Monday, October 3, 2016

An Open Letter to Yoga Studio Owners

Do you have a Black Lives Matter sign in your studio? If the answer is no, I encourage you to ask yourselves, “Why not?”

I put a Black Lives Matter sign up in my studio in December of 2014, when the police who killed Eric Garner of Staten Island, NY were acquitted. The sign is pretty much the first thing you see when you enter the studio.

We end class with the word “Namaste,” generally translated as “the Light in me bows to the Light in you.” These beautiful words, spoken in the peaceful, quiet studio at the end of class, call us to do more than just wring our hands when we see violence perpetrated against human beings.

As yoga teachers, we love and care about our students. We want them to be happy and healthy. We cry with them when they go through a loss. We rejoice with them when they get married, adopt a baby, or heal an old injury. Can we then acknowledge that our students of color are hurting? They are in pain and they are stressed. They are worried about their kids, their friends, their communities. They see themselves in the weeping relatives that it has become all to common to see in our social media feeds. I put that Black Lives Matter sign in my studio to show my students of color that their lives, and the lives of their relatives, matter to me.

The Black Lives Matter sign is just as much for my white students. White people have the luxury of not thinking about race if we don’t want to. In 1988, a professor named Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this paper, she described white privilege as a set of unearned assets that a white American can cash in daily. Things like shopping in a store without being followed by a suspicious salesperson. Or assuming that if you buy a house in a nice neighborhood, that your neighbors will be pleasant or neutral toward you. Or seeing a police car in your rear view mirror and not fearing for your life.

But white people should think about race a lot more than most of us do. Instead of claiming to be “colorblind” or “post-racial” we should educate ourselves about what our brothers and sisters of color are going through, and what they have been enduring for generations. As yoga teachers and students, we are asked to cultivate maitri (friendliness) and karuna (compassion). These beautiful states of heart and mind are not only for ourselves, our friends, and our family members; they are for the whole world!

Yoga teachers care deeply about the bodies of our students. We help our students learn to work safely and appropriately in each pose. We want everyone to practice in a way that enhances health and increases physical and mental resilience. So shouldn’t we, like doctors, be especially outraged by policies and procedures that strip Black bodies of dignity, self-determination, and even life? After all, the first of our yamas (yoga ethics) is ahimsa (nonviolence).

 A student of mine posted a beautiful photo of a White Coats for Black Lives vigil held at U.C. San Francisco. Medical students and residents are holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” “Do No Harm, and “Say Their Names.” Where is a similar movement among yoga practitioners? Our second yama, satya, means truth. Are we afraid to speak up?

If you own or run a yoga studio, you know you are not just running a business, you are holding a sacred space. A place where people come to learn, to practice, to transform, to rest deeply, and to heal. Can yoga studios do more to help our society heal?


Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury, Vermont. She helped start the local chapter of SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.