Uma talking

Comfort zones

I’m thinking about comfort zones a lot today.

I made some beautiful connections at the first International Yoga Nidra conference, on behalf of the Yoga Nidra Network sangha, and I want to honour that properly, especially the immense work done by John, Richard, Stephanie and the teams of iRest, the Desai sangha, Kripalu and Yoga International to bring this vision to life.

But I also want to talk about the aspects of the trip that made me uncomfortable, while they’re still fresh in my mind, and I know that they would want to hear about that too. First I’m going to put on one side the discomfort of flying to the US, both in terms of the carbon load added to the atmosphere, and the awareness that there are specific people I’d have loved to come with us that just couldn’t face US border agents again, because they were traveling with brown skins and South Asian heritage. And I don’t want to talk right now about being on stage with people from the Satyananda Yoga organisation, because that is a huge conversation with a lot of layers to it, and some of them are still painful.

What I have been doing is untangling my own responses and instincts and unhelpful habits around issues of race. And that’s something a lot of us have to get better at, particularly in yoga cultures. We have to bring more activism, more nuance, and above all more listening to a lot of the messiness we find ourselves in.

And right now, too much of the heavy lifting on this and all the other difficult conversations in yoga is being done by the people of colour and other marginalised folk most directly affected.

Outside of the intersectional issues that come from being raised working class, having an insecure income, being queer and a survivor, and British rather than North American (which makes more of a difference than Americans often realise), I’m still a white woman in a subculture dominated by white women. For over a century, white women have been using the practice of yoga to heal in many cases from patriarchal abuses, but often as part of systems that perpetuate the harms of race, colonialism and yet more patriarchy.

So what does it mean that over and above what I have to say, my voice commands more attention than women of South Asian heritage? What does it mean when our images of yoga are dominated by white and extremely privileged women? And what does is mean that the only corrective to those images is often reverting to the power and practices of high caste Indian men, rather than female, subaltern, and grassroots heritages that don’t have the status of transnational lineages?

What about the (mostly) women abused by many of the leaders of those lineages? And what rights or responsibilities do we have as Anglophone practitioners when we watch the Indian government use transnational yoga as a form of soft political power to justify the reputation of a state that has a less-than stellar record on the rights of lower caste, Muslim and tribal Indian communities, but also a long history of colonial cultural oppression by our own countries?

What does it take to declare your love for the earth on land stolen from indigenous peoples?

What level of wilful ignorance does it take for white women to exotify Indian femininity into images that reflect their own desire to be goddesses, but then fail to take action on period poverty or rates of sexual assault in either India or their own jurisdictions? What voices do we listen to and amplify (or worse, talk over), on complex and messy, partisan issues such as women’s access to Hindu temples? How are we reflecting and comprehending the complexity of a practice that now spans continents, in each one a different socio-political reality, but in each one the darker your skin, the more marginalised your position?

In real time, beyond the abstract and the online commentary, what does it mean for me to be a white woman using her educational privilege to amplify subaltern voices and stories in response to those who would have us substitute lineage for heritage? In so doing, by the way, they neatly place two or three generations of middle class, white lineage holders in the privileged position of deciding what is and is not ‘authentic’ practice, and gloss over the money and class privilege that allowed them to travel to sit at the feet of Indian gurus.

Especially when some of those white lineage holders turn round with no sense of irony and accuse desi folk who grew up doing practices of yoga at their grandparent’s knee of cultural appropriation.

I am slowly becoming used to the discomfort of sitting on a stage with a line of almost all white folk, being treated as an expert in that which I have spent just one life living, over a decade teaching, and half that researching. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep pointing it out when it happens. And whenever we can, myself and those I ally myself with are going to continue to smile and insist on those ‘complex room requirements’ in which we rearrange the space to come together in circles, as equals, making space for untold stories and unheard voices.

But at this conference what I was mostly not prepared for was the questions to us, as a panel of yoga experts, on truth, on justice, on the nature of consciousness and spiritual pain. I wanted to keep interrupting to remind people that we’re just yoga teachers, just researchers and writers and cultural commentators. I’m starting to understand how really ordinary people in this position become de facto spiritual leaders.

I’m really alarmed by the thought of how a more abusive, charismatic person would respond to that ocean of need for salvation, for justification, for healing, for peace.

And as a queer, pagan woman, sitting in a former Jesuit chapel listening to people testify to miracles found through the practice felt profoundly strange. Mostly I replied that at its best, yoga nidra helps you rest in a place of safety, and isn’t that enough? In fact, when I think of the power of yoga nidra, I’m thinking of the refugee children that my friend Lucy works with, curled up in a circle together, resting in semi-feral safety the way they used to on the road. I’m thinking of myself, growing up not ever really knowing when and for what reason my own exhausted sleep would be violated. I’m thinking of my friend Karen Rain, whose nervous system is still primed to wake up in time for the practice in which she was abused. I’m thinking of children in cages, and slaves not allowed to rest their heads, and caravans of displaced people walking through the night.

This I know. My privilege is what brings me access to knowledge, to an audience, to the time and space, however meagre, to do the work I do.

It didn’t bring me a comfortable income or frequent travel to meet ‘the masters’, but that marginalisation within yoga as a culture did place me in the best position to learn about yoga in the places of hope and desperation, wrestling with justice as an active concern rather than an abstract ideal. My day to day involves messy conversations about funding, and access, and priority and need – my own as often as that of others. It doesn’t generally involve speculating on the nature of the universe.

But my marginalisation is where I learn, where I see the heart of things, where all the white-hot ideas come from.

From queer culture to the counterculture, from the right to walk the land of your ancestors to the right to rest in safety, marginalisation makes me hungry, and it opens my eyes. In these edges lies the truth, and the justice, and the hope for change. In the centre lies the leverage to help make that change happen.

So I’ll continue to embrace my discomfort as much as I can. I’ll continue to try to listen to indigenous folk and people of colour, to take a breath and dive into the moments when this leaves me feeling upset, or frustrated, or confused. On stage, I’ll be one of those who points out the elephant in the room, even if it takes hour after hour of debate and frustration and editing and exhaustion with my allies to get the words right. Each time I do it, I try to remember that the organisers of these events know exactly what they’re asking me to bring to the space. I know who my allies and my (chosen) family are. I’m getting better and faster at spotting them.

In the end, amplifying the voices of my talented, marginalised colleagues is easy. Being in a retreat centre where 95% of attendees are white, and 95% of the service staff are people of colour is not. And I hope never, ever to become comfortable with that.

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