Yoga studios and service organizations start with the intention of being inclusive and open, but may sometimes be missing the language or process to be truly accessible. In this guest post, Cristien Storm explains what an anti-oppression framework is and how it can be applied in yoga spaces and organizations.
Those of us involved in contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation are often very dedicated to reducing violence in the world and in our lives. Without an understanding of power and privilege, however there can be a powerful disconnect between intent and impact.
An example is when (predominantly white/mainstream) studios offer discount classes for at risk youth of color with no understanding of the complexities of oppression. While the intent of offering classes like this is to do good and have yoga be more accessible, studios and teachers risk reinforcing a culture of white privilege even as they espouse values of respect. The term at risk, for example, is deficit language and signals otherness, especially if youth enter a space and don’t see anyone or anything else that reflects them and their community. This includes teachers, studio owners, neighborhood business, art and decorations in studio, music, language, dress, style of how classes are instructed among many other things.
Without an anti-oppression framework studios often bring individuals into environments with an unspoken expectation that they adapt to the culture of the studio, which is a primary function of how privilege operates: you adapt and assimilate to my world, not the other way around. This is not the intention of the teachers and studios that offer classes to at risk youth, but it is very often the impact. Developing and working from an awareness and understanding of power and privilege helps set studios up for more successful ways of making yoga accessible.
Start Where You Are
When groups engage in anti-oppression work, process is important. How an organization or studio starts conversations and creates action steps towards more accessible programs matters a great deal. Many organizations bring in one or two people from identified communities as staff, teachers or board members believing their voice and presence will produce more accessibility. While having more diversity among teachers, students, mentors, volunteers and staff is laudable, without deeper structural and organizational changes, this approach is tokenizing.
In the beginning, it is important for studio owners and yoga service organizations to assess how privilege informs organizational structure and culture. Assessing privilege is difficult because privilege, by its very nature, is invisible. This process takes time and commitment. Studios or groups can start by having an organization that provides anti-oppression training come in and do a workshop for staff, teachers and volunteers. If money is a concern, studios can host a series of benefits to raise funds for trainings. This not only publically reaffirms commitment to the process of developing an anti-oppression framework, but can also bring community members together to start this process.
Get the word out that your group or studio is committing to developing an anti-oppression framework and is looking for people and/or groups who can facilitate trainings or a discussion series. Read anti-oppression books* and discuss with staff, teachers and students how to begin to address power and privilege in your studio or classes. For other resources and exercices, see Organizing for Power’s list.
Asking the Tough Questions
Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, systemic and institutional levels. It offers advantages and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. People who have privileges often believe that they have earned them and that they are available to everyone. Often those without privileges are blamed for not having them.
Some questions to ask when developing an understanding of privilege in your yoga space:
How is your curricula informed by dominant cultural values? Studios sometimes offer classes to identified communities without considering how their curricula may be informed by and presented with dominant cultural values and the impact such curricula may have. For example asking people with chronic pain to “sit with their pain,” with no discussion of the privilege of being able to choose when and how to sit with it, may create an environment that feels inaccessible to people with chronic pain or health concerns. Or, discussing the principles of ahimsa with no understanding of how righteous anger is an important tool for surviving oppression. Saying things like “Everyone is in a prison of some sort,” without reflecting on the realities of how the prison industrial complex impacts poor communities and communities of color, can, again, create an unwelcoming environment.
What is the impact of taking classes in a space that is not accessible? Teachers often blame students who drop out without considering why, or understanding the impact of taking classes where you do not see teachers or other students who are part of your community.
How are your classes/workshops/trainings accessible? It is important to consider a variety of ways that classes are inaccessible to people. One example is studios not considering physical access of classes, workshops or events (i.e. not having discussion about how may stairs there are, bus routes, cost of having to take a cab, waking or personal scooter routes to and from the space, length of sitting, standing during events, how lighting may effect people’s ability to participate).
Developing and working from an anti-oppression framework is challenging and important work. It involves considering the impacts of power, privilege and systems of oppression, shifting towards more accessibility, inclusivity, equity and incorporating social justice values. It is important not only because when we do not operate from an anti-oppression framework we exclude valuable voices, ideas, people and possibilities, but also because not doing so means we are consenting to, engaging in and perpetuating systems that cause harm to many people and communities.
About the writer: Cristien Storm has written and performed all her life, starting with short political rants about grade school social hierarchies and on to performances with powerhouses including Lydia lunch, Exene Cervenka and Joan Jett. She is the author of Living In liberation: Boundary Setting, Self-Care & Social Change and three chapbooks Eye of the Storm, Passing Go and Moments. Her poetry has been included on various recordings including Heart of a Dog, Stop Rape Now and The Art of Self Defense. She has had the privilege of performing with many amazing artists and is grateful to each and every one whose commitment to their passion makes the world a better place. Cristien is a co-founder and former Director of Home Alive, where she developed and facilitated self-defense and boundary setting curricula rooted in traditional marital arts and progressive liberation theory.
* A list of books to get you started could include: A People’s History of The United States or You Can’t Stay Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, Boundary Setting, Self Care & Social Change by Cristien Storm, The Revolution Starts at Home by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, Leah Lakshmi, Piepzna-Samarasinha and Andrea Smith, White Lies by Maurice Berger, Transliberation by Leslie Feinberg, Teaching Community A Pedagogy Of Hope by bell hooks, In The Time Of The Right- Reflections On Liberation by Suzanne Pharr, We Are All Suspects Now by Tram Nguyen, The Compassionate Life by The Dalai Lama, The Darker Nations and The Karma Of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, Kindred by Octavia Butler, White Like Me by Tim Wise, The Sprit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anné Fadiman.