin. It doesn’t take into consideration that you teach from the spiritual roots of the tradition, that you’ve donated time, money, and energy to supporting yoga in the countries where it arose, or that you have healed yourself and others through the practice in mind, body, and spirit.

And that’s because none of those things change the fact that teaching yoga as a white person is the adoption and sometimes exploitation of a culture by a more dominant culture, or simply put, cultural appropriation. So now what?

Compassion is always the answer

When it comes down to it, we need to tend compassionately to the harm our actions sometimes create in the world — and to ourselves. Instead of arguing about whether or not white people teaching yoga is culturally appropriative, let’s ask the more important question: how does my teaching yoga as a white person reproduce white dominance and negatively impact the yoga tradition, the culture it comes from, and people of color?

Then we naturally want to ask, what can I do about it?

I believe the discomfort we experience around the question “Should white people teach yoga?” is actually discomfort misdirected from realizing that we may unintentionally be causing harm in the world. Let’s hold ourselves with a lot of compassion in this: it’s a tough realization. The way out of our discomfort is not arguing that making someone uncomfortable is wrong, or that the thing making us uncomfortable is wrong (these are “white fragility” reactions that people of color find frustrating), but instead looking at the impact of our actions and thoughtfully undertaking to reduce any suffering we may have caused, even with the best of intentions. As important as our intentions are, let’s not use them to try to insulate ourselves from the impact of our actions.

Examining the harm of teaching yoga as white people and how and whether we might be able to mitigate that harm is something I’ll cover in a future article. Meanwhile, please take this question and let it tumble around in your head a while. Feel, taste, and smell all there is to explore in it. Let yourself examine it with the eyes of your heart.

If you are a person of color, especially a South Asian person, and you have examples of how white people teaching yoga sometimes causes harm, please share them in the comments. I understand that the question I’ve posed here may raise complicated questions for non-South Asian POC, for folks with different ideas about what constitutes cultural appropriation, and opens questions that I as a white person probably cannot answer.

If you are a white person reading this article, especially a yoga teacher, I gently invite you to refrain leaving from angry and hurt responses. Please read what people of color are saying and let yourself live into the discomfort of not knowing whether it’s okay to teach yoga as a white person. All the while, hold yourself steadily and with humility and compassion inside the tender uncertainty. It’s the same tender uncertainty I carry in my heart every time I step in front of a yoga class.

In short, let yourself live into the discomfort of not knowing the answer of whether it’s okay to teach yoga as a white person. I don’t know the answer either, but I do know the questions need to be asked.

Whoever you are and whatever comment you leave, be sure to breathe as you type and make sure your words reflect the intersection of truth and non-harming that you try to embody in your yoga practice.

For more reading on this topic, check out these articles:

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

http://rumyaputcha.com/on-yoga-and-white-public-spaces/

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-schware/restoring-yoga-to-its-sou_b_4005329.html

And this book: Skill In Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World by Michelle Cassandra Johnson

Kimber Simpkins is a white, queer, cis-gender, longtime yoga/mindfulness instructor and mom in Northern California, E-RYT 500. She teaches weekly classes, workshops, trainings, and retreats exploring self-care, gratitude, body love, white privilege, queer community, and yoga and social justice. You can learn more about her at her website, kimberyoga.com.

A thoughtful group of yoga and mindfulness practitioners are putting together a conference addressing this question and more, Oct 13–14 2018 in Northern California. Space For All: De-Centering White Privilege in Yoga+Mindfulness Communities. For more information click on the link here.