Yoga’s Got A Racism Problem and Jessamyn Stanley Knows You Don’t Want to Talk About It

Jessamyn Stanley
·6 min read

On the first night of my book tour for Every Body Yoga, I asked if anyone had one final question, and a very tall Black guy standing at the very back of the house raised his hand. He started out by talking about how much he loves yoga, but how he can never find a sense of calm in yoga studios. He confided that most of the yoga studios he attends are predominantly patronized by White women.

He wondered how a Black man is supposed to find “zen” or “calm” in such an environment. How was he supposed to chill within a predominantly White environment where most of his teachers and fellow students are White women, whom society has taught to fear Black men. How was he supposed to find inner calm in a room where he’s treated like a threat to his fellow students?

His question definitely caught me off guard. Usually my Q&As are dominated by questions about how and why a fat person should find ways not to hate themselves, a topic which has always made me feel more circus sideshow than yoga teacher. It was the first time anyone had explicitly asked me about the emotional trauma Black people undergo in predominantly White American yoga classes, even though yoga itself is supposed to serve as a balm for trauma.

The loudest American yoga voices are much more likely to debate the merits of cotton versus polyblend leggings rather than talk about race.

Perhaps no one had ever broached the topic because quite a few of my students, readers, and followers identify as White or White passing—and White people absolutely hate being reminded of race. When Black people publicly address race, even though we talk about it all the time with each other, it always seems to piss off White people.

As a result, the loudest American yoga voices are much more likely to debate the merits of cotton versus polyblend leggings rather than ever talking about race, especially as it pertains to their own lives. White supremacy lives in all of us, and it’s a controlling force of American yoga, allowing destination yoga retreats and yoga mat cleansers to dominate mainstream yoga conversations while casting aside racism as an inappropriate and problematic topic.

And yet those same White folks who say they don’t like to talk about race are totally chill attending yoga classes taught by me. Now, I’m sure plenty of those White folks would say they “don’t see race,” which makes no sense to me when every Black person I know seems perfectly capable of seeing race. I think saying you don’t see race is just another way of saying you don’t want to talk about race.

It’s cool—I’m not offended that you don’t want to talk about race. That’s what always happens with taboo topics. Instead of facing them head on, we pretend they don’t exist and we get pissed when other people intrude upon our carefully constructed fantasies. In this particular fantasy, slavery never happened and going to yoga classes taught by fatty Black yoga teachers absolves White guilt.

Maybe you’re trying to wash away the shame and sins of your ancestors. I don’t blame you. White people have repeatedly acted like dicks throughout history and they’ve attempted to colonize literally every single continent on the planet. Maybe my performance of the magical yoga negro gave clearance for you to ignore this truth even more than you would have otherwise. But that’s not actually how it works. Ignoring doesn’t make nasty shit go away. It just makes it smell worse when you finally decide to take out the trash.

Like most American yoga teacher trainings, my yoga teacher training center had a predominantly White teaching staff and studentship. I was one of two Black people in my YTT and the only visibly fat person. I think there’s a direct correlation between the Whiteness of YTTs and the racism of American yoga. Predominantly White yoga teaching environments breed a species of groupthink that’s marbled with White supremacist values. Yoga people of color are less likely to feel supported by predominantly White yoga communities and are less likely to sign up for training programs, which limits the overall diversity of American yoga teachers. Multiplying this equation by every major international city has resulted in a global yoga teaching community with a White supremacist backbone.

What does it mean for the grandchild of African slaves to find solace in an American yoga practice that’s firmly rooted in the soil of White supremacy?

That guy at my book signing had a point. It’s hard to feel chill when no one wants to acknowledge the big-ass racist elephant in the room. And, well, if we’re all admitting things, I can admit that I used to seek approval of White folks.

Used to? Get real, Jessamyn. YOU STILL DO.

God, that sounds disgusting when I say it out loud, but it’s true. I thought there was a seat for me at the White kids table and all I needed was to muster up the confidence to sit down. The part of me still desperately craving a seat at that table isn’t seeking any further inquiry into any of my stank-ass baggage. She wants to be proud of what she’s accomplished. She wants to be proud that White people come to her yoga classes. Her heart leaps when events are sold out weeks in advance and she’s not bothered when her class attendees are predominantly White, even though her liberal arts education has made her all too aware of how exoticization and fetishization should be included as budget line items for their clear effect on her profit margins.

What does it mean for the grandchild of African slaves to find solace in an American yoga practice that’s firmly rooted in the soil of White supremacy? My ancestors were beaten and murdered for indigenous spiritual practices that frightened their enslavers. They found refuge in the versions of Christianity that least offended those that imprisoned them. Just like them, I’ve found a connection to my spiritual identity via the White man’s approved version of spirituality.

At what point should I consider myself a minstrel show? Is it only because I don’t wear blackface that I’m able to ignore the comparison? Is the line drawn at inspiring others? Does inspiration negate a minstrel show? At what point do I accept the spectacle that I’ve allowed others to expect from me? Yoga has led me to question everything. Pandering for the amusement of White folks is the same respectability politics in new clothing.

Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance

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Excerpted from Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance by Jessamyn Stanley (Workman Publishing) Copyright © 2021. Preorder it here.

Originally Appeared on Glamour