(There isn’t a big juicy rant ahead, so be warned. I decided to think before I wrote. Please know that the calm state of mind in which I wrote this post does not reflect the normally snarky way I chose to address uncomfortable situations)
After reading the xo Jane article There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class and I’m Uncomfortable with It I must admit I had a typical Oneika knee-jerk response. I rolled my eyes and didn’t finish the article. I stopped reading after this paragraph:
I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?
Then I decided, hey- why not finish it? So I did. I’d like to tell you that the article got better.
Here’s the quick and dirty…A woman felt suddenly uncomfortable because her vision of what yoga should look like was challenged when an overweight Black woman showed up to her yoga class. I’m not over simplifying here. By the end of the post Caron says that yoga should be more inclusive. Still not sure that I get the whole point of what she was trying to say.
While most of the article could be written off to youth and inexperience (and a good idea gone bad by xo Jane), I had three big problems with Caron’s words.
1. What’s troubling is that a Black woman caused such upheaval for Caron that she went home and cried. When is the last time that Caron talked to a Black person? She lives in Brooklyn. Instead of challenging her own perceptions Caron went home and blamed the practice of yoga. At no point did Caron ask herself (in the piece) if her response was a bit over-the-top, out of touch and worth exploring because it… Is. Utterly. Self-absorbed. Caron writes:
Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.
I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.
2. There’s this idea, this thought both in Caron’s mind and in society that women who aren’t White dream of nothing else but trying to be white. And while I could go off on a tangent here and talk a bit about that (and some notable exceptions)- I’m going to hold steady.
Not all Black women dream of being a size two. And how did she know that this particular woman was in despair? Did she ask? I hoped that the story would end with Caron chatting with the woman after class, but instead Caron went home and cried.
I wonder what would have happened if Caron had decided to give the woman a genuine smile when she put down her mat- or smiled at her when it appeared that the woman (according to Caron) may have needed some non-verbal support. What would have happened if Caron had used this as a chance to open up her own heart and worldview rather than make it an attack on her status as a thin white woman? Of course these are just curious musings from a bystander (yoga teacher, yoga student and Black woman).
I can’t assume what would have happened if she had done these things. I’m going to take a leap though and assume that Caron’s world is not filled with a ton of friends who do not look like her. I think there was a missed opportunity for an experienced student to welcome a newer student to yoga. In the studios where I teach and practice the sense of collective community is strong- it’s what I love about yoga.
We are all in this together.
3. Caron talks about her asana practice and the “well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times.” One of my favorite books is The Heart of Yoga by T.V.S. Desikachar. T.V.S. is the son of the man who is considered to be the modern father of yoga, Kirshnamacharya. Yoga means ‘to yoke’; to bring together forming a union. To get to this place we empty our minds of chatter (chitta vritti), unnecessary thoughts that can get in the way of uniting our body and breathing. Caron’s article is a series of seemingly incessant internal thoughts from start of class to finish. Granted, this happens to all of us. But our yoga is to inwardly direct the self-talk so we can minimize it. Yoga is more than a series of poses done in expert fashion. It’s working through a physical practice to begin the real practice of living in the now, without judgement, fear or violence.
I think the article was an attempt to talk about diversity. Was it mired down in a bunch of stuff that was crappy- yup. Caron wrote the article and put it out there- so feedback is going to come. But how do we move forward from here?
It’s my hope that this article doesn’t discourage Black women from trying yoga. While there are a lot of women like this- there are also so many more people who are warm, loving and generous. There are more and more Black yoga teachers (and other teachers of color). This matters- it opens the dialogue and discussion.
I can’t reliably speculate on the Black woman discussed because of the projection of feelings of the author onto a total stranger- so who’s to say she had a bad class at all. But if she did I hope she doesn’t feel discouraged and finds a yoga home where she can feel nurtured and flourish. And if she can’t she can call me and I’ll practice with her.
T.V.S. Desikachar writes:
“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”
There’s some food for thought for all of us. And if that doesn’t work we can listen to Bryan Kest, a teacher who has a no bs approach to yoga and meditation. He often says ‘Keep you eyes on your own fcuking mat.’