Food for Thought – Privilege and the Seat of the Teacher


I think it’s really wonderful and amazing that there are some really great discussions happening around cultural appropriation and privilege in yoga. It’s a conversation that has been going on for a long time and needs to continue. As this topic grows in popularity and relevance for many teachers who are learning how to recognize their own privilege and their own contributions to fostering racism and alienation in the classroom, I would like to put out an additional piece for further consideration.

As a teacher do you think it is enough to be aware of your own privilege and your own racism? Is it enough to create an environment that welcomes everyone to their mat and into currently predominately white environments? Is it enough to examine the corporatization of yoga and attempts to sterilize it from it’s deep, complex, and elegant roots? Is it enough to make yoga more available and accessible to larger numbers of people?

I would suggest that it is not. As teachers, particularly white teachers, we are all in positions of power and, in particular, privilege. While for the most part not economically privileged, we are in a place were can have an audience of people that benefit from the opportunity to practice in largely safe environments not available for many students.  Are these students people who are coming to yoga to learn about oppression and power? Not likely! However, through our language and the nuance of our instruction we create space for the journeys of all of our students to explore life and embodiment to their fullest. As such we create space for uncomfortable sensations and challenging experiences, including how we meet and confront oppression in ourselves and in our lives.  The seeds we plant during our classes are offerings that students accept, reject, or tuck away for a later date. It is not our job to control how they experience the teachings, but rather offer them up in the spirit of yoga as a technology of liberation and a science of awareness and consciousness.

As teachers we have a responsibility to provide a service to the community. If we need to eat, pay rent, and feed our kids, we have to take that seriously. At the same time we can also give them more than what students necessarily signed up for. We all do it. It just depends on what informs and influences how we live in the world. Sometimes we teach to environmental awareness, sometimes we teach to self-compassion, sometimes we teach with an awareness of generosity, etc.  For me, I teach with to increase awareness of advantages and entitlement, I teach to challenge assumptions about privilege. I offer to students a belief that they can sit in the fire of transformation and survive.

Most people becoming aware of their learning edge, particularly with regard to their own biases and prejudices run from the discomfort, react with fear and anger, or worse denial.  I hope to encourage a space where students can face the conversations and their uncomfortable feelings about privilege and oppression by giving voice to their experiences for what they are, a powerful foundation for change.  I hope to provide space for students to take the opportunity to  disrupt and transform habits that not only limit their individual power and creativity in their bodies, but that disrupt limitations of the mind and heart in ways that impact their lives and the lives of others.

So for me, one of the most important things that I hope to offer students is that our gifts and privileges are not our own, but become a powerful springboard to move into the world with great courage and generosity. For example, when students sat in front of me after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and others were killed I didn’t act like nothing had happened. I shared my pain, rage, and confusion. When the children of Sandyhook were gunned down because our society is profoundly dysfunctional when it comes to recognizing and treating mental illness and willing to pander to the gun lobby, I didn’t stop my tears with my students, but cried with them. I spoke to the grief and brutality that surrounded all of their deaths. I spoke to the privilege that many, though not all, of my students have in which they never directly experience the kind of brutality that sparked the BlackLivesMatter Movement.

I have worked not only to give voice to oppression in my teaching, but also to recognize and appreciate the teachings that support many of us to move outside of our comfort zones. Maya Angelou was a powerful teacher for me and I honor her often when I teach, as I also have honored many amazing authors and teachers that struggled to have their voices heard from scholars, to poets, to community leaders many people have never heard of. Every time I bring these things to my students I risk losing them. But it’s important to remember that the yoga mat and studio is not a rarefied space; that there is no on the mat and off the mat, but our practice is part of a larger life experience.  So when I risk losing students, it is the price I am absolutely willing to pay. I want to engage students where they are at, and if they aren’t interested in this kind of collaboration, then I may not be there teacher for them.  If I am not willing to risk my privilege as a way to encourage transformation relevant to our time and place in history then I am not doing yoga.

The way we bring this conversation to our students is complex. Each of us must find our own path in how we bring these things to our students, because first and foremost, they come to us to explore their embodiment and with their own unique needs. We cannot hijack that intention with our own. And again, this is not a path that every teacher will feel called to. However I believe that we can hold space for their experience and what we hope for them. We have to have the courage to get messy, because their efforts will also get messy, to be transparent, as we ask them to do the same. We have to show them that moving outside of their comfort zone is not only important to their own individual healing process, but it’s profoundly and incomprehensibly rewarding to move beyond that.  We have to show them that we care about this journey for them, however they can show up for it.

Through incorporating these difficult topics in bite sized, nuanced, and compassionate ways, we help students remember that embodiment is more than the body, but it is also inclusive of what we call the mind and the heart. When we find the language that helps to awaken a sense of unity within their experience, then we’ve become the kind of teacher that has learned to welcome all students in a culturally competent way and become a force for awakening and transformation for what happens outside of our classrooms as well.

In closing to bring these thoughts back into the art of teaching, there is a story I’d like to share that helps me explain a little of how I do what I do in terms of incorporating conversations about oppression and privilege in the yoga space. I, like many teachers, employ themes like courage and compassion and reference situations throughout life that benefit from reflecting on these themes in practice. Sometimes I’m a little too heavy handed sometimes a little to opaque, but more and more I’m finding that I’m able to thread the conversation with depth and meaning relevant to social justice yet also not distract the students from what’s happening for them in that moment.  I’m usually not sure how much will sink it, but often I hear back from students in ways that indicate what they learned was so much more than how to move their bodies. So here’s the teaching story that has given a lot to me – Please forgive me as I don’t remember the source precisely, but I remember it is a teaching from a Rabbi to a man from his community:

A man goes to his Rabbi after listening to him speak and asks him, “Rabbi, why do you say lay the word of G-d on my heart? Wouldn’t it be better to lay the word of G-D in my heart?” and the Rabbi responds, “My son, you may not be ready. You must first lay the word of G-d on your heart so that when you are ready, your heart will open and the words will fall in.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

In deep gratitude,