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.