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Creating a Safe Space for Dialogue

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This blog post may offend you. I’m okay with that. No matter what I write, someone might accuse me of being too harsh and someone might accuse me of not being harsh enough. My hope is that it invites dialogue both in the yoga community and in your life. As someone who has taught social justice courses and worked in nonprofits, the only thing I can say for certain is that discourse is our best way forward. But in order for discourse to work, we need to create a safe space to talk.

Think back to your first yoga class. Did it go something like this? “Welcome to yoga for beginners. Place your hands on the mat, shoulder width apart and press your legs up into full handstand. Do small pushups to strengthen serratus anterior.” “You can’t do that? You’re so unenlightened. I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”

If it was like that, I hope you ran for the door. I hope you found a teacher that created a supportive, safe environment for you to learn. One that encouraged you to try new poses. I hope that they smiled with you when you fell out of half moon for the eighth time and put a block under your hand in triangle pose when it wouldn’t touch the floor. They probably gave you some very clear instructions and didn’t use a lot of words you didn’t know. If a pose was just not something you were able to do, they gave you something that you could do to work on that same action. As you progressed, I hope your teacher then challenged you to do more, but still offered you guidance and help along the way. I hope that they listened when you told them a certain pose hurts your knee and gave you alternatives.

This past year has been a tortuous one. Whatever you believe the causes to be, we have seen a uptick in hate crimes. In the past week, reported incidents of hate crime have swelled across the country. This quickly led to the sentiment, “if you voted for Trump, you are racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamaphobic and endorse hate crimes.” That quickly became “I voted for Trump and I am not racist, misogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic.” Which led to the end of a lot of relationships. Whether you unfriended your high school sweetheart on social media, canceled Thanksgiving or edited your Christmas card list down – you actively changed relationships during this past year. No one wants to be called a racist and no one wants to have racist friends. We ended relationships that did not fit into what we believe about the world.

Instead of listening. We closed off. We gave up on people as hopeless. In some cases, that is an act of self-protection. If you are feeling unsafe – whether at your school, home or online – please get to safety and reach out to someone for help. But in many cases, we were just angry at our racist uncle. Or maybe just confused because someone accused us of being heteronormative and we don’t even know what that means.
If people are calling you an -ist for how you voted, I invite you to take some small steps. Take an implicit bias test. Figure out if there are groups of people that make you uncomfortable and ask yourself why. If you can identify some of your fears, try to go a museum that is dedicated towards that group of people. Ask the person who called you that to recommend a book you can read. Ask them to read something that explains how you feel. Invite them to coffee and talk about it.

If you are calling a friend or family member an -ist. I invite you stop doing that because you probably aren’t really accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Like the fictional yoga teacher above who went for handstand and then belittled students for not being able to do that, you are asking someone to jump from beginner to advanced and likely they will just push you away. I am not saying we should not hold people accountable, we should. When we see racism, we need to point it out as such. Try asking them why they believe what they do. Ask them to read or watch something or take them to a museum. Create a safe space so that they can learn and ask questions without being scared of you getting mad at them for asking.

In the mean time, we also have to acknowledge our own implicit bias and our own privilege. As people who practice yoga, we probably want to consider ourselves good people. We’re certainly not misogynist, we just buy clothing from a company that blamed women for the rise of breast cancer and joked about child labor. We’re definitely not xenophobic, we just like to say things about yoga without realizing we often misappropriate culture. We’re certainly not racist – young, white, female yoga teachers are just more popular on Instagram. Oh, wait. Maybe we’re just a little bit or a lot these things and just didn’t want to acknowledge that about ourselves.

Read about the Take Back Yoga campaign AND Decolonizing Yoga. Figure out ways that you can grow and acknowledge your own racism/misogyny/homophobia/transphobia/xenophobia/ageism/Islamaphobia. Try to learn more and then help other people learn more. Remember, we’re all going to fail each other at some point. In the interest of full disclosure – I have unfriended people because of this election and just yelled at my dad on the phone. I’m still working on my ability to cultivate productive dialogue and hope you will hold me accountable to that.

If you have a question you’re scared to ask? Find me and ask it. I might not know the answer but I’ll do my best to look for the answer with you and engage in productive dialogue. I am certainly not an expert on any of these things but I’ll try to create a safe space so that you can ask the question.

Blog post contributed by Danie Greenwell.