Incorporating Social Justice into Yoga Teaching

A reflection on this past Wednesday’s class. 

I was really wrapped up emotionally and intellectually trying to understand the decision made regarding the Jamar Clark case, announced earlier that day. With no hard evidence that conclusively supports one account, left with eyewitness testimony from police and eyewitness testimony from residents, two accounts that do not corroborate one another, it’s impossible to know what actually happened. Nevertheless, I saw my Facebook and Twitter feeds literally turning into flame wars, divided very strongly on color lines. And while I don’t agree with a legal analysis that ignores the accounts of residents, I don’t pretend that someone in Freeman’s position can think about things the same way that an ordinary citizen can. For the media to call limited information “facts” and to say that the citizens who don’t agree are “deaf to facts”, when there are no conclusive facts is problematic. In the midst of that, I was scheduled to talk to a room of other adults about mindfulness, compassion, and breath. 

And regardless of opinions on the case, the issues of police brutality, systemic racism, tensions around race, income inequality and the difficulties in communication don’t go away either. Knowing that evening I was teaching yoga, I wanted to remind students that all the people we meet, regardless of our beliefs share the same humanity, seek the same things, are headed to the same place as we are, if on different roads. I wanted to discuss social justice, how we all share humanity, how we all want the same things, and how we have thoughts colored by our own experiences and beliefs. But then I fell short. I didn’t feel comfortable; representing my teacher training program at a sponsored program through the parks, not representing myself as an independent contractor. As a black man who had to transmute my emotions to focus on work all day and then show up to teach a room full of white people whose belief systems I don’t know, my capacity to engage in such discussion was limited. I instead guided the best alignment-based class I could and tried to give my students a place to laugh, sweat and relax.

As a yoga teacher, what is my responsibility? What is my role? What can I do? How do I discuss the ills of the world today without being preachy? How do I challenge my students to wake up to these issues without arguing for a certain point of view? And as a black man myself, how can I approach this effectively knowing that the majority of my students will not be of the same race, and even if they are, will have different experiences? I don’t want to persuade students to think about certain things. But I also don’t want to hide; to pretend that things aren’t the way they are in the world, or that we as yogis can live in willful ignorance of them. How do we learn to stand in the world of “I don’t know” and uncertainty? And perhaps that is the main thing here; when we retreat to our practice, when we don’t address the social issues around us, is that avidya? The house is on fire and we move into trikonasana. Is that effective? Does that put the fire out? Or are these hard, tense times the times when our practice calls us to be present?