On Yoga and White Public Spaces

“To name the problem is to become the problem” -Sara Ahmed

It was a Wednesday afternoon and I arrived for yoga class, like I had on any other Wednesday for the past three years. I slipped off my shoes, dropping my car keys onto the soles of my weathered flip-flops so I wouldn’t misplace them. I hugged an instructor I knew well, congratulating her on her son’s graduation from college, and exchanged a few affectionate cheek-kisses before I gathered up my mat and headed towards class. As I made my way down that narrow, cheerful, teal green hallway I knew and loved so well, the owner of the studio stepped in front of me, blocking my path.

A White woman, a fellow member of the studio, had told him that I had “attacked her.” Stunned by the accusation of violence, I explained that it was only a chat, nothing else. It ended with us hugging, after all. But to answer his question, yes, I had spoken with her. We saw each other almost every day and I thought it was safe to share how I grew up with the word Namaste. She had used the word in a pun—Namastay Together—and so I opened up about how it felt to see a meaningful, even reverent word in India reduced to a common, commercialized joke.

I recounted to him that, looking back on the conversation, I could tell she was uncomfortable with my point of view. She responded defensively to my admission about how her pun left me feeling, retorting that she “didn’t have to explain herself” to me. I agreed, she absolutely didn’t, but we did share space that called itself a “community” so I thought it was worth trying to get to know each other better. I shared with her an analogy that might resonate. I compared what I felt was a misuse of words like Namaste to the way many Mexican-Americans feel when Cinco de Mayo is turned into a pun, Cinco de Drinko, something those who study language and racism in the United States have described as “Mock Spanish.”

In response, she peppered me with a series of questions.

“What if her husband was Indian?”

“What if she had lived in India for 10 years”

It turned out her questions were only hypothetical—she was neither married to an Indian nor had she ever been to India. Sensing she was still feeling defensive, I tried to bring the conversation to an amicable close. I thanked her for talking with me and in response, she hugged me. Before we said goodbye I told her earnestly that I hoped it was the start of more conversations for years to come. She agreed. We parted on good terms.

I related all this to the owner that day, explaining to him that it was an awkward conversation, most conversations about cultural difference are, but no one had been attacked. But, it didn’t matter to him why I had spoken with her about the way Namaste was or wasn’t being used, such conversations were unwelcome at his studio, he said. He informed me that he wouldn’t tolerate me “causing problems” and suggested I find a different studio where my cultural background could be accommodated. Shocked and hurt at the way the conversation was escalating, I tried to explain myself, in the end pleading with him to understand that his studio functioned as a stage on which issues of race and  representation were playing out on a daily basis.

In response to my explanation he simply stated: “There’s no such thing as racism in your case. You’re not Black.”

This was a heartbreaking and conversation-ending moment. Not only did he not understand how his misrecognition of racism affected me, but in that moment, I did not know how to help him see otherwise. If he thought racism only affected Black people, how was I going to change his mind, especially when he was telling me I was no longer welcome there?

Though the entire experience feels like a blur today, almost a year later, I can clearly remember that as I was standing there, trapped in this dead-end conversation, the woman who had reported me walked past us. I will never forget the look in her eyes. I couldn’t place the emotion I saw on her face in that heightened moment, but I can identify it now—it was fear. As she passed us I reached my arms out to her, pleading with her to please step into the conversation and explain that I had never attacked her. I had only tried to tell her about my point of view, as someone who knew the language in a way she might not. But she averted her eyes, clutching her yoga mat to her chest, pressing herself against the wall to slink by us, pretending not to see or hear what she had done.

I don’t remember how I got there, I walked, I suppose, but at some point after the conversation ended, I retreated to the bathroom to collect myself. As I braced my arms against the sink, shaking from the encounter, two instructors, both White women, followed me in. But rather than comfort me, I was instead met with disapproval and disdain.

“Why had I tried to talk about race at a yoga studio?”

“How could I have betrayed them this way?”

“Did I know how hard I had just made their days?”

“Why hadn’t I had more Grace?”

This last accusation, in particular, has haunted me. It was a cruel way to shame me, by asking me why I hadn’t been more Graceful in the face of such unkindness.

For months that moment has left me wondering—what is Grace in the face of indignity and injustice?

Is it abdication?

Is it apathy?

Or it is action?

That day I learned an important lesson about Grace, something many other people of color know in this country: that the sorts of kindness and poise we are expected to muster when we are excluded and silenced is a direct result of the ways in which White behavior (cisgender, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian) is constantly protected and re-centered in our daily interactions. And before anyone suggests this is just because I live in Texas, let me reassure you, I have had similar, though not as dramatic, experiences in yoga studios in Boston as well as Chicago. In other words, White public and institutional spaces, especially upper-middle class ones like yoga studios, unequivocally participate in the coddling of Whiteness.

But in reflecting on her weaponizing of Grace, I have also realized that, in posing that question to me, this woman revealed a deep, abiding conviction that I was operating in her world, within her value system and her beliefs. It was a one-way street—a striking example of how colonial attitudes, rooted in the hegemony and vernacular of White Supremacy endure. In that moment she made my argument for me—that the yoga studio, even in the wake of blatant discrimination, unapologetically operated in alignment with exclusionary White Judeo-Christian identity politics (translation: not only American Christians). It is telling that she chose to invoke Grace in that moment to shame me, since in doing so she willingly exposed the glaring hypocrisy of her identity as a Christian, much less a self-professed “yogi.”

In the end, I’ve learned that American yoga studios are fraught spaces, which are rarely safe for people of color. For a host of reasons, which I will be exploring in my research, there are simply too many who occupy such spaces who lack the vocabulary or the humility to understand how their behavior and their language might be destructive. This is uncharted territory for a Brown woman, a so-called model minority like me. I am learning at the age of 36 what my Black sisters learn by the age of 10—that Whiteness is often abusive, especially when its entitlement is challenged. 

In the months since this episode, though, I’ve thought about what I could have said or done to help myself, if not that collection of White people, understand. To articulate what racism and anti-racism mean outside of the Black-and-White binary. I’ve come to understand that many Indian-Americans, myself included, struggle to speak about this distinction effectively, especially in public spaces that are positioned as celebratory multicultural havens, like yoga studios. There is often a timidity around speaking out, a cycle of gas-lighting, derailing, and oppression olympics, even amongst ourselves, that succeeds at silencing us. Sometimes there is guilt about class identifications and a lack of recognition that you can both oppress and be oppressed, but even otherwise, there is very little awareness about the difference between ethnicity and race.  In my case, I am Indian (ethnicity), but am usually just lumped in with other Brown (race) parts of the world, like the Middle East, which is why there’s not a second-thought given to selling merchandise like this in yoga spaces.

 

Photo Credit: Simara Askew
(n.b. G*psy is a racial slur for the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe)

If I had a chance to go back in time, though, to pose some thoughtful hypotheticals of my own, here’s what I would say:

If you are the owner of an establishment or yoga studio selling such clothing, or a person using such words, and a Roma person says something to you about how the word “G*psy” makes them feel, what will you do? Will you feel defensive? If you do, I want to request that you think about why you feel entitled to words like G*psy, or in my case, Namaste. What do these words accomplish for you? What if was a different, better known racially charged word, say, against African-Americans, in the United States? Would you still feel defensive and entitled to use the word as you please? And if the answer is no, please ask yourself why. 

 

25 thoughts on “On Yoga and White Public Spaces

  1. Absolutely wonderful!!!

    “In the end, I’ve learned that American yoga studios are fraught spaces, which are rarely safe for people of color.”

    I can all to well relate with this. Hit the nail on the head!

    1. It is difficult for a Canadian to understand what an American means when they use the word “Indian”……. do they mean ” from India” ? or do they mean a North American ‘ Indian ‘, which we refer to as “Indigenous” peoples. These are difficult usages, since it is unlikely ( and strictly passe’ ), for a Canadian to refer to Indigenous peoples as “Indians” anymore , and most know that it might insult some people. So the answer to the puzzle posed by your story MIGHT be seen as an opportunity to begin spreading the word “indigenous” in your casual conversations…” it only takes one tiny wave to start a hurricane” as they say… and it might catch on before you know it. Plus, I think that it gives the Indigenous peoples a respect I believe is well deserved. After all, WE are the interlopers in their ‘territory’, aren’t we ?! ( I say “interlopers’ referring to the mostly-white-skinned people whose ancestors came to North America hundreds of years ago, and managed to usurp the homelands of the Indigenous peoples with no compunctions as to the “rightness or wrongness” in their activities. Nor of their “overtaking” the Homelands of them.
      I don’t KNOW that this would be helpful down there, but it MIGHT…. and perhaps could help in bringing it home to people who still think in terms of “them and us”‘
      In any case, I wish you well, ( and a FABULOUS new gym! ), and hopefully an opportunity to begin to assist the ” white people” down there to finally begin to see ALL people as simply THAT ! PEOPLE ! . the “OTHERNOUS” of peoples of “other skin colour, “or other history, or other countries, or even of other “accents” or pronunciations, …… the point is we NEED TO SEE other people as PEOPLE ! THAT’S ALL!!! AND PERHAPS THE sCHOOLS THERE COULD BE ENCOURAGED TO TEACH THE CHILDREN THAT REGARDLESS of skin or eye colour, of accents, of “neighbourhoods’ or parentage, UNDER OUR SKINS, WE ARE ALL THE SAME !!!”.
      And the principle of “OTHERNESS” MUST BE BANISHED FOREVER. !
      You have my very Best Wishes. / L.

      1. The author is referring to people from India, not indigenous people. Yoga has origins in India with religious and cultural significance that has largely been lost in modern yoga studios in America.

        In the US “Indian” typically refers to someone from India. “Native American”, “American Indian”, and “indigenous” are the popular terms for indigenous people. It’s definitely confusing. I think “indigenous” is being used more recently and is probably the most accurate descriptor. Some tribes have preference, however, for one of the other two.

  2. Put out of a yoga studio for being Indian-American! Hold that pose, let me take a picture! This is a level of hypocritical Caucasity that will require yoga studios across the country to get their practices straight. Thanks for speaking out!

  3. Thank you for writing this with so much compassion and grace. I am deeply sorry you had this painful experience and inspired by what you have done with it. Thank you for helping me, as a woman with white skin, to open my mind and my heart ever more.

  4. An insightful and important analysis. I have found the frequent ” accept without judgment,”
    ” we are surrounded by perfection” in- class commentaries to be a simplistic response to a complex world whose injustices and inequities must be questioned.

  5. I love this thoughtful and poignant essay. I am reminded of how I was completely shut down during a Scrabble group when it came to making Bengali sweets. One White woman in the group, a woman with impeccable liberal credentials from Portland, was telling us how she had discovered Bengali sweets and was making them. I was really excited and thought I would share some of my grandmother’s techniques. Instead, I was shocked at the openly hostile looks I was getting from her and other White women in the group. They did not want my or my grandmother’s knowledge, which I admit, was unsolicited. I was just excited that they were into something so dear to my heart. But it soon became very obvious that sweet-making was very much tied to White women who prided themselves in having Quirky and Off-Beat Personalities, and my attaching it to longer cultural traditions undermined its quirkiness.

    And I also could not agree more with your observation that Indian-Americans don’t know how to talk about racism and anti-racism outside the Black-White binary, as well as our inability to discuss both our roles as oppressors and the oppressed. This is a discussion I have desperately wanting to have with people, but it is so hard to do! I look forward to seeing your research develop, and hope you are able to find more constructive spaces to practice yoga.

    1. I think your evaluation of “quirkiness” is right on point. I’ll have to think some more about how quirkiness works in feminine spaces in particular…

    2. This article and your interaction with white women friends finally gives voice to the gnawing unease I have with liberal white women in my town – case in point a group of them went to Indian and called themselves the ‘sisterhood of the traveling sari. I couldn’t pinpoint why and frankly I felt guilty for feeling that way but I wasn’t happy about it. Thank you for giving me insight into myself and what Indian women face regularly.

  6. Thanks for sharing. It’s sad but true that often in sacred places lie deep fears. Instead of expanding our spirits these spaces become places where we want to hide and clutch whatever it is, yoga mat or prayer book, close to our chest in the hope that our well controlled “safe” space does not get disturbed.

  7. Thank you for the emotional effort you have taken to lay this out. I appreciate your work, and will reshare and support your voice.

  8. I am glad you brought this to the forefront and opened the discussion. I often notice the lack of diversity in the yoga studios. Could also even go as far to say men aren’t always welcome either. As a white woman, other than acknowledging this and keeping an open mind as well as smiling openly to all yogis, is there something else I can do?

    1. A yoga studio that I just left had a men’s class, but I think it’s the men who don’t feel like being there as it’s a “woman’s thing”, so I don’t think it’s so helpful to think of this as equivalent. What probably would help is to talk to other white people if you see this kind of thinking. That’s the most powerful thing that a white person can do to confront racism, which is often invisible to the people who are practicing it. Continuing to learn about this issue, and about colonialism, and all forms is really about helping to make everyone free. Learning how to talk about it is possible too. I left that studio in part because my friend Asha, whose name is very common in India, was told that her name was exotic; they were not very interested in looking at the origins of yoga. I’d recommend this article, as well as reading the comments on the Facebook thread to see how much of a challenge this can be: https://www.facebook.com/labanna.babalon/posts/10212595172809065?hc_location=ufi

  9. It’s one reason I am drawn to Ashtanga yoga, where teachers emphasize the lineage of the practice to Patanjali and teach the yoga sutras. My small studio community is diverse with various races and cultures and socioeconomic and gender backgrounds. This sounds truly awful, and I’m sorry you were treated this way by people who purport to practice yoga.

  10. Thank you for writing this and also for your research. I don’t really know what else to say. I am a Jewish Buddhist who has spent a great deal of time in India among Tibetan refugees, as well as Indians. I deeply love India and have written a book about my family’s time there, with a focus on Buddhist sacred sites. It is called THE BUDDHA SAT RIGHT HERE forthcoming in April. I am very aware of my position as a Jewish Californian writing a memoir set mostly in India. My aspiration is that it will contribute genuine, respectful perspectives on Buddhism and the Buddhist sites in India, adding to a multicultural dialogue that clearly, people of all colors and backgrounds, hunger for. (I guess I did have something to say after all)

  11. Thank you for this essay. You have shown me in a compassionate and graceful way, how I have contributed to cultural appropriation and have not been as open-minded as I once thought. The woman from your studio may not have received your message, but I am thinking, processing and re-evaluating my views based on what you have said here. Thank you.

  12. About a month ago, I had a near identical experience. I’d shared a video on social media, talking (in general terms ) about some of my discomfort about teaching yoga, and the importance on following your own true voice. A day or two after, the owner of a studio I taught at called me in after a class, and accused me of attacking her and asked me to leave. The shock and confusion and sense of betrayal your post describes, god, I felt it all too.

    It was a studio I’d practiced at for years, done my teacher training there, and taught for the past 2 years. I thought it was my community, my safe space, somewhere I was welcome. Even though at the back of my mind, I felt uncomfortable as the only non-white teacher there, the only one who refused to say namaste or participate in any of their pseudo spiritual practices, I somehow pushed that all aside.

    I’m still reeling and trying to find my feet again. I’m trying to reconcile what yoga means to me as a teacher, and what I want to communicate. Your posts ring so true and it is all so painful – many times in recent weeks, I’ve just felt like quitting and walking away from it all.

    I haven’t figured out any answers yet, but I just wanted to say your posts mean a lot. To know I’m not alone in these experiences or thoughts and questions.

    Wishing you well,

    Miriam

  13. You could have ended the conversation by saying “she says i attacked her?? but her knees and spine are still intact!! just ask my other victims…”

  14. In my experience, and speaking as a privileged white woman who was in the “yoga community” for nearly a decade, the level of entitlement, judgement, closed-mindedness, and manipulation in the name of spiritual growth and seeking is unmeasurable. These are communities wrought with serious mental and spiritual issues, cultural insensitivity and appropriation being just one of them. It’s good that you spoke out, the dramatic and insensitive nature of the owner’s response was excessive and you were right to say something. The use of Namaste in this country is so inappropriate, it’s painfully embarrassing for me when someone who obviously doesn’t know what they are saying uses that term and bow. And that’s only from living in Nepal with families and learning the culture and language for half a year. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that phrase be a part of my culture and have it so improperly used. I wonder what the American equivalent would be? Anyway, thanks for the article. Thanks for speaking up.

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