I’m sure like you, I have been navigating this deeper reckoning of our collective racist history and what I can do for our collective good. I certainly have more questions than answers, but I do know that when yoga is practiced with sincerity it is an offering, a heartfelt desire to transform ourselves into love machines for the good of all being everywhere.
Yoga is a predominantly white experience in America and, like so many others in our country, this racial disparity warrants thoughtfulness and action, but for now I wanted to speak about how the practice itself can be helpful in addressing racism. It is commonly accepted that yoga helps calm and rejuvenate our nervous systems. It can be a wonderful grounding tool to know how to stay embodied and present while we go through a turbulence of emotions and experiences. But yoga is much more than a resource. There is a deeper teaching on how yoga can work on a transformative level. While not an explicit call to social activism, yoga supports our individual inner evolution. This inner evolution is necessary to transform our thinking, interactions and to fuel wise equitable action.
In the traditional 8 limbs system of yoga the second limb Niyama, has to do with our relationship to ourselves. The Niyama limb has 5 branches that are like the quality controls for self-governance. These 5 branches are: Saucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (disciplined effort), Svadhyaya (self-inquiry) and Ishvarapranidhana (devotion to higher consciousness.) They encompass attributes to aspire towards and that ultimately support the evolution to our highest good.
The second branch Svadhyaya has particular relevance in this context. Svādhyāya means to intentionally turn our attention inwards and study our thinking, emotions and physical sensations. It is not analysis or a scientific study, but rather an intention to curiously view the inner dynamics of our thought patterns and how they relate to our emotions and bodily experience. When these, usually subconscious, thoughts are brought out into the open with awareness, we can see our conditioning.
We have all been conditioned by our culture, families, and geographical environment and therefore have racist thoughts. Even if we grew up in a household of civil rights activists, there would still be an influence of media, friends, education, etc on our thinking– creating prejudice and bias. This is not shameful. It is equivalent to any of the impressions that have been laid down on our neural thinking tracks, like growing up in an earlier era and thinking the world is flat (scientists had to step out of their conditioned reality and literally widen the lens to see the truth of our earth planet) or the judging statements our inner voice makes based on the messaging we received growing up. The inner dialogue that can proclaim we are not smart enough, good enough, attractive enough, fill-in- the-blank enough. Seeing it is the point of Svadhyaya—not to berate ourselves or hide it away, but to know it is there and has the potential to mislead our actions. We need to be able to see it, feel it in the body, and question its validity in the moment. This is how we can transform our beliefs and transform unskillful actions into skillful ones.
When I read 12 Years a Slave, a memoir by Solomon Northrup, I was struck by a moment in his story that I often revisit. His story is an unflinching account of his life from a free man with a wife and kids living in 1841 Washington D.C, to being kidnapped and forced into slavery in the south. One day he is watching the very young child of a slave owner. The child is riding his pretend horse playing, “plantation boss” while pretending to whip a black slave. In that moment Northrup’s generous spirit is able to find understanding for his abusers and the lineage of slavery. How could this small child think anything different when growing up under the conditions of normalcy around dehumanizing black people?
Yoga, like Buddhism, teaches that this conditioning does not need to be the end of the story, however. Our thinking and belief systems can change over time. This has proven to be true in brain science. We can actually shift our beliefs by the persistent re-routing of neural pathways. It is a life-long pursuit. All we need to do is to step into these waters with courage and keep going, one step at a time, gradually chipping away at the belief systems that we inherited and replacing them with what is true in our hearts.
In yoga, we learn to see clearly. Seeing clearly doesn’t mean our conditioning goes away, but that we are aware enough to hear that conditioning voice inside and know it for what it is. When that happens, we then have a choice. We can choose whether or not to believe it. And, subsequently how to respond in the given situation with clarity and integrity.
An example of this is when I was on a meditation retreat many years back. As my awareness got stronger throughout the week and I started noticing more of my internal dialogue, I began to notice a pattern every time I went to the restroom. Every time I washed my hands and looked in the mirror, there was a critical subterranean voice of some kind, I had never noticed before—something like, “your hair is a mess.” “you don’t look right.” “you look ugly. “ugh the skin is blotchy.” Etc., etc. and then I noticed a shrinking feeling in my heart and body. When I left the bathroom, I was less open and more contracted than when I entered it. Wow, this was mind blowing! This seemingly benign dialogue of criticism actually had an impact on dampening my spirit. And this happened every single time I went to the bathroom! I decided right then to examine the truth of these statements. The next time I looked in the mirror and I heard “not pretty enough.” I really looked. Is that true? What is pretty? Is it having a precisely defined size of eyes or lips or ratio of forehead to face? I kept looking at my face and asking, what is really true with my own eyes and without outside influence? What is the bare truth? I looked at the curved strips of hair over my eyes and the complex colors inside the eyeballs fringed with more hair, the haphazard array of freckles and grooves in the face and the different textures and trajectories of hair on my head. And slowly what surfaced up was the absolute conviction that this face staring back at me was not pretty or ugly—that these are comparative terms in a contrived system. What I knew in that moment was this face is interesting and unique, Just like every single other face in the world. For the rest of the retreat , every time I looked in the mirror, I repeated this truth, “hmm look at that interesting face there,” washed my hands and walked out of there with my heart and spirit intact.
Now has this conditioning been erased? Am I done? Nope, I still catch myself caught up in the learned patterns of judgement and vanity, but I know to watch for any sinking of heart. I know to question these thoughts.
Extrapolate this to our thinking of other people and cultures. What do we really know with clarity about that other being? What can we question? Do we hold a story about them based on what we have been fed all our lives? We need to hone this capacity for Svadhyaya so that it is our default impulse. So that when racist thinking comes up, we are not afraid or too ashamed to look at it, but can see it, question it, feel how it affects the body and spirit, and then try to see the truth of the moment.
This is how yoga supports our personal transformation. We practice this self-study in our yoga poses, in meditation, and then perhaps one day we notice it off the matt, looking in the mirror or when meeting someone of another race or culture. When we all do our own inner work, we have a chance to change the collective consciousness around us. We will make mistakes. It is a life-long process. But even small changes in consciousness can have large impacts.