Why I Finally (finally…) Quit Teaching Yoga

I’ve been considering, writing, re-writing, and avoiding this blog for a while, but I feel like it’s time to put it out there.

First, I want to say what this piece won’t be: It won’t be a re-hashing of this incredible piece by former yoga teacher Andi Grace. That was published right around the time that I started teaching a lot, and it’s one that I came back to frequently in my yoga “career”. Andi’s writing is nuanced, thoughtful, and full of brilliant self-criticism. Read it and you will understand many of the reasons I also chose to move on, although our experiences were quite different.

I also feel like I need to shout out SAAPYA (South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America), and the other iterations of that project-Yoga Microaggressions, and “We Are Not Exotic, We Are Exhausted”. These projects helped me to understand the concept of cultural appropriation, and how it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather in the greater context of colonialism, in a way that I never would have before. I’m super-grateful for the unbelievable labor of these Desi women and femmes, most of whom I haven’t met, and I feel so lucky to have stumbled across their work.

Moving On

I mentally checked out of teaching yoga almost a year before I had actually quit. As I spent more time in radical organizing and social justice spaces, I became less and less interested in what I thought of as yoga, and eventually started to feel embarrassed when the question, “What do you do for work?” came up.

I used to think of yoga and meditation as powerful practices, that, coupled with the right awareness, would eventually lead practitioners to work for dynamic social and political change. I also knew that, for myself, yoga was an amazing tool that I had discovered could help me heal my relationship with my body, mind, and heart, and could help me to heal the various wounds of trauma that I had accumulated throughout my life. A common mistake that I think folks like me, and many others make, is thinking that it would be universal for everyone-yoga would automatically help people heal, would automatically make them less reactive, and therefore, eventually, would automatically make them want to work for social change. Looking at this now, it feels absolutely ridiculous, based on both the knowledge of mainstream, white, western yoga culture’s demographics, and also the reality that nothing is a cure-all, nothing works for everyone, all the time, and nothing is objectively, universally, “good” or “positive”.

This idea that yoga, meditation, or other types of spiritual practice, if done “the right way”, will lead people toward a path of working toward liberation for all people is fundamentally flawed and riddled with contradictions once it’s actually looked at through a more critical lens. First off, what one might consider “the right way”, another might consider, “the wrong way”. There is no one, true, way of doing spiritual practice, in spite of what most spiritual teachers would want you to believe. And the contradictions are just too glaringly obvious. If we look at Christianity for example, we can see this pretty clearly. On the one hand you have Liberation Theology, and on the other hand you have radical anti-choice activists who bomb Planned Parenthood clinics. These both come from the same basic philosophy, and yet are profoundly different. I know which one resonates more with me, but that isn’t because it’s the “right” version of Christianity. We can see similar contradictions in Judaism, Islam, and all the different Indian schools of philosophical thought.

In terms of personal healing, I still strongly believe that I wouldn’t be who I am without yoga (and more recently, therapy). Yoga helped me to slow down enough that I could actually feel my own breath, in my own body without dissociating. And that’s a truly powerful thing that I feel very privileged to have had the time and resources to do. But-and this is a big but-I’m not sure that’s what yoga is supposed to be about. From a traditional, Vedantic or Tantric understanding, yoga is a Moksa Purusartha-loosely, a path toward liberation; liberation from the cycle of birth and death and into enlightenment. From a traditional standpoint, it was never meant to be a tool for healing trauma-and that’s the major inconsistency for me. Using this understanding, with the additional context of white supremacy and colonialism, it seems impossible to think of white, western, yoga as anything but stealing from colonized people-adding spiritual practice and culture to land and natural resources as things we have taken and continue to benefit from.

This is a concept that has been written about extensively, and so, I really just want to use this platform to lift up the voices of people who have already done the bulk of this labor, rather than re-hash what they’ve said. SAAPYA and their related projects are linked above, and Nisha Ahuja also has a lot of great things to say about this. Please, especially if you’re a white yoga practitioner, and especially if you make some or all of your money teaching yoga, watch these videos, explore what actual Indian people have to say on the topic. And please, after you’ve really researched these issues, think really critically about these topics and whether or not you’re willingly participating in something harmful. Because for me, the more I learned, the harder it was to turn away from how I engaged in yoga-world.

On Some More Personal Levels

At the same time that I was questioning my role in yoga-world, I was also meeting lots of other white Jews in social justice organizing spaces. I grew up in a pretty observant, conservative Jewish home. As a frame of reference, we kept a Kosher kitchen, but sometimes ate at non-Kosher restaurants. We went to synagogue most Saturdays, but we usually drove there. Judaism was always a part of my identity, a part that I had turned away from from right around the time of my Bar Mitzvah until very recently.

I still don’t observe Judaism like my mother does. I don’t know that I ever will. But in spending time with other radical Jews, it made me dig a little deeper into that history. There is an incredible culture of resistance among working-class, European Jews throughout history. And it makes me wonder-what did my family have to give up to assimilate into and collude with whiteness? Because Jews weren’t considered white in America 100 years ago. And, as we’ve assimilated, it seems we’ve given up parts of our culture, and parts of our spirituality. And I think one of the reasons that yoga is so popular now among white Americans is because so many of us have given up our traditional spiritual practices to be “white” and to benefit from white supremacy. I strongly believe that the popularity of a co-opted, whitewashed, watered-down version of a spiritual practice is directly linked to how our traditional practices have slipped away from us. The way that yoga has now become a multi-billion dollar per year industry is indicative of this belief-people with the means to do so are spending a ton of money to get that feeling-that sense of connectedness-even if it only lasts for a few hours after a packed, sweaty vinyasa class. A blog I read a while back that I really loved, written by someone only known as Whispering Bodies, had this to say:

Let’s make no mistake — there is nothing that is accepted or propagated by late capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal, colonising white culture that wants you to feel whole, worthy, or connected. Happy people don’t buy Product, and are disinterested and even bored by the notion of having power over others. To be accepted by mainstream culture, yoga has had to stop being Yoga.

And I think that about sums it up. I’ve facilitated workshops on yoga and social justice, I’ve taught classes with social justice themes woven throughout, co-led classes for donations that went directly to legal support for folks caught up and arrested during the Baltimore uprising of 2015-but it is impossible, I think, for yoga-as-business to ever do much besides make people who can afford it feel better about themselves and their place within imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist patriarchy. And maybe what I’m really doing in this piece is admitting to a naïveté that, until recently, I clung to as a part of my identity-the naïveté that a stolen spiritual practice, diluted, bastardized, and sold for an absolutely obscene amount of money could ever hold the potential to help bring justice and liberation to all people.

Even More Personal…

I can’t publish this piece without talking about my experience with the owners of my former “yoga home”. That experience has influenced my feelings on yoga-world more than I would like to admit and it would be disingenuous for me to leave that out.

A brief backstory-a friend introduced me to this studio at one of the most challenging times in my life. I was impressed by the slightly (slightly) more diverse crowd than other studios I had been to, the willingness to work with people like myself with slightly lower incomes than most of the people who attended classes there, and a generally laid-back, “community” vibe. I was also in a terribly vulnerable place and felt like I could forget about my life for the time I was there-people there were friendly enough, and I needed human connection, as we all do. Over time, I worked at the studio in exchange for free classes, did their teacher training, started teaching regular classes, and apprenticed for one of the owners as her assistant in classes and in her teacher training.

Eventually, I felt stuck in my teaching and reached out for help. After not receiving help, and with minimal communication in general, I was fired. I could add all the speculative reasons as to why I was fired-my politics, specifically on social media, the fact that I don’t have a typical “yoga body”, and the fact that after a year of apprenticeship I no longer had the energy to dedicate to that-but, suffice to say, I felt pretty used up. All of my free/low cost labor and dedication didn’t even warrant anything resembling actual support and constructive feedback on my teaching. When I made my feelings known to the studio owners, I was met with defensiveness, gaslighting, and all manner of verbal/emotional abuse. And, to be honest, I’m still pretty angry about it. But it was also the catalyst for me to move on, and I’m definitely better off now.

I recently started a full-time job-no more running from part-time job to yoga studio to other yoga studio in one day (plus health insurance!). I have the energy for lots of powerful organizing with comrades that I’m excited to be working with. I spend most of my weekends with my amazing partner-and we do other activist-y, organizing stuff too (also Netflix!). I sit and meditate most mornings. I go to the gym a few times a week and ride my bike almost everywhere. I go to therapy to help me with anxiety and depression and to process how I’ve previously dealt with toxic/abusive people in my life. I’m figuring out life as a recovering yoga-person. I’ll always be grateful for how yoga helped to form who I am, just like drugs and dancing did 10 years previously. But, it’s not who I am, and it can’t be if I’m striving toward a life of spiritual and political awake-ness and accountability.

The only way I feel good about ending this is with a quote from the Andi Grace blog I mentioned at the beginning. I couldn’t possibly say anything more potent here:

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money — or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.
If the answer seems simple — keep digging.
If these questions make you uncomfortable, don’t turn away — take a deep breath and ask yourself why.
The rabbit hole awaits, and trust me — it’s not as scary as it seems.