A wake up call for white yoga practitioners

(Photo by Eric McDaniel)
(Photo by Eric McDaniel)

A Seattle yoga class for people of color abruptly disbanded last October after a well-intentioned, but uninformed white person made a mistake: They brought the project into the spotlight of white supremacy, making it vulnerable to attack.

That person was me.

The far-reaching impacts of my misstep launched me on a journey of learning what it means to be a white person in America in general, and in the yoga community in particular.

In May of 2015, I opened Rainier Beach Yoga at my home. I spent time contemplating how I could best serve the community as a white business owner in a diverse but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. I wanted my studio to feel welcoming to all, not only to neighbors who looked like me.

I offered classes on a sliding scale basis because not everyone who wants to practice yoga can afford the cost of the average class in Seattle. I also approached the private group, POC Yoga, to offer the use of my space. Until this point, POC Yoga had been holding classes for people of color privately without incident for 5 years.

The mistake I made next fed the fire of white supremacy.

I posted to a neighborhood social media site that POC Yoga was coming to Rainier Beach Yoga. I thought it would be a celebrated addition to our neighborhood.

Instead my post led to an onslaught of rage, fear, and threats.

The story was leaked to KIRO 7 radio and Dori Monson did an inflammatory piece challenging the state attorney general to intervene.  From there, the story went national, and for several days Teresa Wang, the organizer of POC Yoga, and I received death threats, threats of bodily harm, hateful Yelp and google reviews and hundreds of angry and violent voicemails and emails. We left our homes, and I closed my business temporarily in order to deal with safety and legal threats. Ultimately, POC yoga closed permanently.

I was contacted by the attorney general’s office after Dori’s show, and two consumer complaints were also filed against Rainier Beach Yoga. When I told them the full story they assured me there was no wrong doing. I obtained legal counsel and was instructed on how to respond to the complaints, which were then dropped.  I was advised by my lawyer to post a public apology, because I made something private public, and for using language that could be conceived as discriminatory.

Once I posted the apology, the death threats and complaints to the A.G. stopped, and the attacks coming in diminished in intensity and level of violence.

Unfortunately, I learned that this apology also had a negative impact on many people of color that I was trying to support. I realize after some listening, learning and soul searching, that I focused my apology on language rather than my mistakes and my values. I wish I had the ability to go back and do that moment differently.

One of the most vital tenets in the practice of Yoga is non-harming. But how do we address the violence of white supremacy and systematic racism that happens in the world at large and even in our own yoga classes? The primarily white Seattle yoga community, in which I include myself, has a lot to learn in this area.

Virtually every yoga studio in the U.S. where I have practiced says something to the effect of ‘everyone is welcome.’ Yet many people do not feel welcome…Intentions are simply not enough.

POC Yoga started five years ago because there was and continues to be an unmet need: people of color wanted to create a safe place to practice, and this was not happening in the larger mainstream yoga community. Unfortunately, the gap still exists today.

Though this incident sparked national conversation, many people in the yoga world are not talking about it. It is uncomfortable for white people to talk about whiteness and racism. I was taught not to talk about it, and I now see this silence as another function to keep white supremacy strongly intact.

However, yoga and meditation provide us with an opportunity to go towards discomfort and to learn from it. To let it change us, break our hearts, anger us, and empower us to make a change within ourselves, our relationships and the world.

Virtually every yoga studio in the U.S. where I have practiced says something to the effect of “everyone is welcome.” Yet many people do not feel welcome. If we, as yoga teachers do not do the work of uprooting our racism, which includes looking at the fact that yoga does not come from white or American culture in the first place, we will continue to perpetuate problematic and mostly unconscious thoughts and beliefs to the detriment of the students of color who come to our classes. Intentions are simply not enough if the impact is that people feel excluded or harmed in the practice.

Going forward, I plan to continue to pursue awareness, understanding and education of white supremacy in order to keep waking up to the river of oppression that is constantly flowing. To white people systemic racism is water and we are fish. People of color live with the harsh and sometimes deadly realities of racism every day.

I hope to contribute to the primarily white Seattle yoga community to start having difficult conversations about why the practice is not inclusive to many people. I hope that the practice of yoga will become more inclusive, whether that is through anti-racist caucus spaces specifically for people of color or spaces for everyone.

I hope that people will find freedom, liberation and healing and that will help our society find freedom, liberation and healing.

I have hope that yoga can be a path towards liberation. But hope without action does not make change.

Rainier Beach Yoga is hosting “Heart Conversations” — monthly discussions nurturing social justice through the lens of yoga philosophy as well as anti-oppression trainings for the yoga community.

The tenets of yoga are not just concepts. They are the radical notion that we all deserve to be safe, happy, healthy and at peace.

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5 Comments

  1. Well done! Thank you for your humility in this process and, after hearing criticism of your approach, reacting with a mode of learning rather than anger or defensiveness. We need more white people brave enough, tough enough, resilient enough, to hear criticism and build on their understanding of racial justice and their role in that work.

  2. I’m sorry you had to learn about entitlement in such a personally embarassing way. But glad you’re speaking on it. The people who issued death threats, the people who complained feel like they are entitled to something that other people should not be. It’s epidemic in this country.

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