This Work is for All of Us: The Kriya Yoga of Anti-Racism

“Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through the individual, society and community develop.” ~ BKS Iyengar, Tree of Yoga

Most of us in the USA are busy getting by. Maybe you have a college degree, or post-college degrees, or not. Maybe you have children, maybe a partner, or not. You may own a home or not. Most of us have jobs, both paid and unpaid, and a whole boatload of various responsibilities. Most people in the USA are not activists or social justice organizers who work in movements for change, whether it involves dismantling racism/white supremacy, protecting the environment, electoral political campaigns, combating gun violence, or any number of other movements.

Whether or not we deem ourselves social justice activists, these issues shape each of our lives. As famed people’s historian Howard Zinn pointed out, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The same way avoiding particular asanas (“I don’t do backbends because I have a stiff spine”) makes absolutely certain that the spine will get even stiffer, choosing not to get politically involved in our communities means decisions will be made without you. That is, by your nonparticipation, you are supporting the decisions of the powers-that-be, and their status quo. 

Let’s say a neighborhood school is closing because the local school system is being defunded and privatized, and the state education budget is being slashed. Meanwhile, major corporations are getting tax breaks, and corporate developers are buying up land and buildings. If I choose not to speak out (emails, letters, phone calls, contacting elected officials, going to meetings, talking to neighbors….), the plan for “redevelopment” will succeed. Our neighborhood children and families will lose a major resource, be forced to travel to distant schools, and the fabric of the community severely weakened. Maybe the land will be turned into expensive condos, property values and taxes will skyrocket, and residents forced into foreclosures and evictions. You get the picture? We’ve got to connect the dots, and see the big, systemic picture.

Ultimately, silence is violence. We and our neighbors will simply get plowed over.

But we are yoga practitioners, and many of us professional part-time and full-time Iyengar Yoga teachers. We have devoted ourselves to this spiritual path. BKS Iyengar is our guru. We’ve studied at the feet of Geeta Iyengar. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about the development and evolution of consciousness through the daily devotional practice of yoga. Many of us are teachers, running centers for the study of Iyengar Yoga, and training and mentoring other teachers. Many of us are involved in running local, regional, and national Iyengar Yoga associations. Many of us have devoted our lives to this arduous path. We may feel spiritually called to this work and this path. The practice of yoga over the years has honed and refined us energetically, such that we may be doing the work of 2 or 3 people in a single lifetime. That is, we have learned how to be extremely efficient and productive and effective in our lives, in each role we serve.

Social justice? Community organizing? Activism? We have no time, it is not our role, or we do not know how. Besides, ours is a special path. In traditional Indian society, we might be members of the priest caste. Our dharma might be to inspire tapas, self study, and surrendering, not changing social castes or structures. 

However, the reality is that no one is exempt. No one can escape politics. No one is left out of history. No one is separate from social change, or the repetition of the status quo. It’s only a matter of “Which side will I take, and how will I take action?”

Many Iyengar Yoga classes in the USA are populated by white folks over 40, often from university communities, with expendable income, time to study and practice, and money to afford $15-$25 classes and $50 workshops. They have stable housing, consistent transportation, healthcare, childcare, and other needs met. We have a reputation for elitism, and our communities are characterized as the domain of well-to-do, educated people in upper middle class enclaves. In the USA, that translates as “white.” As a result, the locations of Iyengar studios and the places where Iyengar Yoga teachers live and interact with others are often disconnected from the places and spaces where yoga can bring so much good.  

In most cities, only the elite even know what Iyengar Yoga is. But lower income folks practice yoga too. They attend classes at their community centers, places of worship, public parks and more. These might be free or donation or $5 classes. They might practice at home, from free or inexpensive apps, or YouTube. They might be doing yoga because they have chronic back pain, or it helps them deal with stress, or they don’t have time or money to go to the gym. But they probably do not come to our classes, if they’ve even heard of us.

In Iyengar Yoga circles in the USA, one often hears concern that our student population is getting older and older. Almost all our Senior Teachers are in their 60s and 70s. Many Iyengar Yoga centers are struggling, or closing. There’s been a lot of discussion about how to attract young folks to the practice. Often, there is a tone of resignation: 

  • “Iyengar Yoga is not for everyone.” 
  • “Everyone just wants a work-out. No one wants to study.”
  • “People have to come to me when they’re ready.”

In some sectors of Iyengar Yoga in the USA, there is voiced concern that the student population is overwhelmingly white, or that the few people of color are upper class, or international elites. Most major American cities are at least 50% people of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Arabic/Middle Eastern, Native American). Yet they are typically not represented in Iyengar Yoga classes in those cities. Are there some widespread reasons that Iyengar Yoga students do not accurately reflect the population of the cities where they’re located?

Many Iyengar Yoga practitioners and teachers seem to be content with the status quo. Others want to be inclusive, but feel anxious about how to proceed when their classes lack racial diversity, despite the fact that they want to offer a kind, compassionate environment welcome to everyone. There’s also an increasing number eager to do something to change this reality. Regardless of whether or not people see themselves as ‘political’ or activists, there are meaningful ways positive change is possible. 

Those of us in the Ahimsa in Action team, who helped organize the workshop at the 2019 National Iyengar Yoga convention, and who are continuing the work of addressing social justice in the Iyengar Yoga USA community, believe that through collaboration, sharing ideas and practices, we can build a robust community that is more reflective of the United States population. 

We feel that the future of Iyengar Yoga in the USA is incumbent on our evolution as socially, politically, and historically interconnected beings. When we practice asana, we are critically examining ourselves to see what is moving and what is not moving, to take our mind to those places within our body and mind to evolve our pose. Work on the mat is where the training of the mind begins, but not where the work ends. 

That is, Iyengar Yoga does not exist in a spiritual vacuum. We are part of the fabric and history of the USA. We are the products of our racist history and formation, which continues to this day, in absolutely every type of human activity. We have a daily choice of being either racist, or anti-racist.

Our recent struggles regarding sexual misconduct in our national Iyengar Yoga community remind us that just as racism is embedded in our society, so are sexism and male dominance. Combined with a culture of hierarchy and silence, we have allowed members of our community to be harmed and traumatized. Our community is struggling with collective heartbreak, guilt, anger, and a continuing need for reparations and healing because of these injustices. So that we are not paralyzed into inaction, shame, and guilt, we seek guidance, return to the known, and rest.  Thus we can move forward toward a future of interconnectivity and support. 

We need to educate ourselves, have conversations, develop networks of support, and have long-term vision paired with consistent action in order to move forward. We will be required to develop a new way of seeing that unveils the avidya which impairs our ability to see how our practices and habits centralize white, middle class, heterosexual practioners and leave the rest of our community and their perspective either tokenized or voiceless.  

Silence and inaction inevitably benefit the dominant, privileged groups, and harm the border and targeted groups, just as physical inactivity inevitably results in injury and disease. 

So what does it mean to be part of an anti-racist Iyengar Yoga center? So many things! We have a ton of ideas and activities, and perhaps you do too. We will be using our blog to collect these ideas, provide resources, and create a forum for discussion. 

What can you do now?

  • Subscribe to our blog.
  • Read and study, get and stay informed.
  • Connect with your non-white neighbors and communities. Begin conversations. 
  • Begin a local Social Justice and Yoga study group.
  • Write your own reflections on race and social justice regarding Iyengar Yoga.

We look forward to working together: white folks of all ages and classes, folks of color who may or may not feel marginalized in mainstream society and the US Iyengar Yoga culture, and anyone who is the least bit interested in shaping the future of Iyengar Yoga culture in our communities and in our nation.

Please join us!

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