Right Action or Performative Propaganda?
I recently attended a disastrous yoga workshop about action and collective change. I’m pretty wary of the mainstream yoga world, but even I was shocked at the disconnect between the message and the methods. I’m not sure how or why this celebrity-status teacher thought that perpetuating dynamics of oppression and harm on the mat would help to dismantle oppression and harm in the world, but I do know we can do better. This is the letter I sent in response. I’m sharing here in hopes that some of you will want to join me in saying NO to this trend of profiting from performances of social justice while selling the status quo.
I recently attended your workshop on yoga and social change. You may have noticed me, conspicuous in my bright white hat, lagging behind your fast-paced asana instruction or sitting, upright and confused, during Savasana. Perhaps you saw me walk out early? Or heard from your host that I had chosen to withdraw and drive home through the night rather than continue with your program? In that opening session, your colleague invited us to embrace accountability as an expression of care, a way of inviting change through relationship rather than simply writing someone off as lost. Coming from someone who has also made mistakes, this letter is my call-in, and my request for accountability, to you.
I respect your work and the efforts you have made to bring the impact of yoga beyond the individual. Over the past several years, as interest in this type of work has been growing, there have been many shifts in other aspects of the yoga culture as well. Evolving conversations about cultural and historical context, physiology and repetitive strain injury, power dynamics, and trauma awareness (to name just a few) are challenging us all to be more aware of how we deliver our messages about yoga.
I truly appreciated the opening conversation in your workshop, and I was looking forward to some inspiration, guidance, and community as I continue in my own ongoing process of bridging personal work and collective change. That all dissipated the moment you issued your first bodily command. I assume you are aware of the good work some of your colleagues are doing to make yoga spaces more welcoming to trauma survivors (and everyone else). But in case you hadn’t heard; rapid-fire commands, shaming folks for moving within postures as a sign of being “unfocused”, and talking incessantly while hovering over students in a dark room are all expressions of power that are not going to work for many of the people you encounter. And no amount of inspirational speaking is a substitute for giving students the space to be present to their own revelations. You left no room for relationship with anything but your words. While survivors might find these tactics intolerable, your choice to wield power in this fashion was an act of disrespect to all, in spite of your good intentions. Our bodies, our hearts, our souls cannot be stepping stones for a teacher’s ego.
You talked about dismantling the oppression and supremacy that resides within us all as a necessary accompaniment to external work, and, especially as a fellow white person, I agree with you. But have you not considered that using patriarchal, forceful, militaristic expressions of yoga asana might not be the best tool for the task? This approach simultaneously disregards new insights about physiology and repetitive strain injuries in yoga, the historical contexts of the form of asana you have chosen to promote, and the legacy of serious abuse that has thrived within it. Through my own practice and teaching, I have come to appreciate the extent to which a person’s relationship with their body is a mirror of their relationship to others and to the world. I’m assuming you don’t want to promote violence in the world, so why encourage it in relationship to the body? There is no one “right” way to be sure, but there are MANY ways of gaining insight and directing energy that do not reinforce and replicate dynamics of harm and oppression. (Also, please do not shame participants for teaching their yoga students about the body. I agree that body mechanics are a secondary aim, but, if we are using movement as a vehicle for self-inquiry, it is also our responsibility to guide that movement skillfully. Period.)
Throughout the evening, I also noticed an important piece missing in terms of yoga and justice. You spoke a lot about “magic”. But yoga is not some magic trick, conjured by the brilliance of our own imaginations. It is someone else’s cultural heritage, honed and carried forward through the hard work and dedication of a particular group of people over thousands of years. This was not once mentioned. The erasure of South Asians from western yoga spaces is nothing new, but it has a particular odiousness to it when it happens within an environment dedicated to revealing and ending oppression. Instead, you challenged those present to say “Namaste” more, as a way of displaying a commitment to the practice. I have heard many South Asian folks conveying to the yoga community that the use of this traditional greeting, out of context and mispronounced (it’s “nuh-muh-stay”, in case you didn’t know), feels disrespectful, foolish, or just plain weird. Have you heard? It matters. Misappropriating words and gestures is not a sign of respect, but learning about the legacy of colonialism and its impacts on the practice of yoga would be.
You spoke a lot about “god” as well, and asked those present to do the same. But talking about god, in whatever form, is in no way the same as actually honoring source (by whatever name), or honoring the practice of yoga, or honoring the people who have trusted in your guidance. We mustn’t forget the difference. You have a large platform, and because of it, a big responsibility to continually question and revise what you convey and promote, not just as relates to action in the world but also in the way you instruct and wield power in the classroom (these are not separate!), especially as a white woman financially profiting from teaching about anti-oppression. I hope you will accept this call to accountability as an invitation to step back, to learn, to listen, and to reflect, and I hope you will be in good company as others begin to follow your lead. There are many wise and wonderful voices out there challenging us all to do better. Let’s answer the call.