race & yoga conference: possibilities, practices & politics

race & yoga conference: possibilities, practices & politics

Even the most casual observer of yoga sees it as a practice associated with white people in the West. The dominant image of the North American yoga practitioner is a white, slender, able-bodied woman. But there a rising groundswell of practitioners who are thinking critically about this image, and confronting the implicit racism within modern yoga culture.

The Race and Yoga Working Group  at UC Berkeley is among this groundswell, committed “to bring[ing] race, gender, class, sexuality, and age to the forefront of discourses surrounding yoga…” They’ve been active for the past few years, and one of their projects is to organize an annual conference.

The second annual Yoga (R)evolution? Interrogating Possibilities and Practices Conference (although it’s come to be known in the shorthand “race and yoga conference” or “yoga and race conference”) took place on Friday, April 10. The focus of the conference was “to critically examine the racial and sexual politics of yoga.” The poster asked: “What dynamics are operating in yoga spaces that promote community, inclusivity, and safety? What are the histories, methods, and ideologies that underpin these projects? What are the goals, possibilities, limitations, and achievements?”

And so there were about 75 – 100 of us squeezed into UC Berkeley’s Multicultural Community Center for panel discussions and paper presentations on what race, gender, colonialism, and structural oppression have to do with yoga (hint: a lot). The event was billed as an academic conference, and it appeared that many of the people attending were indeed academics. But I suspect attendees may have been a bit more mixed than your average academic conference, with big representation from progressive Bay Area teachers and teacher trainers (or, as an east bay resident and studio owner noted, many of the community’s “usual suspects”).

At the civil time of 10am, after some bagels and coffee and mingling, the event kicked off with a keynote by Dianne Bondy, a well-known self-described “fat black yoga teacher” and founder of Yogasteya.com. She’s no academic, so her opening speech was warm, relevant and accessible (not that academics aren’t these things, but you know). Her talk set the tone for the day by introducing the context of yoga in North America, and noted how the dominant image of white, affluent, able-bodied women is actually an embodiment of white supremacy (read about her experience and check out her slide show).

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge my position as an attendee at this conference. I am a cisgender woman who has privileges of race (I am white – and not just white, but like Lena Dunham white), education (university degree), and ableism. My social class and work situation allow me the privilege of taking time off from my day job and the financial means to fly from Victoria, BC to Oakland, CA. And while I like to think of myself as a nice, non-racist person, I know that I’ve also internalized racism in ways I’m not even aware of.

I was there because I believe yoga is a tool for liberation, on individual and social levels. Because I want justice and equality for everyone. Because I support conversations about accessibility and inclusivity in yoga (and the world!). Because as a blogger, I can serve by amplifying the conversation. And because this kind of event is an opportunity to educate and challenge myself, unlearn some of my racism, and learn how to be a better ally.

After Dianne’s keynote, I attended panels on yoga and whiteness, South Asian diasporic voices, conscious/unconscious yoga, and interrogating yoga communities. I wasn’t able to attend equally fascinating sessions on trauma, art and “Liberation Yoga of Occupy Oakland,” although I wish there was a way I could have.

Each panel was too rich and meaty to sum up in this blog post. I learned some new things, unlearned some others and at times felt deeply uncomfortable. I questioned what right did I think I have to be there, and wrestled with old feelings of guilt and embarrassment. But my role was to witness and listen (and tweet – see the hashtag #raceandyoga for the convo).

Here are some of the standout ideas/discussion points for me:

Mainstream yoga culture needs to recognize that race & racism is implicit in everything

As Dianne Bondy pointed out in her keynote, yoga in North America is apparently dominated by white, affluent, able-bodied women, and yoga practitioners have a tendancy to be colourblind. This thread turned up in presentations and discussions throughout the day. It was particularly highlighted in Darshini Shah’s paper on forced inclusion in yoga teacher trainings, where she was racially singled out and forced to comment on yoga traditions and practices, even though she was participating as a student not a teacher.

Being interested in something is not alliance

This was one of many salient points in a panel discussion organized by SAAPYA (South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga) for a discussion about South Asian stewardship within yoga culture. The point of this conference was not to educate white people on how to be an ally, but admittedly allyship is one of my practices so Roopa Singh’s comment gave me reason to pause. It was a reminder that alliance and solidarity are work, involving conversation, compassion and more.

Political consciousness and somatic movement are inextricable

In her paper on “conscious dance,” Stephanie Sherman looked at communities of movement practices, and analyzed “conscious community” as a superficial label that shuts down radical criticism. She emphaphized that any kind of deep awareness building practice must confront privilege, and noted an absence of this in white dance communities. As somebody who has been involved in yoga “community building” projects, I have also noticed a similar absence in yoga circles. Sherman also had the best one-liner of the day: “Just because I’m not aware of my psoas – like white supremacy – doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Boom!

The conference ended with a final keynote by BK Bose of the Niroga Institute, an Oakland-based organization who are doing good work bringing mindful yoga practices to at-risk and underserved individuals, families, and communities. I’ve seen him speak several times and he was as eloquent as usual. His talk, however, didn’t quite hit the right note as the closing. He gave a powerpoint presentation on the institute’s work, and while he made it clear that he was speaking of Niroga as a model, it still felt more like a presentation for potential investors or collaborators than a room full of activisty yoga people. Nevertheless, it was a solid introduction to a justice-oriented non-profit working towards change.

While I love a good gathering of yoga nerds, I also have to say that the academic conference structure didn’t work for content of event. It’s super dullsville to watch somebody read a paper at the front of a room, no matter how fascinating it is. The tightly packed schedule and hour-long time slots left little room for questions or comments from the audience. I could feel hunger for dialogue in each panel that I attended. The event would benefit from some skilled facillitators and a creative, more interactive structure. It’s possible to keep the intellectual rigour while allowing more space for conversation and exchange of ideas.

Overall, it was refreshing to go to a yoga-based event that wasn’t co-sponsored by a clothing brand or hand out swag bags full of tea, protein bars and yoga retreat promo. But the lack of yoga-preneurial dollars also means that this event is powered by a small organizing team of volunteers who are also academics, community activists, writers, and more. It can be a challenge to sustain momentum, and I sincerely hope that this little conference keeps on keeping on. Even better, I’d like to see elements of this event integrated into studios, yoga spaces and communities around the continent. It’s an essential discussion to be having within North American yoga.

Featured image: Dianne Bondy, via doyouyoga.com

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