Cultural Competency in Yoga: What is it and why does it matter?

Cultural competency is a hugely important topic – and also a hugely scary one to write about, for me.
Why?
I am from the US and currently live here. This country’s human rights record is shameful, in particular in terms of treatment of people of color. Some things have changed, some have not, and even following change, past practices affect us today.
I also lived for 3 years in a country where civilians of Muslim background were targeted in conflict and went without international assistance for years. I spent a fair part of a two year dating a black man.  I don’t claim to experience racism or discrimination in the way people of color do, but issues such as racism and discrimination feel personal and close to my heart.
Selfishly, it would also just be painful to be called a racist. Plenty of people are unwilling to spend the time and take the risk of going out on a limb to start a discussion on this topic, but quick to point out fault when others do.
What is cultural competency? What is it not?
Does it mean I should teach yoga to black people differently than I’d teach it to white people? Does it imply all Latinos are the same? Does it mean I can’t teach people of color well because I’m white? You might already have guessed my answer is no, I don’t think so!
One definition I liked, stated succinctly in an NCBI article regarding cultural competency in health care  (helpfully provided by a simple google search) is:
“Culture is defined as patterns of human behavior that are part of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group…Some of the variance across cultural groups can be affected by immigration, family structure, educational attainment, and socioeconomic status…Cultural competence …is an acknowledgement and incorporation of the importance of culture, the assessment of cross-cultural relations, vigilance towards the dynamics that result from cultural differences, the expansion of cultural knowledge, and the adaptation of services to meet culturally unique needs.”
The concept of cultural competency does imply that different cultures exist, and sometimes these fall across similar lines as race and ethnicity…but obviously variation can occur within groups as our identities are intersectional.  To me, it’s important to balance this out with a reminder that we are all connected as human beings, and to avoid “othering” people by acting in a way that implies we are incredibly different. We can still become informed about experiences or practices that tend to go along with a particular culture.
Holding space for a discussion around this topic is, in my view, more important than me personally figuring out and sharing the “right” way to look at this topic. With cultural competence in mind, in particular, it makes sense to hold space for voices from people of color, not just “too” but primarily, instead of solely my view as a white yoga instructor.
That said, I am a white yoga instructor who thinks this topic matters, and really can only speak from my personal viewpoint! Here’s my way of looking at why this topic matters. What’s yours?
White people in the US benefit from privilege rooted in current discriminatory attitudes towards people of color, and also due to the legacy of racism and prejudice. This is true even though white people today may not have personally “done anything” or asked for privilege.
Even for those of us who haven’t necessarily “done anything”, it’s possible in any interaction to cause harm, including unintentionally.
As a yoga teacher – as a person! – I don’t want to cause harm! I can act like a human being with all people, but with culture in particular, we often take things for granted, that what is true for me in my culture, I don’t even think of it as culture, I think of it as truth. Particularly in a country with such a legacy of injustice, it behooves us all, and white people in particular, to pay attention to this topic and to learn and consider what others have to say.

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