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Becoming a Better Yogi to our Brothers & Sisters of Color

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

The other night, my good friend Deanna and I hosted an amazing Q & A Yoga class with a focus on how we can become better allies to our brothers and sisters of color. Our audience was shy but captivated by Dee's wisdom and insight as an African American woman in the modern yoga world. In case you missed it, Deanna Rabb is a spiritual healer, meditation guider and local business owner in Los Angeles, California. Her store Chakras Shop is a fair trade market that produces beautiful jewelry made up of all different kinds of beads and gems designed for helping individuals gain power in their self healing work.

Right now, the planet is facing a reality unlike any other and that is the existence of systemic racism, but for some of us, this reality has been a part of daily life for years and generations. Globally, it has been established that having lighter skin will give any individual an advantage over his or her darker skinned counterpart. This is based on some of the most minuscule prejudices we've been taught and yes they even exist in the wellness community. One of the benefits of yoga is to become more mindful yet through our own selfish journeys many of us forget why we started or even worse, we end up hurting the community more than helping it. In this post, I want to share my conversation with Dee not just from our Q&A but also from conversations we've had before. I’m throwing in an extra 2 cents of my own opinion as well since I believe the combination could help many people seeking to become better allies in the health and fitness industry.

So Dee, you schooled me when I thought Yoga was started in India but turns out it’s not?

Deanna: That’s right. Many people believe it started 5,000 years ago in India but it was actually 10,000 years ago in Kemet, meaning Black Land. Kemet, what we now know as modern day Egypt, is where artifacts were discovered showing hieroglyphics of people in yoga-like poses. To the ancient Africans, the practice of breath-work, mindfulness and physical postures was known as Smai Tawi or Kemetic Yoga. As Africa was invaded by Alexander the Great, the natives migrated towards the Middle East and India. Somewhere through this migration, the practice was lost in translation and then picked up again by the Hindus in India.

Almost every yoga teacher training secures the thought that yoga began in India with the Hindus since many yoga philosophies and texts like "The Yoga Sutras" are recorded from this time, not during the ancient Africans'. Sanskrit became the language for indoctrination and for thousands of years the teachings have been passed on in this manner. The truth is that like music, yoga can have said to exist for eons but just portrayed in a different manner. Spiritual practices have also been around since the beginning of time and while we don't know for sure if our primitive ancestors did yoga, we can at least perpetuate the idea that appreciation and teachings started in Africa.

Smai Tawi Hieroglyphic

Does it bother you that most people refer to India as the motherland?

Deanna: Not at all, because those are still our brothers and sisters of color. While it would be nice to be acknowledged, most practitioners should take it upon themselves to learn the true origins and not just listen to what they are told in teacher training. We all have to do homework even if we're in school. A good majority of yoga in the Western world is done by a wealthy white demographic, especially in Los Angeles. What happens is they start this "Eat, Pray Love" mission, learn a few Sanskrit words and quotes to live off of and then become 'spiritual masters. That's where the journey ends. I don't let it bother me, but I also don't like people preaching B.S. without diving deeper into their own education or awareness.

When Swami Vivekananda first came to the U.S. in 1893, he gained many followers after giving lectures on the mysticism of India and the power of yoga. Over generations of advertising, America and Europe have portrayed the Yogi as a beautiful, skinny white woman. From Yoga International to Yoga Journal, almost every article contains the same look and likewise with social media (just look up #yogaeverydamnday). At one of my yoga studios, we had a partnership with a modeling agency where the models participating had to take selfies promoting themselves and our studio. While some of these chicks were super cool and down to earth, many of them would only perpetuate the idea that yoga was done by pretty, skinny, white girls. The worst part is half of them wouldn't even enjoy doing it. It has only been recently that advertisers are becoming more inclusive partially due to public figures like Nicole Cardoza putting them on blast about the underlying racism created in their content. I recently did a campaign for Adidas and the idea behind it was "Diversity in Yoga" showing that there are many demographics who participate and while I appreciated it, I couldn't help but ask "why are we only doing this now?"

Besides the "Yoga Look" does racism exist elsewhere in the wellness community?

Deanna: Racism exists everywhere when you are black simply because you are never considered a first option. Unless they want an "urban, edgy" look or people of color are relevant in the news, it's almost always going to be the beach blonde before you. Everything from the way people approach and speak, to how they con you into their pyramid schemes is racist in the fitness industry. I still get approached with "Yo yo yo" or "What's good?" Only for people to be surprised by how articulate I am. When a white girl starts talking slang, it's cute but when I do it, it's ghetto. So most of the time I need to act a certain way and speak 'white washed' in order to be accepted by my colleagues or clients. The black community suffers more from physical and mental health issues than any other, yet most of the industry professionals aim more for dollars by inflating prices and opening studios in more profitable areas.

It's true, many of my black and brown friends mentioned it wasn't in their budget to be paying $25 a class. They were also uncomfortable attending simply out of fear of being judged on their yoga knowledge, quality of their mats, outfits and overall presence. So stepping into a room filled with 20 white women talking about the sexiest retreats to attend is not exactly a conversation you're comfortable chiming in with when you can barely afford class. Then there are companies like Arbonne and Herbalife which have predominantly made their way into the black and brown communities. Their promise of health and profit takes advantage of the population's financial vulnerability making them perfect "salespeople" in these get rich quick pyramid schemes. The unfortunate outcome is that while the CEOs get their pockets filled, many of the sales reps will be left with a surplus of product that they cannot sell. Why? Because Herbalife products suck and when people learn this, they do almost anything to get rid of it. See John Oliver's special on Multilevel Marketing

What's the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation in Yoga?

Deanna: The people who appropriate are known as culture vultures. These are individuals who find passion with elements of a culture/lifestyle outside of theirs and rather than digging into and supporting the roots, they decide to claim it for their own benefit. It's when a white girl named Tiffany starts wearing a bindi, changes her name to Ananya and talks Sanskrit out of her ass about things she's never experienced just because "it's cute" or trendy. When people start making money but do nothing to give back to the roots, that's appropriating. Yoga has been profited by white people for many decades but their involvement with the actual source is little to none. Hip-Hop Yoga for example, those studios are in upscale white neighborhoods but where did both of those things come from? Not from white people. Appreciation is honoring and respecting another culture as a way of learning. To acknowledge the cultural practices and not claim it as your own is appreciation.

The United States alone has over 100 claimed "Hip-Hop Yoga" studios with more than half of them in upscale areas yet less than 15% are involved with helping underserved communities. Y7 is a very popular example having multiple locations in urban cities but is predominantly taught by Non-Hispanic White females in upscale, gentrified neighborhoods. It's owner Sarah Larson Levey is also of the same demographic but when researched, I found little evidence of civic engagement to low income communities. Sarah mentions in an article with Forbes Magazine, that she needed to create a fun approach to yoga so she decided to add popular hip-hop music to her classes. The appropriation in this case is that hip-hop is considered to be a "black" genre of music, yet the studios she opened were not in black communities nor were their prices affordable to people of color, it was designed for a more affluent audience. Her business is now worth millions.

What are some ways we can show our appreciation without taking away from the culture's creators?

Deanna: Just giving back and understanding where you got it from. Acknowledge that it's not your own. To appreciate another person's culture you need to learn to appreciate your own. Find something deep in your history that gives you joy about your identity and ask yourself would I be offended if someone displayed this for their own benefit? Self knowledge is the most important thing we could do for ourselves as this will help us in cultural exchanges. Sharing something you're proud of from your heritage with something you like about another's is how friendships begin because you can appreciate the differences each of you hold. Support the locals who created what you're into by buying directly and if you are making a profit from it, how are you sharing that wealth? It's just so important to be respectful of the culture you appreciate. So if you love black people and culture, understand how offensive it can be to have some white person playing music with the "N word" in it over and over again.

When it comes to events like hosting classes or retreats, it's important to respect the areas we are in without overtaking the locals. For instance, if a rich white person wanted to open a fitness studio in Compton with the idea of Hip-Hop Yoga, start talking and working together with locals on how that plan can be done to benefit the community instead of gentrifying it or trying to get "your people" to that side of town. Try to keep black owned businesses black owned. When going on yoga retreats, don't show up to a third world country like Thailand and give all your money to some European guru who is living like a king amongst people in poverty. Do research on how to be a better guest during these getaways.

Volunteering at low income schools is a great way to give back

What are just some final thoughts on how we can be better allies?

Deanna: Remember that it's not a competition so don't get jaded by the money. Remember that you are also a healer and you have to do your own self work in awareness before you go healing the world. If you're a teacher and you notice your classes lack diversity, take it upon yourself to find out why? It's important to remember we create the energy in the room so make it inclusive for everybody. If you hear or see anything prejudice, say something and share the intolerance you hold for those types of comments or practices. Don't just donate to big foundations and companies who do not practice what they preach. Most of the time your money is not going where you think it is so it's better to just buy back into the black communities directly. Do things voluntarily that can help others less fortunate and respect that everyone is on their own journey of self healing so don't compete with anybody.

Deanna and I at the Fair Trade LBC Poetry Night 2019

To sum it all up

These are just the tip of the iceberg suggestions on becoming more aware in the yoga world. It's always important for us to ask why and how when discussing the topic of diversity. Remember to be inclusive to everybody in class whether they are a teacher or not and try not to be a culture vulture by making sure you give back the best way you can.

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