This post is a (late) review of the last Race and Yoga Conference held in Oakland, CA this past April 2016. While it is late, I hope it is appreciated! Thanks again to those who put on the conference, especially Sabrina Springs, Tria Blu Wakpa, and Jennifer Musial.
“What is yoga justice? How is “justice” defined and by whom? How do we rethink narratives that promote justice through yoga? What kinds of violence occur in yoga spaces? How are people responding and/or resisting forms of yoga violence?”[i]
On Friday, April 22nd I found myself at the third annual Race & Yoga Conference in Oakland, California. This year’s theme, Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence, explored the ways yoga can be used as a tool to promote social justice, yet may perpetuate oppression.
After attending the prior two years, I knew this conference would provide a unique space to critically examine yoga culture today. Drawing a diverse crowd of yoga teachers, practitioners, and academics, let me tell you, the event did not disappoint!
The conference opening.
The event began with a morning keynote address by Kimber Simpkins on “Queering Yoga.” Simpkins asked us to think critically about what queer yoga is, and how we can queer yoga as students, teachers, and scholars. Yoga is not always welcoming for queer practitioners. This can be a result of studios without gender neutral bathrooms or clothing, a lack of diversity in their teaching and staff, heteronormative assumptions being taught in the content or through the language used in teacher trainings or classes, and by discouraging conversations challenging yoga cultural practices that may be inherently unequal. She argued queering yoga entails promoting classes for marginalized groups, utilizing and strengthening existing communities through yoga, and teaching informed by trauma sensitivity and awareness of power dynamics. Ultimately, to queer yoga is to make the practice political, breaking down and examining the consequences of Western commercialized yoga-for-profit so yoga can become inclusive for all bodies, including those who are queer.
Keynote “Queering Yoga” by Kimber Simpkins.
The first panel, Yoga for Profit and Sport, featured Darshini Shah, speaking on “The Yoga Alliance (YA): The Impact of a Western Non-Profit from Global Perspectives” and Ryan Laws, “Yoga, Sports, and Embodied Discourse.” Shah discussed how YA standards have “gone global,” increasingly adopted in areas outside the United States. While the YA represents teachers from over 160 countries, the main board of the YA has no one from the global south represented. Since 2013, no scholarships have been given to anyone from the global south and only to one domestic teacher of color, reflecting broader inequalities that often go unquestioned and unnoticed. Shah challenged us to question our own privilege and power (as members of the global north) and recognize that our actions in this part of the globe impact the practice beyond our borders, often in ways we don’t even realize.
Laws explored the idea of “yoga as sport,” particularly within the competitive yoga community and the organization USA Yoga Federation. While this was an interesting presentation, I would have liked to see a deeper analysis of the connection to Bikram yoga (all competitive poses come from the sequence) and recent rape cases, especially given the conference theme of justice/violence. USA Yoga is seeking to distance themselves from Bikram Choudhury in light of the six lawsuits against him for rape and sexual harassment. This is difficult, however, as the first case brought against him focuses on the victim’s loss of income as a result of Bikram’s involvement in the USA yoga competition.
As one victim put it, “He told me that if I did not have sex with him, I would not have a chance of winning that competition.” The case charges Bikram rigged the 2008 asana competition where she was expected to take first place, instead placing second to another student who was sharing Bikram’s hotel room. The complaint describes how “she has been prevented from teaching seminars or advanced classes because of her… continuing refusal to have sex with her guru.”[ii]
Two workshops were before and after lunch, one by Misia Denea on “Yogic, Body Positive Practices to Overcome Body Fascism” and another led by Susanna Barkataki on “New Faces in Yoga Leadership: A Call to Action for People of Color.” These workshops challenged the audience to engage in body positive practices. Denea provided a list of local and online resources as part of a project she is working on, and Barkataki challenged us to envision what the yoga world would look like if it reflected who we are and who we care about. Asking us to discuss how we might get to this diverse vision, many themes arose including the need to build community with like-minded people who share the same concerns, taking this practice outside studio systems, and teaching yoga as more than just asana.
A second panel, The “Authentic” Body Politic, was a powerful exploration of the day’s theme, featuring three talks: Anusha Kedhar on “International Yoga Day: Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and the Choreography of Unity,” Lakshmi Nair on “The Application of Yoga Towards Healing the Trauma of Racism and Oppression,” and Shaira Vadasarai on “Bodies Under Arrest: The Politics of ‘Decolonizing Yoga in Palestinian Community Life.’” Looking at religious politics in India,
Kedhar asked what types of violence yoga utilizes when coopted as a political tool. While the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, utilizes International Yoga Day to reclaim the Indian roots of the practice, in reality his government is very aligned with neoliberal capitalism. This means that this holiday may be about further aligning with capitalism and neoliberal policies. According to Kedhar, we have to consider how the Indian right wing utilizes a “tyranny of tolerance” through the discourse of yoga to mark Muslims as simultaneously different and intolerant.
Nair discussed how violence and trauma are stored in the body, and the ways the body can a site of radical healing. Discussing a teacher training she runs for people of color, her talk revealed how yoga offers these populations a means of reconnecting to themselves and healing from the experience of racism and oppression. One of my highlights of the conference was a video she compiled of her inspiring students on their path of radical healing and transformation, available here and included immediately below for easy access. It’s a powerful video, and I have such huge respect for her students.
Vadasarai’s presentation on her doctoral research was one of the highlights of the day. She asked: How does one practice yoga amidst regular, daily, military occupation, assault, and surveillance in Palestine? What does it mean to decolonize yoga when the materialization of colonization for Palestinians is real? Her research and work suggested that while yoga has the potential to promote a radical healing politic and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, these romantic visions often couldn’t be fully realized on the ground as yoga couldn’t eclipse the deeper materiality of suffering and the power dynamics at play in this region. Yoga enabled a process of decolonizing the mind and self, a potential solution for the resentment, anger, and frustration that comes with occupation, and an empowering practice of self-determination in a world where one is rarely allowed the freedom to be oneself fully. But these changes could only take root on the individual level. It is all too easy for yoga to be adopted as a rescue narrative, where Westerners teach Palestinians to “find tadasana at a military checkpoint” without acknowledging that yoga may never be a complete solution to political violence.
The final presentation of the day was by Sri Louise on the “Globalization of the Gayatri Mantra.” Her talk focused on an email exchange with Deva Premal, a well-known new age musician, exploring the idea of cultural appropriation in yoga. This was an interesting discussion of the way the Gayatri mantra has been often misunderstood and misused by practitioners in the West in ways that simplify the practice, rather than preserving its roots. (See a video of her presentation here.)
Closing Keynote “Where are you from?” from Roopa Kaushik-Brown.
The day drew to a close with a final keynote address from Roopa Kaushik-Brown, founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), who utilized her own personal family history to explore the meaning and impact of yoga on her own life. She discussed the “propertization” of yoga in America. According to her research, there was a 436% rise in legalized propertization of yoga through patents, trademarks, and copyrights over the last ten years!
Underlying all of today’s eye-opening and insightful discussions was the question: How do we transform our practice to be more equitable and just, without causing unintended violence and harm to practitioners or the rich history and tradition of yoga? How do we evolve the practice to be more equitable in a respectful way? How do we use yoga for justice without doing violence? I don’t think there are easy or even right answers to these questions, but I am grateful to this conference for providing a safe space to explore these issues. Until next year!
To catch up on the live tweets from the conference: https://storify.com/JenniferMusial/race-and-yoga-conference-2016
[i] “Call for Papers: Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence Conference.” https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/65385
[ii] “Bikram Choudhury Sued for Sexual Harassment, Sex-Based Discrimination” Yoga Dork http://yogadork.com/2013/03/21/bikram-lawsuit/