Yoga and Social Justice: Building a Conscious Community

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

 To the Yoga Community: Let’s talk about systems of power, privilege, and oppression on our pathway to compassionate action and loving kindness.

Yoga and Social Justice: Building a Conscious Community

In the United States, yoga has largely become commodified, often narrowly  focused on mastering asanas or physical postures, weight loss and burning calories, and achieving a tight little yoga butt. I, myself, also enjoy practicing advanced yoga poses, like handstands, king pigeon pose and backbends. However, what keeps people coming back to yoga is how the practice steadily begins to transform the human spirit. Yoga practice is more about transforming the human spirit than the human body. But first, you must prepare the body, go through the body, to connect to spirit. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are intended to transform the human spirit, increasing our awareness of how we move through the world and how we interact with others. The practice of yoga can be a spiritual foundation for social action.

What is social justice?

Social justice is a movement towards a socially just world. It is based on the concepts of fair and just relations between the individual and society. Social justice is necessary as it ensures the fair treatment of all people. It examines the ways in which rights and resources are distributed. Lack of social justice disrupts marginalized communities access to quality education, healthcare, living wages, a respectable quality of living and other resources.

What is social change?

Social change refers to the notion of social progress. The philosophical idea that society moves forward by evolutionary means. Social movements are groups of individuals or organizations which focus on political or social issues. Social movements play an important role in bringing about social change. Yoga and social justice connect to promote inner change and social change. 

Why is it important?

Earlier this year, I attended a workshop with Michelle Cassandra Johnson, author of Skill in Action at Anasa Yoga in Oakland. It was a surreal experience sitting in a diverse yoga classroom and beginning to discuss race. After 15 years of teaching yoga, I have never been in a yoga space where white, brown and black people were coming together to talk about race. I talk about about race and social justice all the time, everyday, but not in a yoga space. My two worlds collided that day and I could no longer separate them. That day a door was opened for me and I am walking through it, slowly…

I know talking about race can be scary, emotional and uncomfortable. It often leads to arguments and hurt feelings. If you are a white person, you could probably go through your entire life avoiding the conversation of race. No one chooses their race but if you are white, you benefit from it every day. As a Black, bi-racial, latin woman who was born and raised in California, I have always lived at an interesting and complicated intersection of identities. It has given me insightful perspectives. Growing up in a predominantly white community, attending UC Berkeley, teaching yoga in a predominantly white community, I have experienced racism and racial bias. Marrying a wonderful man who wants to raise our two black children in the suburbs, we experience racism and racial bias. I don’t share this to make you feel sorry for me but to awaken you to the realness of racism. Even the most privileged black person will not be able to transcend the impact of racism.

What I have come to understand is that this is a conversation that needs to be had. If there is a problem that needs to be solved, then we need to talk about it, not avoid it. We need to have a more complete and accurate conversation about race and perhaps for the first time, white people need to examine their racial identity. This is not about blaming white people or saying all white people are bad.  This is about white people taking responsibility for the advantages that come with whiteness. We need to learn and unlearn our conditioning and biases. It will be scary, it will be uncomfortable, it will be painful but it will also be healing.

Yoga and therapy have helped me heal from many societal and cultural wounds. Yoga has provided me with mental, emotional, and spiritual strength and flexibility that fuels my resilience when life gets overwhelming. At the same time, yoga in the western world, is a practice that I have realized is built on many principles that are oppressive. Talking about oppression, the traumatic happenings of the past and our current racial reality can allow us to work through them and start the healing process.

How long can we ignore another unarmed black person being shot by the police, the events in Charlottesville, immigrants being rounded up in their own neighborhoods and deported, families seeking asylum and being separated at the border and the president of the United States tweeting bigotry against transgender service members? How much longer can we ignore lack of diversity and inclusion, cultural appropriation, and spiritual bypassing in the yoga and spiritual community? Not talking often enough about these realities in a sacred space like yoga is a disservice to the yoga community and the consciousness of the nation. As we process collective and cultural trauma, we become people who truly can change the world.

The concern for the social welfare of both the world and its people is essential to the practice of yoga. Having equality and diversity in a society promotes opportunity, growth and social well being. Embracing diversity will lead to more innovation, more peace, unity, and prosperity. 

We have to do the work of examining systems of power, privilege, and oppression on our pathway to compassionate action and loving kindness. 

Here are ways you can use your practice to unite the world, or baby steps, to ignite social change:

1. Learn to deeply examine and reflect.

Racism inevitably touches everyone. People tend to assume that people who are racist or discriminate are all “bad people” who consciously do not like people based on race and intentionally seek to hurt them. If this is your definition of racism, it’s easy to believe you aren’t racist and you don’t discriminate. It’s a bit more complex than that. Racism is a group’s collective bias backed by legal authority and institutional power. Everyone can have racial bias but a racist person has racial prejudice backed by institutional power. It’s important to acknowledge that white privilege exists and acknowledge the ways in which you may benefit from it or unknowingly perpetuate it. Just being nice is not enough and it will not dismantle racism. The goal is to identify your biases, reflect and challenge them, and build relationships with brown, black and indigenous people.  This is a lifelong daily practice and will take a collective effort.

2. Listen closely

Shutting down conversations about racism helps keep it alive. We will need to end this silence, if we want to create an awakening to fuel a spiritual movement for social justice. Open your heart, eyes and ears to the pain and suffering in the world. Learn through reading, seeing videos, and talking with people. Listen to BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color). Ask them about their thoughts and opinions. Listen to people whose perspectives you have perhaps never taken the opportunity to hear before. Once you learn how to observe your own thoughts and examine your biases, listening to someone else talk about how the world is different for them creates an entirely new, heart opening, mind expanding experience. Let go of biases, defensiveness and feelings of guilt, enabling you to better access your full humanness, deepen your connection to others, and live a more meaningful life.

3. Conscious Compassionate Action

Change begins with you! …but it doesn’t end there. The world is full of opportunities to contribute, march, share resources, donate money and fight against injustice and oppression. Learn to recognize and interrupt racism. Develop skills of noticing racism and other forms of oppression and speak up against it. Use your privilege compassionately, be an ally and support those who are typically silenced, disempowered and oppressed. You can be brave and bold enough to make a difference. Make more friends with BIPOC and deepen the existing relationships you have. Don’t ask BIPOC to teach you about race or racism. It is not their responsibility, it is yours. This work is my personal calling, but not all BIPOC will be interested in educating you. Do this inner work because you care about people and you realize your liberation is dependent on the liberation of others.

So what do you think?

Are you ready to change the world?

1 comment

  • Thank you! You capture so much so succinctly. As a biracial (Asian/White) cisgender lesbian, I know I reap the benefits of White privilege, and I struggle with prejudice against the LGBTQIA community. I want to learn more, engage in conversation about race in a safe space. I think you have found a way to create that safe space through yoga which provides a vehicle for moving the body, mind, spirit through difficult places.


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