• SAFER SPACES: Reflections of a Mixed Race Yoga Teacher

    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 

  • Thoughts on the Privilege of White Motherhood and Whether or Not We Are the Problem

    I am a white mother of black boys. This gives me a certain perspective in the conversation of race. I have to be mindful and aware of my whiteness and at the same time I have a responsibility to their blackness. I am far from an expert, but I’d like to share some thoughts.


    I was recently sharing with someone close to me, a white mother of white children, the conversations I am having with my boys. We have been speaking about identity. How they see themselves with parents of different races and how the world sees them. It is important for them to know that even though they are of my body, a white body, the world will not see their whiteness, it will be much more comfortable identifying them by their darker skin. I have been working to empower them, telling them that who they are, regardless of other’s perspectives, is amazing and powerful and beautiful and that they matter.

    We have been talking about racism. They are aware of slavery, and segregation, and Martin Luther King Jr. and that his dreams are not yet realized. We have talked about the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of racists and the emotional and behavioral reactions to acts of racism. Do they understand it? Have they experienced it? What would it look like if they did? How would they react? How do they feel about it?

    When scenes of protests all across the nation show up on the TV screen we talk about them and why they are happening. We talk about current systems of oppression including the behaviors of some police officers and people in positions of power. My youngest looked at his father and cried “Daddy! Don’t go outside!” He was afraid for his dark skinned father, afraid the world would hurt him. So I took them to a protest, I took them to a rally, I took them to local events to show them that people are standing up, calling for, fighting for their equality, their futures. That it is good.

    This other mother, with tears in her eyes, asked “What can I do?” I took her question to be directed at me personally, my personal experiences, and I answered that there was nothing for her to do – they were my conversations to have. I was wrong. More on that later. More recently I was speaking to another dear friend, another white mother of white children, who was trying to understand the accusation that white people are the problem. She’s been observing anger, judgement, even hatred directed against white people by BIPOC, and she named it racism against white people. She mentioned that she didn’t want to have to have this conversation with her kids.

    It brought up so many thoughts for me. Her interest in sincerely examining the issues and her own involvement is what motivated me to write this. If you share a desire to understand, to know better and do better, please continue.

    First of all, racism involves an ideology of superiority/inferiority and includes, in fact depends on, a dynamic of power. If you don’t have the power, you cannot be racist. (massive discussion for another time) Judgement, anger, accusation, and hatred directed at white people by BIPOC is a reaction to the treatments that are systematized, institutionalized, and sanctioned by default and by the passive acceptance of the majority (white) population.

    More importantly, when you are the recipient of this type accusation, when you feel hated for being white, I suggest that you acknowledge the feeling, take it all the way into yourself, accept it, own it. How does it feel to have that energy directed at you because of our race, something you didn’t choose, maybe because of something you didn’t do and in fact don’t agree with yourself. You are not racist, yet you are hated. Your experience, briefly, in that one or those few instances, is a tiny drop compared to the ocean of experiences BIPOC have had for generations, hundreds of years. You are experiencing it for a moment. It is the reality of their existence and has been for far too long. That alone should inspire in you compassion for their struggle, and understanding of their pain, even their anger. If you are frustrated, fatigued, or angry about the conflict and tension of this time in society around the issue of race imagine how they must feel. You are tired of being targeted? They are freaking exhausted.

    A response of fear of the black lives matter movement, of black anger, of the protests is, at its root, an acknowledgement of the wrongs done to them, perhaps even a sense of guilt. “Will they do to us what we’ve done to them?” Again, a feeling worth unpacking for the insight it may give you into the experiences of BIPOC for the past five hundred years in this country.

    Own it all.

    Regarding whether or not we, simply by being white, are the problem. I say probably yes. You may not believe in racist ideologies, you may even recognize that most, if not all, systems in our society are set up to benefit the majority to the detriment of minorities. Participating in the status quo serves the maintaining of the status quo. If the status quo is racism and you are not actively working to dismantle it, then yes, you are the problem. As Angela Davis said, “It is not enough to be non-racist. You have to be antiracist.” There is also a book on the subject: How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. I recommend it.

    So what can white mothers of white children do? How can you participate in the dismantling and rebuilding of a society? Do the difficult, uncomfortable, unending work of identifying your own personal bias and deeply seated beliefs. Then, talk to your children just as I have to talk to mine, as all mothers of children of color have to talk to theirs. Recognize that not having to have these conversations with your children is your privilege. But if issues of racism matter to you, if black lives matter, if my children matter, not having them isn’t an option.

    To my dear friend who cried at the thought of the experiences my children may be having and will certainly have to have many times in their lives, your children shouldn’t be spared these difficult moments, these painful truths. It is your burden too, and theirs.

    Mothers of white children, talk to them so that it is as important an issue to them, their lives, and their future as it is to mine and to all black, indigenous, children of color. You, right now, are determining how your children will see mine, how they will treat them, and whether or not systems of racism will survive into the next generation. If it is not something they feel they have to deal with, they may choose not to, and these problems, this conflict, this pain and hatred will continue.

    We are all, as parents, on a journey of learning, and screwing up, and changing, and doing the best we can. Let this issue, that of inequality in our society, of racism, be an issue in your home, as it is, essentially, an issue in mine. You, mothers, are raising everyone’s future, not just that of your children but that of every BIPOC they come in contact with. Let your parenting be a part of your activism. Raise anti-racists.

    By Angelique Sandas

     

    Angelique Sandas is a lifelong student of movement and the interconnectedness of mind body and spirit. It began with gymnastics and dance, initiating her love of movement, the body’s natural way of expressing ideas, emotions, and experiences. Angelique received her B.A. in dance from the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1999. It was during these years that she was first introduced to yoga. In yoga, Angelique’s relationship with movement developed new depth and meaning. Movement became a path to profound inner transformation. She was inspired to share what she was learning and felt drawn to teach. In 2003, Angelique traveled to Thailand to study with Paul Dallaghan in the Ashtanga yoga system as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and received her teaching certification. She has also studied pranayama and yogic philosophy with Sri O.P. Tiwari of the Kaivalyadhama Institute, India and received advanced anatomy and adjustment training from David Keil. Until 2007, Angelique taught and practiced in Chicago. She then moved to Miami Beach where she worked closely in the Ashtanga method with her teacher and mentor Kino MacGregor as well as Tim Feldmann and Greg Nardi at Miami Life Center. Angelique ran the Mysore program at Shanti Yoga Shala in Philadelphia, PA in 2012 – 2013 and Delray Yoga Shala in Delray Beach, FL. 2014 – 2016. Currently, Angelique runs a Mysore program Ashtanga Yoga Palm Beach at Yoga Path Palm Beach in West Palm Beach, FL. She has had the opportunity to study with the Guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and continues her training with his grandson, Sri R. Sharath Jois, in Mysore, India. During her 2011 visit to study in Mysore, India, Angelique received Authorization to teach Ashtanga Yoga from Sri R. Sharath Jois. She remains a dedicated instructor and a devoted student of yoga, growing into the potential of the spirit through it’s physical expression.