• Sierra Noland

A Privilege to Practice: Inaccessibility in Yogic Philosophy

In talking about meditation, I've said “doing inner-work is not a luxury—it’s an imperative.” I want to take an opportunity to reflect on this sentiment, because while the idea sounds cool in an Instagram caption, it’s really not that simple. Painting it as such erases the struggle of many people for whom the type of “inner-work” I’m talking about (yoga, meditation, etc.) very much IS a privilege and a luxury.

Before I dive in, I’d like to acknowledge my own position of privilege, not just as a yoga teacher, but also as a white, cisgendered, able-bodied person, to name only a few. My intentions for this writing are not to claim authority or righteousness, but rather for my own process of self-reflection, to encourage self-reflection in others, and to be a better ally.

Within the yoga-world, I’ve seen privileged people use psychological or spiritual grounds to criticize the behavior of those experiencing oppression as "immoral" or not "spiritually evolved."

You’ve probably heard:

“Is violence really the answer? That’s not the best way to create change.”

“They’re painting him as some saint, but look at his record— he was a criminal!”

“When people fear and expect discrimination, their vibration attracts it.”

I see these sentiments as highly problematic. Because of gaslighting and spiritual bypassing, I think yoga teachers and practitioners need to change the way we talk about mental or spiritual growth in circumstances of oppression or abuse. In particular, I find it important to acknowledge that it's not only the physical asana (postural) practice of yoga that can be alienating and inaccessible to certain groups, but that, at times, even the more holistic or “traditional” expression of yoga (that includes all 8 limbs) can also be alienating and inaccessible.

Let’s take ahimsa (non-violence/non-harm), for example, one of the social codes (yamas) within yogic philosophy. Choosing non-violence can be a privilege. When a person is put in a compromised position, threatened, and stripped of their humanity, practicing ahimsa could very well mean acceding to their own, or their people's, destruction and death.

Taking the examples of asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-grasping, or non-greed), when a person is deprived of resources in an economic system that keeps them at the bottom, there may be times when the choice is between going hungry and stealing. Or, someone might never donate or share because they're simply trying to make ends meet .

Sure, people in these positions theoretically could ‘just choose’ to be generous, never take what is not theirs, or refrain from destruction or harming— however, when the fight or flight response is chronically triggered through traumatic experiences of racism, discrimination and deprivation of material resources and dignity, ideal social conduct laid out in the yamas seems like a luxury. Love and light don’t do a whole lot of good when basic needs aren’t being met.

Within yogic philosophy, what seems to address the limitations I’ve mentioned, is the attribute of viveka, or discernment: the idea that each of us must use our own best judgement and intuition on how to actually apply the yamas. While there may not be specific qualifications in the Yoga Sutras for circumstances of social injustice, we can choose to take the 8 limbs of yoga as teachings that are meant to evolve in their interpretation and bring justice and dignity to those practicing yoga.

That means that the yamas and niyamas are necessarily interpreted and practiced differently by different people, based off of their unique privileges and disadvantages.

At times, our practice may be watching our thoughts and judgements, sitting with discomfort, and focusing on what we’re grateful for, all with the intention of showing up in the world more peacefully and generously. However, when we’re facing oppression, sitting with abuse and quietly noticing without reacting doesn’t sound like justice or the most discerning interpretation of yoga. It is not the work of the oppressed to be grateful but, rather, ungrateful so they continue to demand change— as Susan B. Anthony said: “Gratitude never radicalized anybody.” Anger and even violence can be used as a means to fundamentally change an unjust system. In today’s evolution and interpretation of yogic philosophy, I sure as hell believe that your “practice” can look like being selfish, taking care of your needs, reacting with rage, protesting, and fighting for justice.

I invite you to reflect on your own experiences of privilege and oppression, and decide for yourself using discernment and intuition how your practice might look in order to truly serve you, our Earth, and her people.

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