By: Auri Whitaker
Rock bottom is fertile ground for seeds of personal revolution they say. That’s where I found myself.
My non-profit salary left me with food insecurity, late bill payments, and overall inability to self-advocate and self assert. My most trusted friend group was disintegrating into turmoil. And to top it off, I had just walked away (with restraining order in hand) from a toxic relationship with a closet sociopath. All within a 5-week span. Maybe I was 6 inches beneath rock bottom. Knowing that the body settles the score, this trauma found its home in my reproductive organs. My body responded with blood clots, hemorrhaging, abdominal muscle spasms that made my entire body feel like it was under siege.
After a long night self-medicating and a serious wish to no longer exist, I found myself on the ground. With everything heavy, I couldn’t move a muscle. The only strength I had was offered to my next breath. At that moment, I realized breathing was my only hope. And therefore, the only thing that mattered. The next day I sought out free opportunities to learn how to breathe. I would go before work and I found that each pose conjured new things out of me. Shocking, devastating, curious, terrific, cathartic things. I would sink my hips back in child’s pose and tears would flood down my cheeks. I would bend my standing leg in a peaceful warrior’s pose and somehow I found a little more grit left in me. I would simply sit cross-legged and forgiveness would spill out on me.
Even as I write this, I can’t help but get emotional and filled with gratitude. I sit with the effects of each flow and I know that yoga saved my life.
And now, 4 years and a 200-HR certificate later, I know that if it doesn’t change your life, then it’s not yoga.
This is how I know yoga was made for those who dare to be courageous. Once we get more curious and go beyond asanas, we will find that yoga is a practice that provides skills to build harmony in life. It is a practice that reminds you of your greatest power and illuminates all of your weaknesses. It is a practice that deepens your compassion for Self and expands your loving reach towards community and the collective.
My experience of the profound healing effects of yoga also comes with the reality of how the Western yoga world has yet to be fully whole or courageous enough to operate without harm. The yoga world (yoga studios, yoga events, yoga merchandise, experiences) is a microcosm of the larger reality we live in which is currently hyper-individualistic, capitalistic, lead by cis-heteronormative patriarchy and white-supremacist ideals. People of color are marginalized, discriminated against, and harmed in the yoga world just as they are in regular life.
While I am humbled and grateful to have had very kind and wise white teachers, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Thin white women are still the gatekeepers of the yoga world and it is time for a change. Not only does it deface the original meaning of yoga to dominate its power financially and aesthetically; it perpetuates harm to the people who need and deserve to access the profound psychosomatic benefits of yoga: children, Black women, non-English speaking people, disabled men, folks in captivity, trans- people, and the like.
The costs associated with earning yoga teacher certification is a barrier to recruiting teachers who can do meaningful and powerful work in their communities. I would challenge yoga studios and practitioners to consider how they can contribute to offering more learning opportunities to Black teachers as means of removing the financial burden, expanding the reach to traumatized communities, and ceasing to monopolize the voice in the yoga community.
In my experience, yoga teachers can often pretend to colorblind. It stems from political correctness and may be well-intentioned but again it is undermining the power of yoga. How can we say we practice yoga and deny what we see in front of us? (avidya) Is that not a form of stealing someone’s precious identity? (asteya) Does it not promote a sense of community (kula)- when we have the capacity to hold and celebrate differences rather than focusing on our similarities? If we are to achieve a state of enlightenment (samadhi), it will require that we get uncomfortable and observe and reckon with that which lives in us- bias, misogyny, fear, all things, unconscious, unloving, exclusive, afraid of change or difference…just like an uncomfortable side crow.
This would require yoga studios to shift from power of one to the tenderness of many. Classes and sequences should be intentional and serious about moving beyond asanas and maximizing the opportunity to responsibly connect students to a sense of collective compassion.
Questions to consider around racism discussions in the yoga world:
- Who’s in the room?
- Who has decision-making power?
- Who has the authority to empower others? Do they use it? Can it be decentralized?
- Who’s voice is missing?
- Who should be listening vs. speaking?
- Who is doing more of the labor?
- Which do we communicate: you’re allowed to be here OR this space was made intentionally with you in mind?
- Do our teachers reflect the type of students who need yoga the most?
- Are our teachers living their yoga?
- Does our dharma reach towards liberation for ourselves and others?
- How are we creating space for rage, anger, grief?
- Does your yoga practice make you more complicit in the face of injustice or does it ignite your inner warrior and defender of truth?
My question to yogis in the United States: what are we really doing if we aren’t changing lives?
I submit to you that it is the perfect time in history to be a brand or yogi for justice. Isn’t it a great moment for courage? Isn’t it a great moment for us to contribute some real, honest good to this world? I impress upon you the urgency to wrestle with those ideals that hold you back from enlightenment, pure love, and global community. Whether we are new to yoga or have been practicing for decades, we all must reinvent ourselves in order to meet the moment and prepare for a world full of liberated human beings. The goal is not to switch oppressive forces, it is to create and invest in a world where oppressors are obsolete. Where no one has to be on top because we are all accountable and responsive; we all belong.
It’ll take a lot of courage and a lot of community but we can do this. It is our duty as humans, as witnesses to each other's lives, as yoga practitioners to kindle the fire of justice, to embrace liberation for ourselves and others, and to demand a better world. And when I say ‘world’, I mean what seeds are you planting to harvest a more unified spirit, a more loving home, a more attentive friend group, a more restorative county, city, then country.
Next time you meet on your mat, who will you become?
Follow Auri's journey on Instagram @auric.experience