more than good intentions: privilege, power & the language of karma yoga

Nov 29, 2012 by

image via karmateachers.com

Moonlitmoth is a small blog with big ideas about yoga and social justice in Vancouver, BC. In a recent post, Andrea, the voice behind the blog, did a smart and incisive analysis of an Elephant Journal profile of Karma Teachers, a studio that offers free or by donation classes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The DTES is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada and noted for a high incidence of drug use, sex trade and crime. The blog points out that even though the article (and the studio) are dripping with good intentions, the language used to explain Karma Teachers’ work is problematic.

From the post:

What I’d like to draw some attention to here is the language used to the describe the “huddled masses” Karma Teachers are “in service to”:

“We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks. This is where Karma Teachers have opened their new studio. They are on a mission: teaching yoga for free with an open door policy in this forgotten part of town” (emphasis added).

As far as I’m aware the person who wrote this article is not a member of Karma Teachers. They don’t live in Vancouver. Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.

I find this article troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, how do you think potential students (or, you know, the “huddled masses”) would feel about this description? Do you think it would make them feel welcome and respected or looked down on and untouchable – just like they are made to feel every day by most of society? When we talk about accessibility, do we just mean prices, or are we actually attempting to create safer space where people can leave the judgments others have of them at the door? Our words have power and in this case they serve to illuminate a massive perceived separation between the people being served and the people doing the service.

Second, this piece is quite de-humanizing and degrading to the people being described. Yes, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are homeless, suffering from addiction or involved in the sex trade, but they are people having these experience. They are not simply “homeless” or “drunks”. The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”.

MLM then goes into a stellar summary of colonization and gentrification, and how it specifically relates to the Downtown Eastside context. While the analysis is specific to the EJ article and how it portrays the work of Karma Teachers, it speaks to something universal in the language of yoga service: the absence of discussion about power and privilege. In closing, the author of the post says:

I want to make clear that while I feel strongly that this language is a problem and indicative of a power and privilege imbalance that needs to be addressed, I am not saying that their isn’t an opportunity for good work to be done here. I think offering accessible yoga is valuable and sacred work. It’s work that I feel called to do, however imperfectly. I’m simply suggesting that we need to be mindful of what we are trying to accomplish when we set our intentions for this work – are we suggesting that the community we hope to serve is broken? Are we saying that they must change or be “revitalized”? Or are we meeting people exactly where they are at and doing our best to empower them?

Read the whole post on the Moonlitmoth blog. What do you think about the lack of discussion about power and privilege in the yoga community? What other well-intentioned yoga projects could use a primer in anti-oppressive language?

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5 Comments

  1. Kathy Lawson

    This is great. Thank you for highlighting it! I think that the yoga community (as well as all the individuals and groups that those of us involved in yoga service endeavor to serve) could certainly benefit from some frank talk about privilege and power. While the ultimate goal of practice may be the realization in our hearts and minds that you and I are one, that there is no ‘other,’ the fact of the matter is that systemic and structural inequality exists in our world. Appealing to the ‘oneness’ mantra absent a clear contextual understanding and appreciation for structures of power and oppression furthers no one’s enlightenment.

    • i completely agree! i love this post, and felt compelled to share it, because i think it opens up the conversation.

  2. I agree with most everything in the article except this assumption which is a weak point in the argument.: “Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.”

    I don’t necessarily think it means the folks at Karma think the same exact way. Going to the link at the Karma site an scrolling down you see an actual interview with the following:

    “It started as tiny idea that blossomed into a community of yoga teachers who constantly make a difference by promoting the act of selfless giving through their own example by teaching yoga as a part of their Seva. (Seva in Sanskrit means selfless service). I was not alone in my wanting to share the life changing effects of yoga: to my fellow soon-to-be teachers, I asked the question of “Would you be willing to teach for free?” the response was a resounding “Yes.” A couple of days later I was walking around the downtown eastside. I was in the middle of West and East Hastings, the poorest postal code in Canada with the highest concentration of drug use – and I realized that this is the street where the most transformations can happen. Not only did I find the studio location on the third floor of “The Phoenix Building” at 45 W Hastings St., but I also found the center of my heart.”

    And

    “We hold fund raising events like the Yogathon and Kids Yoga Teacher Training for Rainbow kids and Autism awareness. We have introduced hundreds of brand new students to yoga, students who you would never imagine to be in yoga studio. Our open door policy really means that it is for everyone. I have taught the homeless, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual), Kids with ADD, ADHD and Autism and I really, really want to reach out to more people.”

    Which isn’t quite the same tone and attitude as the article to me.

    Just a bit of nuance.

    • I would have to respectfully disagree- in my humble opinion, when an organization or company posts an article on their website the reader is to assume that they endorse what is said in that article. Otherwise, why would they have posted it? It’s basic business-media logic.

      Thank you, though, for highlighting further interviews from the site- I agree that it’s important to recognize that these individuals may not be fully represented by the EJ author’s words.

      I would have hoped, instead, that Karma Teacher’s would have recognized the problematic language in the article and would have either- contacted the EJ author for discussion and editing, or responded on their site (or EJ) publicly.

  3. YES. Thank you so much for finding and highlighting this.

    This is a conversation I have been wanting to participate in, but not knowing quite how or where to begin. It’s subtle, and requires that those of us who do have relative privilege be open to a bit of critique and self-assessment about the way that privilege conditions our eyes and our language. And the ways that we enter in to relationship with perceived others.

    Thanks again…

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