Being a White Yogi When #blacklivesmatter and #waterislife

Sunrise at Oceti Sakowin Camp
Sunrise at Oceti Sakowin Camp

As I stood in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock at the beginning of November, very present to me was the truth of my ancestry. My 10th great-grandfather arrived on this continent on the Mayflower, which means that a significant part of my family history has directly involved the violence, genocide, and erasure of Native peoples and the resource extraction and theft of their land.

It felt both heavy and freeing to hold and name this truth as I stood on that holy land, lending my body and my voice in support of my Native brothers and sisters.

Also present was the ancestral trauma that our Native relatives bear. Science is confirming what many have instinctually known for generations: that the diseases that disproportionately affect the populations in the US who bear the brunt of institutionalized white supremacy – diabetes, heart failure, and addiction – are diseases of trauma. If my Native brothers and sisters have to bear the weight of the trauma, the legacy of the ongoing war that has been waged on them for 500 years, don’t I have to bear the weight of participation and complicity in that war?

My family, for multiple generations now, has been populated largely by socially progressive well-meaning white folks who have, knowingly or otherwise, benefitted greatly from the unearned and undeserved advantages afforded them by the imperialist patriarchy. All my ancestors that I have known have been good people with good hearts and good intentions, and yet, our collective impact has not always reflected those good hearts.

The entirety of conversations about race in my family of origin were this: racism is bad, skin color doesn’t matter, and we treat everyone the same. My mother loved to tell a story about my brother suddenly realizing one day that my mother’s best friend –someone we saw nearly every day - was black. He grabbed her arm, stared at it, and shouted: “Ertha! You’re black!”. This story was always told as a punctuation to an argument about how we’re all born colorblind.

Until I was in my 20s, I believed that this story proved, not only that we’re born colorblind, but that my family and I were not racist. After all, we didn’t even see color! And my mom’s best friend was black! Now, I shudder to think of how Ertha might have felt in that moment. Was she equally amused by my brother’s exclamation or was as it yet another reminder of the willful blindness to reality that white folks have the choice to indulge themselves in? Because now I know that a young white male child not seeing color only proves the existence of white male privilege. If he’d been walking around this world in black skin, his skin color would have mattered very much as it would have had a profound effect on every aspect of his life.

The question of what it means to be a white yogi at this time in history seems important, especially when we sit with the discomfort of knowing that yoga, as it is most often encountered in the West, has a legacy of cultural and economic appropriation which is both deeply traumatic and at odds with the healing that many find through this sacred practice. Acknowledging this paradox and the discomfort around it is a necessary first step, but it is not enough.

It has been my experience that the story told about race in my family of origin is not all that different from the story told by well-meaning white yogis. Colorblindness and loving everyone are held up as ideals, with little attention given to the underlying and interlocking systems of oppression that uphold white supremacy. It is for this reason that I believe that white yogis, in particular, have played a very damaging role in where we find ourselves right now as a nation and as a people. With one of the most powerful tools for self-examination at our disposal, we’ve instead practiced spiritual bypass, using these tools, not to face and examine our own complicity, but to seek personal peace and comfort, a refuge from the world “out there”.

Out there, #blacklivesmatter and #waterislife are more than just hashtags. They are cries of defiance to a society that does not value all of life, or even most of life, and instead has shown over and over again that the beliefs that drive our economic, educational, religious, and political systems place more value on some lives over others and the comfort of those lives at the expense of the lives of others. They are the cries of the oppressed and they cannot be separated from the cry of the earth herself and the cry of the spiritual wound that is becoming more and more obvious to those of us who are willing to hear it.

At a time when unarmed black men are being shot by those entrusted to protect, when a president-elect earned votes by calling for a ban on all Muslims and is installing white nationalists in the White House, when native peoples are still subject to the violence of an ongoing 500-year occupation of their sacred land, and we are hearing more and more stories of the denigration of brown and black bodies, what is the appropriate response?

We cannot talk about loving everyone, if we are not also demanding justice for everyone. We cannot commit to nonviolence and then sit quietly while violence is played out in front of us. We cannot claim ideals of unity and solidarity and then behave as though the assault on black and brown lives is not an assault on all of us. We cannot ignore the realities of the very real trauma that our black and brown brothers and sisters are living with every day.

It cannot be breathed, chanted, or twisted away. It cannot be soothed by New Age platitudes of Love and Light. Love and light are both essential, but only in their truest and grittiest forms. We have to love so profoundly that our hearts break wide open and we have to shine light so deep into our shadows that we can come face-to-face with our own complicity.

This light can empower us to ask some uncomfortable questions: How are we complicit in the systems that place profits over people? How do we participate in the subjugation of bodies when we tout a practice that has largely lost its connection to the deep contemplative practices at its core and instead focuses on physical movements? Where and by whom are our yoga pants made? Who is tending the fields where the fruit and vegetables that go into our $8 smoothies are from? Whose land are we on as we chant in a language that is not our own?

We have to reject binary thought as well as the belief that intentions matter more than impact. Setting an intention is a good practice; being mindful of and willing to take responsibility for our impact is an essential one. It is binary thought that allows us to move through this world believing that racists are bad people, therefore good people can’t be racist. We have to let go of the belief that as long as we ourselves do not treat people differently based on their identity, our work is done. We can no longer indulge the idea that those of us on the mat are the good ones doing the good work while the people who have not yet chosen the path of enlightenment are the problem.

In my own life as a sacred activist I’ve found that my yoga practice has been an incredibly powerful tool for maintaining the courage and stamina required to be in discomfort. Facing my own complicity has been hard and painful and terrifying. For those of us who came to yoga seeking peace and serenity and comfort, this can be quite unsettling. But our practice is meant for times like this. The time we’ve spent listening to our bodies has been practice for listening deeply to the stories of people of color. The time we’ve spent breathing through discomfort has been practice for breathing through the discomfort of wanting to defend, deny or justify the aggression that people of color are living with on a daily basis. And the time we’ve spent on the cushion meditating and communing with all that surrounds us has been practice for us to see, feel, and know our interconnectedness with all beings, especially those on the margins.

It’s also my yoga practice that has given me the tools and willingness to see and know that the way forward requires using my voice and my several unearned and undeserved advantages to sound the wake-up call for other white folks. Every morning at Standing Rock the call went like this: “Wake up! It’s time to pray! You’re here to pray!”.

Wake up, my fellow white yogis. It’s time now. We’ve slept long enough in the comfort of New Age escapism. It’s time to pray. We’re here to pray. For forgiveness, for courage, for clarity, and for the necessary resolve to stay woke.

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