Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Black Lives Matter and Yoga?

I have had several people speak to me regarding using Yoga as a way to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, Gandhi was a Yogi and a huge influence on many Civil Rights leaders in America. This post may be a tad controversial though that is not the point. The purpose of this post is to discuss some common themes that have come up in recent conversations regarding Black Lives Matter and Yoga.

I am Black and I practice Yoga. This is probably the main reason these conversations have come up LOL. I am definitely not the ultimate authority on either subject though I do have some experience.   I will try to use the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as checks and balances in this article though me being Black is definitely an attachment and a Vritti that I have yet to let go of so It will have some weight.

Anything that we do in the name of Yoga or through Yoga should take us closer to Yoga. What is Yoga according to Patanjali?

Yoga Sutras 1:2- Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations (vrittis) of the mind.

What are the vrittis that we are cessating? Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:6:

Right Knowledge

Misconception

Verbal Delusion

Deep Sleep

Memory

For more information on the vrittis, please check out my series, Yoga Sutras for Modern Day Life. These vrittis can either be painful or painless depending on how they are used.

So whatever you choose to do in the name of Yoga needs to be moving the participants towards Yoga.

When I talk about the definition of Yoga, I always mention the vrittis. In modern day Yoga, it is common to just define Yoga as quieting the mind but it is so much deeper then that. I watched a show where a serial killer talked about the stillness and utter bliss he felt during and right after a kill. He explained that this feeling is what kept him killing. This is also the same reason many people continue to attend Yoga classes. The infamous Yoga high.

I know that comparison was really really harsh so let me explain. That temporary feeling of bliss is just the first step. The Yoga doesn’t stop there. If the serial killer practiced Yoga, it would quickly become clear that murder violates many of Yoga’s major tenets like Ahimsa/non harming and Aparigrapha/hoarding a life that is not yours to take. Murder violates the vrittis because there is a misconception about the nature of existence, possibly a Verbal Delusion about the person based on a story created in the mind and often painful memories that happened in their lives. Through this example, we can clearly see how the Yoga Sutras provides a means of checking and balancing to see if something is truly Yoga. This same example also shows how senselessly killing Black people is not Yoga either.

Segregation for Integration

Starting a Yoga class is a common theme presented to me in discussions on Blacks and Yoga.  It is just so bizarre to me. Martin Luther King Jr and many others died in the Civil Rights movement so that we could be integrated and now we want to segregate again?

The argument for segregation is to create an environment where Black people feel comfortable. I get it. I totally understand how uncomfortable it is to be the odd man out in a group. I also understand the powerful healing that comes from fellowship in a group that is going through the same thing you are. I have felt the beauty of being with people you really and truly can open up with and dialog with.  I am a firm believer in surrounding myself with uplifting strong people. During the Civil Rights movement, it took groups of Black people coming together in solidarity to make things change.

Black people coming together in solidarity is not a problem, as far as Yoga is concerned, until it becomes exclusionary. One of the turning points for Malcom X, a major figure in the American Civil Rights movement, was when he went to Mecca and saw the unity of Muslims of all colors.  Before then, he felt that White people should not fight in the Civil Rights movement and was very much a separatist. He came back to America with new eyes. He saw that all races could work together for Civil Rights.  He saw how his memories, his knowledge, his delusions and misconceptions, aka vrittis, had blocked him from seeing that the Self abides in all people. The ultimate goal of Yoga is Yoga Sutras 1:3, “the seer abides in his own nature.” Our true nature is the energy, or the God, that is within us all. At our core, we are all the same.

If you take your car to the mechanic because it does not crank, you crank the car up to see if it is fixed. If you tow it to your house and put it with your other cars, you don’t know if it is fixed. Exclusionary behaviors are a stepping stone. They can get us to a place where we are comfortable with igniting change. However, the only way to see if the change has occured is to lift up the hood, work on the car and then crank it up. To see if the change has happened in Yoga, Black people have to go to class, be seen and fix the problem from within.

Starting a Yoga Class in a Black Neighborhood

Providing Yoga classes in any community is always a stellar idea.

Free Yoga to Black People

First, you have to make sure that you are not assuming that all Black people cannot afford Yoga.  If that assumption is there,  the Vrittis of Verbal Delusion and Misconception are in play.  Another angle is that it is in appreciation of Black people kind of how Sticky Fingers gave Police Officers free food because of the sniper shootings. I get it. I do. Still feels kind of weird but I guess it is a way of saying Black Lives Matter. I would feel weird, as a Black person, going to that class. I could only imagine that I may feel weird as a White person going to that class too. It just seems to me that just a Black Lives Matter class where people just practiced together in harmony just because they wanted to be there and not because it was free would be less awkward. I would recommend having the class be free for anyone who attended and wanted to fellowship together because Black Lives Matter.

Another way this was presented to me was giving it to Black people for free in a predominately White neighborhood as a means to integrate Yoga classes and start a dialogue. Again…awkward. I just want to take a Yoga class. If you want to know me as a human in general, we can go out for coffee, however I definitely don’t want to take responsibility for representing the entire Black race. Plus, I personally I am trying to connect with my Spirit, or abide in the Self, which  has nothing to do with my color. A relationship with anyone based on my Blackness definitely does not take me to that place.

Dialogue

A dialogue that leads to action is good. A dialogue just to further entrench our samskaras or limiting self talk is not effective.

Class Messaging

In the past few days, I have led my students in the Mangala Mantra (it asks for peace all over the world), talked about how our differences makes the world vibrant and played a cover of Imagine by John Lennon. I also heard one of my fellow Yoga teachers at Y2 Yoga, Corrina Alice, give a beautiful teaching at the beginning of her class on union. Education and living Yoga are two of the greatest things that a Yogi can do to change the world. Words on love, inclusion, freedom, happiness, and union should be staples in all Yoga classes and Yoga studios. If these teachings were included in classes, embodied by teachers and expected from students, there would be no need for Yoga Studios to say that Black Lives Matter. Black people would just know it.  The Yoga studio would be a haven for all during these events and a natural dialogue between equals would be spontaneous and not need to be forced by blog posts, special classes and events.

What part does the Yoga world play in Black Lives Matter? I am not going to make that call for you. These are just pieces of conversations and suggested solutions I have been presented with. The main point I wish to convey through this post is that, if you are going to use Yoga for activism, to make sure that the actions are ones that bring people towards the purpose of Yoga and does not further entrench limiting stories or create more Karma to have to deal with later. Whatever you decide to do, it should bring people closer to freedom, liberation, compassion and love. It should help get rid of the Vrittiis or thoughts that lead to disconnection and bring people to a deeper connection with themselves.

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 shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

2 Comments

  • Warren Baumgardner

    Yoga activist, Yoga for activism, Yoga for black lives matter; I like the article. I completely understand the movement but I struggle with using yoga as a platform for the cause.

    I am a black man who loves to do yoga. Do I feel as though my journey to greater self-awareness is different from some of my classmates? Of course, I think everyone has their own path.

    Am I conscious of my surroundings and aware of how I am perceived by some people; yes. But when I walk into a class and lay my mat down I come to do yoga. It is more important to me to deal with my thoughts and sensations on my mat than those I’m surrounded by. The only time I leave that space is when I need information or help understanding something about Yoga .

    I get it. Every group, collective or organization forms a social culture. A yoga studio is no different. I haven’t been to many studios but the studios I have visited seem to strive to create an atmosphere of peace. Do I notice that the spot next to me is usually the last spot taken? Yes but I enjoy that.

    I agree with you sentiment. Do Yoga. It’s easier to teach people who you are and educate yourself by continuously working to become a better version of yourself.

    Nice Article

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