When the Elephant in the Room is You

There’s an elephant in the room and it’s not the Hindu deity with the elephant’s head and the body of a boy with a huge pot-belly. It is not Ganesha. Can we talk?

Yoga can benefit everyone. The roots of this 5,000-year-old practice are traced back to India, a land of people of color. In the United States however, people of color have not been highly visible in the yoga community, either in print media, videos, or in studios as students or as teachers.

But the face of yoga in America is changing. More people of color are beginning to practice and to teach yoga. As the yoga community becomes more racially and culturally diverse, the conversation within and around yoga needs to expand to keep pace with the shifting demographics.

Yoga means union, the connection of body, mind, and heart, the connection of breath to movement, the connection of one human being to another. It is an invitation to intimacy with oneself and of connection to others – even to those who are different from us.

Disconnection is when you’re in a yoga class and the slim-hipped, blond, blue-eyed yoga teacher uses the verbal prompt “ghetto booty” and everyone sticks out her rear end.  And you, the only African American in the room, speak up and say, “What do you mean by that?” And she says, “Get your hips higher.” And you say, “Then why don’t you just give us that instruction?” And she says, with a big smile on her face, “Oh, okay if that works better for you.” And then she gives the “ghetto booty” instruction three more times.

Connection is when you approach her after class and explain that her metaphor is disrespectful to African Americans who love, and in our own communities are loved for having full hips, and who regard our neighborhoods as home, not ghettos. Connection is when she gets it.

Disconnection is when you’re the only person of color in a yoga class and the rap music the young white yoga teacher selects to play, on the CD she burned, includes the “N” word and no one notices but you. And when you confront her, the teacher says that she didn’t hear the lyric, smiles apologetically and says, “I’m sorry.” And after class no one makes eye contact with you. And then someone asks you, “Why did you have to say something to the teacher in front of the entire class?”

Connection is when the studio owner has left a message on your voicemail before you arrive home from the class. And when you call back, she listens empathically to what you experienced, applauds you for speaking out, makes no excuses for the teacher, removes her from teaching the class, and then asks if there is anything else that needs to be done to make you feel comfortable enough to return to the studio.

Connection is when you realize months later that the teacher probably didn’t hear the lyric, probably didn’t play the selection intentionally, and you approach her to have that conversation with her.

Disconnections are caused by behaviors and language that make a person feel odd, like an outsider, and unwelcomed. Connections are strengthened when conversations take place that make a person feel respected, understood, and included.

Being inclusive goes deeper than being politically correct. It’s not about getting it right. It’s about cultural competence and a willingness to have an open, non-defensive conversation with someone when he, she, or you get it wrong–and we all get it wrong sometimes. It means opening your heart to others and offering your perspective as well as listening to theirs. It means a willingness to engage with them and to be changed by this engagement. That’s yoga.

So this is where Ganesha comes in. In Hindu mythology he is not the elephant in the room. He is the temple elephant who stands at the threshold and offers auspicious blessings. His is a benign and welcoming presence. He invites us into relationship. Wherever Ganesha is, he finds himself at home and welcomes you. Like him, let us be in relationship and in conversation with one another. Let us find ourselves at home with one another, and welcome each other with open hearts.


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24 responses to “When the Elephant in the Room is You

  1. Thank you for this! I so appreciate the clarity you bring to the idea that connection, even when it causes discomfort (which conversations about privilege can–and should!–do) is what makes more of us a humans. What could be more to the point of yoga? I’ll be sharing this one.

    • Conversation is a connecting link and that is the yoga. I think the conversation is also about the need for cultural competence so that we can be aware of one another’s context which can lead to more deeply understanding another’s point of view. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this and for sharing the conversation with others.

  2. From one whose eyes are wide open, that would be you Susanna, I appreciate your sharing and your willingness to support people in becoming more aware through your art, your writing, and your yoga.

  3. I love this, Gail, as always. So important. Tweeted & Facebooked! Keep it coming. There are so many out there with good intentions but a lack of awareness. This will really open some eyes.

  4. Thank you Gail. Thank you for an excellent illustration of connection and disconnection. I also value inclusion. This birth, I showed up in the United States at a particular place and time with a world view shaped by events current and historical.That means, for me, a part of my journey (which I accept most of the time) involves noticing disconnection and reaching for connection. Each time I feel discouraged the universe points me in the right direction. Ashe. You blog did just that. I chose to teach and be taught by the life circumstances that present to me. That choice gives me the courage to become acquainted with my elephants. But, when I do not notice my elephants, I am grateful to the souls that point them out to me with compassion and a desire for connection.

    • When we find the courage to talk about what ever it is we’re trying to ignore a transformative shift occurs… “There, I’ve said it and the world didn’t come to an end.” What a liberating experience. Thanks for sharing.

  5. While many African Americans have taken up Yoga in recent years, there have always been more of us practicing than was counted. They just were not in Yoga studios or classes that were being taught by people who have the consciousness to insult them with their mindless terminology as you outlined. The question is one that has been debated in the African American and African diaspora in general for a long time: Should we seek inclusion and acceptance in the “mainstream” society and try to educate them or should we create our own venues where we don’t have to spend time and energy trying to educate people who may or may not welcome our input in the first place? This has been a common theme throughout history. Perhaps both approaches are needed, I don’t really know but there are alternatives to where we spend our dollars and with whom.

    • I couldn’t agree more about the importance of recognizing that we have choices about where we spend our time, energy, effort, money, and with whom. I tend to be one who regards inclusion as an important practice. I don’t think we need to seek inclusion as much as we need to be inclusive, regardless of who is involved. Being inclusive to me is not the same as trying to fit in, it is merely a gesture of welcoming. Like you, I also think we have a responsibility to create and support venues where we don’t have to spend time and energy trying to educate people who may or may not welcome our input. So I see it as a both/and, not an either or proposition. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I think we all have elephants in many of our rooms. Rather than trying to ignore them, because they don’t go away, here’s hoping we can support one another in facing them and having conversation about them. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks again for a great blog post, Gail. I have a few elephants in my own “room” to deal with – this gives me courage to do so. Much love & respect to you.

  8. Tom Johnson MD, MBA

    Thank you for your profound and educational blog posting. This topic is timely. Cultural competency has been linked to better outcomes in the healthcare field in numerous published research articles. Many healthcare facilities now require cultural competency training.

    Just another example of how on the mark your blog topic is to current events.

    • In a multicultural world, as yoga matures in the United States and becomes more mainstream, it needs to be a reflection of cultural competence.

  9. Thank you very much for this post. I have often experience such disconnection when I attend various classes or workshops in the DC area. As a African-American male yogi and teacher, I would enter a class on occassion would get that look from other students like “ohh my gosh, why is he here.” I have learned to overlooked those stares and keep my eyes on the prize. This is something that the community needs to explore more in detail. Again, thank you for bringing this topic up.

    • Even though it’s difficult, I think it is important for us to realize the prize is our ability to connect with others as well as with ourselves and not to allow ourselves to be or to feel marginalized. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Wow…this posting is truly profound in its truth and courageous for you to address the racial and cultural misunderstanding within the yoga room and its the same situation in our larger community. So often, there is a disconnection in communicating about differences and hurtful, exclusionary statements are made everyday in the media as well as our encounters with others that never get addressed.
    For me the disconnections within my own family are the most hurtful and follows the same type of interaction you noted in the yoga classroom examples… but unfortunately connection requires open hearts and minds and a desire to have a connection as you stated. It takes all parties wanting connection to make it happen….disconnection is easy….connection is hard. Thank you for the template for successful relationships of all kinds.

    • Disconnections do occur inside the yoga studio and in our larger community as well, and so do connections. Hopefully we will all learn to address exclusionary behavior when it occurs, open our hearts and move into closer connection to ourselves and others. Thanks for your comments.

  11. Thank you Nichole for your comments and for sharing the post.

  12. Gail, thanks for raising the curtain on these issues.

    I’ve practiced for about 10 years now and I’m still stunned at how often I am the only person of color on the mats. And I’ve only had a black instructor once in that time.

    Yoga is a deep part of my life. The more I continue to explore the other limbs, I’m struck at how much is being left out of studio practice. Yoga is the ultimate invite/ road-map to facing, and in some cases conquering, fears and growing in the process. I could go on but mostly I just wanted to say thanks and write on. I’ve gladly shared your link, even posted it on twitter. Have a great day, Nichole

  13. Which really is the point of the blog post. By entering into conversation with one another and expressing curiosity about our differences in the spirit of wanting to understand each other we learn more about other cultures, races and ethnicities. This is what I think helps us move beyond our fear of difference. The paradox is, in this spirit of wanting to understand our differences we discover our similarities.

  14. I absolutely agree with you, but many fear traditions and cutlures that they are not use to.

  15. Actually yoga doesn’t turn you into someone you’re not, it helps you become more of who you already are, including deepening and strengthening your spiritual and religious connections. It is a powerful practice.

  16. I think I am one of the few who has been learning to practice Yoga and my instructor is an African American man. I entered into a class without any of the issues that people encounter when cultures collide. The majority of the students are Black, so it is a bit surprising to read the scenarios you have put forth. The examples though are powerful, they demonstrate how sensitive we all can be, and that we as people, have to expand our definition of community, not us and them but us. I had always wanted to do yoga but thought I was too big and that it was for the skinny people of a different hue. Now that I am in it and loving it, of course I want to share it and invite others to join. I have met with such resistance to yoga; many think it will change them spiritually, if they are Christians because its origins are from India. They don’t get the OM and they don’t understand Namaste. They think that is they are Christians yoga is not for them, they will do other physical activities but nothing that makes the connection of the mind, body, spirit and community that yoga does and that has frustrated me! Perhaps people feel safer when they can compartmentalize their lives- I do this for my physical health, I do this for my spiritual health or I will do this to stimulate my mind and I will volunteer in my community. I am not sure of the reason, but I have made the decision to learn yoga and to then teach yoga to Christians, especially the African and Caribbean Americans who would benefit so much from it. I have only been doing yoga for a short time, but there has been such a change in me, that it is now one of my passions, and few things keep me from it. I have a lot to learn but I am committed.
    Thanks Gail for taking us to another level of thinking.

  17. Beautiful, thought provoking, relevant, self- reflective, and powerful.

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