Dear Ashtanga • 11 May 2014

Dear Ashtanga,

I ask you this question in love and respect. I ask because I see how awake you are.

When you are awake, hard questions make you curious. Not defensive.

Ashtanga, this is who we are:

we’re women;

we’re non-white (Latino, Asian, people of color, however you want to talk about it);

and we’re gay.

But those of us with the power: we’re mostly male, and white, and straight.

Unconsciousness doesn’t help anyone. But it’s built in to any hierarchy through this mechanism: the more power you get, the less empathy you feel. Like clockwork. Power increase: empathy decrease. This is what it is to be human.

An unconscious human, that is.

My question is this: can we all become students of women, of people of color, and of those who are not straight?

And this: do straight, white men use power, and script their student-teacher dynamics, with a different sort of force and entitlement than… every one else around?

Leaders: what do you have to give up to take this question seriously?

Do you have too much skin in the game to feel in to this one?

What is the cost to your own personal growth, and to our community, if you do not take this seriously?

Here are some big ideas: structural sexism. Structural racism. These are NOBODY’S FAULT. They happen when organizations reproduce the unconscious biases of their surrounding culture. But check it out, Ashtanga. You are behind the game on this one. Maybe 8% of this student body is straight, white men. But nine times out of ten, the people telling us how to do it come from this tiny minority.

I love this minority, incidentally: the most important people in my life are members of it. And I want them to be fully empowered in this world. But the thing is, they don’t have to try quite so much. Because if someone matches a certain profile, it’s easier to see him – more than others – as competent, as strong, as deserving, as reliable, as knowing things, as a leader.

If we are not awake.

The way that structural racism and sexism die is like this: conscious leadership. Either leaders wake themselves up, and see how the advantages they’ve enjoyed aren’t personal – aren’t just a sign of their hard work and merit.

Or their communities wake them up.

I ask us to wake up.

17 Comments

  • Posted 12 May 2014 at 4:56 am | #

    wow
    :)

  • Christine
    Posted 12 May 2014 at 1:06 pm | #

    xoxo

  • D
    Posted 12 May 2014 at 7:01 pm | #

    I’ve been thinking about the question of privilege a ton over the last year and I’m glad (but not surprised) that you’ve written about it. It appears that the path to greater empathy lies in waking up to our privileges and the responsibilities that come with it. Also known as cultivating gratitude.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 12 May 2014 at 9:28 pm | #

      PART 2: Long exchange between me and Mysore teacher Patrick Nolan.

      ____________________

      PATRICK

      hi angela,

      i wanted to ask you about your latest blog privately. i hope you don’t mind. it pricked up my ears, so to speak. i went and looked at the kpjayi teachers list and counted the certified teachers and eye-balled the authorized ones. of the forty four certified teachers listed, fourteen are women. the authorized teachers, at first glance, appear more balanced. i would say maybe 45 percent women, maybe even more. of course economic class and sexual orientation are not indicated on the list. but at least from the gender perspective, it’s not as bad as the 90% white male number you are suggesting. i really hate to be a nudnik, but while i stand with you against structural racism and sexism i don’t think you are being fair. at least viz. the ashtanga scene. i don’t think i’m missing your point, with which i agree. help me out, please

      patrick

      ANGELA

      How can I help you?

      PATRICK

      sorry, i was going to write more

      but i saw you had seen my salutation

      so i got self conscious

      and cut it short

      intellectual laziness. my bad

      ANGELA

      You’re talking to a statistician, here

      PATRICK

      shit

      i wish my wife were here, she’s a supply chain forecaster

      ANGELA

      I wonder, what other metrics might you consider when looking at the power structure?

      PATRICK

      there are many, yes

      ANGELA

      Well I’m off the stats game… finally quit academia in 2011 so it’s rusty.

      PATRICK

      like the ones the list doesn’t show

      sexual orientation, class, etc.

      ANGELA

      right, but also, does the list of auth’d teachers constitute a hierarchy?

      i can think of arguments that it does not.

      PATRICK

      i guess i’m afraid that somebody who doesn’t agree with us about power/gender issues might pounce on the number discrepancy that i saw

      yes, you’re right of the senior senior old timers it’s still something of a boys’ club

      ANGELA

      yes

      so for comparison, what about certified?

      PATRICK

      i can think of [redacted]

      but more boys

      ANGELA

      recently?

      PATRICK

      [redacted]

      but it’s been boys so far

      ANGELA

      [redacted]

      i want to affirm that i love white straight boys. A LOT.

      i actually don’t think that the power structure is about the certification game at KPJ

      but i wanted to offer that as the most obvious other metric

      given your approach of using the KPJ auth’d list

      PATRICK

      not very scientific, to be sure

      ANGELA

      what interests me is, rather, the boys club that you mention.

      the tendency that i have, and that most of us have, to think “what would the white man say?”

      that’s not about what happens in India

      that’s embedded in our own minds

      i want to affirm that i mean no harm to our practice

      PATRICK

      of course not

      your love is evident

      ANGELA

      if you think that my work is damaging to ashtanga, that’s important feedback

      PATRICK

      as i hope mine is too

      ANGELA

      i admire our community SO INSANELY MUCH, in part because we have strong personalities that check each other

      PATRICK

      damaging is a bit of a strong word

      the fact that this made me uncomfortable clearly is an indicator of the problem

      no?

      ANGELA

      this post was inspired by my four apprentices, who constitute a diverse group

      PATRICK

      interesting!!!

      i went through a personal inventory:

      ANGELA

      yesterday we had an apprentice meeting and they asked me why the race-gender-sexuality situation is so bad in our practice

      PATRICK

      my teacher is a woman, my wife is a woman of color, our teaching staff has a latina and a gay woman, etc.

      ANGELA

      then they asked why i, as a sociologist, had failed to take a stand about it

      so i acted

      rock on, my friend

      PATRICK

      thank you, but my point was i shouldn’t have to gone through all that checklist

      ANGELA

      would it be interesting to hear the first lines of defense that i’ve been trained – with a sociology phd – to look for when challenging power structures?

      PATRICK

      my father always said “a guilty conscience needs no accuser:

      yes, please

      ANGELA

      wow. honestly, if we can both look at what is bothersome about this post for you, we’ll both learn something

      PATRICK

      i’m down if you are

      ANGELA

      for me, if there are ways that i can be more intellectually honest, and more loyal to ashtanga, and thus get through to doubters, then i need to do that

      for you, i’m not saying this is what’s up – i don’t think we’ve even met in person so I don’t know you at all – but the first defenses to look for are these:

      First, tokenism.

      PATRICK

      like our president

      ANGELA

      that’s putting a woman or gay man on the dais with the white guys

      yes, and obama

      because the human mind thinks in specifics not generalizations

      so the easiest way to say “nuh uh” is to have a case we can point to that somehow disproves the argument of inequality

      tokens are interesting because the fact that they are needed really illustrates the desperation of the situation. they’re a last ditch on part of power structures to prevent REVOLUTION

      PATRICK

      gotcha

      ANGELA

      so my blog post was actually formulated in my mind as a question to the panel at the confluence

      [redacted] …and that’s kind of an illustration of the second line of defense of the status quo

      PATRICK

      which is?

      ANGELA

      the “we’re all one” and “race is not who i am” response

      the “we’re all just individuals” and race – sex- gender isn’t who we are line

      PATRICK

      how stephen colbert always says he doesn’t see color

      ANGELA

      that’s a way of keeping things atomized

      PATRICK

      totally

      ANGELA

      i don’t see race either, but just because i don’t want to look there doesn’t mean that’s a very important collective samskara

      when i catch myself in this line of thinking, i wonder… if there are social samskaras i refuse to see, how much more of my own personal samskaras am i willfully not seeing?

      make sense?

      like, reality has layers

      PATRICK

      a funny aside: i’m doing a sutras workshop and one of the students brought up if whole groups, eg., african americans, could have a collective karma

      ANGELA

      both the “race doesn’t matter” and the “race matters” arguments are the case

      WOW

      i used to think “collective unconscious” was BS

      PATRICK

      heavy question, right?

      ANGELA

      but i dunno

      yeah, heavy question. so good.

      PATRICK

      i don’t think i answered very well, i’m embarrassed to say

      i had no clue

      ANGELA

      yeah, especially since being white it’s hard for us to talk about blackness

      at least for me, after a decade trying to learn in academia. still hard.

      and i teach outside detroit

      this is a big deal… [redacted]

      ANGELA

      and that’s with me working my butt off to be a good teacher to my students of color and learn from them about race

      i just have to be straight up with them and say, listen, if i’m being unconscious, i need you to tell me so i can learn. i don’t have any models of mysore teachers i can look to who are really conscious about race.

      and i wish i did.

      [redacted]

      PATRICK

      i think we’ve digressed

      are there other lines of defense?

      it all seems so insidious, if you let it be

      which is what you are getting at about being awake, no?

      ANGELA

      um, sorry about disappearing

      i just had to catch my two cats and put them in the basement with me down here

      tornado sirens blaring

      anyway, yes

      so tell me, do you think the post i wrote is flawed?

      PATRICK

      hmm… flawed?

      it made me uncomfortable, which is probably what you wanted on some level

      ANGELA

      yes

      did it open your heart though?

      PATRICK

      well i wrote you, didn’t i?

      ANGELA

      i want to be analytically strong, but also compassionate

      PATRICK

      yes you did

      ANGELA

      have we met?

      PATRICK

      i think i may remember you

      from my 2nd trip

      i had just gotten there and the shala was going to be closed on a sunday and bunch of people practiced up at alex’s place

      ANGELA

      oh yes, i was there that day!

      interesting

      PATRICK

      than we’ve been in the same room, but not spoken

      ANGELA

      well lets remedy that in person eventually

      PATRICK

      yes

      absolutely

      ANGELA

      thanks for reaching out

      PATRICK

      yes, thanks for taking the time

      to talk it through

      ANGELA

      yes, i’m super glad you said something

      i hope that we all can do better, for our students’ sake

      PATRICK

      you know, i can tell you my initial response to your blog in one sentence,

      now that i’ve thought about it

      ANGELA

      yes?

      PATRICK

      “that may be the case for other yoga scenes, but we’re better than that in ashtanga”

      knee-jerk tribalism

      what can i say?

      ANGELA

      do you think that others would have that thought?

      PATRICK

      i’m afraid so. that’s why i reached out to you, i reckon

      ANGELA

      i totally have that tribalism part of me, too. I think it’s healthy in some ways, but we also fall back on it when we need to move forward sometimes…

      do you think you would feel comfortable commenting on the post about this, for others who might give you more credibility than they might give me?

      fine to say no – you’ve been really open with me in private and i want to honor that

      PATRICK

      this may sound crazy,

      but i think i would feel more comfortable putting out this whole conversation

      so people could get the back and forth and such

      would that be tedious?

      ANGELA

      yes but there is one caveat, and that is that i talked with you openly about my relationships with teachers. i consider this sacred and not for public comment. could we put the whole thing out with my edits on that one topic?

      PATRICK

      and our apprentices too

      ANGELA

      yes, by all means

      oh, good point. yes, we can add a note that this was edited to remove references to people

      PATRICK

      i think this is REALLY interesting, actually

      now i’m getting kinda excited

      ANGELA

      and am happy to have it out there

      do you want to put it on your blog?

      PATRICK

      let’s pull the trigger

      ANGELA

      boom

      love ya, man

      PATRICK

      i haven’t blogged in forever, but we could do it on both of our blogs

      love ya back

      got it. since i’m stuck in the basement waiting for this tornado to pass, i’ll edit it now and send it

      PATRICK

      jesus

      ANGELA

      good times in the midwest!

      ok, 15 min

      PATRICK

      we have more warning for our hurricanes

      so yes, i’m going to water my lawn and we can double post

      Chat Conversation End

      THIS CHAT WAS EDITED TO REMOVE DIRECT OR INDIRECT REFERENCES TO PEOPLE. THAT’S OUT OF RESPECT FOR INDIVIDUALS, AND BECAUSE NO SPECIFIC CHARACTERS IN THIS STORY MATTER. WE PUBLISH THIS AS A VIEWPOINT ON PATTERNS IN HISTORY. AJ

    • (OvO)
      Posted 12 May 2014 at 9:33 pm | #

      D, empathy and gratitude are such soft words, but they’re the ones I keep coming back to as well. Interesting to see that’s what Briana Payton is teaching too.

      • D
        Posted 13 May 2014 at 9:14 pm | #

        I am pre-disposed to softness (sometimes a bit too much) ;) Thanks for the link – such an excellent article. I am loving all the discussions that this post has triggered by the way. Tons of grist for the collective mill!

  • Geoff
    Posted 13 May 2014 at 1:25 am | #

    AJ, that was a powerful post. And very provocative. It wasn’t the subject or point of the piece that got my heckles up, because it’s valid. However, at certain key points your tone felt aggressive and accusatory and goading. It’s said by teachers of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) that anything which sounds (even remotely) like a demand or an accusation will derail the chance of a balanced, constructive discussion occurring. So as an exercise for both of us (because i’d like to practice its principles more) I’ve tried to present your message in an NVC way below. Please tell me what you think OK, here goes… :)

    “On open letter to the Ashtanga (Teaching) Community:

    As a dedicated proponent of the Ashtanga Yoga Practice and its worldwide Community, which i love deeply, I need to suggest that, as it does in all areas of our society, the issue of privilege requires some examination, discussion and, quite probably, action.

    The hierarchy of our particular global yoga community appears to me to mirror that of society in the so-called developing world; i.e.. the straight, white male occupies the majority of the senior roles, or comprises the greater part of the leadership body; while the majority of the community itself is comprised of women, and people of race, gender and sexual orientations of all kinds (besides white, male and straight.)

    Are we willing to examine the real possibility that our inherited and learned cultural biases may be hindering us in fulfilling our true, non-violent potentials as teachers and human beings? Are we willing to examine whether or not we have cultivated the means to connect with and empathize as fully as possible with students of all racial, gender and sexual orientations? Are we willing to make the efforts required to equip ourselves to succeed in these endeavours, if or when we see we are lacking? Are we able to offer our students and peers the opportunity to hold us accountable in this important matter?

    I sincerely hope so, as i care deeply for our practice, its community and the healing potential if offers to all people.”

    p.s. Empathy and gratitude and service are at the heart of NVC (as i understand it in my limited experience…)

  • Geoff
    Posted 13 May 2014 at 1:49 am | #

    Checking myself and my comment already, hahaha… humbled again!

    As you probably picked up right away, a skilled NVC’er would have avoided “at certain key points YOUR tone felt aggressive and accusatory and goading” (an accusation right there!) and would have probably instead gone with something like: “I FELT accused, attacked and goaded by some of the statements and questions i read…”

    Subtle but important difference. Please go with the second version. ;)

    • (OvO)
      Posted 13 May 2014 at 5:45 pm | #

      Geoff,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond, and for your reflexivity. To be brutally honest, I have received some pointed, hateful replies to this post. Replies that are intended to shame me and silence these questions. I’m so grateful to have a dissenting response that is free of that energy.

      Regarding my response to your response, my credibility here is limited just because I am a woman. I would never feel able to make the comment that James makes below. I just wouldn’t have the confidence, or the willingness to risk alienating you.

      While I like your version of this blog post, I want to note that the two questions on which the post turns have been removed from your version? Do you think removing that content makes the post easier to gloss over and forget? Rosenberg said that the fundamental aim of NVC is to make life more wonderful. For ashtangis, it may be that engaging directly with the kapotasana-type questions is still nonviolent practice.

      Love and respect, and again, thanks so much for taking the time to engage with this. For many, it actually will be easier to ignore it.

      • Geoff
        Posted 18 May 2014 at 12:11 am | #

        Hi AJ!

        Love and respect back to you! It is indeed challenging to engage in this conversation, but discovering the skills required to successfully overcome the obstacles involved – just like in kapo – is somehow compelling and evidently worthwhile.

        Also, sorry i missed your reply here days ago; but glad i came back today for another look and so found it… The New Yorker article you posted today, which is what led me back here again, was fantastic and worth linking to here for those who may miss it on FB.

        http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/05/the-woman-who-coined-the-term-white-privilege.html

        To your enquiry; I take it you are referring to these two questions:

        1) “can we all become students of women, of people of color, and of those who are not straight?”

        2) “do straight, white men use power, and script their student-teacher dynamics, with a different sort of force and entitlement than… every one else around?”

        Well, yes, i unintentionally overlooked the first one in my efforts to digest my own reaction (i.e., feeling accused) by the two questions which followed the ones above. I see how i trapped myself into responding only as a teacher, not as a student too. However, it’s most certainly a valid question, which i also would have re-written in NVC terms had i not overlooked it. (ie. Would you be willing to surrender to the authority of a non-white, non-male, non-straight teacher? And if not, would you be willing to ask why not??) Leaving it out certainly would lessen the impact of the post a great deal!

        I felt i addressed the second question in my response, but i now see that in such general terms that rendered it unrecognizable from the original; this demonstrates some misunderstanding of the subject! :) Indeed, re-phrasing the question as i did took things too far in the glossy direction, whereas i found your take too prickly. As always, it seems the middle ground would be most fertile!

        Here’s what resonates with me today (from the article above):

        “talking about privilege… it has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you. It has to do with looking around yourself the way sociologists do and seeing the big patterns in the rest of society, while keeping a balance and really respecting your experience. Seeing the oppression of others is, of course, very important work. But so is seeing how the systems oppress oneself.”

        Takeaway: Question ALL systems! :)

  • Dana
    Posted 13 May 2014 at 2:46 am | #

    I love this blog! Not sure if I’ve commented yet. I’m not really an Ashtangi anyway. May I add?: able-bodied, and to a lesser extent, thin. I guess Ashtanga and other types of yoga scare off the differently-abled right from the start, so maybe there isn’t as much of a contrast between leaders and led in that sense, but it is something that has stuck with me as I feel I’ve received benefits of able-bodied privilege. It shouldn’t be so easy to accidentally trick people into thinking I’m a better yogi than I am simply because of genetic luck and prior physical training.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • James
    Posted 13 May 2014 at 12:15 pm | #

    Geoff, I appreciate your response. Since I no zilch else about you I’m responding to your post at face value.

    It’s almost axiomatic in discussions of privilege, in my language here referring to gender and “whiteness”, that if you’re feeling challenged or accused it’s probably because you’re feeling your privilege being challenged.

    It’s also axiomatic, and I suggest reflexive, to immediately demand of the marginalized that the discussion be restructured so as to serve the needs of the dominant. In other words, “I feel uncomfortable and am going to assert my privilege so I feel more comfortable”. Do you get why you even feel the authority to jump into a conversation and literally re-write it?

    Invoking non-violent communication as a frame in this context is a deflection.

    As a man, your feelings are not at the center (or the central concern) of this conversation. I can appreciate if this invokes a bit of disorientation. It does for me, always.

    Respectfully,
    James

    • (OvO)
      Posted 13 May 2014 at 5:59 pm | #

      Here’s my first experience working with a professional NVC facilitator in 2002: I was a white woman in a room with many people of color who were my dear friends and colleagues. They were soberly discussing the micro-aggressions they experience every day, and I was crying. After the most intense discussion session, the facilitator gently gave me the message that my emotions were not what was important just then.

      It was one of my first experiences of being a zero. After the shame wore off, I felt somewhat liberated.

      Maybe NVC is a little off topic, but damn if it’s not a good topic. For what it’s worth, I ask apprentice ashtanga teachers to study it at least a little bit. And at the shala we have a 4-hour book on CD that gets distributed when students have conflicts. Conflicts are a too great a practice opportunity to miss.

      Love and respect, AJ

  • Casey
    Posted 13 May 2014 at 6:26 pm | #

    There’s is way more to this issue than who is and who is not holding a position of authority in the yoga world. There is a lot of karma involved to have any result at all. The senior-senior teachers are experiencing the results of their actions. To say that some how everyone else was simply excluded to do factors inherent to themselves is forgetting how much effort it takes to have been included on such a distinguished list. This goes for us all. We are all special and totally ordinary. One day everyone will a famous yogi and then we can all go about our wonderful lives.

  • Posted 14 May 2014 at 11:17 am | #

    Thank you, this is a great post with points that extend far beyond the international Ashtanga or yoga community. In my meagre, biased experience I have observed the respected authority is often more widely chosen and accepted if it comes from a white male. Ashtanga (or rather by Guruji’s association) may be more victim to authority simply by its close association with its scriptural and religious history more than some other modern manifestations of yoga practice.
    As a female yoga teacher I watch many students respond to white, male, hetero teachers easily with respect and without question. It seems to take much more work for someone like me (although female, still able bodied and white) to gain the same respect, and I’m not even sure it will ever really be the same.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 14 May 2014 at 11:25 am | #

      Teresa, thanks for saying this. It’s hard to look at. I’ve heard the same thing privately from many, many women in the past two days. It’s still not something that is easy to say out loud.

  • s
    Posted 22 May 2014 at 11:18 am | #

    What other game would it be worth having skin in?

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