I believe that BIPOC communities hold the pain of colonialism in their nervous systems and that’s why I feel absolutely passionate that the benefits of yoga should reach those communities.
Yoga has been a precious healing tool for me and has helped me to deal with my own ancestral trauma but as a teacher, I am acutely aware that yoga doesn’t always find its way to those who need it most. I believe that BIPOC communities have been excluded from the yoga world not always because of direct racism but more indirectly because of structural inequality. It’s much more complex than a yoga studio simply not hiring BIPOC. It’s about covert structures that have been in place for centuries in order to deny BIPOC a place at the table.
When studios charge expensive subscription fees, BIPOC are more likely to be excluded because of the impact that racism and displacement has on earning power. Then, even if we manage to infiltrate these places we don’t see ourselves represented – paying in excess of £100 a month to feel like an outsider or a novelty. It’s easy to walk away feeling disheartened and marginalised. I have never personally experienced direct racism in a yoga studio but I have experienced a sense of not being represented and a sense of being other. Sometimes, finding a teacher who really understands our experience is what sparks a yogi to go forward and teach. So when a studio is predominately staffed by a certain type of teacher, by default, it gives rise to more teachers of the same ilk.
In a city like London, there is space for every kind of yoga from the gymnastic kind to the accessible kind. However, with Instagram being one of the main marketing tools for yoga, what tends to happen is that visuals shape the zeitgeist. White Supremacy has for hundreds of years set the beauty standard – this means that thin white women are seen as the pinnacle of beauty and this in turn means that their yoga accounts get the most likes and followers which leads to more work in studios and brand sponsorship. I have been accused of being bitter for saying this but I’m not bitter. I just want better.
Jason Crandell once said, “The nature of yoga is to shine the light of awareness into the darkest corners of the body.”
I believe that now is the time for yoga to shine the light of awareness on the darkest corners of itself.
If we want to see more BIPOC teachers in yoga studios it requires a deep excavation into why those individuals have not been drawn to yoga or embarked on teacher trainings. It’s about much more than standing up to direct racism. Racism these days is insidious and almost imperceptible, if you are not attuned to it. Fighting racism is about so much more than calling out overt acts e.g. telling your mate off for using a racist term. It’s about dismantling a whole entire system that’s been in place for centuries.
A bit about my own history
My parents are Iraqi Jewish refugees and this is my first time talking about my story publicly. It starts, as many BAME people’s stories start with the legacy of colonialism. My uncle who is a historian says he always remembers my birthday because it’s 2nd November – the same day as the Balfour Declaration.
For hundreds of years both my parents families had lived happily in Iraq until Zionism upset the entire region. In recent years, as I have embarked on deep personal explorations of my identity, I have come to view myself as inextricably both Arab and Jewish. The British Mandate for a Jewish State in the Middle East created the duality between Arabs and Jews and destroyed thousands of years of peaceful coexistence.
My mother’s family recognised the dangers and were quick to leave Iraq. My father’s family stayed and in 1969, following the Arab States’ defeat in the Six-Day War, my father’s brother was accused of being a Zionist spy, tortured and hanged in a public square. He was not a spy but the government was keen to provoke anti-Semitic feeling and nine Jewish men including my uncle were killed in the Baghdad hangings. This tragedy shaped my family history but I am also extremely aware of and deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian family histories that have been shaped and blighted by Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.
What has this story got to do with yoga? Well everything and nothing. The thing it taught me most is that racism is very very real and that the legacy of colonialism echoes down the generations. It taught me that the impact of a single racist act can have so many different and far reaching implications. It also taught me that a crisis, such as we are experiencing now, can bring racism to the fore.
I grew up in the shadow of my uncle’s death. It haunted my father deeply and impacted my childhood in so many ways.
When I think about black people in America living with the ancestral trauma of five hundred years of slavery, racism, segregation, lynching and police brutality – I know I can’t even begin to imagine what that feels like because I know the impact just one generation of race related trauma has had on my family’s life. I know that we must do everything in our power to end systemic oppression.
For a long time, I just wanted to assimilate – to be as British as possible. I tried not to think about racism. That was a luxury afforded to me because although I have brown skin and curly hair I also have passing privilege. It was only in 2013 when my younger brother died suddenly aged just twenty-nine that I fully understood the far reaching impact of colonialism. I understood that BIPOC could not just shield themselves from structural inequality by speaking nicely and drinking tea.
The year after my brother died, I became ill with a bad strain of shingles called Ramsay Hunt Syndrome which paralysed the left hand side of my face and caused lasting damage to my nervous system leaving me with chronic illness. Shingles can be triggered by grief and trauma. All my life experiences had lead up to this illness.
Yoga was and still is, my saviour. I became a teacher because I wanted to help others but I am still struggling to see where I fit in. I am still trying to figure out how to connect with the people who need the kind of yoga I would like to offer.
To MoreYoga’s huge credit they made yoga accessible to me from an economic stand point and I was able to practice everyday in the run up to my teacher training. I also did their School of Svadhyaya training and I am deeply grateful that they gave me this incredible opportunity, as a non-bendy BIPOC teacher. I don’t think this would have happened at any other studio in London.
I do believe that we are currently in the process of dismantling old structures but there is so much work to do and it’s essential to keep having conversations about how we can make the yoga world a more inclusive and diverse place. Structural racism and systemic oppression are diametrically opposed to everything we stand for as yogis. We all have a part to play.