On Friday April 10th – just 2 days after my 45th birthday – I had one of the biggest moments of my yoga career. I was the opening keynote speaker at the Race and Yoga Conference at University of California, Berkeley. I remember hearing about the conference last year and submitting an abstract in hopes of presenting my experiences on the margins of yoga culture and what it’s like to be an advocate for change. I really wanted to be a part of this incredible and important conversation. But that year, my abstract was not select for inclusion in the conference. While I left feeling disappointed, I also understood that there are many voices in this work and I felt sure that my time would come.
I decided to try my luck at approaching other major yoga conferences with my work around yoga diversity. I applied to every single conference I could think of…and every single one politely declined. My work was interesting, but it was not what mainstream yoga culture was interested in exploring at their conferences at that time.
I started to question myself and effectiveness of my work, and it saddened me to know that mainstream yoga culture was more interested in keeping diversity at the margins than leading the way for a global shift in consciousness.
To clarify, when I speak of diversity I am speaking about people of colour, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, older bodies and bigger bodies – I am speaking about the those of us that are real, unique and authentic but perhaps not the ones who are celebrated on the covers of magazines or promotional campaigns. I talking about everyone outside of mainstream culture.
So last year, after all my my rejections, I decided I would focus on my students instead. My students appreciated my work and I really just want to serve my students and break the barriers that keep people like me away from the yoga practice.
Fast forward just one year later and the Yoga and Body Image Coalition was founded.
I was contacted me to be part of the leadership team and through this partnership, I was invited to shape the course of change I wanted to see in the yoga world. I was validated in a moment. People did care! Yoga Journal and Off the Mat into the World called me and invited me to a panel discussion in San Diego, California. Off I went on what would be the start of the next chapter of my yoga career. When I arrived, I terrified to tell my story of exclusion – I thought I was still alone in my fight for diversity and inclusive in this world of yoga.
As it turned out, I discovered that I was not alone. The truth is, there are so many us that have been left on the margins.
In November of 2014, I got an email that made my heart sing. It read, simply: “will you be Keynote for the 2015 Race and Yoga Conference?”.
I almost wet my pants…almost. I just couldn’t believe it – they wanted me? I was jumping up and down and I was over the moon…and then reality sets in. My insecurities took over. Are they sure they want me? There are so many people doing this amazing work…why me?
My insecurities almost paralyzed me. I spent the better part of 3 months working on my presentation every single day. I woke up at 5 AM and sat at my computer for 2 hours everyday working on my speech. The thought of speaking for 90-minutes on a topic as emotional, polarizing, and thought-provoking as race, yoga and the mainstream culture terrified me. I was going to share my life and my truth and I had no idea how it would received.
I had my experiences and my biases that I had to work with them. I had my anger around my marginalization, around micro-aggressions and self-hate, and I was called to work through them in a very real way. I had to communicate effectively without using too many cuss words, or calling people out and stepping into the pool of what Robin DiAngelo calls ‘white fragility’. This is where the dominant white privileged class gets defensive, angry, argumentative and dismissive when you attempt to tell them that their actions and applications of justice and equality are, in fact, racist.
This was going to be a tough conversation – and I was going to be the one leading it.
When April 10th, 2015 arrived, I walked up the stage, stood at the podium, took a deep breath and looked out at my audience. There were scholars and academics and a man with emotional disabilities who keep interrupting. I kept reminding myself that he too is on the margins and I tried not to be rattled and nervous. That man actually bought me some perspective in that moment – and I was ready.
But just moments before my speech was about to begin, my PowerPoint presentation on my new computer wouldn’t load, and I quickly learned that I would have to speak for 90-minutes without the help of my slides! OMG…it is a good thing I am a bit of narcissist. I like to talk about my myself and my experiences, and so I started talking about how I came to to yoga as a little brown girl with my mother teaching me what she knew.
I talked about how I felt when I left the safety and acceptance of yoga in my home to walk into a yoga studio for the first time in my big brown body. I shared about how I quickly learned that this place called the ‘yoga studio’ was really just another exclusive club, and that I was NOT invited. I shared with my audience about how we: as people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, individuals in disabled bodies, and those of us navigating the world in older and bigger bodies – are treated in mainstream yoga culture.
I spoke about yoga and white appropriation – the stealing of yoga practices from its native culture and religion. I shared the differences between appropriation and cultural exchange and I shared the origins of yoga as a practice created by a people of colour, and that it should be embraced by people of colour. I even quoted a great article I read by Dr. Amy Champ only to find out she was in the audience alongside so many other trailblazers and thought-leaders – many of whom I’ve watched on YouTube. I was totally in ‘hero worship mode’ after that!
There I was – officially a part of my tribe! I finally got here and I am so grateful.
Through my experiences at Berkeley and through my work in the yoga and diversity movement, I have discover that this is where the change starts. The question remains: how do we keep evolving as a culture? How do we change mainstream yoga culture so that it includes all of us? How do we make yoga accessible?
Many people have been excluded from this practice for a number of reasons: maybe it is because of their own religious beliefs, or because of the images set forth in the mainstream culture and aspirational yoga marketing – maybe it is because of the cultural appropriation in which we have sanitized and scrubbed the essences and roots of acceptance from the practice, or maybe its because of the lack of accessibility.
The Yoga and Race Conference enlightened me to just how many people are aware of what is going on, and it also taught me how many people still have their heads up their asana.
I arrived with – how do we change mainstream yoga culture? How do we make yoga accessible, less complicated and more inclusive?
And I left with my answer:
By any means necessary.
- We enlighten people to the fact that yoga is not religion. We educate community that it is a practice of self-love and greater understanding. We make it known as a way to enhance your spiritual beliefs.
- We reclaim the practice of yoga to include people of colour, disabled bodies, LGBTQ, bigger bodied individuals.
- We flood social media and mainstream media with images of all bodies doing yoga.
- We take yoga to the streets, community centers, and hair salons. We take yoga out of the exclusive studios and retreat centers.
- We empower people to be healthy at every size and to value their health through creating self-awareness.
- We change the yoga business model from targeting the wealthy to targeting and training everyone.
- We acknowledge, communicate and promote the origins of yoga. We remember that the system of yoga comes from a culturally diverse people of colour and we honour that instead of appropriate it.
- We identify micro-aggressions.
- We listen to each other compassionately and we recognize when our feelings are being hurt and we stop listening to others. We recognize how, when and why we start limiting other people’s ability to really communicate their needs and frustrations. In other words, shut and up and listen and then take action to change your oppressive exclusive behavior.
- We meet people where they are.
- We critically watch, interrupt and engage with mass media.
- We think for ourselves.
- We invite people to share their knowledge and experience and we are open to hearing criticism and having our blind spots illuminated.
- We befriend people who are different from ourselves. We have friends who are black, disabled, queer, gay, transgender, white, of different colours and ethnicities
One my favourite Ted Talks is by Verna Myers. It’s called: How Do We Overcome Our Biases? We walk boldly towards them.
Yoga has taught me to lean in to what makes uncomfortable. It has also taught me that we must acknowledge the ideas, behaviours and thought patterns that need changing. We must examine ourselves. An open mind, a compassionate heart and a strong belief in equality can open this door…but then you must boldly walk through it.
So be a trailblazer, be a cultural shifter…be fearless.
I am taking action. I am here to rock this boat as hard as I can. Some people will fall out of the boat and some will stay and be visionaries and trailblazers with me…and those are the people who will lead the way to change. We need to change these limited messages by any means necessary.
We need to be allies together in the fight for equality. Discrimination and division affects us all. Together we can create more positive and diverse representation of humanity within the dominate culture. People who have been pushed to the margins can be pulled back into the centre.
I have put my fat black asana out there in hopes that others will join me… and they have. I appreciate my allies in this work because they represent how successful this work can be when we all come together.
We just need to have more honest conversations around homogenous, able-bodied, heterosexual, privilege in yoga culture and in the world at large. The yoga mat is a mirror for what goes on the real world. The only way we can change all of this is if we all participate and take action.
The Race and Yoga Conference illuminated to me how many amazing people are doing this work and sharing some amazing findings as I have learned experienced. It was hard to leave Berkeley. The campus, the people were amazing, the conversations were stimulating, and I could feel the understanding and enlightenment in the air. I loved every minute of my experience as the opening keynote speaker at the 2015 Yoga and Race Conference, I will cherish that experience forever…but I have a feeling that this is only the beginning!
P.S. Here slide show that didn’t work