A couple of activist yogis from Vancouver just finished taking their yoga and solidarity workshop across the country with stops in Kitchener, Toronto and Montreal. IAYB wasn’t able to attend the Montreal edition, but special correspondent Earth Energy Reader was there. She reports on the awesomeness that went down.
This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the Sacred Justice workshop at Ambaa Yoga, a not-for-profit yoga space in Montreal. The workshop focused on examining the connections and relationships between power, privilege and justice, and how these huge issues come into play within the yoga practice and the yoga studio. It also included a discussion of positive initiatives which activists, practitioners, teachers and studio owners can take to address these issues.
Clearly, not an easy selection of topics for a sunny Saturday afternoon in July.
Kandace Dragonfly, an activist and co-creator of Community YogaVancouver in BC, facilitated the afternoon’s proceedings and the four-hour workshop literally flew by, an indication of how involved the discussion became.
Several of us were persons of color (POC), while some identified themselves with orientations outside the heteronormative paradigm and others did not. Some members identified themselves with having had issues around mobility and others presented themselves with having to come to terms with body-acceptance. I think it’s also safe to say that most of us also have strongly leftist and/or anarchist political sympathies as well. However, having said all that, in hindsight I really think because many members in the discussion group came from minority groups of whatever sort, this diverse make-up precisely allowed the discussion to explore these often difficult themes in much more depth and in a very respectful and considerate manner to all.
Encountering Yoga & Challenging Concepts
I came into the workshop as a person of color, of Bengali heritage, a heterosexual female with no physical accessibility issues. My first encounter with “Western” yoga was Bikram yoga simply because I did not at the time know that there was anything else out there. I eventually settled into going to studios which practiced various styles of vinyasa flow types of yoga in a hot space. As I had written earlier, I got turned off by the yoga scene for a whole host of issues, but the issues of cultural appropriation and the lack of diversity are the two primary ones which hit particularly close to home for me. I am now in a place where I realize I do not have to settle for going to a space I feel uncomfortable in, that there are far better and far more comfortable options out there than those I first started in.
The workshop was set up around the idea of word association. In an exercise, Kandace would put a word out there and then we were asked what words/concepts we associated with them. They were loaded and heavy words like “power,” “privilege,” “justice,” “solidarity,” “allies” and “community.” Kandace then allowed all members to add in their various insights. This format allowed a free-flowing discussion of our experiences with these topics, largely within the context of the yoga studio and yoga community.
Since we were in a yoga studio and on the floor, most of us were feeling the need to stretch a little after the two and a half hour mark; the group voted to have a short yoga practice and then continue the discussion. The workshop concluded with a discussion of concrete actions members of the yoga community can do to incorporate more of these ideas of social justice, diversity and accessibility. This format worked very well since we were a small group of 12, though for larger groups of say 30+, the format would probably have to be changed a little, like breaking off into smaller groups for instance.
Tackling Questions of Privilege & Accessibility
I can’t speak for the other members of the group, but for me it was quite an enlightening exercise. It helped me realize my own biases and things I take for granted as a heterosexual female, like gender-specific washrooms and change-areas, and why these seemingly “small” things are major issues for persons who identify themselves as trans or cis. It made me realize why consent cards are really about respecting other people’s boundaries, regardless of “what you were taught.” It also, unfortunately, made me realize just how many lousy yoga instructors and studios and yoga teacher trainings (YTTs) there are, and how many yoga instructors bring in the biases they were taught. There is such a long, long way to go.
In terms of concrete solutions, many within the group, including myself, felt that YTTs are groundzero for tackling these difficult questions of privilege and accessibility. Many YTTs focus on the physical aspects of yoga like anatomy, form and asana, with little time dedicated to topics like diversity training, inclusion and what yoga instructors can do to make their spaces more welcoming to all. We discussed the fact that that YTTs need to talk about these ideas of justice, body-acceptance and plurality FIRST.
As a group, we felt YTTs should address the fact that yoga is really about having a relationship to your own body and that every human being deserves that right to having that relationship. Many of us felt that a thorough discussion and awareness of these topics should be the foundation to build upon and then address the physical aspects of the practice later.
Speaking Up & Continuing the Conversation
I came away realizing that practitioners are actually much more powerful than they realize and that they should use their voices in constructive ways more frequently. While it’s fine to have an online discussion about these heady topics, when things cross you in real life, people need to say something and speak up. For example, if a young female heterosexual yoga instructor tells everyone in her class to lift their legs up higher in Warrior III so that they can look better in their bikinis for their boyfriend, she’ll likely never understand how this instruction would irritate a lesbian or a trans person unless somebody speaks to her directly about it.
I applaud Kandace Dragonfly and Andi MacDonald of Community Yoga Vancouver for starting up such a discussion across the country and I really hope similar discussions continue to take place. It’s important that they do. In light of ongoing scandals, hypercommercialization and the corporate take-over of yoga, such grassroots initiatives are the places where the real heart and soul of yoga shows up.
Blogger Earth Energy Reader has been practicing some form of yoga or other for the past 10 years. When she isn’t busy thinking about diversity issues in and out of the yoga world or wondering why people wear makeup to hot yoga classes, she’s usually either playing with her pugs, working in her organic garden, baking cookies for friends or taking long road trips to off-the-beaten-path places. She works in health economics and medical services management and sometimes volunteers at the South Asian Women’s Center of Montreal. She is proud of the fact that she has managed to do yoga all these years and still does not own a single item of clothing from Lululemon.