The Yoga of Anti-Racism Work

This afternoon I co-facilitated an Anti-Racist Yoga Convergence with Michelle Johnson, a woman of color yoga teacher and friend/co-conspirator.  As a white woman, a yoga teacher, and someone with a long-standing commitment to the practice of anti-racism, I felt like it was high time (past time in fact) to bring together these two wisdom streams of yoga and anti-racism in an intentional way in my own community; and particularly to speak to the communities of yoga in my area, some of which are, in my experience, predominantly white.

I authored the following comments in preparation for that space; most of it will be relevant to any interested reader even if they were not in the space with us. I could spend a lot of time trying to “perfect” these comments, but I think they are good enough, and succeed in communicating a lot of what I am meditating on right now re how yoga can support us in anti-racist, and all other, movement work.

Please note that I am heavily influenced in this writing by the work of Reverend angel Kyodo williams and her discussions of her new book Radical Dharma.  I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve just ordered copies for me and Michelle.  Everything I have seen and heard from Rev. angel is incredible. 

One final note: The HUGE turnout at this event showed us that this work is indeed of interest to others; we are planning a few more in the coming weeks throughout the Triangle area of North Carolina.  Follow Liberation Healing Arts on Facebook to stay tuned.  And if you’re interested in a deeper dive into trauma-informed yoga + social justice + self-care work, consider joining Michelle and me at our next 2-part retreat, Radical Listening, Radical Love.

Premise and Goals of the Space

There is power in truth-telling.  In being in the presence of those who are daring to speak truth.

There is power in collective/community/satsang/sangha/kula.  In keeping the company of like hearts, and kindred spirits in this journey.

There is power in listening.  In noticing what stirs inside you and around you as someone’s truth is spoken.

Incompleteness. Non-closure. This work is never done.  A practice and a process. We will not finish anything today.  But we hope to start, to continue building with each other.

Trauma-Informed.  Rooted in a desire to protect from further harm those who are living daily with the pain of being targeted by systemic oppression such as racism. Balancing that desire to protect with a desire to provoke/to stir/to activate/to call in and call forth those of us who have the privilege of choosing whether and when to engage in this work.

“Can you imagine a world without racism? What would that world look like? What would you give to make that world possible? Better yet, what would you give up to make that world possible?” – Pedro S Silva II, Bending Racism with Your Mind

The practices of yoga remind us of our natural state: that we are awake and alive with vitality, yet calm and peaceful.  Rooted.  They give us the opportunity to access the vitality – literally the LIFE FORCE – that is flowing through us all the time.  These tools support us in learning to go with the flow…the flow of our own inner wisdom, and ultimately of the Greater Energy as a Whole.

We have pulled together today a range of folks – folks new to the study/practice of yoga, and folks who are long-time practitioners and many teachers of yoga.  Likewise there are those who are new to the conversation and work of anti-racism, those who have been in it longer, and those whose lives have always been directly impacted by racism and white supremacy because of the ways their identities/lives/lived experiences have been racialized and therefore targeted.  There is in this room a broad range of “expertise” across both these two very crucial components we’re pulling together: yoga and anti-racism.  And then, there is the reality that each of us is the expert in our own life and our own experience.

In the practice of yoga, we seek to learn how to trust the parts of ourselves that we have been silencing and marginalizing for so long…to trust the wisdom of those parts, to quiet the louder parts down so the silenced ones can be heard.  To bring compassionate curiosity and a steadfast devotion to the practice of deep, radical, listening.

The same is true in our communities: we must learn to trust and believe, to suspend judgment, to bring compassionate curiosity to our conversations with those who identify as part of the communities that are historically silenced and marginalized, dismissed and distrusted.  Those of us who hold positions of power within systems of oppression must learn to be quiet, to listen, to trust the wisdom of those parts of our communities who are too often drowned out by the dominant voices that take up space.

It is beyond the scope of this space for us to delve deeply into the concepts of the racial construct, or even too deeply into unpacking what we mean by the terms “racism” or “white supremacy culture.”  There are many spaces to support you in that work, and we will be making some of those resources available towards the end of our time together today. We sincerely hope you commit to continuing the exploration. [Reader: see the bottom of this post for resources.]

As I am a white person, I want to note that my comments are directed, first and foremost, at the other white people in this room, all those who benefit (consciously or unconsciously) from racism and white supremacy in this country.  What I want to focus on today is the reality of white supremacy—and patriarchy, its intimate bedfellow—and what those realities do to us. To all of us.  What they require of us.  I want to turn on its head the idea that structural racism and white supremacy are black people’s problems, or brown people’s problems.  No.  They are everyone’s problems.  And they are especially white people’s problem.  White people’s responsibility.   These are both legacies and current lived realities that are our burden to examine and to understand…in order to dismantle and deconstruct.

In order for us to really embody the reality That This Is Our Work, to move it from something that we resist and grapple with in the mind to something that we believe wholeheartedly…we must be willing to be brutally honest with ourselves about what this reality is.  We must embrace satya, the yogic principle of truth, in being willing to really and truly sit with that.

What is the true cost of white supremacy?

White people have to trade our humanity for access to the so-called benefits of the system.  We embrace crippling levels of self-censorship, tolerate toxic levels of disconnection from our whole selves, from each other, from the Greater Energy in order to tow the line in a racist and white supremacist society.

We are all basically good and basically kind, says Rev angel Kyodo williams.  She reminds us that what we are seeing is the anxiety of the conditioning that we’ve been forced to tolerate. The cognitive dissonance that emerges when the truth of our nature—connection, wholeness, union—is systematically denied to us and to our kindred people and to all people.

We are seeing the natural responses to unnatural conditions.

We as humans simply cannot tolerate…cannot survive…disconnection from Source.

We can see this ever more clearly in the ways that our internal systems are imploding, through self-sabotage, addiction, auto-immune disorders, increasing rates of anxiety and depression, and higher levels of prescription drug use and abuse.   In the ways our family systems are compromised and fragmented by the increasingly high toll of historic and inter-generational trauma.  In the ways that our political structures and institutions are breaking down under the burden of death and destruction they have fomented and fueled for centuries.

Pause. Feel.  Notice what is happening within you.
Notice what is happening around you.

Let yourself really feel, even for a moment, the enormity of this legacy of pain and suffering, of exploitation and harm, of isolation and despair.

Most spiritual traditions teach us that we cannot get around the darkness of these moments, or the depths of our despair.  We simply cannot bypass them.  Enter the tools and traditions of yoga.  These wisdom streams offer us the opportunity not to tune out, but to tune in.  Not to check out, but to check in.

Through the physical practice of yoga, we are afforded the opportunity to experience FIRST-HAND the reality that we can in fact survive this pain we’ve been avoiding.  We can do it.  We can make it.  We have tools.

First and foremost we have the breath.  [My co-facilitator] Michelle says that breathing is radical, because it reminds us of the absolute truth of who we are.  Whole. Complete, connected.  In utter union and radical intimacy with the Divine.

Pause for a moment.  Right now.

If it feels safe to, close your eyes and notice again what is happening in your being.  Notice your breath, how it flows.  Hold space for the physical sensations in your body.  For your emotions.  For your thoughts.  Place a hand on your heart and breath Right. Into. This. Space.  Connection.


What yoga teaches in the moments of intensity – in which we have been conditioned towards fight/flight/freeze – is not only that we can make it.  Not only can we survive the intensity of emotion (energy in motion) of life force as it flows through us.  No, we don’t just survive that.  We become more fully whole and free when we move through the resistance and the fear.  We get to be more of who we are, Rev williams says.   We reclaim our dignity, our inherent worth, our birthright. We remember.

Through practicing this, over and over, we become less bound by relative realities, less beholden to external influences…we become more and more the keepers of our own destinies.  And in so doing, we pave the way for the reformation and transformation that can only come after deconstruction and dissolution.  What yogis call kali yug.  The period of destruction and dissolution.  The great undoing.  Many say we are in that period now, and it is intensifying.

Spiritual Practice of Creative Disobedience

One of the primary tools of white supremacy and patriarchy is the emphasis on obedience. We are trained (forced) from such a young age to obey the social norms, to uphold the racialized caste system in this country.  And that training is reinforced through repression for those who dare to call it out, who dare to challenge it.  Who risk disobedience.

But that is exactly what we must learn, to be disobedient.  A practice of challenging the status quo and experimenting with creative responses.  We must learn to withdraw our consent from these external and internal structures which bind and separate us from parts of ourselves, from parts of our whole human family.  And we must, we must, recognize that disobedience looks different for every person, in every moment.  And especially depending on one’s racial identity.  The tools of yoga can help us with this as well: as we continue to breath in the midst of the unfamiliar territory of a new pose we’ve never before attempted, as we see those around us doing their best, taking risks, expanding their horizons, exploring their full range of motion, we too learn that it is possible to do things a different way.  To be creatively disobedient against our own well-worn patterns, what the yogis call samskaras.

Yoga philosophy tells us that the body is the mind crystallized.  That means, in the practice, every time we resist the emotions that we fear feeling, we encourage the body to be rigid and fear-filled.  Each time less flexible.  Each time more invested in the status quo, in things as they are.  Obedient to the logic of oppression.

This is also true in conversations around racism and white supremacy.  In which white people, myself included, have been so coddled and conditioned to the invisibility of this reality that we bristle, recoil, and retract when it is shown to us.  We say that we feel unsafe.

In some ways this is understandable.  The very fabric of our identities and what we cling too is indeed jeopardized when we become willing to examine that reality more closely (or feel forced to do so).  But what might be more accurate is to say that we feel uncomfortable. By definition, being asked to see something which we’ve been conditioned not to see-and in which we are implicated-takes us out of our comfort zones, into the zone of discomfort, the only zone in which change and transformation can truly occur.  The space of possibility.

Here again we can draw on the tools of yoga to support us in moving beyond the fight/flight/freeze tendencies that we’re preconditioned to.  Using the breath and our intention and the loving support of our satsang, our sangha, our community…to support us in Not Backing Away (flight)…Not plowing through (fight)…and not checking out (freeze).    

We will need the lessons of yoga in this work, including the ways we learn to lean in and put down deep roots, to anchor ourselves in what we know to be true in order that we feel rooted in that Truth and resourced by its depth in the face of conflict.

For in this work of dismantling the deeply entrenched legacies of racism and white supremacy, there will be conflict.  There will be disharmony and discord.  This is not the kumbaya path.  Reverend angel reminds us that, the absolute truth of all things is that we are All One.  All utterly connected.  That part is true.  But in the relative world, it is black people who are dying.  There will be those who say, out of their own fear, that all lives matter.  And we will have to dig deeply in our toolkits to know how to lean into that conflict.  To not back away, nor to plough through/past/over that person…that part of all us who is clearly very, very afraid. And certainly not to check out, to abdicate responsibility for that which is ours to dismantle.

In contrast, when we practice living into the fullness and complexity of our own experience, we practice freedom.  We make it that much more likely that freedom and fullness will manifest next time.  We literally practice accessing the Higher Mind, keeping the company of the highest parts of ourselves, and the wisdom streams that we need to get ourselves beneath and beyond this quagmire.  Into the space of possibility.

Yoga practices also offer us the opportunity to experience, first hand, how engaging in this work of reclaiming our lives and our dignity, reconnecting with our true nature and with each other in genuine ways is itself, by definition, life-giving.  When we are engaging in a challenging yoga class with (local teachers) Mira or Michelle, or Rachel or Sarah or Lindsey, we are given the opportunity to observe how intentional, consistent, honest engagement in the practice brings us more vitality.  This is exactly the same principle that allows us to feel MORE ALIVE, get more freedom, cultivate true and intimate connection with ourselves and others in the midst of working for collective liberation.

That is also why yoga is, in part, a radical practice of self-care.  Because self-care, Rev angel tells us, is anything that develops our capacity for resilience.  Anything that softens the blow of oppression in ways that are life-giving.  Anything that insulates us without isolating us. From ourselves or each other.  Anything that helps us keep showing up wholeheartedly and with humility and devotion.  This is one of the many many gifts that a consistent yoga/spiritual practice can offer us.

“What do you have to leave behind in order to move towards freedom?
What are you bringing with you? Bringing forward?” – Rev. angel

The path of the yogi is a path of self-inquiry.  Offering us endless opportunities to become ever-more-intimate with our true nature, our highest selves.  And endless tools with which to do so.   I know I am asking a lot of you today, we are asking of a lot of you, in showing up here and engaging wholeheartedly in the conversation.

But we’re doing that for a few key reasons: first, you got yourself here, so there is something about this space that spoke to you, and thus we want to speak to that highest part of you, which is longing for something different, something deeper, some more authentic way of being in relationship with yourself and your kindred.

Additionally, many of you are regular practitioners of yoga.  You already have a practice of cultivating self-inquiry, of sitting with the fullness and complexity of the moment, of compassionate witness.  You already have an understanding that this is yoga practice, not yoga perfect.  That there is no destination, but the journey is worthwhile nonetheless.  So we are asking more of you because we believe that you are already equipped with some of the tools that are needed to stay in this work.  And we believe that we can sharpen and hone those tools the more we use them.

We are so glad you are here, and we invite you to bring your whole selves to this space and this work.  Anything less than that will not get us where we desperately need to go. Anything less and we will be missing some crucial component, some essential piece.

You are a unique contribution to the workings of the Universe.  And you—in all your complexity and sense of fragmentation and isolation—are desperately needed at this crucial time.

An incomplete list of resources – again, I could be here forever trying to perfect this, and never get it all. I hope it’s a start.

Co-written by one of my local White Anti-Racist Elders, Tema Okun

Short video from Chris Crass (more below on him) on cultivating courage for white folks showing up for black lives. Part of the #practiceshowingup effort.

DR works training

These have helped many white folks get a better understanding of things such as the racial construct, structural racism, and white supremacy culture.  Trust me: the best two days/$$ you will spend.  Michelle is a co-trainer.  The next two-day intro training is Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22.  These workshops do fill up, sign up here.

Free ebook – Chris Crass, Towards the “Other America.”
Towards the “Other America”: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter is a call to action to end white silence and a manual on how to do it. In addition to his own soul-searching essays and practical organizing advice in his “notes to activists,” Chris Crass lifts up the voices of longtime white anti-racist leaders organizing in white communities for Black Lives Matter.I can’t breathe until everyone can breathe
Converting Hidden Spiritual Racism into Sacred Activism: An Open Letter to Spiritual White Folks.
Longer article (full disclosure, I haven’t read it all) exploring the ways that “spiritual communities” can be causing harm and (un)consciously perpetuating racism.  Some food for thought.
Other sites which sometimes offer anti-racism and intersectional analysis include Yes Magazine, Everyday Feminism and On Being – especially this recent article.

About bienestarte

Patty Adams is a bilingual clinical social worker, as well as an experienced yoga teacher and anti-oppression trainer. She is devoted to intersectional organizing, liberation, holistic healing arts, and wellness.
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1 Response to The Yoga of Anti-Racism Work

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Patty, this is really, really beautiful – thank you. I wish I could have come to the workshop this weekend! Have you ever read/heard of the book The Dreaded Comparison, by Marjorie Spiegel? It’s about the parallels between the treatment of animals and the treatment of oppressed human groups – specifically, blacks in America. It’s a really tough book to read, but when I read it for the first time about 10 years ago, it radically changed my perspective on a lot of things, and convinced me of how important it is to see the treatment of animals as deeply relevant to the treatment of humans (and maybe even non-negotiably essential to real, sustainable, at-the-root-of-it change). I’ve started to read it again in the past few weeks in light of all that has been going on, and you keep coming to mind as someone who might appreciate it.


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