It’s More Than Kindness

June 22, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

I discovered yoga at the age of eleven. A family friend, lovingly referred to as ‘Nana,’ would have me at her home while my mom went to work during the summer. We would push all of the furniture in her living room to the walls and put an old VHS tape into the VCR to follow the instruction of two blonde Swedish women through a series of breath techniques, postures, and guided meditation.

When I was in 8 th grade, my English literature teacher at the Arts school I was privileged enough to attend, assigned everyone a project to envision their future self and then give a presentation to class embodying their vision of who they wanted to be. Several students created famous versions of themselves as Broadway stars, Disney On Ice characters, and best-selling authors. For my presentation, I dressed up in a slightly exotic outfit and introduced myself to my class as a yoga teacher. While the presentation overall was fun, I will never forget the dark-skinned girl in the back of the room who raised her hand and asked me, with a look of disgust on her face, “Have you ever even been to India?” I understood enough to feel ashamed that day, but I didn’t understand why.

Fast forward 20 years, and I have in fact made a career as a yoga teacher—and more importantly, yes—I’ve been to India, and I understand now why that girl was so frustrated with my presentation.

Over these last weeks, we’ve witnessed incredible civil rights uprisings and responses of genuine change to dismantle systemic racism. It’s been amazing to watch. It’s also been illuminating to see how some individuals and institutions are struggling to find appropriate action. The yoga industry specifically has seen a distinct lack of leadership on this issue.

A friend and mentor in the local yoga community wrote this in response to the closing of Kindness Yoga studios in Denver this week. While I never worked for Kindness in any capacity, and probably only practiced there once or twice—I feel compelled to point out that this is a larger issue than one yoga company. Yes, there were some specific and significant problems for many BIPOC in the Kindness yoga community that needed to be addressed, however, these issues are not isolated to one business.

As a former CorePower Yoga employee, I know that I witnessed numerous micro-aggressions towards BIPOC over the time I worked for what was (at least before the pandemic) the largest employer of yoga teachers in the world. As a manager I watched other managers dismiss and degrade BIPOC students and employees, while validating their abuse by stating the offending BIPOC just didn’t demonstrate the right “attitude of gratitude,” the company’s first core value. I was complicit in my own way by not speaking against it, out of fear of losing my own job—that as a single mother, I desperately relied on. In many ways, my loyalty to the company was based on a sense of owing my life to it. In the years before I became a yoga teacher, my life was in a difficult place and I felt there were no options or opportunities open to me. There was a yoga for trade program that allowed me to clean the yoga studio and in return have unlimited, free access to yoga classes. As a member of this yoga for trade program, I was eligible for a 50% discount on the yoga teacher training program I signed up for, that gave me basic income during a time when I couldn’t afford childcare in order to work a standard job. When I left my son’s father and needed full time work in order to put a roof over our heads, CorePower Yoga was there with the option to teach part time and work in the call center part time—and then later offered me a salaried manager position with health insurance benefits for me and my child. In truth, I don’t know how else I would have survived if those opportunities hadn’t been available. However, over the years I watched those same opportunities that had been there for me when I needed them, slowly be removed, and replaced with less options and less accessibility. The yoga for trade program became a paid position that made one eligible for a discounted monthly membership, instead of being free. The teacher training discount that was offered to anyone in that paid position went from being 50% to only 20%. Anyone today in the position that I was in 10 years ago would not be able to have the same experience—no matter how much they “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,” because it wasn’t my merit or exceptionalism that got me where I was before the pandemic, it was privilege. Privilege put me in a position to decide who was or wasn’t qualified to teach yoga in the studio I managed. Privilege put me on a pedestal as a kind of expert on the history and philosophy of yoga. Over the 5 years that I was a manager, I facilitated the history and philosophy of yoga lecture over a dozen times in yoga teacher trainings. While I did my best to study and deepen my knowledge on the subject, ultimately I was handed a pre-written outline and slides that supposedly contained all the information needed to deliver the content. To anyone who received that lecture from me—I offer here my most sincere apologies, because you deserved better than the white-washed, colonized history I presented to you.

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My trip to India where I attended the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh in 2019 brought into focus so many of these issues. I watched the locals in their sacred rituals and ceremonies, understanding more than my traveling companions because of my experiences with Hinduism—and I watched the white tourists observing the same rituals and ceremonies with no understanding of what they were seeing or what it meant. I observed American yoga teachers offer lectures and workshops with an attitude of egoism that felt completely inappropriate and out of place, while Southeast Asian teachers offered lectures and workshops with utmost humility and grace.

In January of this year I went back to school to finish the bachelor’s degree I’d walked away from in 2009. I took an ethnomusicology course on Hindustani music—the classical music of North India, an advanced seminar on kathak dance—a classical dance tradition from North India, a human geography course, and for one credit hour of independent study in order to receive the scholarship I needed—I wrote a forty page paper titled Music in Modern Yoga Culture. This paper became the culmination of my music and anthropology studies and the incorporation of my experiences in modern yoga culture. It was through the course of these studies that I began to deeply question what I thought I knew about yoga. The question of how music is used in modern yoga, what types of music, how yoga teachers learn about chanting and mantra, and the impact it has on practitioners uncovered so many more questions than answers. The biggest question I still have is: where is the line between artistic license and cultural appropriation?

After CorePower Yoga closed it’s doors in mid-March due to COVID-19, a friend recommended the podcast Yoga Is Dead, which highlights the underlying racism, cultural appropriation, and exploitation in American yoga. I felt like my own observations were finally being validated and that I wasn’t crazy for thinking these were significant problems. These issues are bigger than any one yoga studio. It’s the entire industry—the billion-dollar yoga fitness industry that runs on the appropriation of an indigenous cultural practice from the people of India.

And while there are some efforts being made to attempt addressing the lack of diversity in the yoga community, there is yet to be a public acknowledgement of the systemic problems by the “leaders” of the industry.

CorePower Yoga has sent a couple of emails to their community but has made no public statement available on their website. In an email message from the CEO, I was informed of the company’s offer of 300 full scholarships to BIPOC for their upcoming Online Yoga Teacher Training—but no indication of altering the training itself to include a decolonized history of yoga, or intention of hiring an expert of Southeast Asian heritage to facilitate that content. There was acknowledgement of a need to work with a “reputable diversity and inclusion expert” but no mention of who that expert will be, even though they had on their Studio Manager team a prime candidate who advocated for the position and even spent unpaid time creating a diversity training presentation for the company. The same email message mentioned working with Black Yoga Teachers Alliance “to become collectively more accessible and inclusive for the good of our industry,” which brings home the point that systemic racism in yoga is bigger than one yoga company.

For readers that aren’t yoga professionals, the yoga industry in America as a whole, generally defers to an organization called Yoga Alliance to set the standards and requirements for yoga teachers and yoga schools. My own credentials in my bio are registered through Yoga Alliance, credentials that I pay an annual renewal fee to keep current. The very fact that there is a separate organization to support and endorse yoga teachers of color should be all that needs to be said here to point out the glaring problems within the industry. To learn more about the history of Yoga Alliance and how the yoga industry became so entrenched in the for-profit appropriation of yoga, I highly recommend the last episode of the Yoga is Dead podcast 200 Hours Killed Yoga.

In coming to the realization that my conscience will no longer allow me to be complicit and endorse such behaviors I have decided that I cannot return to CorePower Yoga in any capacity without these issues being genuinely resolved. I don’t believe at this time that my credentials from Yoga Alliance are worth the renewal fee. Honestly, beyond grappling with my relationship to my former employer and Yoga Alliance, I can’t reconcile if it’s appropriate for me to teach yoga at all when I can’t even bring myself to practice. My yoga mat that has held me, caught me when I stumbled, nursed me through injury and heartache for over a decade now feels like a cold, foreign, & uninviting landscape. I find no peace there, and most importantly—I can’t breathe.

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