beyond duality: talking about race, power & oppression in yoga serviceOver the past few years, the yoga community has demonstrated an increased awareness of social justice issues and initiated more service-oriented projects than ever. Yoga-based programs are moving into inner city schools, prisons, women’s shelters and addiction treatment centres.

A common concern, however, is that practitioners are doing this work without fully understanding the systems of power that oppress the communities they aim to serve.… Read more


beyond duality: talking about race, power & oppression in yoga service

Over the past few years, the yoga community has demonstrated an increased awareness of social justice issues and initiated more service-oriented projects than ever. Yoga-based programs are moving into inner city schools, prisons, women’s shelters and addiction treatment centres.

A common concern, however, is that practitioners are doing this work without fully understanding the systems of power that oppress the communities they aim to serve. Activists and organizers are sometimes frustrated with yoga practitioners’ “missionary” approach, and well-meaning yogis unintentionally offend people with their blindness.

In response to this, yoga service organization Off The Mat, Into The World (OTM) is offering Beyond Duality: Yoga and Social Justice, a four-month online training that will introduce key social justice concepts and how they can be applied within the context of yoga practice. Over nine sessions, a stellar list of guest speakers will cover social justice basics, racism, oppression, the US prison system, ableism, gender and much more.

Established in 2007 and with a worldwide network of yoga leaders, OTM provides a powerful vehicle for online education around yoga and social justice. These kinds of conversations and trainings have been popping up at a grassroots level in urban centres around North America, but an online training makes it possible for an infinite number of people from any location to access this essential conversation.

Reaching Out & Beyond

OTM has the infrastructure and the reach to inform a whole community of practitioners about the complexities of service work. It also signifies an expanded focus for the organization, which has offered trainings and yoga programs for yoga teachers in locations such as Camodia, Africa and “high-risk” communities around North America.

“OTM has been moving towards a dialogue on social justice for a while now,” says Hala Khouri, who co-founded the organization with Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling, and will be co-facilitating this training with Nikki Myers. “It’s partly internally motivated and partly a response to feedback from from our community that we need to work on how we talk about power and oppression.”

Khouri and Myers had many discussions with each other and their allies about how to hold this conversation. After consulting with activists and leaders, attending workshops and reading lists of articles and books, they felt ready to offer this information to the OTM community and beyond.

“Racism, privilege, power – these are subjects that hit hard and deep,” says Myers. “How can we frame this using the tools of mindful awareness and compassionate self-inquiry? How can we really have the conversation that needs to be had? Both of us were both very passionate about these topics, so we wanted to put something together and make it a compassionate conversation.”

It Takes a Village

While Khouri and Myers are co-leaders of the training, they’ve brought in a roster of well-informed speakers to guide the conversation. They designed the curriculum by reaching out to the people in their network who are experts in teaching these topics and asked for suggestions and recommendations.

“This isn’t my expertise,” says Khouri, willingly admitting her background in yoga, dance and Somatic Psychology lacks social justice training. “I had to humble myself and ask the people who have been doing this work. We took all their advice and filtered it through the OTM model, which is about embodiment, personal responsibility and creating a safe container. Once we had an idea of what each speaker could do, I called them and asked what they wanted to talk about. Our process was to take it in and listen, not to tell people what to do.”

The co-facilitators include Teo Drake, a queer transgender yogi who will set the tone with a module on the foundations of compassionate conversation; BK Bose from the Niroga Institute who will discuss the school to prison pipeline and how this affects young black men in particular; and Russell Simmons’ political advisor Michael Skolnik, who “represents the white male who does something great with his privilege,” says Khouri.

Social justice basics will be covered by Tessa Hicks Peterson, an academic, dancer and yogi who speaks the language of embodiment. Peterson also mentored the OTM founders when they started to encounter questions of privilege in their work but didn’t know how to address them.

Responding to Criticism

OTM has been the subject of criticism in the past, particularly for being irresponsible about issues of power and privilege. There’s a common perception that OTM trains young, white, privileged and mostly female yoga teachers, and sends them into “places in need”, providing yoga in lieu of aid. The organization came under fire from leftist, progressive bloggers (including IAYB) for having a presence at the Republican and Democratic national conventions leading up to the 2012 US presidential election, and their efforts are often critiqued for being well-intentioned but misguided.

“Seane, Suzanne and I don’t have a social justice background,” explains Khouri. “Privilege is a conversation that one has to be skilled to have, because it’s difficult. We always knew we weren’t having it, but we weren’t yet qualified to facilitate it. We were students of social justice in the beginning, and we didn’t want to teach something that we weren’t skilled at holding space for.”

Myers, founder of addiction recovery program The Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR), similarly doesn’t have a traditional social justice background. But she does have “a passion that comes out of lived experience as an African-American woman in the United States. What I see in the yoga community is that you go to a conference and you see the amount of people of colour is nowhere near the amount of people of colour in the population. Why is that? Why are a lot of yoga schools not considered welcoming to not just folks of colour, but many others?”

These are the kinds of questions that fuel the Beyond Duality training. Both Khouri and Myers emphasize that while this social justice introduction is the continuation of a process that has been in place for a few years, it’s still the beginning. And they admit that it’s not going to be perfect.

“This is a foundational bedrock so more conversations can occur,” says Myers. “My hope is that with the tools and the commitment that many of us have to yoga, we’ll be open to self-inquiry and self-awareness. This can be a conversation that can happen in a way that brings healing. If there’s ever a community that can have that conversation, I’m hopeful that it’s ours.”

OTM has a vision to hold future trainings and collaborations, to inform their community and anyone else with interest from the larger yoga community, about these essential dynamics that play in everyone’s lives.

Beyond Duality: Yoga and Social Justice happens on the internet from February 27 through June 11, 2014. Tuition is $260 (USD) and sliding scale options are available.

Featured image: OTM’s 2013 Global Action Summit by Kristin Adair (via Facebook)


yoga by numbers: making yoga available to everyone

Next Article

yoga by numbers: making yoga available to everyone

A specially designed yoga mat & learning system, Yoga by Numbers, makes yoga easy for newbies. Founder Elizabeth Morrow explains the idea & philosophy behind her project.
  1. Really glad to see this happening. Thanks, Roseanne, for providing some additional context and background!

  2. I’m curious as to the basis for the statement/question “why are a lot of yoga schools not considered welcoming to not just folks of color, but many others?”.

  3. Thank you all SO much for your humble acknowledgements and vision. I am an African-American yoga teacher and I’m currently leading a yoga teacher training with 11 trainees. Six of the trainees are also African-American. One of my curriculum requirements is a Seva project where they each must teach four classes to an at-risk population of their choice. My intention is to launch a non-profit so that I can take yoga to at-risk youth in inner city schools and their teachers. I think the teachers are the key. Teaching them how to seamlessly integrate simple yoga techniques into their daily curriculum will create a powerful shift. I look forward to taking your training.

    I would love to help in any way.

    Jai !

  4. Hello friends,
    my name is Sukriti, and I am an American yoga teacher of Indian descent. My parents immigrated many years ago, so I am a 1st generation American. I am also passionate about social justice, so I appreciate so very much your and others’ efforts to create spaces for learning about social justice w/regard to yoga.

    I do have a question: has there been any consideration of the Indian story within the larger story of yoga in America? I understand that topics you are covering include discussions of history, race and economics, etc., so is there any time set aside specifically to talk about the history of India, and hence, of yoga in America? I am so glad it has become popular here, but at the same time feel saddened by the fact that most who teach yoga (or really, asana) here, do not really know it’s origins (Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton is a really great reference!).

    I can only speak for my personal experiences, and it seems to me, in Boston at very least, that Indian people are not proportionally represented in yoga classes. Why is that? What would happen if they suddenly started coming? If you are a yoga teacher and reading this, take a moment and consider how you might feel if you came to one of your regular classes one day and instead of your usual crowd you saw a sea of Indian people. Usually the reaction to that imagined scene is telling about your social awareness of yourself as a white or non-Indian yoga teacher, since the teachings originate somewhere other than YOUR home. Things to consider.

    By no means am I saying that only Indian people should be teaching yoga. But seeing a lack of this topic in the description of this course (which looks wonderful and very important!), I thought I’d give voice to my thoughts. Thank you for the work you are doing, and please also consider the work you may not yet have thought about doing.

    With love and gratitude,

    • Sukriti, Thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate your point and it is well taken. I think an exploration of the roots of yoga (I like Mark Singleton’s book too) and a conversation about the history of yoga in America is an important one. We see this series as the start of more, so we will most definitely discuss this important point that you bring up!

      SIncerely, Hala

      • Hala,

        Thank you very much for your response. Here’s to making the yoga experience in America one of staying authentic to who we each are as individuals, with our own stories, homes, and spiritual backgrounds, and also with respect for the seriousness of the systemic oppression of all types of minorities within the yoga industrial complex.

        Thanks again. I look forward to the dialogue, and to learning how I can become a more socially aware student and teacher, myself 🙂

  5. As someone beginning their journey with yoga and who completely intends to work in community development/social justice I can address the unwelcoming side of yoga.

    I am poor, but white and educated. Yoga is not welcoming due to cost.

    Many places are intimidating with their wordage. Questions like are you committed…how would I know, I’m wanting to see what this is.

    It isn’t where we are. I have to drive an hour to find a location. That makes yoga a 3 hour event for me. Now if I want to pay through the nose for a personal trainer who teaches a group class, but doesn’t know squat about yoga I could do that closer to home, but I still couldn’t afford it.

    It is mostly white women with money who go there. They are’t there to be mindful and heal their bodies, they are there for the workout and to say they do yoga, though the second they are on the street they ignore anything they should have learned. These are not my people. They aren’t poor black folks’ people or Hispanic folks’ people either either.

    There is a religious issue. Because yoga stems from Hinduism Buddhism those with a higher level of religiosity see it as a religious threat.

    I’m going to come back around to the hoity-toity nature of so many of those going to classes. It is off putting, and even when it isn’t the reality of a studio, it is the perception. Free beginners classes in the poor areas has to happen to change this. That is my take on it anyway.