Starting a Social Justice Yoga Study Group

In our last blog post we laid out why this work is important to us as Iyengar yoga practitioners. If you have not read it yet, check it out here. One of our calls to action is to start a Social Justice and Yoga Study Group. Below are some considerations when starting such a group and some first steps to take once your group has formed. 

Who’s interested: 

Assess who is interested in being a part of social justice and yoga conversations. These folks could be teachers, students, local community members, a teacher apprentice or training group. Start to bring up the idea in newsletters and before class announcements and see who latches on!

Planning a first meeting: 

Once a group of interested people start to form, determine how often you would like to meet. Remember this is ongoing work and not something that will be accomplished in one day. Plan in a way that allows for sustained engagement of the group when thinking about how often and how long the group will gather. Consider potential barriers that may prevent people from participating. Is the location accessible to folks who cannot use stairs or who may use wheelchairs? Does this include power chairs? Does the time work for those who are primary caregivers to children or elders or is the space child friendly? If the meeting is happening over a meal time, could there be volunteers to offer snacks or a meal? 

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” B.K.S. Iyengar

Group Format

Consider what format the group may take. There are many ways to have these conversations and the identity make up of your group may play a role in determining what your group looks like. Many groups will need to figure out what ratio of reflective versus action oriented work they want to do. For example, part of this work is learning and better understanding how White Supremacy has impacted each of us individually in order to better understand how we participate in the system and where we can challenge that system. Your group may have specific actions or tasks they also want to organize around completing. These are details that can be expanded upon in first meetings, but also knowing some goals or interests ahead of time may help to determine group format. For example, affinity groups or caucuses can be a way to allow for deeper exploration of our individual identities around race, sexual orientation, gender identity and class privilege. There is some work best done together and some work most fruitful done in identity-based groups. To learn more about caucusing, check out this link.  Ruth King, an organizer who uses mindfulness as a tool for exploring racial identity, also offers a lovely explanation and agenda for racial affinity groups (RAGS) in this post here. The purpose of caucus groups is not to replace multi-racial work, but to allow for space to explore the unique ways our racial identities have either perpetuated harm or been harmed, so that we can return to a multi-racial or multi-identity conversation space with more awareness and compassion. Sometimes this exploration of avidya within our racial identity can be painful, overwhelming and stifled by the presence of other identities. Particularly for those that hold identities that have caused harm, our processing and presence can cause undue harm and work for folks of color or other people in oppressed communities. Explore with your group what needs affinity groups can serve and how and when your group wants to come together. 

Gather Resources
Some groups may find it helpful to work from a text or have an exercise to reference for group discussion. We hope that our blog will be a continual resource for Iyengar Yoga practitioners looking to continue this work in local communities. We will be posting updates monthly and are developing  a resource page with plenty of discussion potential. There is also a wealth of resources for groups to use on the internet and in your local libraries. Perhaps the group would prefer listening to a podcast series, watching a movie, or going to a local event and reflecting on their experiences together. And remember all the amazing yoga text we have available! Reflect on how your group conversations interact with the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita or some of BKS Iyengar’s writings. Allow the work to be intersectional. We are approaching this work from the lense of how racism has impacted our Iyengar Yoga community, and intersectionality is an important part of us that asks us to explore how our racial identities interact and intersect with all the other parts of ourselves. Here are a few places to get you started: 

“We are a little piece of continual change, looking at an infinite quantity of continual change.” B.K.S. Iyengar

Create Group Guidelines

These conversations can be awkward and downright hard, especially if it’s a topic we are unfamiliar with discussing. Creating group guidelines at the start of your first gathering and taking time to review and re-evaluate at future meetings can be a helpful way to build a safe space for exploration. Below are some suggested guidelines listed in the Dismantling Racism Workbook from 2016 (find on our resources page): 

  • Be fully present (silence cell phones). 
  • Stay the whole time and stay engaged. 
  • Be comfortable with silence and accept a lack of closure. 
  • Speak for yourself (use I statements). 
  • Respect yourself and others. 
  • Assume that everyone has a very good reason for feeling/saying what they do. 
  • Take risks, ask questions, seek to understand. 
  • Move forward, move back (notice how much talking space you’re taking up) 
  • Speak honestly (no attribution/ no retribution). 
  • Recognize all forms of oppression (no hierarchy, but rather interconnection) while staying focused on racism. 
  • Honor confidentiality. 
  • Lean into and expect discomfort (growing edges are usually accompanied by discomfort). 
  • Hold both that there are no quick fixes and our task is urgent.
  • Be prepared for messiness and non-closure.

This is important work that takes time. Like any of us who have struggled in a challenging asana, we know that change does not happen overnight. Start small, be open to growth, know that barriers are likely to arise, be curious as you work through them and acquire the support you need to move deeper, just like any good asana practice. Our hope is that this website and blog space can be a place for many of us to connect nationally and internationally around these topics, but we have experienced that some of the most gratifying work happens in our local communities and in person interactions. Reach out and let us know if your community is meeting, what questions are coming up for you and what work you are taking on. Your work may inspire others!

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