We are doing harm.
Fellow white yoga teachers & practitioners. Those of us in the wellness and spiritual communities.
We are perpetuating racism.
And we need to stop it.
We must take an honest look at our privilege and acknowledge that we benefit from being white in a myriad of ways we’re blind to.
And we must take an honest look at how the practices we teach or use have been stolen from other cultures, re-packaged and sold for our benefit, historically and in the present moment – to the cultural, economic, mental, spiritual and physical detriment of the Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Colour (BIPOC) whose cultures have been colonized by white people.
Before continuing I will state: I am a white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class woman living in the UK and thus benefit from the privileges all of this affords me.
I have been practising yoga since 2000 and have “taught” yoga and meditation since 2012. In recent years I have studied and initiated as a Priestess of Brighid and am currently studying Druidry with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
I acknowledge that I have been in numerous yoga, spiritual and wellness spaces of white privilege and have been part of and observed conversations which perpetuated white fragility, which I have noticed but have not spoken up about. I acknowledge that this was not good enough. White silence such as this perpetuates racism. I promise to do better.
I write this article from a position of seeing white privilege in action in the yoga, spiritual and wellness communities over these last 20 years. I do not place myself as an expert or educator in this area. I am actively participating in doing the work – the lifelong work – of understanding the effects of my privilege and the internal biases it causes. And I am a writer. By writing about this it is helping me to understand and unpack how I can do better myself. And words matter. Words change lives.
So, let’s continue.
Westernized yoga and spirituality
Yoga, as taught in the West by white teachers – as taught in the UK where I live – is not really yoga. It rarely, if ever, truly honours the history, culture, roots, complexities and subtleties of this ancient spiritual practice. How can it be when taught by a white person, with a 200 or 500 hour teacher training certificate gained in a white-centric yoga school perhaps just over a few weeks or months, who has never been immersed in living yoga?
It’s all too often a form of gymnastics with a mispronounced (and misplaced) ‘Namaste’ thrown in to show how authentic the (white) teacher is.
There, I’ve said it.
I’ve named the elephant in the room.
Speaking of which, there’ll often be a Ganesha statue (the elephant-headed Hindu god), probably a Buddha and lots of fervent ‘omming’ if the (white) teacher wants to show how spiritual they are.
I’ve been there and done that.
Cultural appropriation & more…
The yoga, wellness, and spiritual communities in the West are steeped in cultural appropriation, white privilege and white supremacy.
It’s become yoga as lifestyle: all expensive leggings, luxury retreats, headstands, juice diets, positive affirmations and upgrading your life.
Some teachers advertise how there’s no spiritual stuff in their classes and focus on how yoga can be a form of cross-training to help you be a better runner. Or offer yoga as a cure for anxiety. Yoga for hips. Yoga for back pain. Yoga for manifesting abundance.
Or, there are the “spiritual” (white) yoga teachers with their bindis, OM tattoos, chanting the names of Hindu gods and goddesses in badly pronounced Sanksrit …. and saying it’s OK if you pronounce it incorrectly because your intention is there and pure (no matter the impact). Yup that’s one of the conversations I’ve been in and didn’t speak up over how excruciatingly naive and privileged that is, because I put not wanting to feel uncomfortable and or to appear confrontational ahead of calling it out. White silence in action.
And the tales of their pilgrimage to India and how “the people there are so poor yet so happy and it makes me so grateful for what I have”.
And cultural appropriation through cherry-picking spiritual practices from cultures they know nothing about: a cacao ceremony here and a despacho ceremony there. Wafting paolo santo and white sage with solemnity to purify your chakras (and talking about the colour of your chakras as if this is a definitive fact.) Calling on Kali or Kuan Yin or another Goddess from a culture that isn’t their own, whose history and nuances they know just enough about to sound convincing – but scratch the surface and there’s no lived experience there to back it up. And calling in their ‘tribe’.
Oh and the spiritual bypassing! Love is the only true emotion. We are all one. Positive vibes only. Focus on the light. And the denial of the validity of anger. The denial that structural systems are well and truly rooted in our societies of racial, class and gender discrimination. The pain they cause is real. Don’t gaslight people, who are dealing with the pain and harm caused by these structures, by telling them that their thoughts manifest their reality.
I could go on.
Let’s be honest
If you’re a white yoga / wellness / spiritual teacher or practitioner who’s got down this far: have I pissed you off yet? Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are you angry with me for “having a go” at you? Are you saying “huh, what a hypocrite”? Or, “I’m not like that because it’s all about intention and my intentions are good”.
Hello white fragility! (*Waves*)
I’m not writing this to have a go at you.
I’m just not sugaring the pill. (Let’s stop being nice white girls and worrying about what other people think. But that’s a whole other article on patriarchy….)
I’m not positioning myself as an expert. I’m not writing this saying I haven’t indulged in any of this myself, because I have.
I’m writing this because if you’re a “good white liberal” (like me) who knows she’s not racist (like me), whose intentions are good and just wants to help people the way yoga / your spiritual practice has helped you (like me), and talks the talk about being inclusive (like me), then you need to look at your complicity in perpetuating white supremacy through your yoga / spiritual / wellness business and / or practice.
I know I need to.
If we can’t be honest and acknowledge the structural racism and cultural appropriation within Westernized yoga and appropriated spiritual practices, then we are going to keep perpetuating it.
And in doing so we are doing harm to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour who do not feel seen or safe in yoga / spiritual / wellness spaces. Whose voices are not heard. Whose lived experience of their culture and spiritual practices are not valued nor financially rewarded because we’re too busy throwing our money at the white self-appointed gurus who offer us easy answers and quick fixes (and have aspirational and beautifully cultivated Instagram feeds, all in their brand colours, to prove it).
(There are also important intersecting issues around gender, class and able-ism which are huge too, which I will write about in the future.)
No easy answers
I’m not here to give you any easy answers.
I’m doing this work myself.
Yes it’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult.
I’m asking myself how – even IF – I should be trying to make a living in this arena, without perpetuating cultural appropriation and white supremacy.
The first step I have taken is to acknowledge that I’m part of white supremacy because I’m a white person who has been born into, educated, socialized and am working in a white-majority culture.
When white is unconsciously perceived as “normal” in your society, it’s easy to be blind to how it would be to live in that country with black or brown skin. I cannot begin to imagine the pain Black and minority ethnic people living in the UK must experience on a daily basis.
I will no longer look away.
Many self-identifying “good liberal” white people probably experience a kind of moral trauma if they acknowledge the role their ancestors may have played in the slave trade, and how our current society has a rotten seam of racial discrimination in its very bedrock.
But that is nothing – I emphasize nothing – to the trauma held by BIPOC and the centuries of mental and physical torture inflicted on them by white people.
If you truly love yoga, if you value a spirituality which is authentic, if you want to leave the world a better place than when you found it, then please don’t look away.
We must educate ourselves.
And do better.
Now and for the rest of our lives.
It’s been two weeks since I published this article and I’d like to share some reflections on some of the feedback and reactions I received.
My intention for this article was to raise important questions which are too often overlooked and dismissed in the yoga, spiritual and wellbeing communities and industry.
The majority of comments on this article were along the lines of “thank you, that’s thought-provoking / I’m not sure I agree with all of it but it’s got me thinking / wow it made me defensive, I need to sit with why / thank you for speaking up about issues I too feel concerned about”. Great. That was my intention: to provoke thought and self-reflection (yoga is a practice of self-enquiry and liberation after all isn’t it?)
However, I had a handful of strong push backs: defensive push backs from white yoga teachers.
I’m not going to call anyone out here, nor break any confidences, but I’d like to share my replies them as learning points for us all. (I’ve edited them so they flow.)
Why so defensive?
If you’ve read this article and feel the need or urge to tell me or yourself why this doesn’t apply to you; if your reply contains lots of “I, I, I” and “me, me, me”, then may I gently suggest to you that you’ve missed the point?
I’m not asking you to tell me why your yoga training / teaching is different, went deeper, isn’t based on cultural appropriation i.e. I’m not asking you to prove you’re a “good white person” so you can’t be doing anything which is harmful or racist.
This isn’t about you and your feelings and your opinion.
There is no doubt that the yoga, spirituality and wellness spaces and communities in white-dominated societies ARE perpetuating harm to BIPOC – there is enough testimony out there from BIPOC saying it is.
They are telling us.
I believe them.
The deeper issue here is not about our own experience of how yoga has helped us, or about how we are one of the “good ones” because we endeavour to include a broader range of yoga teaching in our classes etc.
It is possible for yoga etc, as taught in the West, to do good AND do harm, at the same time. It’s not an either/or thing.
It’s not about you
It’s not about how yoga has changed OUR lives, or how WE teach it, or what OUR good intentions are, as people holding white privilege.
I am not questioning your own personal commitment to yoga and that it has helped you.
But to privilege our own experience above the many, many people in the South Asian diaspora who are asking us as white people to stop and reconsider and, more importantly, *change* our practices regarding practising and teaching yoga, and to carry on regardless, is harmful white privilege in action.
It behoves us, as people holding white privilege, to listen to voices which for too long have been side-lined, ignored, suppressed and silenced by white communities. And to make changes, accordingly, even if we think we’re justified in our actions.
The point I would like to reiterate is that striving to be anti-racist is about asking ourselves why we, as white women, appear to be privileging our own perspectives, perceived rights and opinions about practices taken from other cultures (not just yoga) above voices from the BIPOC community, and to ask ourselves whether this is coming from internalised white privilege, aka racism.
It’s hard work, I know.
It’s about acknowledging that this feels bloody uncomfortable and that we’re going to react and want to justify ourselves.
It’s about recognizing that we can be doing good for one group of people yet causing harm to others.
It’s about learning and growing. And doing better. Now and for the rest of our lives.
For centuries white people have harmed and killed BIPOC, and have colonized their lands and culture.
We can’t change that history. But we can be honest as to how we’ve benefited from its effects, and try to de-centre our own reactions and listen to what BIPOC are telling us.
BIPOC around the world are speaking up about how practices from their culture have been lifted out of context, mashed up and sold on by and for the benefit of white people, and they are asking us to stop doing it.
So, your yoga / spiritual / personal development practices make you feel amazing. Great.
Numerous voices – from BIPOC communities – are asking us to consider the impact of what we share and practice is making *them* feel.
If we are serious about being anti-racist then we perhaps should look inside ourselves and ask “why are my feelings more important than theirs?”.
Finally, don’t like my tone?
If you found the tone of my article antagonistic, harsh or unkind … well, I make no apology.
Instead I ask you: why do you feel the need to be molly-coddled and indulged?
And, why do strong words trigger you? Are you afraid of your own strong emotions? We live in a patriarchal society which doesn’t have much time or patience for the messy business of actually feeling. It wants us numb so we don’t question the harm it perpetuates.
But if you’ve been engaged in spiritual practices for a while – if you teach them – and you don’t have the internal capacity to cope with strong emotions and opinions different to your own, then I’d ask you: what’s your practice been for?
Also: Google “tone policing“. And for-the-love-of-all-that’s good, please do NOT do this in a space held by a Black, indigenous or person of colour. It’s racist.
All of these words come from the fire in my soul and with fierce love.
A few suggested books and articles
I am only sharing about books, articles and videos I have read/am reading, or watched myself at this point.
Yes this is a short list. But I will be continuing and expanding the people I learn from and the resources I use as I continue to educate myself. (Updated to add more 19/6/20.)
Oh, and reading about this is just the start of the change we must make through our actions.
Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F Saad
White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society by Kalwant Bhopal
Articles and videos
How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice by Susanna Barkataki – Yoga Culture Advocate
Racism in Spiritual and Wellbeing Communities by Gabriella Evangeline
Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility (video), Dr DiAngelo is author of the book White Fragility
Here are some more (added 19/6/20)
Why You Need to Stop Saying All Lives Matter by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle
Yoga and The Roots of Cultural Appropriation by Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff
What is the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation? by Susanna Barkataki
Last night Namaste Destroyed My Life by Nadia Gilani
Cultural Appropriation in Yoga: Video interview with Jonelle Lewis and Kallie Schut
How ‘white fragility’ supports racism and how whites can stop it – written interview with Robin DiAngelo
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (PDF) – Peggy McIntosh
I’m Stella Tomlinson and I’m currently re-evaluating my work in order to be a guide for those who are committed to their spiritual awakening and development in a way which is culturally-sensitive and in alignment with their values and dreams for a kinder, fairer world.
I am currently doing this through my writing, with a particular focus on casting a critical eye over spiritual practices with the lens of if & how they’re perpetuating cultural appropriation and the white, heterodox, patriarchal, capitalist agenda.