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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

The Yoga of Dismantling Racism

Jul 01, 2020 09:00AM ● By Sheila Ewers

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Rayshard Brooks.

The last several months have illuminated the darkest parts of the racism that ravages our society and laid bare the urgency of widespread change—in our institutions and in our attitudes. As hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and protests take place in all 50 states, every person of good conscience must ask themselves, “How can I do my part?” Those who practice yoga might also find themselves wondering how to merge a call to action with the inner practices of spirituality.

Traditionally, yoga distinguishes between two paths: the path of the renunciate, and the path of the householder. Renunciates turn away from secular life, choosing to devote themselves to the inner work of spiritual transformation while householders remain dedicated to spiritual unfoldment—both within their daily lives and among the pains and struggles of the world. Modern yogis have mostly chosen the householder path, one that is described thoroughly in the Bhagavad Gita, which argues throughout for “Karma Yoga,” a yoga of action.

The action of dismantling systemic racism and working for social justice is yoga. It is an advanced practice that requires every one of us to, first, do the deep work of svadhyaya, self-study, and then bring our awareness into the world and skillfully do our part to create the union we profess to believe.

For some of us, that means marching in protest; for some, it means braving difficult conversations with family and friends. Some might feel called to lobby for new laws and resources that promote equity; some feel compelled to use their artistic talents to shed light in dark places. The teachings of yoga exhort all of us to look inward and ferret out the places we hold cultural and personal patterns and conditioning so that we can bring the fullness of consciousness and union to all that we do. 

This is no comfortable or easy endeavor. It requires what my meditation teacher, Jonathan Foust, once called “ruthless self-observation,” particularly for many of us who are white and unconsciously benefitting from hundreds of years of white supremacy and privilege. It takes courage and resolve—and it won’t happen overnight. When the voices of protest we see in the streets today quiet down, it will be more important than ever to continue our efforts. We must not look away.

As a white yoga teacher and studio owner, I know that I have much to learn, and I know that I must begin by unpacking my own entrenched biases, cultural privilege and prejudices. I also know that it is more important than ever to listen to and elevate the voices of black yoga teachers and studio owners so that we can better understand how to evolve as a community. 

For this article, I connected with LeNaya Smith Crawford, owner of Seviin Yoga in Kirkwood, and Dr. Tiffany D. Johnson, yoga teacher, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Georgia Tech, and founder of The Institute for Good Work. 

Both women shared their experiences of feeling unseen, unacknowledged and even unwelcome in many of the predominantly white yoga spaces they have entered. Crawford identifies it as one of the primary reasons she opened her own studio, which she describes as “a space that is authentically welcoming and judgment-free. We truly value each of our students and make it known that yoga is for everyone. We meet people where they are and encourage them to be their best self, whatever that looks like for them.” 

Dr. Johnson describes the studio where she practices, Sacred Chill {West}, in much the same way. She notes that as a researcher of equity and inclusion, she appreciates the way owners Octavia Raheem and Meryl Arnett, lovingly known in their community as “OM,” have beautifully cultivated a space that embodies the ideals of inclusion and community. Their space, and spaces like theirs, are, Johnson says, what a strong climate for inclusion looks like.

When asked how white studio owners and teachers like me can lend our voices and efforts to the dismantling of systemic racism, both women said very clearly that we must “DO THE INNER WORK!” Crawford writes, “Many white-owned studios in this age of new awakening will try to hire more black teachers or staff, but that isn’t how true change will come about. The inner work needs to be done—processing bias and actively working to be anti-racist is the way we will have lasting change. And doing the work without burdening a person of color to educate, unless you pay them for their time.” 

Crawford suggests a threefold approach for studio owners: 

  • Do the inner work to become anti-racist and encourage patrons to do the same
  • Connect with black studio owners
  • Promote the black-owned spaces that were created for true inclusivity and have been about this work all along
Without the foundation of committing to lifelong inner attunement, lasting structural change won’t be possible. Johnson, informed by her research, cautions against expecting a quick fix. She hopes every studio will invest in cultivating a strong culture of inclusion, one that not only increases representation and pays equitably, but also incorporates long-term educational programming for their staff and communities on white supremacy and social justice; a culture that has systems of accountability in place; and a culture that clearly dedicates financial, temporal and physical resources to dismantling anti-blackness within its community. Our actions, she reminds us, either contribute to systemic racism or work towards the dismantling of it. There is no in-between.

For those interested in doing this inner work, the resources are vast. Those listed below are a good place to begin. The best place, though, might be in our own backyards. Seek out black-owned yoga studios and businesses, then listen to and help to amplify the voices of black yoga teachers in your community.

Books that explain systemic racism:
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

Podcasts: 
1619 from The New York Times
Code Switch from National Public Radio (NPR)

Local training on community-building and social justice:
Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts: RedClayYoga.org

To learn more about Dr. Tiffany D. Johnson, visit TiffanyDawnJohnson.com. To connect with LeNaya Smith Crawford, visit Seviin Yoga at 1963 Hosea L. Williams Dr. NE, Suite 104-B, Atlanta or SeviinYoga.com.

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Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga teacher training classes and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in several online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach Sheila at [email protected]

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