I embody both the oppressed and the oppressor. There is a great deal of messiness there and also a great deal of possibility for both healing and for leading.With all its challenges, our collective reemergence from a global pandemic brings with it insights, wisdom, new ways to organize & connect, and for many of us, a deeper commitment to healing. Within our communities, many are awakening to the reality that dismantling systems of oppression is not only urgent & overdue but also an integral part of yoga practice. It’s an incredible time to be a practitioner, a space holder, a healer, and a Yoga Leader®.
As is true of every aspect of our practice, one size does not fit all when it comes to how we go about dismantling, reckoning, and building anew. Through collaboration or as solopreneurs, in small-scale local offerings and in global summits – there are many paths to practice and to lead.
The quantity of yoga & meditation offerings led by and for those whose social identities have been historically excluded from the white-cis-het-able-thin “mainstream” is such a welcome shift. Virtual offerings have created more access to training, practice communities, and voices. We have a long way to go, but the message is spreading: equity and inclusion are real goals, real paths, and each of us has a part to play.
As a mixed-race yoga teacher/practitioner/person, I’ve been navigating between BIPOC only spaces and what was normalized as “mainstream” spaces my whole life. While newer spaces may be intended to be safer for many, my mixed-race kin and I often step into these different-but-same environments that continue to cause harm. What follows are reflections on navigating the development of safer spaces over the past couple of years, invitations to pause and unpack internalized biases, and a promising path of leadership development to keep us moving forward toward collective liberation.
THE FLUIDITY OF RACE
Recently, I enrolled in a training course that centered social justice as a pillar of business for yoga teachers. The incredibly gifted instructor took ample time presenting the importance of explicitly sharing our social locations as yoga teachers:
as people who have chosen to lead by helping others along their paths of healing and spiritual growth, we don’t want to do harm
we want to support those who have been excluded from yoga communities by creating brave spaces through acknowledgment and vulnerability
we want to engage and invite our communities in to dismantle systems of oppression
as practitioners and as leaders, we keep engaging, we keep learning, we keep unlearning, and we model the practices that we teach
YES to all of that, right?
The instructor used an image adapted from Sylvia Duckworth’s “Wheel of Privilege and Power” to illustrate identity categories and intersectionality, naming where on the wheel they located their own privileges and disadvantages. When they landed on Race, they explained that although other categories could be fluid, their whiteness was constant. No matter how their location may shift in class, citizenship, age, gender, etc., “Race,” they said, “doesn’t change.”
But my experience as a mixed-race person is that Race is rather fluid.
My skin color changes pretty dramatically from season to season. When I enter a group space, I am assumed white, assumed Asian, assumed Latine, or just “ethnic” in a catch-all category of confusion that tries to combine my seasonal skin tone, eye shape, hair color, and body shape into a group that makes sense to the people around me. My Race, in the eyes of others, changes from time to time and place to place.
I’ll invite you for a moment to pause and reflect on your own interactions with mixed-race people. Have you ever asked these questions of someone or imposed these judgments on others?
“What are you?”
“You’re so exotic.”
“But, you’re not REALLY …”
“Really? I don’t see it.”
“Just pick one.”
Mixed-race people hear these questions and statements All. The. Time.
Over and over again, we are challenged to prove that we are Black-white-Brown-Asian-Native “enough,” sometimes by complete strangers, by studio owners, by students and clients, as if credentials are required to exist as we are in our own skin.* It’s harmful enough to hear these words from someone outside of our own ethnic/racial groups, but to hear it in “safer” spaces? Yes, that’s harmful, too. Erasure is harmful wherever it happens.
*To my immigrant, non-binary, and trans kin: I see you. Your experiences of the neither/both/and/enough existence nurture similar wisdom that fuels activism from within the mixed-race community. Please keep reading.
NAVIGATING BIPOC SPACES AS A MIXED-RACE YOGI
The rise of BIPOC only yoga/meditation/wellness spaces since 2020 is both welcome and triggering for me, and for many of my mixed-race kin.
As yoga teachers, we know that people step into our classes carrying a lifetime of experiences that may include individual/collective/ancestral trauma, mental illness, and many other chronic conditions that we can’t see readily. Still (anecdotally), many teachers around me still consider trauma-informed yoga to be a specialization.
There is great value in BIPOC leaders spotlighting trauma healing and rediscovering joy as core pillars of their offerings. It is right that white teachers step aside and defer to the expertise of teachers from the global majority. We must also be conscious of the burden or any implicit obligation that BIPOC teaches should curate their offerings under the banner of trauma healing at the exclusion of other specializations.
More teachers trained in trauma healing is a good thing. More teachers from the global majority is a good thing. With the intention of bringing more truths to our collective awakenings, I’ll invite another pause for us to recognize that for mixed-race yogis, those BIPOC spaces can be just as triggering as all-white/mostly-white/formerly “mainstream” spaces.
Why? Because we humans are hard-wired to search for safety. Our nervous systems are constantly scanning both the outer and inner environments to find cues of safety or danger. In American culture, racial solidarity is one very powerful cue of safety, so entering a space where you don’t see your racialized self reflected in the people around you can trigger anxiety, fear, and confusion. For mixed-race folks stepping into BIPOC-only spaces, this is what’s happening on the inside:
Will they recognize me as BIPOC?
Am I Black/Asian/Latine/Indigenous enough?
Will they call me out?
Will they kick me out?
Will they let me speak?
For mixed-race folks, stepping into BIPOC spaces can often feel like trading in one set of micro-aggressions for another. A hard truth: BIPOC leaders have some unlearning to do, too.
THE PATH FORWARD
I embody both the oppressed and the oppressor. There is a great deal of messiness there and also a great deal of possibility for both healing and for leading.
The social justice centered training I mentioned above was one of the safest spaces I have stepped into in ages, and not because it was populated by mixed-race kin. It wasn’t. It was, however, led by another who knows the neither/both/and/enough experience firsthand as a trans white person, and who has the courage to center that in their work, their words, and their teaching.
My experience (and those of the mixed-race kin I have been in dialog with), draws us toward a natural alliance between mixed-race and trans communities. People in each of these populations share the lived experiences of being categorized by appearance in ways that demand we erase the intersectional realities of how we exist in the world. I’m assumed white and given privileges or excluded based entirely on someone else’s visual perception of my skin tone. When I’m recognized as “ethnic” or “exotic” I am subject to a line of questioning that is othering, fetishizing, or a challenge to prove myself in some way. My trans kin are similarly questioned about whether they are “really” who they say they are.
WHAT WE KNOW
We know that uplifting the most oppressed among us, creating a world where they are safe, healthy, whole, and loved, is our work as yoga practitioners & teachers.
We know that the mixed race and trans communities include incredible diversity, and for some, privileges.
We know that coming together with people who might share one similar piece of our intersectional identities can be fertile ground for learning, healing, creativity, support, and expansion.
What I’ve learned through navigating the expanding safer spaces of the past few years is that being mixed-race allows me to invite vulnerability, learning, unlearning, and reckoning in safer spaces for people with *more* privilege than me. There is work to be done, and I’m here for it.
I’ve also learned that spaces for neither/both/and/enough people like me to be safe and whole need to be created. Binary thinking won’t get us there. Embracing the complexity of our intersectional identities to find new ways to work together, heal together, hold space for each other, might. Those of us in the in-between are out there in the world teaching and leading others toward individual and collective healing. We need spaces of refuge, too.
With gratitude for those who have contributed to my awakenings, and in solidarity with all who lead toward our collective healing.
NOTE: It’s been a while since I’ve put myself out there in words, but here’s a new blog post (link in bio) that I hope will spark new conversations of connection and healing, and open new paths of leadership for many.I write from a mixed race place, and I hope it rings true for many in other both/and/enough identity groups like immigrant & trans/non-binary people. We all have so much to offer from our unique intersectional constellations of privilege and rooted wisdom. Before you dive in, I must offer an apology: conditioning goes deep, and I was not mindful of my word choice in the title: “YOGI” 🙇🏻♀️ I am a yoga practitioner, a yoga teacher, and teacher trainer in the U.S. I’ve studied for years and am proud of the leader I have become. The title YOGI/YOGINI is one that is bestowed on someone of much more experience than I have, and the way that I have used it over the years is dismissive of that. I know better, but overlooked it in this instance. I apologize for the harm it does when I speak or act from a place that diminishes others that I would much rather uplift. I hope that South Asian teachers and practitioners who come across this blog post, especially those who are immigrants/diaspora and/or mixed race, might accept my apology and read the whole blog. There are connections to be made and I’m here for that 🙏🏼
This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.
By Jennifer Winther
A firm believer in practice as the path of joy, Jennifer Winther (she/her/Ph.D./E-RYT-500) leads yoga & meditation retreats and teacher trainings that center individual and collective healing. Jennifer is a mixed race Japanese, French, and Norwegian, cis-gender woman – 50-something – a breast cancer survivor and parent living in what is now known as Los Angeles. Her mission as a teacher is to help you build, find refuge, and stay engaged in, a practice that feels like home.
Connect with her through her website: https://jenniferwinther.com
Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay