Wednesday, April 7, 2021

How Ableism Shapes Modern Yoga

Man doing handstand with knees bent, legs crossed behind buttocks

Culture, Power, and Modern Yoga: Insights from the East and West (Part 3)

by Anjali Rao and Lorien Neargarder

Changing American yoga culture is an act of love. Relationships take work. In the early years of Lorien's marriage, she and her husband would have what they called, "State of the Union" discussions. The talksgrew out of the wish to be better partners, so these talks were more of an act of love than condemning some action, although they made sure to name what needed improving because to skip over the ugly bits and ignore the feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment in order to keep the peace only made problems fester and worsen.

This is what happens when people gloss over the issues in our American yoga culture and apply the big picture, "We are all one" platitude; when we do this long enough we can start to see the world through a distorted lens. For example, Lorien spent years shifting her fearful/angry/dissatisfied attitude to focus solely on the positive aspects of her life that her yoga practice had amplified for her, a White woman of privilege.

When a friend complained to her about feeling singled out in yoga class because of her size and skin color which doesn't conform to the dominant culture, Lorien was ill-prepared to hear her friend's pain. And instead spouted something about gratitude and how her friend should think about the experience of the other students and not just herself because there is only so much a teacher can do for her, a single student in a full class. Lorien could tell almost immediately that her friend interpreted this response as, "Your experience doesn't matter."

This exchange is an example of how we can fall into the trap of spiritual bypass, the habit of ignoring discomfort and necessary growth by shifting our attention to disconnected spiritual practices and ideas. We love our practices and we don't want to miss any opportunities to be better partners to our BIPOC friends by advocating for more inclusive, safe yoga spaces, or by simply listening to them, believing them and building trust with them; we also don't want to miss the opportunity to be better to ourselves, who we harm by ignoring the discomfort of necessary growth, which is why we need to challenge and disrupt, with love, the parts of the yoga culture that don't work for all Americans.

Ableist Culture

Yoga emerged as a collection of practices and philosophies from Brown and Black people, from the Indus Valley Civilization (modern day Pakistan-India) from over 2,500 years ago. The evolution and the history of this ancient practice is complex and traverses through the region over centuries, and is rooted in deep spiritual meaning; Kemetic Yoga, from Egypt, believed the goal to be the ultimate union of the human with the Divine.

Asana is the physical part of the practice and is considered a very small part of Classical Yoga. Yet, the physical practice has now become synonymous with yoga because it has been taken over by Western sensibilities. A glance at any magazine that has the word "yoga" in it, refers primarily to asana and rarely includes a word about the philosophy and the belief system or culture that birthed it.

This approach harms so many. There is an erasure of South Asian culture, specifically, Indian teachers/practitioners/authors/experts, when the representations of yoga at all levels are predominantly White-centric, able-bodied, thin, young, and hyper-flexible women.

At the root of Western marketing is the exploitation of the human emotions of fear and envy. Look again at those yoga magazines and notice the extreme poses the models take, as if to say, "If you buy what I'm selling (magazines, expert advice, retreats, courses, clothing, accoutrements, etc.) you can look like me!" This implies that this level of physical practice is achievable for everyone (it isn't) and that once you are able to "do" yoga, all your problems disappear (they don't).

Humans come in a wide range visible differences––bodies that move well and those that don't, bodies with a different number of limbs or organs than others, bodies with extra flesh, or bodies with a different level of seeing and hearing, for example.

Humans also come in a wide range of invisible differences. Mental health, persistent pain, addiction, learning abilities, serious illness, and neurological differences don't fit the mold and are left out of the marketing definition of yoga. The picture of brown-skinned, larger-bodied humans whose physical prowess doesn't evoke envy would not sell magazines, so our representations of yoga leave these humans out.

Yoga has an ableist culture problem. We need more accessibility.

We disrupt ableist culture when yoga teachers center their student's experience over their own biases. This requires from teachers a high degree of empathy, trust, and humility which may be challenging for able-bodied teachers but the reward of supporting someone who has had to ask for these things from their teachers all their life is worth it.

Reflection Points:
  • What are the obstacles to build equity and accessibility in your yoga space?
  • How and what can help remove those obstacles? 

Call to Action: Collaborate for Change

This is a movement that needs all of us to come together to call out the exclusion, to call out the racism, to call out the inequity, and call in each other. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the harm done, accountability for the erasure and the silences. We can learn how to practice yoga without harming or taking away from another’s culture, thus practicing ahimsa, non-harming, the first Yama of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. We can as teachers, center the student’s experience rather than have our own agenda and sensibilities projected onto them. We can, as students, learn from BIPOC teachers, diversify who we view as experts, and use our dollars to cultivate equity and build accessibility into our teaching and practicing spaces.

Diverse teachers encourage diverse students. The good news is that there are many BIPOC yoga activists/diverse teachers/practitioners with powerful voices who are working to disrupt the White capitalistic stronghold in Western yoga. If you identify as White, amplify brown and Black teachers, engage with the community, learn and listen to the stories shared, speak out clearly against White supremacy and ableism. If you identify as BIPOC, take up space, rest, call in and call out allies and accomplices to build a co-culture that celebrates and embraces differences in every way.

Anjali Rao
came to the Yoga mat at nearly 40 recovering from surgery from Breast Cancer. She studies, teaches, and writes about Yoga philosophy/ history from a socio-political perspective and is deeply interested in the intersectionality of race, culture, gender and accessibility of Yoga practices. She aims to make the practice Yoga on and off the mat accessible, helpful and joyful to people across ages, genders and abilities. She is a part of the teacher training faculty in 200 and 300 hour programs in the Bay Area and teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivorship for the Stanford Cancer Program. She serves on the Board for HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status. She is a lifelong student of Indian Classical Dance, a sucker for puppies, loves dark chocolate, the ocean and old trees.

Lorien Neargarde
r (E-RYT500, C-IAYT) has been offering yoga practices in a variety of spaces since 2004 and has learned from the diverse spectrum of students who show up to these spaces: adult education program, elementary / middle / high school, businesses, family psychology center, psychiatric ward, pain rehabilitation clinic, oncology ward, library and yoga studios. She specializes in working with people diagnosed with cancer and started her own nonprofit in 2018 in order to offer yoga (and other support care) to them free of charge.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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