“No matter how revolutionary the practice of Yoga is, it is not helpful if we continue to limit certain folks from participating.”
While many have been contemplating the arrival of spring, I have been contemplating privilege and oppression; especially in the context of Yoga. I view these concepts much like Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (matter, or that which is created), in that they can be examined separately, but they are inextricably linked together. In this same way, privilege and oppression are dubious neighbours - opposites which work in lockstep with each other.
I am specifically interested in exploring gatekeeping (more on this in a moment) and accessibility to Yoga and spiritual communities – you know, who’s invited to the party, but more importantly, who’s not. How easy is it for black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) to attend classes, do teacher trainings, or attend conferences? Who is it that is allowing this access? If we choose to undertake this mission, then, when we consider privilege, we are also compelled to examine oppression, and all the ways in which we do, and especially do not, invite participation into these spaces.
Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to practicing and teaching Yoga know the profound power it possesses. Yoga assists with the simple (or, often, not so simple) ability to lean into the discomfort of the human condition. Yoga and Yogic philosophy can teach us how to make friends with life at the very least and, at best, help us to transcend our suffering and experience liberation. If we follow just the simple instruction of paying attention to the breath, of following the inhalation and exhalation, then we can come to understand how the air that enters our body is transformed by some alchemical process into prana (life force.) With the magic of grace, our internal world and mind are softened; even transformed. And perhaps we, for just a few minutes, are free. We learn over time that the freedom found within these simple practices can be revolutionary. But no matter how revolutionary the practice of Yoga is, it is not helpful if we continue to limit certain folks from participating.
I wholeheartedly believe in the importance and the responsibility of maintaining a formal seated and physical Yoga practice. I am equally interested in how I can live Yoga “off the mat,” and how I can educate others to do the same. At the heart of this practice is the exploration of right alignment between oneself and society (the Yamas): developing the skills to be able to honour someone else’s experience and acknowledging how we each play a pivotal role with one another.
For me, nothing exemplifies this more accurately than the following poem by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn:
You are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.
I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.
We may consider right alignment between oneself and society as “refining” ourselves, by polishing our own rough edges and applying the practices defined in the Yamas of non-harming, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, non-hoarding, and the right use of energy. And slowly but surely, we come to realize how our individual actions impact the other.
So, I am inviting us to recognize that there are some folks who continue to be excluded from these practices, because of a little something called “gatekeeping.”
If you are unfamiliar with the term “gatekeeping,” allow me to share a couple of definitions with you:
Simply put, gatekeepers assess who is "in or out." (Wikipedia)
We often see gatekeepers as people who hold legitimate or sanctioned power, like a president, a judge, or a doctor. However, we all guard different gates to greater or lesser degrees. We guard gates overtly and we guard gates unconsciously. “We are all micro gatekeepers” (Michelle Johnson).
In our daily life we gate-keep in many ways and I want to be clear it is not all bad. In fact, often is very necessary. For example, I guard a variety of gates for my elderly mother, ensuring her well-being financially, medically, and sometimes emotionally. If you have young children, you may guard gates by limiting access to electronic devices by controlling what is watched and for how long. But gatekeeping can also become problematic. For instance, when we micromanage someone’s work product or constantly criticize the way our partner parents the children or looks after the pets.
What are some of the positive and/or negative ways that gatekeeping shows up in your life?
We also see gatekeepers in spiritual communities. Spiritual gatekeepers may be self-appointed and/or in positions of leadership that determine:
It must be noted that in the examples above such as costing classes, etc. does need to be done and is not inherently bad. But we do need to look at how it is being done, who it is inviting in and who it is excluding.
Perhaps even more problematic, spiritual gatekeepers may take it upon themselves to set arbitrary standards that define what devotion looks like, who is devoted, and more concerning, who is not. This type of gatekeeping has the stench of spiritual superiority. Baba Hari Dass, wrote, “As soon as a person starts thinking, 'I want to be a better person,' that is the start of Yoga.” For me this statement is so inclusive and welcoming. It leaves it up to the individual to be their own gatekeeper and determine what being a “better person” means and therefore what devotion might look like for them rather than it being decided by an external authority.
Do not misunderstand me. I believe in the importance of healthy boundaries. They create safety and respect between self and others and individuals and organizations. A gate can be a legitimate boundary that needs to be respected.
There is a place for gatekeeping in Yoga practices for instance. Take the methods of pranayama (breathing techniques). It is important that students be prepared physiologically with beginning breathing techniques prior to moving on to intermediate practices, under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The same can be said for Yoga Teacher Training curriculum. It is important that it be taught in an organized manner, that it can be clearly understood and digested, so the student is being afforded the best learning outcomes.
We have an invitation here to be transparent about positions of power and leadership in spiritual communities. Let us keep reflecting on how folks in these positions often become the gatekeepers of this revolutionary path to freedom, and that this can have a very real and damaging impact on the ability of another to access this path, or to become part of a Yogic or other spiritual community.
Finally, I will leave you with three questions that I was left with during a recent workshop:
We have a responsibility to one another. The philosophical teachings of Yoga as set out in Yamas are all about relationship with self and society and so, at their core, they are also about social justice.
My deep prayer is for those of us who have been fortunate enough to walk through an open gate, keep it propped open for those behind us, who have not been given such easy access. Because, as Fannie Lou Hamer, a women’s rights activist during the civil rights movement beautifully put it,
“nobody’s free until everybody's free.”
"Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward -Kierkegaard"
We are coming to the end of black history month. I have spent much of this month attempting to “locate” myself. You see, I am in the midst of reclaiming myself, and putting me together feels like a literal re-membering; it has required deep reflection, study and acknowledgement of the actual physical and metaphorical parts of me that have been cut off, long forgotten or simply dismissed. In fact, a recent conversation with a family member revealed they were surprised to hear that I identify as a black woman. This is not a new narrative to me; I have lived with this my entire life. The thing is, “I do identify with being black, and if people do not identify me that way, that is their issue. I am happy to challenge people's understanding of what it looks like to be biracial (Rashida Jones).” So, I am asking myself (and my family members) the big questions about my own history. Who were my people? Who are these ancestors that walk beside me? Who is it that I carry in my being? I am following Kierkegaard’s lead in that life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward. I am working on healing my ancestral lines. It is a dynamic and sometimes painful process.
Part of my re-membering has been to look back in time and not only look at the alignment of the stars, but to reflect on the energetic climate of the world I was about to enter at birth. While there are many powerful black Canadians that I could reflect on, it is significant for me to imagine that at the time I was preparing to enter the world in April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail, along with 50 other civil rights protesters. While in solitary confinement on April 16th, he penned the Letter from the Birmingham Jail one of the most important letters of his time, in the margins of a newspaper. It is the letter where he wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Imagine that, while I was being birthed into existence in the wee hours of April 17th, Dr. King Jr. was writing about civil rights, equity, and inclusion. I believe that was the energetic climate I was entering at birth – it is in me.
With the help of my family, I have been able to trace my ancestors back to Jamaica, 1855. Although I do not have many stories, there is one that sticks out as especially significant; my ancestors were enslaved people, but they also enslaved people. I wish I had more of the story to share with you, but from what I understand, the plantation owner was from England, he had sons with enslaved women, and then had to return to England. From what I can gather, when he returned to England, he left the plantation to his sons, and those men are my ancestors. In fact, before hearing this story, I had often joked that as a bi-racial person, I contain both the oppressed and the oppressor in this one body. Imagine, for a moment, the karmic imprint that living with this type of narrative leaves on the soul. These are the stories I carry in the tissues of my body.
In the mid 1990’s, at the height of some profound anxiety attacks (ones where I felt I was going to die about 5 times per day for a year or so), I began to study Buddhism and Yoga. Although it did not happen overnight, anxiety is a distant memory. Over time the practices provided a sweet refuge for me and offered me a reprieve from suffering. The physical practice allowed me to move and remove blocked energy through and from my body, while the meditation practice gave me the discipline and structure I needed to work with my mind. From this, I developed a deep, compassionate commitment to myself, to my well-being, and to something beyond myself: the desire for freedom for all beings.
You might be asking, what does my ancestral history have to do with Yoga or Buddhism? I think the bigger question we should be asking is, what does it mean for Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) folks to practice Yoga in predominantly white Yoga spaces, or spiritual communities? What does it mean for BIPOC folks to bring along an individual and collective history of racial trauma, and not be able to discuss the pain of that history within their spiritual community? As many of you know, we are often - in society and in spiritual communities - encouraged to bypass the ugly stuff. We do not see colour and we are all one, right!? Please, do not misunderstand me, at the “absolute” level I do believe we are all connected, but on the “relative” level, I am very conscious that we are in different bodies, with different skin, and are treated very differently based on this.
I have spent the last few weeks taking workshops and listening to Dharma talks taught almost exclusively by black teachers. I am not going to lie; it has been refreshing to be part of a conversation that acknowledges a collective accounting of deep, deep pain. The racial type of ancestral pain. To be honest, I had no idea I needed this. I had no idea that we, as BIPOC folks, hold an individual and collective trauma so deep in our bones, we often do not even know it is there. I had no idea I needed to re-member parts of myself that I did not know were missing. How could I not have noticed that my arm, one of my eyes, my ear, or one of my kidneys was missing for all these years? Is this what it is like to live with internalized racism?? Attending these offerings was like being sewn back together, suture by meticulous suture, one beautiful and profound teaching at a time.
I have been longing to have an honest conversation about Yoga and racial inclusion for a long time. So, I am throwing down the gauntlet, the glove, and the chicken foot! It is that important.
If you are a Yoga studio owner, if you are part of a spiritual community, I urge you to open the type of dialogue that generates the heat of “tapas” – the tension and friction needed for change. Challenge your thinking around what racial inclusion means, what it truly looks like, and what you will do to make your spaces and teaching faculty more inclusive and representative of BIPOC. If you are not clear on how to start the conversation, I invite you to educate yourself. Attend workshops and read books by BIPOC facilitators and authors. Talk to your peers and colleagues about what, if anything, they are doing to become more accessible and inclusive. More importantly, develop relationships with the people and groups you want to include and find out what they need.
Like all change, this conversation is not going to be comfortable, but this tension is needed to get us to where everyone has a place to practice in which they feel safe, welcome and at home. This time calls for more than silence and simply bearing witness to inequity and injustice, it is time for action now. While we have this conversation, it is important for all of us to find the tools and practices to resource ourselves. This will help support us while we are learning to face and withstand the uncomfortable truth that has been present for so long for many BIPOC.
Beautiful people, it is time to do some deep healing: individually, socially, and institutionally. With the heart of compassion and Ahimsa (nonviolence), consider the possibility that not creating more accessibility and inclusivity in Yoga and Buddhist spaces and spiritual communities is causing further trauma. BIPOC folks need a place to practice, to heal and reclaim and re-member themselves alongside teachers and other practitioners that resemble them. Please bear in mind that trauma is impactful for both the victim and the perpetrator. In the spirit of connection, we must remember it is impossible to cause trauma to others without causing trauma to yourself! In the end everybody is harmed by it.
May all beings be safe, peaceful and free of suffering.
They say these are strange times we are living in. I must agree. With the ongoing political and social climate, it is sometimes tough to keep the shiny side up.
Today, I am opening my first musings post with a quote by Eldridge Cleaver:
“The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.”
He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father and an early leader of the Black Panther Party and, in full transparency, he was a convicted felon. This quote has stuck with me since I first read Soul on Ice (a memoir and collection of essays written while he was in prison); I was sixteen.
I have a deep belief in people’s ability to change, forgiveness, redemption, and the teachings, wherever they come from. Small talk has never been my forte. I am a person who is comfortable living in the weeds of the human condition, while keeping my heart open and the big picture in perspective. I hope this sets the tone for what I would like to share.
A couple of months ago, I had a beautiful walk into downtown Victoria, my hometown in BC, Canada. I was born here, 57 years ago, and I have called Victoria home now for 30 years. Getting outside when the weather permits has become especially important during the pandemic. On my journey, I bumped into an acquaintance that I see from time to time. We had a conversation about the state of our community and the world. He asked many questions; including two that normally offend me, such as the age-old suspects:
So, rather than put on my battle gear, I took a breath, connected with my heart, and did my best to respond as kindly and with much as much compassion as possible. I am still learning too. It has been said that when you know better, you do better – it was a moment to educate.
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You may be wondering why the first question is problematic. As if being born in Victoria, or Canada for that matter, was somehow not possible because of my skin color.
According to the Harvard Business Review, asking someone, “Where are you from?” can seem like a very innocuous question, but can quickly turn into a microaggression. It reduces someone’s identity to a social group, a city, or a culture, and that can trigger feelings of alienation. Microaggressions can also reinforce differences and magnify unequal power structures.
As for why the second question is problematic, in a word: colonization!
Colonization has systemically marginalized Indigenous people from mainstream society and has had a profound and disruptive impact on health, socio-economic welfare, and access to healthcare services, and don't get me started about the lack of clean drinking water. Enough said.
During our conversation, I learned he was from Southern Africa and was no stranger to privilege and racist ideology.
George Floyd had just been murdered. Many of us witnessed the horror of him having his innate right to breath denied, and on national television, no less.
I had recently attended my first Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally and heard the familiar cries of “all lives matter.” Of course, if all lives really mattered, we would not have been there that day. Let me be clear, I agree, life in all its forms do matter. However, in relation to BLM, saying "all lives matter" really derails the very important discussion that needs to be had about how Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and communities are affected by racism. It's like watching your neighbour's house going up in flames and saying "yes, but all houses matter." (Kris Straub). But I digress.
Toward the end of our walk, he asked me "how do you stay so positive!?"
I told him that for the better part of 25 years, I have been extremely fortunate to have adopted a strong daily Yoga practice (Sadhana) which includes Pranayama (breathing practices) Meditation, Asana (physical practice) and other Yogic principles such as the Yamas (attitudes and relationships toward our environment) and Niyamas (attitudes and relationship toward ourselves.)
This practice has been an invitation that enables me to observe my internal mental landscape in relation to my external world; I use the word “my'' because each of us have our own conditioning by which we see things.
It is from that place that I choose to live. I have a deep commitment to the truth (Satya), so I added, "the conditions aren’t always perfect, believe me it's not always comfortable being me."
We had a little laugh, but I have sat with this conversation in the months since. As a bi-racial POC, I continue to be curious (Svadhyaya) about how I remain positive in the face of all of the unbelievable suffering?
Well, the truth is, sometimes I’m not.
My teacher Baba Hari Dass always said (and I am paraphrasing) “whatever the problem, regular sadhana is the answer.”
I understand this more than ever now. The ability to remain optimistic while at the same time feeling absolutely outraged, angered, and gutted by the current political and social climate speaks highly to the transformative power of a consistent Yoga practice (Abhyasa); should one choose to take the mission. Especially when your practice has been maintained over a long period of time.
So, I invite you into practice; become an alchemist. Turn your outrage and anger into gold. Practice (Sadhana) continues to teach me that anger and outrage are perfectly natural emotions full of wisdom. I have learned to welcome and even befriend them, so as not to be pinned to the floor, and learn from them.
This is where the alchemy happens, when transmuted, these emotions can become a positive energy that can and does change the world. From this perspective we are welcomed into living a life of non-violence (Ahimsa), or at the very least, less-violence. And although sometimes it does not appear like it, we are witnessing people “waking up” to this.
I hope you will join me and discover that you are the universal elixir that is needed during these times and then go out into the world and start, or continue, the challenging and beautiful work that is reserved for you (Dharma).
Hello, beautiful people. My name is Tracy Chetna Boyd (she/her). Among other things, I am a Yoga educator and Yoga Therapist, specializing in Yoga for Cancer. Although I have many teachers, my primary teacher is Baba Hari Dass. I have a deep belief in people’s ability to change, forgiveness redemption, and the teachings, wherever they come from. Small talk has never been my forte. I am a person who is comfortable living in the weeds of the human condition, while keeping my heart open and the big picture in perspective. I hope this sets the tone for the musings I'll be sharing from time-to-time.