Originally published: Jul 10, 2015
In many ways, yoga in the U.S. has developed a culture and image of exclusivity. Who practices yoga, what they look like, what their perceived skill level is, how much they pay for classes, what they wear while practicing, and other factors reflect broader social norms that shape how and to what extent we interact and share spaces. For the most part, that image is a young, seemingly heterosexual, white woman with a pretty comfortable amount of cash in her wallet. She is tall, thin, and flexible. She looks nothing like me and she definitely doesn’t represent the diverse range of other people who practice yoga or could practice yoga.
For this reason, I have incorporated many components into my classes to cultivate a sense of inclusivity, as well as reciprocity. So far, this has included student initiation of Om, occasional post-class conversations about yoga, and free classes at a variety of locations and times so that many different people have opportunities to practice in solidarity with others. It is important to me as a yoga instructor that that I involve my yoga community (which is comprised of my students, my teachers, and other yogi friends) in my teaching practice so that the learning is always reciprocal.
To the same extent that I find it important to include my community in co-intentional learning, it is also important to me that I am not silent on issues concerning social injustice in order to seem professional or neutral. This has been achieved through the practices I describe in the paragraph above, but also in the type and the breadth of articles, books, events, or other resources I share with my email list and on my Facebook page. Some of my students and I have formed meaningful bonds by realizing some of our shared perspectives, and valuable conversations leading to thought evolution has transpired. Thus, today I am excited to extend my involvement of my community members by initiating a series of interviews with some of them. These interviews are more so conversations, dialogues, opportunities to think aloud with one another.
One of the people I bonded with, and the first person I have interviewed for this series, is Linh. Linh and I first met when she started coming to my classes at the Phoenix Center. She is one of the many beautiful and smiley faces I get to see each week and I am grateful to now call her a friend.
Below is a transcript of our conversation on July 5th.
Raina: I’m really glad you’re interested in this as well and open to talking with me. I wanted to start with how you started practicing yoga.
Linh: The first time I heard about yoga was my freshman year when my roommate was like, “Oh do you want to do this yoga DVD with me?” and I didn’t really realize what that was at the time. I just thought it was another form of exercise. I started taking a few classes here and there during my later years of undergrad. I really got into it more here in Ann Arbor, with Aum Yoga. I realized this awareness of my body. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with my body. I would be conscious when I danced, or with what I wear, and I felt like yoga just allowed me to feel my body, feel my arms, feel my legs, feel my breathing, on a scale I don’t think I’ve ever done before. You don’t realize you go through the motion of the day and you don’t really take care of your body. When I practiced yoga more regularly, I felt like, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that!” Something you mentioned in class, that not every pose is for every body. I think there’s this thing around yoga, that form is perfection. Well, it’s the challenges up to that, I think, is where it’s beautiful.
R: Yeah, that’s really what I hope to cultivate for people when I teach: that it’s more the process than the end! So, my next question was, how do you define your practice?
L: The first word that comes to mind is cautious. I think that goes back to being previously disconnected from my body and learning how my body works, and feeling often times like scared of my own potential. I hear [a student] landing on her mat [during crow] and I’m like “I wanna land on my mat too!” But there’s that moment, like before you jump up into the air [from downward dog] that you feel really scared. I don’t know if it’s scared of falling, or scared of actually doing it. I say cautious because I’m still learning what my body can do, and not wanting to over extend myself, but wanting that challenge. It reminds me a lot of what [my professor] says: “You only have a few seconds to prove yourself to the world and in that moment when you’re being asked to step up to the plate, those moments mean so much.” I always think about that moment in between when something’s coming and time slows down. Like when someone says something that’s really hurtful, how do you respond, that moment before you jump into your pose, that moment of public speaking...that moment in between I think is really interesting.
R: I love that analogy and that you see a connection - I mean, he’s obviously not talking about yoga - but it’s applicable to different situations. Do you feel like there are other areas for you where you consciously see overlap between school, or politics, or yoga? Are those areas there for you? I’m always curious what things people realize in life and it’s like “oh, that’s yoga!” What’s your “that’s yoga!” epiphany?
L: Feeling discomfort, whatever you’re in in that moment. That strain in your back or in your hips. I think about my work, which is a challenging workspace. I’m coming in with the mindset of assisting underrepresented students in STEM, while the focus of my office is not that. I often encounter comments about student’s ability to do well. So I think about when I encounter moments where someone told me, “Well, these students are not prepared, I don't know why we admitted them in the first place.” And I responded, “Well it’s our responsibility now to find support and create support systems.” And they say, “Well we should make sure they're not too dependent on these systems, because when they leave the university life is not like that.” I feel very deeply offended in the moment - that moment where you’re like “this doesn’t sit right with me and I don’t know why” and I think sitting with that and not responding with like an immediate, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” because they do know what they're talking about, at their own level. And maybe you don’t know why it feels wrong, and I think sitting with that discomfort, because so often time were so reactive. I don't mean to say that you should be okay with social injustices, but to say that there is so much value in reflection, in thinking about and attempting to make sense of why things are the way they are. Especially talking about activists, we can be quick to call people out, just criticize instead of listening and trying to understand why that is being said. Reflection is as important a responsibility as action. And action doesn't always mean we call someone out. Sitting with your discomfort, to me, is one approach in first recognizing what's going on and beginning to think through things. So I think about yoga and that moment of feeling so uncomfortable but not being sure which part of your body is uncomfortable, or why it’s uncomfortable.
R: Yeah, we’re a culture that is fearful of discomfort, instead of using it as feedback. So this has been helpful for you in your workplace?
L: It’s incredibly hard for me to be at a primarily white institution, and I’m in the humanities - in the most humanity of the humanities in education - so, speaking about myself - sharing with [my coworkers] my own experiences, that hey this is difficult for me too [not just the students]. Trying to open the other person up - making that connection for them about why we should expect the most out of our system. The same that we’ve done for women students, [for example], why wouldn’t we do the same for students of color. So making the connection to their own experience, contextualizing it.
R: It’s like the we’re all students and teachers of life concept. Yeah, it’s funny, especially at the School of Social Work I get that “Well, in the real world it’s not going to be like this.” and I’m like is that an excuse?
L: Yeah, and it makes me think about students at minority serving institutions - are you saying they leave and don’t do well in life? Because I don’t think that’s true. I think it's easy to shift the blame back to the individual. People [who] are born with privileges use them all the time!
R: So speaking of how your identity influences your experience at institutions where you're definitely a minority, what are your most salient identities?
L: Being an immigrant - I moved here from Vietnam when i was 11. I’m still working on this one: being an Asian Pacific Islander woman, or a woman of color. Those are the top two.
R: So I wonder how your identities have shaped your experience with yoga.
L: For one, yoga is very white. And you can feel that from the moment you walk in. You see what people are wearing - Lululemon and fancy yoga mats. You can see it in the way people approach yoga. It feels like people are jumping to form - like really wanting to perfect that pose. And it being fast-paced and not really talking about why we do what we do. Or using ‘namaste’ or ‘Sanskrit’ without really defining them. Those words just sound cool and they’re coopted. And frankly, no one crediting the origin of yoga is really frustrating. I’m oftentimes one of the few women of color in the room, with instructors that are white women or white men. And whose practices kind of cater to that kind of body - very long, very lean. As my friend would say, “I got little bumps on this body!” And then, [I notice] how hard it is to get my friends of color to go to yoga! And feeling disconnected, and wanting them to see the benefits of it - especially men of color.
M: Does your family know you practice yoga?
L: No! My mom would want to talk every Sunday at noon [during your class] and I would have to say “I’m going to an exercise class,” because I don’t even know how to describe it in Vietnamese. I just sort of translate it as aerobic exercise. I think they would give me a really funny look if they knew that I practice yoga.
R: What has been the best and the most challenging experiences that you’ve had practicing yoga that relate to your identity or feeling connected to it?
L: I think of moments where I felt like, “Oh man, why did I come?” It comes back to space being a big thing, inclusive space. It’s so difficult to pinpoint what irks us, but when you walk into a space that maybe besides the fact that you don’t see people like you, you also don’t feel a sense of this is a space for everyone. People can say that, but to really create that space, yoga spaces aren’t often like that. I keep remembering my time practicing yoga in Virginia last summer. I just think about why I never felt good in that space. I always felt like I stood out. During practices, I wouldn’t lean as far, or my body doesn’t stretch like that. And then I think about when I go to Zumba, and it’s mostly women of color. There’s a difference in attitude. We’re not here to compete, we’re just here to let loose. Yoga can be so performative. I feel like women of color enjoy something that is a community practice. [Zumba] is closer to our culture in a way, we just naturally move our bodies to music. Yoga doesn’t resonate as naturally as dancing would. And I think when people think of yoga, they think of a white women in Lululemon leggings just doing poses. Until you sent me those websites, I had never seen a woman of color doing yoga.
R: When you talk with your friends about coming to yoga, what is your intention in convincing them to come?
L: I want them to feel their bodies. We talk a lot about self care and learning about our bodies. And we do it through dancing and food, but I want them to feel what it’s like to sit with their bodies, what it’s like to move with their bodies, what it’s like to sit with their discomfort with their bodies. I want them to go through the experience with me. My friends and I talk a lot about mindfulness, and this is such a big way to learn about being mindful.
R: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing with me - just being aware. We think we have to carve out the space for meditation, which can be great, but just practicing yoga and becoming more mindful, it just becomes a day-to-day thing.
L: A lot of my friends are very strong women. We live in a world that makes us very defensive. I think yoga lets us see that it’s ok to feel the pain, the challenges, the discomfort, the anger. It’s so easy for us to jump into our activist minds and say “Fuck the world, fuck the system!” but then, we are the system, we are the world, we can’t fuck it! There’s only one! *laughs*
R: Do you have a favorite mantra, or common theme, yoga inspiration, or sutra?
L: Yeah, it’s from you actually!
R: What is it?!
L: “You already have what you need to get what you want.” I often think, I need to be leaner, I need to be more toned to jump into that pose, to get more breath, but I think about what you say, and well, not every pose is for me, but I already have it! Drawing from within, drawing that energy from deep down and carrying it out. To connect it back to everything else: it’s easy for us as activists to say, “the system is wrong, let’s create a new one,” but again, we live in the system, so we can’t throw it all away, because we are a part of it, we’re a product of it, all the evils and goods, that’s us! We should work with what we have, and change it from the inside out.
R: What about a favorite pose?
L: Warrior II. I like that part when we rise from being down on the mat, and your back arm goes out first and your front arm lifts up. It feels so good, it feels so powerful. It feels like I’m rooted from the bottom up, like a tree. And my core is where it’s supposed to be. It feels like a power pose.
R: Yeah, I love that as well! Well, do you have any questions for me?
L: Uhh.. What’s been a challenging moment for you in the classroom? Either as a student or as a teacher.
R: One challenge I see in new students and veteran students, and myself even, is when you think you should be able to do something. Wanting to address that person directly, but wanting them to feel supported and empowered, and so sometimes I have to let go and not say anything, sometimes I have to say it to the entire class, sometimes it comes up in conversation later. I just have to hope they hear it. Sometimes you have to repeat it. And the thing is that you can tell your body to do one thing, but sometimes it just takes time. A big lesson for me has been being uncomfortable, being vulnerable, or being embarrassed, and then moving on from that moment. And wanting other people to feel the same thing so much, but not having control over their bodies or being in their head. I know I teach challenging classes, because I think you can find space for every level, but it takes a calm sense of self to be in a multi-level class that’s challenging and knowing that you can dial it down. Sometimes I notice I don’t have a strong connection to people depending on our identities. So I have to be really mindful of if I really have to say anything right now. Sometimes you have to - it’s a safety issue - but sometimes not.
L: It’s cool to hear that there’s another side - that it’s not just me as a student who feels uncomfortable.
What did I learn from my conversation with Linh?
I have worked really hard to build a diverse class at the Phoenix Center on Sundays. I am proud of where I am in that process. Depending on the Sunday, I can count on having students from a variety of identities present in the class. Some of those identities are visible, some invisible.
When I first started my teacher training, my mission was to bring yoga to communities of color, particularly Black women. I have been challenged over and over again to do so “successfully.” As a biracial woman who also identifies as Black I felt perplexed as to why it was so hard to convince people of color, people in my communities, people who may look like me to come to MY class. I have had to let go of my ego quite a bit and realize the many reasons why someone of color would be skeptical of yoga. I have also had to be honest with myself about why someone of color would be skeptical of me. In doing so, I have also had moments where I have felt unsure of my reasons for practicing yoga. I have had moments of questioning if I was being authentic in my identities by practicing yoga. I have felt guilty for buying into something that has been co-opted by the yoga industrial complex.
Linh spoke of sitting with discomfort, and of that being an active behavior. There is a lot of complexity in the reasons why people of color largely steer clear of yoga spaces. The need for a counter yoga culture screams at me every single day. I do my best, but it is sometimes not enough. I appreciate Linh’s comments about the system, and working within the system to change it. In the same ways that I am comfortable with my body’s discomfort during my own personal practice, I also must be content with the times I experience discomfort in my teaching practice.
With all this said, I am actively sitting with my discomfort. I will be persistent, but I will take my time to incorporate new ways of being inclusive and encouraging diversity in yoga. I will not pretend to have all the answers. I certainly have a lot more learning to do about how I can hold myself accountable to being a more inclusive yoga teacher. Yet, while we all figure out how to deal with the system, how to counter the culture, how to prove to underrepresented identities that they deserve to be in the spaces that have excluded them for so long (as my own professor would say), conversations with beautiful, confident, and smart women of color who practice yoga, like Linh, have reminded me that I deserve to enjoy and thoughtfully share this practice that has done so much for me.