Every week, as a yoga teacher, I have the joy of having the bodies and attention of 20-40 people for sixty minutes at a time. It’s a responsibility I do not take lightly—I have thousands of hours of training, experience, and practice so that I can safely and effectively lead these individuals.
I love teaching yoga because people come to listen, practice, and transform their lives, and I get to be part of shaping that. It’s the most selfish and manipulative thing I get paid to do. Make no mistake, I have an AGENDA and my students know it. I am hellbent on making them happier, calmer, and more peaceful individuals. There is great power in this position.
So, I try to wield this power for good. I often talk about patience, sitting with difficulty, cultivating gratitude, gaining perspective, choosing responses over reactivity, etc. Everything you’d expect to hear. In my candlelight evening classes, I usually try to find a lovely piece of poetry to soothe them with and give these people a well deserved break from their lives.
But not this time. I was burning and our cities were burning and our culture was burning and I couldn’t not talk about Black Lives Matter. So I did.
Last week, I lead a whole class about Black Lives Matter.
So often, I don’t know what to say. I know that white silence is violence, but is a Facebook status really going to change the world? I don’t know. But, if I get to use the heaps of privilege that I have to make a difference, bringing this movement to the mat and to my students is what I can do.
I was definitely nervous as I was checking students in for class. I knew this was a bit more pointed than they were used to, but I knew I couldn’t talk about anything else. I had to address the critical voice in my own head…which may also be the voice in yours saying: Wait a second! Don’t you see the irony that your yoga classes have very few people of color and even fewer black students?! What could you possibly have to add to this, as a privileged white woman? This is not the place for this.
To this valid critic, I reminded myself that I had a big opportunity before me. Yoga tends to attract a LOT of people who have a LOT of privilege. If anything, that’s all the more reason to begin speaking and teaching and practicing around engaging this crucial movement.
And if they end up hating the class (and obviously me by extension!), they don’t have to come back… I rationalized. They could always get up and leave. So, despite my fears, I pressed on.
But how, you ask? It began something like this:
“Black Lives Matter. [pause] Black Lives Matter. The foundational ethic of yoga is non-harm, ahimsa, and from where I sit, there is harm all around us. We are harming each other in amazing proportions. And I don’t know how to change the world, I don’t know how to change our culture, but I know how to work on myself. I know that it starts with me. It starts within our own selves.
If we can’t take the world into our studio, and if we can’t take our practice into the world, then what the hell are we doing here?”
Now, usually in a public speaking setting, you can read the audience. Facial expressions, people nodding along, making supportive hmms… but in a yoga class, my students were laying down, heads towards me, eyes closed, breathing evenly. Were they loving this? Glad to engage the pressing issues of our society? Were they hating this? Confused and upset by something seemingly political coming from their teacher? I had no way of knowing. I had to trust my own voice, take the time to move ahead thoughtfully, and lead the practice with conviction and sincerity, hoping that my earnestness would connect with them.
I asked the practitioners to examine times when they had been the victims of wrong perception.
I asked them to examine when they had made a snap judgment of someone and stuck to that belief.
I asked when they had held someone hostage to a story about the worst thing they had done, ignoring the rest of their humanity.
I asked them to look at what grudges they may be holding.
I asked them to think about past friends or lovers whom they resented. I told stories on myself: “I have a coworker who is always stylishly dressed and who is very busy – the first day I met her, I decided she was aloof and cold. I was unwilling to get to know her for weeks because I had already decided who she was.
This is a very similar impulse to a young man being shot because he was wearing a hoodie home from the store. When we limit someone to a singular image, we hurt them. And ourselves.” The connection between these two examples is so clear to me.
How can we expect the world to change if we don’t change ourselves?
Luckily, my students were generous and accepting.
More than one left in tears.
I am grateful that the studio is a place where people come with open minds and open hearts, where they have options between instructors (unlike a church—where I was one of two voices up front—these students don’t have to come back to my class if they hated it!), where they expect to be pushed and challenged, where they can build relationships with me and one another (some of these students I’ve known for almost four years), and where they expect to take these sixty minutes into the rest of their day, and come back again and again.
This was not an isolated incident. Other Black Lives Matter classes I’ve taught focused on:
- The practice of saying “I don’t know” and “I was wrong” and the importance of humility, vulnerability, and listening in our current culture (this was the day after the first presidential debate…)
- The practice of sitting with pain and not rushing to solve anything, but rather accepting the hurt and watching it unfold, looking for what it can be teaching us and calling us into
- Listening to that which isn’t speaking; so many voices are absent from our current dialogue (be it women, people of color, etc) and we can start with bodies to say, What is missing? What is hiding? What am I not giving my attention to? Is there a friend that’s been particularly silent in my life? Using our energy to call in and make space for the voices that are marginalized
- The practice of adding YET to our internal messaging in an effort of nurturing hope. Our world isn’t safe for the bodies of black boys yet. I can’t do this difficult pose yet. I can’t have productive and illuminating conversations with my neighbors yet. These three letters give us the seed for the future, in knowing that everything changes and possibilities are always there.
Take the chance to speak up – even if it seems like a weird time or place. There is no perfect situation. Sincerity, courage, and patience are tremendously helpful. Acknowledge your fears, but don’t let them control you. People with privilege need to be speaking to others with privilege. Use your influence!
If you have questions on how you as a yoga teacher might apply these themes in your meditation, or if you have suggestions for ways to further teach and expand these themes, please reach out!