Privilege and Yoga

Privilege has become kind of a buzz word – and it almost seems like talking about it “absolves” the speaker of it.

My definition of privilege: benefiting from aspects of your identities that are outside your control – race, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, life experiences that are beyond your control. Since we generally see these aspects as “set” or not changeable, you really can’t “remove” privilege. People can debate to what extent these things are changeable, but beyond that, accepting that at least some things are unchangeable and still provide benefits or drawbacks to the person, is what’s relevant to privilege. Being aware of privilege may allow you to minimize its impact on others.

How does privilege come up in general?

Yoga teachers in the more traditional for-profit setting are probably more likely to be dealing with people who share some of the same forms of privilege (or clients may have more privilege than the teacher). Needing to take privilege into account isn’t really specific to yoga, but to taking yoga out of what has become its most traditional setting these days in the US.

I’ve come across this topic, perhaps called by a different name, in international development and education, and those examples inform my views on how privilege appears in yoga. To me at least these examples are important for recognizing that privilege isn’t just “bad” in and of itself, but can actually cause harm – and I think these offer clearer examples than yoga.

Teaching English as a foreign language, I got a job based partly on my 30-day certification in teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults and performance in an interview … but largely because I am a native speaker of English. How does this hurt people? I hope that my efforts and dedication helped make me a good teacher, but a) some non-native speaker did not get work because I did and b) perhaps students were deprived of a teacher who may have actually been more effective than me, but wasn’t a native speaker.

In international development or aid, organizations that receive grant money tend to be more highly organized and bureaucratic and from “first-world” countries who know how to apply for and win grants. They may have skilled and well-meaning employees, but “local” organizations with similar – or even higher – knowledge of what might work in their own countries will not receive funding if they aren’t “good enough” at the process. How does this hurt people? The culture and views of “first-world” countries are prioritized in the “helped” country over its own. Local organizations grow weaker and less able to assert their values, foreign organizations grow stronger. Perhaps people who could have benefited from a well-informed aid program gain no benefits from an ill-informed program.

How does privilege come up in yoga?

From this perspective, the way privilege manifests itself in yoga may have less serious implications.  Below are some of the practical examples that, to me, illustrate privilege, or a privileged perspective in yoga.

1. Using short quotes or anecdotes in a way that trivializes genuinely severe problems students may experience that the teacher does not: “What you see in the world is a reflection of what you are” – if you live in an area plagued by violence and feel overwhelmed or concerned for your children, are those negative emotions a reflection of who you are? It is a lot easier to see joy, love and beauty with the privilege of a comfortable home, with regular time off and job benefits, than from a sidewalk that doubles as a bed, in a neighborhood plagued with violence.

2. Claiming to share someone else’s experience when you don’t: “We are ALL imprisoned until we are self-realized, awake”.  As an analogy, this is an intriguing idea for exploration, say, in a weekend workshop for yoga teachers and interested students – but said, for instance, by a non-incarcerated yoga teacher to students in a prison setting, it could really minimize what it’s like to truly lack physical freedom.

3. Topics like forgiveness, karma, “choosing how you think”:  These can be very loaded topics, and, as with above, are valuable to explore thoughtfully. But the privilege of not being a survivor of violence, or not being severely or terminally ill, might make one’s personal experience with these concepts very different from people who are.

The Breathe Network offered an example that I would relate to privilege in an article on a different topic – trusting your own practice:

“…the conversation turned to a somewhat callous interpretation of “karma” (a delicate topic for victims/survivors of violence, disease, etc.) despite my belief in something more expansive and less direct … one of my fellow retreaters espoused views that those who persistently struggle with depression create their own misery and simply need to “choose something else””

4. Overreaching yoga’s benefits: Yoga can be a powerful tool for emotional change, and it may be a common factor for many people who decide to teach yoga, perhaps even more so for those of us drawn to yoga service. Everyone’s story and circumstances are different. Yoga may be the thing that helped one person overcome an eating disorder … but if that person also had regular access to therapy, a supportive family, enough income to purchase healthier food, a schedule that allowed for eating meals at regular times at a table, access to the internet to read blogs of others with similar stories … that wasn’t just yoga that helped. Presenting things as so to students may not only minimize their struggle but discourage them from seeking additional forms of support which might help.

How do these hurt people? Denying or invalidating someone’s painful or difficult experience is harmful, particularly in an arena where the idea is to promote positive change. What should you do? I don’t have the answer! I would say to avoid things like these. Be mindful that we are all different, and what worked for me … not only might NOT work for you, but it might be quite offensive to you.

To me, these are the manifestations of privilege that we can take steps to avoid. Other forms of privilege can be addressed in broader ways (supporting initiatives exposing kids from lower income areas to yoga, scholarships for people more historically excluded from teacher training for financial reasons, avoiding making assumptions about someone’s life or experience with yoga based on race, gender, etc).

What examples of privilege have you come across? How do you address it? What resources have you found helpful (specific to yoga or not)?

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