yoga, power, privilege & oppression: opening the dialogue

Is your local studio talking about privilege & power?

Is your local studio talking about privilege & power?

One of the most exciting things to happen in the online community in the past year is a broadening discussion about privilege and oppression. While the conversation has grown, it turns out some people have been thinking about this stuff for a while. This post was written in 2010, but has recently came to my attention when the author, Cristien Storm (a writer, activist and yoga practioner in Seattle) contacted me.

The ideals, philosophies, principles, and practices of yoga and meditation can transform individuals, communities and institutions. These same qualities can help us engage in movement building while being a powerful force for social change. Social change and liberation is not, however, what is happening in most yoga classes. When I ask people how their yoga practice and/or meditation practice helps them create social change, interrupt racism and oppression, or dismantle systemic and institutional oppression, I am often met with a blank stare or a pat response along the lines of, “Yoga helps me as an individual, which is part of changing the world.” Or, “My time on the mat is about me and my body.”

This is not a bad or incorrect response. It’s fantastic that yoga helps people stay committed to human rights and social change work. Our ability to stay committed matters tremendously when burnout and secondary trauma drain our most dedicated folks. But this simple answer strikes me to what is really a more complex exploration of how we can connect the qualities, principles, and ideals of yoga and meditation practice to social change.

In most yoga studios there is not an intentional or articulated link made between what individuals or yoga communities are studying and practicing and social justice. Individual students, teachers, and studios may do this work on their own, and indeed some are with brilliant skill and success, but as a community of practitioners, we are not having this dialogue.

In response to my question of how we connect yoga to social change, a fellow yogi suggested that oppression was simply ideology and that enlightenment allows you to see through or beyond oppression—ergo seeking enlightenment by practicing yoga and meditation is in and of itself moving beyond oppression. This perspective ignores the historical, cultural, and institutional legacy of oppression and supposes that we can somehow disengage from it (once we are enlightened enough to see it). The fact that I can see institutional racism or homophobia occurring in my workplace, family gatherings, or daily life means little if I am not equipped to interrupt and challenge it.

Storm went on to suggest some ideas for things practitioners can do to interrupt  racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, or any other oppression in the context of a yoga class.

1. Start a discussion group. Meet once a week, once a month to talk about these things. You can bring questions of your own, or develop questions from articles and anti-oppression training

2. Read anti-oppression and Buddhism/yoga articles together and discuss how they connect, contradict, or support each other.  A list of books to get you started that address oppression, privilege, and power include: A People’s History of The United States by or You Can’t Stay Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, Teaching Community A Pedagogy Of Hope by Bell Hooks, [many more on the post itself]

3. Ask your yoga studio/instructors to support community as part of their yoga practice and philosophy. Many yoga classes and teacher trainings are inaccessible for people.

4. Don’t bring yoga to at-risk youth without doing your homework (and don’t use the term “at risk” youth—it’s deficit language that locates the problem within the individual rather than with social political, and economic systems).

5. Don’t do this work alone. Take responsibility to educate yourself but don’t expect others who are targets of oppression to educate you. Rather than ask them to help you, ask them what you can do to support them. If you can do it, do it!

Read the full post for more books, ideas and suggestions.

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 DogStop 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.

  1. There are some great suggestions here in terms of how to deal with these issues of interrupting oppression and within the context of the yoga class. I particularly think starting a regular off-line discussion group is a great beginning and if the yoga community in different cities decided to set up their own group, once a month or once a week and have a space where these serious discussions can take place, that would be truly fantastic.