lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my life in some way contribute to the happiness and freedom for all.”
Talking about privilege is challenging. It is painful to come to terms with how my privilege as a white woman impacts people of color… and that is a good thing. It strengthens my resolve to play my part in working towards hopeful solutions.
Please consider this piece in the spirit it is written. There is a certain irony I recognize in writing about the need for privileged people like myself to say less and listen more. Yet there is also the need for white allies to learn and have difficult conversations in order that we better understand how we came to this moment and how we can best support the movement as we move forward. As a white woman of privilege, I do not claim to understand the experience of any other human being, much less marginalized people. However, it is my responsibility to use my privilege where I can to not only alleviate the suffering of others, but to disrupt and dismantle the structures that support it.
These past several weeks many Americans have awakened to the problem of systemic racism in this country. There are many ways those of us, like myself, who are in privileged positions can support people of color: educating ourselves, considering the impact our vote has on marginalized people, donating to pro-black liberation organizations, and supporting businesses owned by people of color are but a few.
It is critical for those of us who have privilege to find ways to actively participate in the liberation of marginalized people. Through our Yoga practice we take time to do the inner-work for our external works to be authentic and effective.
This post is certainly not an exhaustible list of ways our Yoga practice can fortify us to serve in the liberation of marginalized people. However, these six ideas can get us off to a good start!
Ahimsa and Satya
Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, the ethical precepts of yoga. It means “non-harming”. Satya is the second yama. It means “truthfulness”. It is important to practice ahimsa in conjunction with satya. Ahimsa is a radical practice. It goes beyond passively avoiding things that hurt other people. Ahimsa is about being in right relationship with other sentient beings and the Earth herself through our thoughts, words, and actions.
Satya is a practice that, well, keeps us honest. Practicing satya means we are truthful, not only with others, but also with ourselves. When it comes to issues such as systematic racism, satya gives us a way to check our blind-spots. For example, when practicing satya we may notice the majority of media we consume comes from white people. This does harm to people of color whose voices go unheard. As yogis striving to practice ahimsa and satya to the best of our ability, one way to address this issue is to actively seek out and amplify the voices of people of color. Our ability to go beyond passively practicing non-harming is informed by our willingness to deeply consider the choices we make and the consequences of those choices in the wider world.
Yoga is a practice that teaches us to be still. Stillness does not mean that we aren’t doing anything. From a yogic perspective, stillness is our ability to fully participate in the moment at hand without becoming reactive. To the outside observer it appears as if nothing much is going on when we hold the yoga poses (asanas). However, as yoga practitioners we know it requires focus, patience, and steadiness to maintain a pose for an extended period of time.
Stillness is key to being a good listener. Marginalized people have been systematically silenced for a very long time. It is their time to speak and be heard, and the time for those of us with privilege to be still and listen.
It is not easy to deeply listen to another person’s pain, particularly when we have benefited from their suffering in some way. We may feel the urge to react, become defensive, to explain ourselves. Stillness allows us to contribute to the conversation by listening, cultivating compassionate curiosity about the lived experience of another human being, and to commit to abiding with marginalized people, as they so wish, without needing to judge or impose our own ideas in an attempt to quickly fix a complicated, multifaceted situation.
Svadhyaya is the fourth niyama, or internal observance. It means “self-study” and is usually thought of in terms of studying the transpersonal Higher Self through sacred texts. However, it is important for us to honor our incarnation through the study of our personal self as well.
Spiritual practices like yoga offer us a number of tools for self-study: meditation, self-inquiry, and contemplative exercises to name a few. Other ways to cultivate a greater understanding of ourselves are mystical practices such as tarot and astrology, and psychological practices such as therapy and depth psychology. It is critical that we find self-reflective practices that work for us. This is how we do what is often called “shadow work”. Engaging in shadow work means that we discover what aspects of ourselves have been rejected, how they disrupt our lives, and how we can address these parts of ourselves so that we can return to our original state as healed, whole, and complete.
Believe it or not, studying history is part of our collective shadow work. When we think about issues such as race, class, gender, etc., we often think of these issues in terms of “the Other”. This is a way we normalize the experience of privileged people and make that of marginalized people the exception.
There is nothing “normal” about the experience of privileged people. What in the ancestral history of privileged people made the treatment of Indigenous nations and African Americans seem acceptable? Religious persecution? Economic oppression? Svadhyaya in this context means studying history, understanding our own ancestors’ trauma, and allowing a more honest history to be birthed, informed by the overcoming of our collective shadow.
Part of the reason coming to terms with our privilege, whatever form it takes, is so difficult is that many of us did not realize we had it to begin with. We all have struggled. We all have gone through painful experiences. We may feel defensive when we are told we have privilege. Privilege does not mean that our lives are easy. It means that the areas where we are privileged are not areas where we are burdened by oppression.
Yoga gives us a way to practice awareness, but awareness itself is a practice. We become aware by paying attention and remaining present. When we are aware, we simply notice. We notice we feel uncomfortable when we listen to marginalized people’s stories. Yoga is not a comfortable practice. It is okay to be uncomfortable. Yoga teaches us to be with the things that make us feel uncomfortable in a meaningful, authentic way. Growth and transformation occur as we commit to doing the difficult, yet deeply healing, work of our personal and collective practice at this time.
Our metaphysical heart is strong and resilient. This process of the liberation of people of color and true integration is joyful and painful. It is joyful because most people truly do want to live in a peaceful, egalitarian world. It is painful because we have to do the work of facing how we’ve participated in creating the one we’re in.
At times like these, it is tempting to close our hearts. Our work as yogis is to keep our hearts open: open to love, open to change, open to learning, and most importantly, open to each other. An open heart is a courageous heart capable of compassion, forgiving and being forgiven, making amends, and standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed and marginalized. When we keep our hearts open, we realize the truth of our practice within us: Yoga means that unless I am as committed to your highest good as I am my own, I am not doing my practice. Therefore, I will live my life in such a way that I endeavor not to contribute to the marginalization of people of color and to work to bring about the end of all systematic oppression.
Ultimately, the previous five practices lead to viveka, wise action. Ending systematic racism and the oppression of marginalized people is not a sprint. It is a marathon. There are many ways to make ourselves available and to get involved. We do not have to do everything, but we are responsible for doing that which is ours to do. We each have a role to play.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teach us that for a practice to be a “yoga practice” it requires we do it every day, for a long time, with our whole hearts. Equality is our yoga practice. The oppressed and marginalized are our teachers. Our svadhyaya includes seeking out reading material such as How to Be an AntiRacist, An African American and Latinx History of the United States, Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America, and many more works that deepen our awareness of the suffering of our fellow human beings. Our asanas will be the edge where our privilege meets our firm resolve to release it knowing that it no longer serves us. In truth, nothing that fosters greater separation from our fellow human beings ever has.
In conclusion, this is not a conclusion. This is the beginning. The practice is before us. As the mystical text A Course in Miracles says, “Our good intentions are not enough. Our willingness is everything.” Thus, we step forward… perhaps we feel hesitant, uncertain, or uncomfortable, but we are willing! Willing to step-up, show-up, and embrace our destiny as co-creators of a world where all beings everywhere are happy and free.
Menakem, Resmaa. “Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence.” The On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett. 10 June 2020, https://onbeing.org/programs/resmaa-menakem-notice-the-rage-notice-the-silence/
Moore, Shawn J. “Social Change & Spiritual Leadership: Interview with Shawn J. Moore.” The Modern Mystics Podcast with Alanna Kaivalya. 10 June 2020, https://alannak.com/episode-28/
Williams, angel Kyodo. “The World is Our Field of Practice.” The On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett. 10 June 2020, https://onbeing.org/programs/angel-kyodo-williams-the-world-is-our-field-of-practice/
Williamson, Marianne. Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. New York, Touchstone, 2000.