Andrea MacDonald on the challenges of diversity in yoga studios and sorting out privilege — interview # 2

Andrea MacDonald

Andrea MacDonald

I’ve interviewed yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald before, but she’s someone who has much more to offer on the vast subject of privilege.   It’s easy for me to disengage when someone with significant cultural capital talks about diversity (it often seems subconsciously more about them being champions of an enlightened concept rather than anything really inclusive ) , but Andrea is mindful of her particular privileges and, more than that, she’s working for inclusion — not the easier, superficial kind, either. A second Words Away interview with her follows below :


Often even the kind of diversity touted most comprises people with very similar sensibilities — the preaching to the choir effect, if you will.  Simply because of the way it’s been commodified, yoga tends to be something one is most aware of within a certain income bracket, within a “nice” town, or with a certain kind of education.  What have you found about diversity within that framework?  And, is Community Yoga Vancouver attracting diversity beyond it?     

 I think our organizing attracts a wide range of folks, both people who are already in the yoga networks and folks who are more activist-oriented — and folks who are curious about yoga but haven’t gone for any number of reasons. We’ve had people come to workshops who have never heard of concepts like un-ceded indigenous territory, or what rape culture is. That said, our organizing has limits. We often advertise through Facebook which means the network of people who show up are connected to us by no more than a few degrees of social connection. We’ve also done some street outreach and poster-ing, and folks have definitely shown up to our classes who either can’t afford yoga normally – or have been told it will help them but didn’t feel comfortable in a yoga studio space. We’re hoping the community will grow larger and more diverse when we open our own space and have some money to commit toward outreach outside of Facebook.

It will always be a challenge to host a space that draws in the diversity we are seeking to embody in our community – but it’s a challenge worth taking on. Many of our teachers – though I can especially speak for myself with this point – look like “regular” yoga teachers, but find a lot of yoga culture pretty abhorrent. This has lead us to try to offer something really different from regular yoga studios. We strive to have the difference we offer be felt, rather than proclaimed explicitly. That has been a big shift for us, how to make a space feel accessible, rather than just saying that it is – a proclamation which can feel intimidating for folks who aren’t familiar with more radical politics. We have our gaps of course. Our classes often have more white folks than people of colour, and up until now, we haven’t been able to find a space that is wheelchair accessible. We try to remember, though, that we are up against some pretty big systems that produce real barriers, barriers that take time to dismantle and work around.

 Many of our teachers – though I can especially speak for myself with this point – look like “regular” yoga teachers, but find a lot of yoga culture pretty abhorrent.

We’ve recently found a wheel chair-accessible space, and it’s our goal to offer safer space classes when we open the new space. Classes for folks of colour, taught by a South Asian teacher. Classes for queer and trans folks, taught by queer and trans teachers. Classes for folks with fat bodies, taught by a fat teacher. We have to start somewhere and that starting place is imperfect, complicated and shaped by capitalist, colonial, hetero, ableist, white supremacist patriarchy. Those are some big forces to come up against – all we can do is try. That’s our practice – to just keep trying until it works, or at the very least works better than it does now in regular studios. We evaluate as we go and choose not to give up, even when it feels overwhelming and scary and impossible.  We have to breathe and just keep trying.

How has it been finding teachers who are people of color, disabled — generally outside of what’s most commonly perceived as the yoga mold?  It seems pivotal to Community Yoga Vancouver’s goal — which would have your chosen vocation, the way its defined and the way it defines others not dominated by people with your relative privileges.  

I think you touched on a problematic dynamic that certainly exists. At Community Yoga we’ve had to be very vigilant and make difficult decisions with regard to our collective membership. Quite a few people have expressed a desire to teach with us, and we used to have a pretty open door policy. Allowing whoever wanted to teach to do so and not having clear protocol about how to join and what is required, meant we ended up with some teachers who didn’t reflect the values we wanted to embody. Since then we’ve really shifted gears, especially as we look to opening our own space. Over the course of our collective’s existence we’ve had quite a wide range of teachers – some folks of colour, quite a few queer folks and a self-identified fat teacher as well.  Even so recently we ended up with a collective full of white, able-bodied, cis-gendered women, and we had to ask ourselves – is this the kind of collective we want? This was a really difficult question to answer. Eventually we settled on the decision that some of the original members needed to part ways with the new members so that we could create space to build a more diverse group. We’re in the process of rebuilding now and we are very careful and thoughtful with regard to who we work with.

We’re focusing on building a collective that reflects the diversity we hope to cultivate in our space. It’s a really challenging process because we don’t want to tokenize anyone and it can feel wrong turning down talented teachers and healing practitioners (we’re opening a community-based healing space) simply because they don’t reflect the diversity we’re searching for. It’s a good reason, but that doesn’t make it uncomplicated. That said, as our collective has grown we are cultivating the diversity we want to see and it has made a tremendous difference. Even if you just look at our newly created protocol you can see an indigenous influence that was not there before. You can see the wisdom of older folks influencing the younger founders. This balance is contributing to us doing some of the most solid, thoughtful work we’ve done so far. It gives me faith that our project will grow in the direction we’ve always dreamed it would – a truly accessible, diverse space; rich for learning, growth and social justice organizing.

I think it’s also important to mention that at a certain point we just had to recognize and accept that the yoga world/industry/community is inaccessible – so it is going to be harder for us to find teachers with physical disabilities, or teachers of colour. When we recognize that reality, our work becomes about changing the landscape of what yoga looks like in Vancouver. We’re also connected to projects across the country that do great work opening up dialogue and teaching/learning opportunities for a wide range of people. The teacher training at Karma Teachers and the work of South Asian American Perspective on Yoga in America are great examples.

How so exactly regarding the indigenous influence in the new protocol?

An example would be the ritual that is written into our protocol for when someone leaves the collective. Members who are leaving now have the option to be swept with cedar boughs, and for the boughs to be cleansed in a river so the energy can be released. This ritual ties us to the land and medicine around us, and that is one of the fundamental purposes of our work.

I’m sorry to hear that some potential teachers are being turned away, though it does seem like such comes from genuinely complicated reasoning.  Diversity as a goal is too often conceptual, or something of a mantra,  with both most frequently heralded and crafted by people who are privileged.  How have/do you come to terms with your own privileges in this arena?      

It’s a tough balance for sure. A big part of coming to terms with my privilege has been granting myself the space to make mistakes and take criticism. Part of the reason diversity is so hard to cultivate is that big, huge, seemingly insurmountable systems of power work to keep us segregated and disconnected. When I make a mistake I may not be responsible for the system I’m in that made that mistake feel easy and sensical to me, but I am still responsible for my actions and how they impact people. People aren’t mad because I’m a bad person, they’re angry because my actions fall in line with a system that does violence to them and those they love. Those are big feelings and actions with serious consequences. It’s not about me – it’s about truly and deeply challenging f***ed up power systems. Learning to take meaningful action well is a hard path, but I can’t imagine organizing any other way.

Coming to terms with my privilege has been an emotional, mental, spiritual and political journey. I’m more careful now to question how much space I’m taking up. I try to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to take up space where I am usually relied on for leadership – or spaces where I just feel comfortable talking and teaching, when there may be others whose voices are being ignored. I try to do grudge work with a smile on my face – part of being an anti-racist ally is doing the work that isn’t glamorous, but that needs to happen and lightens the workload of someone whose voice needs to be heard more then mine. I also really take my time to process critiques and have started teaching and learning more and writing less. I do this in order to build relationship with community, rather than fuel my own ego. I basically question myself constantly, but I try to do it in a gentle way, where I’m not attempting to destroy myself to absolve guilt for my privilege.

Coming to terms with my privilege has been an emotional, mental, spiritual and political journey. I’m more careful now to question how much space I’m taking up. I try to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to take up space where I am usually relied on for leadership – or spaces where I just feel comfortable talking and teaching, when there may be others whose voices are being ignored.

Listening more is key – listening and taking action based on what I hear. So when other collective members told me that we need to recruit more people of colour and not more white folks, I stuck to what they said – even though it would be easier in the short-term not to listen.

About the classes Community Yoga offers to specific kinds of people whom are usually under-served, neglected, was there a call from these folks, specifically, about a need for such?

The impetuses for these classes came from a movement that is happening across North America. They also came from people specifically asking for them and from us seeing a gap in services. There are studios and teachers across North America offering populations specific classes, and these classes are changing communities and helping people heal. We’ve also had specific requests through our website and Facebook page. And there is definitely an element of us making an offering that may or may not be desired – an offering that we see as beneficial, that doesn’t resonate for everyone.

My hope is that we can make yoga welcoming, relatable and affordable enough for it to seem desirable to lots of people. Not everyone will be into it – but some people will, and they may even build a rad community with us. And that’s good enough for us.

I’m curious what your experience with crowdfunding for studio space has been like.  Crowdfunding has been praised as a new frontier, particularly for projects that wouldn’t necessarily fit the most commercial model of enterprise.  Your campaign didn’t meet all of its goal, but it was fairly successful (or at least more so than some other relatively ground-level ones are). Any thoughts on crowdfunding in general?

I think crowdfunding, like anything, is a double-edged sword. It’s paving a new path for funding that relies more on community than instructions and the whims of wealthy funders. At the same time, it requires a lot of labour to fulfill perks and keep funders happy. If the people you are getting funding from have more money (and therefore more privilege), you will be funded more easily. It’s not a process that is free of the complications of privilege and power systems – nothing is.

If the people you are getting funding from have more money (and therefore more privilege,) you will be funded more easily. It’s not a process that is free of the complications of privilege and power systems – nothing is.

It takes skill and experience to put together a successful campaign. We will be more successful if and when we crowdfund again, because we learned how to be better fundraisers by partially failing the first time around. Crowdfunding relies entirely on relationships and getting full buy-in from your team. It seems these days that everyone who is doing something cool, edgy, meaningful – or even blatantly self-indulgent – has tried or thought about or a crowdfunding campaign. These campaigns are only as successful as their idea is relevant and well communicated. But the bottom line, no matter what, is that you have an idea that can connect with and galvanize a community.

Thanks again to Andrea for her time.  

 Check out her blog at http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/

And Community Yoga Vancouver here: http://www.communityyogavancouver.com

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