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A Black, Queer Girl Breaking from the White American Yoga Trade — The Revealer

(Jessamyn Stanley. Picture supply: Bobby Quillard and Jade Wilson)

In Jessamyn Stanley’s 2021 assortment of autobiographical essays, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, she remembers taking a category with a well-liked white yoga instructor in North Carolina and feeling uneasy. His arms had been tattooed with Sanskrit, the traditional Indo-European language of traditional yoga texts just like the Yoga Sutras. She discovered herself more and more uncomfortable as he inspired his college students to see themselves as a part of a South Asian lineage of Classical yoga.

Stanley’s first e-book, Each Physique Yoga, had simply come out. She had made a reputation for herself as a “fats, Black, queer yoga instructor in a predominantly skinny, White, and really straight yoga business.” And she or he was rising more and more uncomfortable with how white People—together with the tattooed man main this workshop—had taken up yoga.

Stanley discovered the braveness to boost her hand. She knew she would possible be the only dissenting voice within the room. When she had known as out cultural appropriation and the shortage of South Asian illustration in her earlier yoga instructor coaching, not one of the different trainees noticed it as an issue. Stanley advised the group she didn’t see herself as a Classical yoga practitioner. The instructor smirked, and advised her that if she didn’t really feel a connection to Classical yoga, it was as a result of she didn’t know sufficient in regards to the observe.

As Stanley writes in Yoke, “Classical yoga, the Vedas, and Sanskrit are rooted in South Asian tradition, with specific connective tissue in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, amongst many different faiths.” For her, the instructor’s method to yoga not solely appropriated South Asian traditions, it additionally erased Stanley’s Black American lineage: “it made me really feel as if I used to be being advised to steal another person’s cultural id and nullify my very own.”

When she walked out of the workshop, Stanley broke from what she calls the white American “yoga-industrial-complex.” For her, yoga within the U.S. is inextricably certain up within the nation’s historical past of racism, capitalism, and settler colonialism. In Yoke, she grapples with the contradictions of training a South Asian custom on U.S. soil, and she or he creates a non secular observe of yoga that’s uniquely her personal.


The title of Stanley’s e-book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, references two issues: 1) yoke, a Sanskrit phrase that connotes union, and a couple of) a typo in her first e-book. Following the publication of Each Physique Yoga, a reader wrote to tell her that “yoke” seems erroneously as “yolk,” conjuring photos of a runny egg relatively than divine union. This typo despatched Stanley right into a tailspin of self-doubt and insecurity. She questioned her legitimacy as a public voice in yoga, a comparatively new practitioner who rose to reputation as she chronicled her yoga poses on social media.

Stanley’s self-doubt resonated strongly with me. I used to carry out kirtan, a South Asian devotional musical custom. The band I labored with typically carried out in yoga studios and ashrams, main call-and-response Hindu devotional songs with primarily-white audiences. Like Stanley, I encountered many white yoga practitioners who took on Indian names, wore South Asian vogue like saris and bindis, and adopted India as a non secular homeland. And like Stanley, I felt insecure about my very own legitimacy to name consideration to the white entitlement that drives this habits (in my case, I’m half-Indian, born and raised within the U.S., and can’t neatly declare a “South Asian” id).

By claiming South Asian practices as their very own, Stanley argues, white People keep away from coping with the disgrace of their ancestors’ racist legacies. Moderately than argue that folks of shade ought to really feel as empowered as white individuals to undertake Classical yoga, Yoke contends {that a} deep observe of yoga can convey every of us nearer to our personal cultural and non secular traditions. Some Black yogis, for instance, observe Kemetic yoga, which traces its roots to Egypt. For Stanley, nevertheless, the observe of yoga has facilitated a course of of private reflection on her “very Black, very Southern, and exceedingly American” roots.

In Yoke, we study what this lineage means to Stanley. She is a third-generation Bahá’í who left the non secular custom when she got here out as queer and began to query the custom of celibacy earlier than marriage. Within the years that adopted, she carved out her personal non secular custom. Together with yoga and meditation, her amalgam of non secular touchstones has included tarot, marijuana, astrology, crystals, and the writings of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Gary Zukav, Don Miguel Ruiz, Henry David Thoreau, Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Kendrick Lamar, whose album good child, m.A.A.d metropolis is her favourite yoga soundtrack: “He and I don’t have the identical story, however in his genuine reality I hear my very own. And once I hear his music throughout my observe, I discover my manner again to myself.”


Stanley locates the issue of white yoga appropriation in American yoga’s hyper-focus on asana, or bodily postures. Anybody who has attended a yoga class within the U.S. is conversant in asana, which can embrace solar salutations, body-pretzeling twists, and head stands. American yoga lessons additionally usually contact on pranayama, or breathwork, although the main target is totally on asana. In Classical yoga, asana is finished in tandem with pranayama to arrange the physique for meditation.

The American yoga market’s give attention to asana has influenced Stanley’s profession as a yoga instructor. She presents an vital illustration for individuals who felt alienated in majority-thin, white, straight yoga lessons. And her bodily energy and dexterity encourage those that had been additionally attempting to observe yoga at residence, exterior the “yoga-industrial-complex.” Once I began following her account in 2016, I took screen-shots of her headstands as inspiration for my very own observe.

Stanley aspired to be on the quilt of Yoga Journal, one of many longest-running American yoga magazines. When she was invited to pose for the quilt, it taught her that Yoga Journal was truly a part of the “yoga-industrial-complex,” and her aim of being on the quilt was tied to her want for “mainstream acceptance (aka white acceptance).” In the long run, Yoga Journal ran two covers—one that includes Stanley, the opposite that includes skinny, light-skinned Yoga Works founder Maty Ezraty. Stanley felt her physique had been tokenized, and that the journal had run a double-cover as a result of they had been fearful hers wouldn’t promote.

Stanley sees these areas of profit-driven hyper-visibility—from Instagram to Yoga Journal—as contradicting the deeper non secular classes of yoga: to transcend thoughts/physique dualism on a path in direction of non secular enlightenment. Transcending thoughts/physique dualism, for Stanley, means letting go of how the world encourages us to see ourselves. “Who’re we,” she asks us, “when our definitions of who we’re fall away?” Stanley refers back to the yogic sense of selfhood as a “delicate physique” that encompasses our full, non secular selves. In different phrases, yoga might help us join with a way of selfhood that’s not certain by worldly definition.

For Stanley, accessing the “delicate physique” has helped her heal from trauma. In Yoke, she bravely chronicles experiences with sexual assault, and the way meditation has allowed her to really feel a troublesome vary of feelings: “my disgrace and my anger and my disappointment and my frustration and my guilt and my malice and my vindictiveness and my hatred and my bloodlust and my grief.”

Sadly, within the “yoga-industrial-complex,” Stanley argues that this non secular sense of selfhood turns into a device to keep away from troublesome questions on oppression. If our definitions of who we’re fall away, then what occurs to race, class, gender, sexuality, means, and measurement? Stanley’s writing reminds us that the rhetoric of connection and non secular transcendence in American yoga studios too typically masks the straightness, whiteness, and gender normativity of those areas.


The context of the “yoga-industrial-complex” shapes not solely how Black yoga practitioners interface with white American yoga areas, but additionally how Black and South Asian individuals have interaction one another round questions of cultural appropriation and social justice.

In Yoke, Stanley recounts taking part on a panel on cultural appropriation alongside a South Asian DJ who blends bhangra and hip hop. Stanley was ready for the DJ to accuse her of cultural appropriating yoga from its South Asian roots. As a substitute, the dialog was a generative one, and it led Stanley to replicate on how each Black and South Asian persons are “completely affected by our collective historical past of white supremacy.”

Debates about yoga in recent times have centered not solely on white supremacy, but additionally on the function of yoga in upholding caste discrimination. For instance, on the top of the summer season 2020 anti-racist protests, I joined a march in New York Metropolis and walked alongside a Black abolitionist activist. She recounted how her group had tried to make yoga mats and lessons accessible to incarcerated girls. South Asian activists criticized the Black and Latinx organizers and drew consideration to yoga’s complicity in caste and spiritual oppression in South Asia.

In recent times, the ruling Hindu get together in India has taken up yoga as a approach to push for international legitimacy by means of celebrations like “Worldwide Yoga Day,” which was formally adopted by the United Nations in 2015. South Asian organizers have drawn consideration to the truth that dominant-caste Brahmins claim Sanskrit as a holy language that shouldn’t be spoken by these in marginalized castes. The language’s widespread use in white yoga areas is thus not solely cultural appropriation, but additionally a replication of caste oppression.

This South Asian activism has formed Stanley’s perspective on Sanskrit, even for the reason that e-book’s launch. In Yoke, she argues that we should always “Respect the books. . . . Respect the historical past of Sanskrit. Respect South Asian tradition.” Nonetheless, in an interview following the e-book’s publication, she stories grappling with the language: “Sanskrit has been utilized in South Asia to regulate individuals and that it has develop into this entire subject of sophistication and caste. It’s so deeply wrapped up in South Asian heritage and tradition.”

The individuals who have pushed Stanley to rethink the politics of Sanskrit have finished so out of an consciousness of the financial hyperlinks between the best way yoga impacts marginalized individuals in each the U.S. and India. Yoga studios are sometimes harbingers of gentrification that displace working-class and communities of shade within the U.S. Likewise, in India, the federal government expropriates land from indigenous peoples for yogic leaders. The “yoga-industrial-complex,” in different phrases, is a transnational phenomenon that extends past American yoga.


Along with better consciousness of yoga’s function in sustaining methods of marginalization, Stanley’s future writing may additionally have interaction extra carefully with allegations of sexual assault leveled at her major reference level for yogic philosophy, Swami Satchidananda. Quotes from his translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali precede every of her chapters. Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Satchidananda traveled to New York within the Nineteen Sixties and based his first yoga studio within the U.S. in 1970. He was opening speaker on the Woodstock Music and Arts Pageant in 1969 and performed a central function in popularizing yoga within the U.S. Stanley may lengthen her vital reckoning with the #MeToo motion to interact with South Asian yogic leaders, lots of whom have profited from the “yoga-industrial-complex.”

Yoke presents a helpful framework for holding these troublesome truths in tandem. By sharing the battle to see herself entire–trauma, contradictions, and insecurities included–Stanley invitations us not solely to do the identical with our personal selves, however with yoga itself. In future writing, she has a chance to increase her critique of the “yoga-industrial-complex” to the difficult transnational contexts that yoga inhabits.


Vani Kannan is an assistant professor of English at Lehman School, CUNY.

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