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When You Find Out Your Yoga Teacher is Racist

By Shanna Small

Two things showed me that members of my yoga community were racist; the election of Donald Trump and the murder of George Floyd by the police. Donald Trump’s election gave racists permission to be in the open. All of a sudden, yoga teachers I had known and studied with for years were openly gaslighting Black people, praising the cops on how they handled George Floyd, and entreating Black people to just get over it. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali warns us about this when he tells us that afflictions can be dormant, feeble, intercepted or sustained.

Before we can talk about Patanjali’s warning, let us define afflictions/kleshas. The afflictions or Kleshas are obstacles that keep us disconnected from ourselves, others, and the path of yoga. The king daddy affliction that gives birth to all the others is ignorance. Patanjali defines ignorance as “regarding the impermanent as permanent the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant and the non-self as the self. Racism is ignorance. 

 When someone is racist they treat external traits such as skin color, as if they are permanent, purer, more pleasant, and view them as an indicator of the goodness of someone’s soul (the Self).  The color of our skin is not permanent. When the body dies, the body goes back to the earth. According to Patanjali, the energy inside finds another body.  This means that according to yoga, you can be White this life and Black in the next!! Our bodies are impure. Noone no matter what your skin tone, is exempt from bathing and no one is exempt from “impure”  thoughts and murky intentions. When you live in a society that favors Whiteness, being in a White body may seem more pleasant.  However, yoga teaches us that we cannot get around the impact of our actions. Viewing oneself as superior always has consequences. Hitler’s regime fell. The economy of the South, supported by slaves, came to an end. In 2020 and during the Civil Rights Movement, there were protests and unrest led by those who were  being treated as second class citizens. There is also the issue of the future karmas you will have to deal with due to behaviors that were harmful to others.  Lastly, the Self or soul is apart of the Universe that is limitless but having very limited experience of itself in a human body. Something as limiting as skin color can never be who you truly are. 

When people we love and have had pleasant experiences with, seem to flip into bigots, kleshas have been awakened. Kleshas can be dormant, feeble, intercepted or sustained. Let’s start with sustained and work our way backward. When racism is sustained, it means that the person wears it on their sleeve. They don’t hide it nor are they trying to. It is a huge part of their identity. When kleshas are intercepted, it means that racism is hidden and cloaked in good qualities.  This is where you get spiritual bypassing which is using spiritual ideas to get out of looking at or changing problematic behaviors.  “We are all one”, “Just let it go” and “I don’t see color” are favorite one-liners of spiritual bypassers.

Kleshas can also be feeble. This means someone has done the work of looking at their racist thoughts.  They are not totally gone but they rarely come up. Events such as the police killing Black people chilling on the couch (Botham Jean) and the election of a president that believes that Columbus landing in America and killing Native Americans and taking their land is something to be celebrated (Proclamation on Columbus Day 2020 by Donald J Trump) bring the thoughts back to the surface.  The last state of the kleshas is dormant which means that it is unconscious and the right situation like having your president not denounce a White supremacist group but instead tell them to “stand down” happens. 

I found a silver lining to the heartbreaking realization that people in my yoga community were racist. Hindsight is 20/20. I started to understand why doors were not opening, conversations went sideways and why I was so confused. I understood why my intuition was sending me warnings that I didn’t understand. I now had the clarity to easily walk away from situations that were not working. There is power in knowledge.

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