Thinking Yoga

Photograph by Jennifer Dean

Photograph by Jennifer Dean

I digress from the topic of film this week because this morning I was struck by a pair of articles I read on yoga. I was first directed to Erika Nicole Kendall’s An Open Letter to the XOJane Writer Who Complained About a Black Woman in Her Yoga Class and then thought I should first read the letter itself (Jen Carol’s It Happened to Me: There are no black people in my yoga classes and I’m suddenly feeling uncomfortable with it) since it is so easy to misconstrue when reading only the derivative work (quotes from the original that are being responded to). So here I am responding to create yet another layer of “derivation” (not sure that the reference works but hopefully it makes some sense to those of you reading).

Of course the racial (and size) issues raised were complex and inflammatory. I was at first shocked that Jen Carol could be so bold and idiotic as to express her frustrations at having a”young, fairly heavy black woman” next to her in yoga class as one of those people who start exercising in January and give up soon after the new year. However, reading the entire article I did realize that no matter how embarrassingly misguided her sentiments were she was, perhaps, well-meaning but in this world of instant communication (blogs, facebook, twitter) people often express themselves without having an outside source edit and give them perspective on how what they express might be perceived (as idiotic and racist – even if they are attempting to write an article expressing their “awareness” of the “systematic failure” regarding race and weight issues).

Ms. Kendall pulls no punches in her response to Ms. Carol’s article. She goes point by point through Carol’s entire piece (so it seems I would have gotten it all even had I not read the original article but of course the context is different). Many of Kendall’s arguments resonated with me but as a student of one of those donation based studios (Yoga to the People which in my case is actually a $5 class) I am also aware of the specific issues regarding practicing yoga in an environment where the teachers are often unable to give personal attention regarding injuries and alignment. I am grateful to Yoga to the People for allowing me to practice with a group at a reasonable cost – and in my classes there have always been people of all races and sizes and levels. There are some great teachers and some very new teachers who have yet to understand yoga beyond a physical practice (or even as a physical practice) and make ridiculous statements like “one day your head will touch your toes when doing full pigeon” when I know full well, as a long time practitioner, my toes will never touch my head and because of my knee problems I shouldn’t even do pigeon… but I have been doing this long enough that I know what I should and should not do and have had the good fortune to have had many wonderful yoga teachers in the past who have helped me with alignment and helped me modify for my injuries. So the critique by Carol of the woman who sat in child’s pose for most of class (or the  “young, fairly heavy black woman”) was especially disturbing and offensive and the response by Kendall particularly apt as far as I was concerned.

2) The quote

It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.

[Kendall’s response] [This] doesn’t make me feel bad for her – it makes me proud of her. Yoga isn’t about “skinny;” yoga is about strength. And ANY person who doesn’t have the strength to execute a pose should find the perfect regression for themselves, something this woman did…for reasons that could have not a single thing to do with her being not-skinny. Back injuries, shoulder injuries, wrist injuries, neck injuries, hip injuries, ankle injuries… all past injuries that a person could find themselves needing to account for in a yoga practice. To know that you need to accommodate your own abilities when surrounded by people who are more advanced than you takes humility. That is major.

The only thing I would add is that those people surrounding you aren’t necessarily more “advanced” just because they can do the poses because yoga is about awareness as much as asanas, so if you are aware then you are perhaps more advanced than those simply going through the motions – but I suppose that is just semantics!

– Jennifer Dean


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