This morning, I received a question from a White yoga teacher. It was brought to her attention that Black students don’t always feel comfortable or safe practicing in the predominately White yoga studios of America. She wanted to know how she could help her Black students feel comfortable.
If you are concerned about this, keep reading.
All my writing is Sutra based. So lets see what the Sutras say.
The Yoga Sutras has laid out a path of ethical observances, Yamas, that show us how to treat others. Looked at from the perspective of a White yoga teacher addressing Black students, they would go something like this.
“The restraint of the mental modifications is Yoga”- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:2
“The mental modifications are restrained by practice and non attachment. Of these two, effort towards steadiness of mind is practice”-Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:12-13
Many yoga teachers, who do things that make Black students feel uncomfortable, don’t even know that they are doing them. The first step is making the unconscious, conscious. You do this by questioning your thoughts/mental modifications. You have to stop running away from what you feel. You have to stop numbing yourself with alcohol, TV, and food. You have to stop distracting yourself with “busyness”, loud music, and social media. The Bible says, “be still and know”. You have to seek stillness in your heart. Just like the devil came to the righteous man Job in the Bible, negative thoughts will manifest themselves in this stillness. Don’t run away. Don’t suppress.
Many people don’t have a yoga practice. They have a yoga distraction. Yoga is used as a method of distraction from daily life. It is a temporary respite. In the Yoga Sutras, practice is described as “effort towards steadiness of mind.” Sometimes, we want to skip “effort”. We want to pretend that everything is good. We want to make believe that we are already there. This is done by creating the “Yoga Dolby Cinema Experience”. Have you ever been to a Dolby Cinema to watch a movie? There are cushy seats that recline. There is lots of room to stretch out. There are speakers all over the room and in the chairs so the action on the screen appears to be coming at you from all sides. There is stadium style seating so you can always see over people’s heads. The screen is huge and crystal clear. For 2 hours, you feel like you are in another universe. But you are not. When you walk out, there you are. All your stuff is waiting to be picked up and taken home with you.
The same can happen for yoga. We can create this beautiful experience that allows us to pretend that we have our ish together. When you leave the move theater, it is completely obvious. That is not the case for your mind. It is not until we are in precarious situations that our mind stuff resurfaces. That is when yoga teachers say and do things that make people feel uncomfortable. That is why it is important for yoga teachers to be yoga students first. Yoga teachers have to get on their mats for what the Yoga Sutras calls “dirgha kala” or “a long time.” Yoga teachers have to practice steadying their mind for a long time before they are able to help other people steady theirs.
For practice to be effective, it cannot be a Dolby Cinema experience. It has to be something that challenges us to come face to face with our mind stuff so we can train ourselves into steadiness. Coming face to face with your own stuff, will help you to have steadiness with your students. When you are steady, you are less likely to make your Black students feel unsteady.
In the case of Black students feeling uncomfortable, Yoga teachers must be willing to listen to the student’s perceived truth. Notice I said, “perceived”. In the science of yoga, we are all made of the same energy manifesting in different forms. What we see with our eyes, is just a form, it is not the ultimate manifestation of who we are. Black and White is temporary and surface level. It is tempting to say that to your student. However, saying that without addressing the issue will make them feel further alienated. Truth must still be tempered by Ahimsa, non violence.
Being Black is a beautiful experience with its unique challenges and gifts. Don’t steal that from your students. Don’t down play it. Don’t ignore it. I absolutely hate the phrase, “I don’t see color.” You should see it. The world is made beautiful through variety and contrast. We have eyes that see colors because we are meant to see colors. We are meant to see the beauty of Lupita Nyong’o as well as the beauty of Gigi Hadid. Every culture has its own richness. See it. Ignoring the unique situations, that Black students may find themselves in, is stealing and ignoring something that is such a huge part of how they experience life.
On the subject of working with Black students as a White teacher, restraint is a good definition of Brahmacharya. If something comes to your mind, that could be seen as “off color”, and you don’t know your student well, don’t say it. Basically, unless you really know someone, obverse the rules of polite conversation. No politics, no religion, and no off color jokes. Stay away from stereotypes. During a training, the teacher turned on the music and had us dance. I don’t dance. With that came a bunch of stereotypical comments about Black people being able to dance….which I cannot. Awkward.
Don’t try to posses your student’s pain. Yoga Sutras 1:33 says, compassion for the unhappy helps us to keep our own minds undisturbed. You are not having a Black experience nor is one needed. Picking up the student’s pain is not what is needed. Being seen is all that is needed. Black students want to be seen and they want to be equal. Many of the movements such as BLM and athletes getting on one knee was simply about being seen. After multiple innocent Black deaths by the police department went unpunished, many Black people felt like they were not being seen. Their issues were not being addressed. You do not have to take on your Black student’s pain, you just need to see them. If there is a situation you can fix, fix it. If not, see them. Practice compassionate listening.
Something I hear often is, “what do they expect us to do? I didn’t enslave them. I was not alive during segregation. I didn’t shoot anyone. ” Nope, you didn’t. However you can still be a compassionate listener for your students.
” You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.