Acknowledging Privilege in the Yoga Community

Acknowledging Privilege in the Yoga Community

Note: Before reading this piece, you may find it helpful and contextualizing to read my previously written article on social justice in relation to yoga. 30920015

Scrolling through my Instagram feed one day, I came across an image that read:

Maybe you manifested it,

Maybe it's white privilege.

It's the kind of image that's phrased in a way intended to be a gut punch. The kind of thing that makes you a little uncomfortable and a little defensive at first. And while the phrasing of it is arguably a bit on the confrontational side for starting helpful dialogue, I couldn't help but love the fact that someone I knew had shared it.

Because as much as I deeply adore my yoga community, it can become, just like anything else, a bubble. And bubbles are as easy to get trapped in as they are to lose sight of.

Here's the thing: I believe in some hippie ass shit. I believe in meditation, I believe in manifesting your own reality, I believe in magic, I believe in the Universe, I believe in healing from the inside out. I like essential oils and crystals and sage. I've been that person ugly-crying on the hiking trail because I feel so connected to nature and all that is.  I wear bright purple circle glasses un-ironically and my boyfriend is rocking a man bun. There's no two ways around it, I'm a woo-woo hippie person.

But as connected as I feel to magic and manifestation, I have to stay grounded in reality. And the reality is, not everyone can manifest themselves out of the situation they're in. Not everyone has that privilege. Because if I were to try and pretend that my life changed entirely due to my manifestation powers, then I would be implying that those trapped in poverty, or those with limited life options, or those limited by the forces of racism/homophobia/bigotry just aren't "manifesting hard enough."

I've written about this before, but it's worth saying again: I didn't recover from an eating disorder simply because I had some incredible, innate ability within me to do so. I'm not trying to shortchange my own efforts or the work I put into recovering, not at all. I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that many others suffering from mental illness may have the same desire I do to heal and grow, but are limited by financial means (that are influenced by the wide array of social injustices present today).

The fact is, my family has never wanted for money to the degree that my life was impacted in a way that limited my life choices. College was always on the table. Travel was always on the table. Paying for yoga classes in the Bay Area of California was on the table. Hiring a therapist and paying for a lengthy hospital stay wasn't a concern. I had two parents with full-time jobs who were able to make it so that money never negatively impacted my quality of life.

I also had the privilege of connections. An oft-overlooked aspect of privilege is access to those who can offer us opportunity, like jobs and skill-building relationships. I happened to live in an area where I could connect with someone like my mentor and teacher Jenni Wendell who could guide me to yoga and, eventually, teacher training. I also happened to live in the heart of the Bay Area, where I was close to people like filmmaker Laura Van Zee who could connect with my story and turn it into a film that allows me to help others. Those connections are invaluable, and my access and proximity to them are a form of privilege when you consider how my family's financial standing afforded us the ability to live in this area.*

*Note: To read an incredible study on the impact of connections on a young person's access to opportunity and the impact a lack of connections has on low income communities of color, check out Getting Paid by Mercer Sullivan.

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While I do believe that the energy I've put out into the world and hard work I've done drew in the opportunities that have come my way like the speaking engagements, the yoga events, and the documentary (what I consider to be a form of manifestation), I'm well aware that none of that could have happened without the privilege I carry. At least, likely not, and likely not as quickly.

But had I been someone else, had I been born into poverty or limited by my access to education, or lived somewhere that didn't have a prevalence of high-quality and accessible yoga studios, my life would be entirely different. I'd either be dead, or still struggling to recover, or simply not as close to the goals I've accomplished today.

I don't say any of this to diminish the hard work that I've  put in (because I've worked really damn hard), but rather to acknowledge my positionality within the community before moving forward, and to make clear that I'm well aware of the privilege I carry.

The more I've studied social justice in college, the more aware I've become of just how unaware the yoga community can be of it.

Recently, I've heard great criticism of the use of the term "thoughts and prayers" in regards to mass shootings in America. It's a far too dismissive way to approach solving a terrible and incredible preventable issue in our society, and it relieves those in power from the pressure of making tangible change. I saw many within the yoga sphere pointing this out, but in the next breath reverting to a saying that I use all the time: Love and light.

I love "love and light." I believe that by putting out that good energy I'm providing a much-needed resource to the world and compassion and caring. But (and this is a big "but,") it can be far too easy to use "love and light" in the same way others use "thoughts and prayers." Sometimes relying on energetic manifestation and good vibes isn't enough: sometimes we need to stand up and act. That can be easy to lose sight of when we get too deep into The Bubble.

We need to be very aware of the bubble we exist in. Many of us live privileged lives, and that's not something to be ashamed of at all. If we are able to live lives that include nice yoga pants and memberships at yoga studios and international yoga retreats, then we should be allowed to enjoy those things and trust that we are worthy of them. But all of that is dependent on our dedication to constantly coming back to a place of gratitude and respect for the fact that not everyone lives this way, and not everyone can manifest this reality.

Our manifestation does not exist in a void. It exists in a world that operates under forces like inequality, oppression, and privilege.

Popping out of this bubble doesn't mean we need to feel ashamed for what we have. It means we need to do a few things:

First of all, we need to always remember that just because we could manifest something, doesn't mean someone else can. You manifesting abundance may work in your unique context, but telling someone hindered by a lack of privilege due to their race, standing in society, or access to proper resources that they just need to manifest more simply doesn't make sense. You wouldn't look at a child trapped in poverty and wonder why they aren't relying on positive affirmations more, right?

Secondly, we need to always keep in mind that many of the motivational quotes and phrases that float around the yoga sphere have an implied understanding of privilege that come with them. There's all sorts of spiritual travel blogs and Instagrams out there that tell you to quit your job and chase your dreams. But for many, that just isn't their reality. In fact, quitting their job might be a really bad idea for some people, even if they really don't like it or it's not "their highest and best."

Much of the advice given out to people in the yoga/wellness world assumes that we have the privilege of choice. And in modern day American society, choice is earned by financial stability (which is heavily linked to access to education...which is heavily linked to geographic location...which is heavily linked to race...we could go on forever).

Finally, we need to not turn away from our privilege or refuse to acknowledge it out of shame. You do not need to feel guilty or apologetic about the privilege you carry. Shame helps absolutely no one, and you did not choose the context you were born into. But what you can do is feel a deep and profound gratitude for your privilege, and use that to help uplift others in a meaningful, tangible way.

If you're blessed with the privilege of connection, be a connection for someone else. If you lead a teacher training, implement a diversity scholarship to invite in someone who couldn't otherwise afford it. If you own a yoga studio, create a work trade position or two, like cleaning mats for a membership. If you can be a linking force between someone with limited options and opportunity that wouldn't otherwise reach them, be that linking force. 

If you have the privilege of time, use some of it to practice seva, or selfless service. There are many out there who work two or three jobs just to put food on the table. And while we may all wish we had more hours in the day, many of us spend way more time scrolling through Facebook than we care to admit. Using some of that time to help others not only uplifts the whole community, but makes you feel good inside and takes the yoga off and away from your mat.

If you manifest something, be that a new job, a new opportunity, and new beginning, be proud and grateful. But be mindful of using language that implies that everyone could manifest it the same way you did. Acknowledge your privilege and honor the things that make your life possible, knowing that there will always be people out there with more privilege than you and people with less privilege than you.

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Like I said, I believe in magic. But I believe it is our duty to use that magic to uplift others and fight oppression and inequality.

Use that magic to heal yourself. Manifest love, abundance, and joy into your life. But remember that this story does not end with you. The end goal is not to fill your cup so that you can look around one day and say, "I did it! I manifested everything I wanted so now I'm good!" The end goal is to heal yourself to the point that you can now zoom out and tackle the rest of the healing that needs to be done in the world with all of your newfound strength and ability.

The yoga isn't just about us. The yoga is about something far greater: creating a world centered around love for all beings. And while Westernized yoga communities can sometimes fall prey to unintentional colorblind racism in attempts to display compassion ("We're all just humans, I don't see color!"), a big part of that yogic challenge is acknowledging that all beings need to be uplifted in different ways. For some people, that means energetic manifestation. For others, that really means tangible legislative reform and societal restructuring. And what we need is heavily impacted by privilege.

Your yoga practice has already prepared you to change the world, whether you're consciously aware of it or not. You've learned how to face challenging situations with patience and breath. You've learned when to rely on strength and when to rely on flexibility. You've learned how to get back up when you've fallen down. Perhaps you've studied the philosophy, the tenets of non-violence, selfless service, gratitude, and honest self-reflection.

You have the tools you need. But in order to put them to use, you need to be willing to critically evaluate where you are in the present (another yogic tenet, one might argue). We need to be willing to recognize when we've fallen a bit too deep into the echo chambers, when we haven't been inclusive in our speech or actions. We need to stop ourselves when we begin to individualize success and decontextualize how the systems of our society affect it. We need to have tough conversations and step outside our bubbles when we get stuck in them.

Just like the asana, this is a practice, and one that lasts a lifetime. But you're ready.

I promise.