Many yoga teachers around the country have found themselves suddenly politicized and engaging in conversations that, for some, have not entered the yoga space before. Given the deep divisiveness of the current political landscape, tensions are high, and the conversation is seeping into spaces previously void of political charge. This is a ripe moment to educate and support these natural community leaders to usher their students into a deeper understanding of what social justice is. Many students of yoga are interested in becoming “conscious” and “aware.” Yet these concepts are mostly rooted in personal development and healing. The current political climate is waking many people up to the larger dynamics of inequality and oppression that are embedded in American social policy and culture. These concepts can be confusing and confronting, our yoga practice can help give us a foundation for exploring these ideas.
For many, the practice of yoga is one of learning from our discomfort and transforming it through cultivating a practice of presence. This same philosophy can be applied to the current discomfort plaguing many. To sit with this discomfort requires us to confront the differences between us and try to find a common ground. The dialogue needs to center around values rather than political views. Values like peace, community, care, kindness, compassion and respect. It also becomes necessary to expand our sense of self and include all people and living things as part of our identity and value system.
OTM’s Leaders as Bridges Initiative aims to support these leaders in acquiring and honing the skills they need to inspire critical consciousness in their students. Critical consciousness engages people in looking at and questioning our current political and social situation. Our goal is to invite our leaders into this inquiry from a heart centered place that centralizes connection and our shared humanity.
Yoga Teachers as Bridges
Yoga studios are unique in that people with different political, religious and social values can all be interested in yoga. The yoga studio is then a prime place to connect people and engage them across differences(1). Yoga teacher and studio owners and managers are leaders in this community and can be bridges to connect people across difference as well as use these relationships to foster critical consciousness around the issues that concern them. Because many of these students of yoga have relative privilege, taking them through a process of awareness building around social justice issues is an important part of change. Yoga teachers are in a unique position; because yoga can foster not only physical health but a mental/ emotional and even spiritual feeling of wellbeing, students often look up to their teachers and see them as authorities on matters beyond physical health. If we can educate and support these teachers to understand social justice concepts and find ways to engage students in an appropriate way, they have the potential to have a positive influence and inspire change in the students that trust them and look to them for guidance.
1. The mainstream yoga community lacks diversity around economics, race and gender.For the most part, those who can afford to go to most studios have economic privilege.The diversity in these spaces is mostly around social and political awareness and values.In the future, bridging the different groups of people doing yoga is important as well.
Critical consciousness engages people in looking at and questioning our current political and social situation. It asks us to examine our reality beyond our personal and familial history into a larger socio-political history that includes dynamics of oppression, power and privilege that inform our perspective. Critical consciousness asks us to examine normalized systems of power and challenge our unexamined beliefs about them.
Expanding our sense of self beyond the personal is a paradigm shift away from a culture that values individualism and exceptionalism towards one that prioritizes relationships and our collective interdependence.
This requires a paradigm shift away from seeing well-being as adapting to the current system, towards creating a new paradigm that values the well-being of all, not just some. Paradigm shift is hard. Most current healing practices are guilty of this: they promote personal change without an investigation into the larger context that may contribute to individual malaise as well as the marginalization of entire groups of people.
Yogis love to say “Namaste” which implies that we are all connected. Without critical awareness, this term is hollow. If we are truly going to live in the spirit of Namaste, we must acknowledge our own privileges and be willing to leverage or even give up some of this privilege so that everyone can have access to the same rights and resources. If this doesn’t occur, “change” only serves some, not all, and it maintains and perpetuates the status quo. Leaders in the yoga community have the opportunity to foster critical consciousness in their students. Many of these students have uninvestigated privilege while others know what it’s like to be marginalized.
Ultimately our goal is to see yoga as a movement that contributes towards dismantling the current system by fostering critical consciousness in practitioners. Many people who practice yoga are seekers, they want more healing and balance in their lives. Our hope is that embodied and heart centered practices can open them up. As one of our faculty members wisely says, “I have never seen the right analysis or information open hearts, but I have seen heart centered practices prepare hearts to hear the right analysis or information.”
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, recently resigned her position at a law school to go into theology. In a recent interview, she shares this:
“Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power…This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.”
Our hope is that the yoga communities all around our nation can be a part of this moral revolution along with other contemplative communities, faith communities, ecological communities and beyond.
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Stay tuned for details about this program and how you can get involved….And to begin exploring this work sooner, check out our 4-Day Social Justice + Leadership Retreat May 26-29th in North Carolina.
In a time when there is a strong public rhetoric around building walls and fearing difference, this work of risking connection is more vital than ever. Join angel Kyodo williams, Hala Khouri, and Kerri Kelly in this unique training where we'll explore the connection between personal and social transformation through the lens of race and power in the United States.
Race, Trauma, & Wellbeing: Times That Call For Love
an embRACE(™) training collaboration* REGISTER HERE