xojane.com posted this story yesterday: It Happened to Me: There are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It. Unsurprisingly, the story attracted a lot of attention. This is my response.
I take my yoga seriously. This is not to say that I’m an evangelist, though I do think yoga is good for the soul (even if I don’t always fully understand why.) To be frank though, yoga is not for everyone, but neither is roller derby or softball or jogging. I’m certainly not here to tell you that yoga will allow you to stare fearlessly into the open face of God or cure cancer or make you look like Gwyenth Paltrow. All I can say is that it works for me. It helps me manage stress, it helps me to feel some peace with my body and mind, and it has taught me things about life that I haven’t been able to learn any other way.
Most importantly, yoga is full of paradoxes–root yourself to the earth and reach for the sky is a classic example. Its paradoxes bring the focus inward, which is a gift for me, as I struggle with focusing in a world full of easy distractions. This inward focus gets you to the core of being human: breath, movement, kindness to self and others.
So when I read this recent insanely myopic and (I’m hoping unintentionally) offensive article on XOJane, I felt compelled to add my two cents to the discussion. (Feel free to go read it first, and then, if you’re so compelled, the editor’s response to the resulting sh*tshow.) First of all, the XOJane writer is a kind of extreme threadjacker. She makes an event that ultimately had nothing to do with her, ALL about her–just like a sanctimonious mommy replying to a “Two funerals in one day–struggling to get through” status update with a “You think that’s hard, try spending every day with three kids under five!”
Plus Size Princess said it best though:
I mean, it would be
racist weird to say “OMG! You’re so big and black!” so instead she says “OMG! I’m so white and small.”
(Honestly, Plus Size Princess’s entire post is without a doubt richer and smarter than my response here, so though I’m going to keep going, you should probably just go read her response. And then read this: It Happened to Me: I Saw a White Person Buy Jerk Chicken and I Couldn’t Handle It.)
A good yoga study does nothing more really than foster a personal relationship between the practitioner’s mind and body. Your focus is encouraged to be on your present, on your inward lines of communication.
The XOJane writer fails to realize that other women’s bodies are not about her–they belong to those other women, just as my body belongs to me and the writer’s body is her own business. No one’s body is on display for you to learn something about yourself. My heart is not beating here to challenge you. My shape is not a learning opportunity.
To reduce another human being to her outward parts and your own self-assigned labels is racist and sexist and probably a whole lot of other offensive things too. The other woman in the writer’s yoga class–because indeed to the writer, this woman is so much an other that she gets assigned qualities that may or may not have to do with any reality at all–came to a yoga class. That’s all we really know. What happened next is all conjecture. Maybe this woman had a crappy day, maybe she just came from a funeral, maybe she had a sudden migraine, maybe she was hungover, maybe she just wanted to observe, maybe she was hurt, maybe she was just tired of the drama being played out around her, but we’ll never know because the writer projected her own assumptions on the situation. What evidence exactly is there that the woman was spewing “resentment and contempt” at the writer? Are the writer’s tears after class the proof?
Ultimately, to me, the writer’s projection, “If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible–I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me,” is stunning in its layers of assumptions. Is that the way to go about life? Assuming everyone around you would have the same responses as you would? Conversely, there’s also the total lack of generosity in this writer’s statement (if we believe the writer’s interpretation that this woman was suffering, then certainly to simply look away can’t possibly be the best course of action, can it?) Also, though this is particularly hard to articulate in writing–not looking implies not truly seeing, not truly listening, and cloaking the encounter in surface assumptions, rather than revealed truths.
At the end of the day, I propose that if the writer was truly concerned about another human being, she could be a human being herself and engage, rather than writing a blog post that reduces another human being to a vehicle for her own epiphany. Remember the paradoxes of yoga I talked about earlier? A big one is that the fostering of this inner dialogue allows you to see and listen more deeply to others. Yoga practice traditionally closes with “Namaste,” loosely translated as the light in me sees the light in you. The writer seems to have interpreted this as “the radiant guilt in me sees the sad, broken you.” That’s not a kind of seeing that has been fostered in any yoga class I’ve ever been to.
But, of course, you can’t see the light in a symbol, and therein lies one of the many problematic issues with the writer’s point of view. Ironically, I think she needs more yoga.