Yoga & Privilege

“Privilege: a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to only a particular person or group of people” (Google dictionary)

While it’s nice to imagine we all teach yoga from a neutral place, our life experiences – including those of privilege or lack thereof – shape us. In yoga service classes, I sometimes work with people who have had substantially different access to privilege than me. How does my identity influence what I offer? What do I do to minimize negative impact?

My comments here are limited to what can be realistically covered in a blog post, and to my own perspective.  Lots of questions about privilege are important but beyond that scope: “Who has access to yoga and why?”, “Does teaching yoga sometimes replicate existing forms of oppression, or create oppression?”,  “How can “the yoga community” become more inclusive?” and “How do yoga and social justice overlap, and where do they diverge?”

Awareness matters.

I can’t change my identity, or the fact that I have the privileges that I do – but I can acknowledge my privilege to myself and consider how it has shaped me as a person. Certainly some of my own achievements have required hard work, but they are also a result of how others in positions of power have treated me – and not just a reflection of my own perseverance or dedication.

In practice, this matters if I choose quotes to bring in for classes, particularly about choice or control. Just because something seems to have been a choice to me doesn’t mean everyone has that choice. “Change your perspective to change your life” may be helpful in the face of negative thoughts about an annoying neighbor or unbelievably cold winter weather, but less relevant and even offensive to someone with an experience of racism or other discrimination on their mind. That person, the one actually in the yoga class, doesn’t need to change their perspective – the other person, or society, does! Presuming that all the responsibility for change is at the individual level wrongly faults those who experience oppression or injustice, and relieves an unjust person or society from responsibility. I’m using an example of racism, but parallel scenarios could come up for all sorts of issues – sexual assault, terminal illness, homelessness.

Many things exist on a spectrum, not an either/or.
We are all members of multiple groups, and it’s not always obvious on sight which groups. As a white, somewhat middle class cisgender straight female, I’ve had access to certain privileges; as a yoga teacher whose body doesn’t fit the stereotype (and who grew up substantially larger than many other kids), I’ve lacked others.

I would agree that a teacher from a less privileged group has a lot to offer their own community, and perhap more than I can on some levels. But holding that view doesn’t preclude me from teaching yoga to people outside “my own” community.

Putting myself in situations – following training and a fair amount of introspection – where I could potentially be seen in a negative light as a privileged white woman has provided me hundreds of positive experiences – and I think many of my students have had positive experiences too (I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t think that). Many of these experiences are just about human beings connecting around the practice of yoga, and have nothing to do with privilege. But collectively, these experiences and others have helped shape my views that people CAN relate to each other, even if they are different. My experience has been that, for instance, most people of color I’ve worked with can hold in mind BOTH the reality that yes, systematic racism and discrimination are unfortunately alive and well in the U.S. … AND still not hold it against me personally. And I really think the fear that a white instructor will be taken to task for racism or something is a huge factor in why more white instructors don’t venture out of their comfort zone.

Absolutely, people of color and other less privileged yogis should be more prominently represented in yoga. But those with privilege need to step out of their comfort zone too.

Assumptions can hurt.

Are we assuming that someone is new to yoga based on their physical appearance? That we know what gender pronouns everyone in the group prefers to go by? That we know exactly what people need or want without asking them? That everyone knows the names of yoga postures (or vice versa, that it’s not even worth using the names of the postures because no one will know or learn)? The assumptions that are the hardest to root out are the ones we aren’t aware we are making.

One tool that makes sense to me is to work with a similar set of general “rules” for my behavior wherever I go. Obviously I try to take into account what is appropriate for a setting and feedback I get. But I try to use the same caution with assumptions in public classes that I do in yoga service classes. And, for instance, since I’m not a therapist or elementary school teacher, I don’t try to speak like one when teach yoga in a studio – or outside of a studio.

More voices are needed.

I can speak only from my perspective. I don’t pretend to speak on behalf of groups I’m not a part of. I do speak, though, because this topic should matter to us all, and the burden shouldn’t only be on communities that experience oppression to take risks and make change. I try to listen and share words from others (see An Open Letter to My (White) Yoga Teacher). If you have views on this topic, and especially if they are different from mine, please don’t just curse my name and think angry thoughts about me – write your thoughts and contribute to this blog or others!

Kate Rice fell in love with vinyasa yoga at her gym in Washington, DC about 8 years ago. She returned to her Chicago roots after teaching English in eastern Europe and completed yoga teacher training in 2014.  Passionate about making yoga more accessible, Kate has completed trauma informed yoga trainings (Street Yoga, Prison Yoga and others) as well as 40 hours of sexual violence crisis intervention training in order to teach yoga to survivors served by the YWCA counseling center. Read more from Kate on her blog. In addition to public classes yoga at Cook County Jail through Yoga for Recovery. Follow her work at shareyourpractice.org (which now also offers a directory of trauma informed yoga trainings throughout the US).