Tag Archives: yoga

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

Andrea MacDonald on yoga and breaking it from a shallow mold

Andrea MacDonald

Andrea MacDonald

On her blog, yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald has explored how secluded much of the discipline is–at least as it’s most widely known.  This may seem fairly obvious to some, but there are few words to that effect.  So, here’s some more, in the form of a Words Away interview with her:

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There should probably be a distinction made between what I associate yoga with — at its broadest, most commercial level — and what it is in general, along with what you think it can be.

Yoga at a broad commercialized level is most commonly associated with white, slender, flexible, often female bodies. Bodies like mine. Usually these bodies are striking poses in spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, softly lit studios. Of course there is the prominent material association with particular kinds of food (coconut water), clothing (lululemon) and culturally appropriated, often inconsistently paired iconic religious imagery (Buddha heads and women wearing bindis for example).

I think Frank Jude Bocio explains it well when he says:

“Rather than question the capitalist model of consumerism, with its creation of ever more desires and false needs for product, contemporary yoga has become a more than willing accomplice. Rather than presenting an alternative to the concomitant ideology of North American individualism, which prioritizes and valorize the isolate ‘self’ over the relational matrix, it has eagerly embraced it.”

What all of this signals is a sense of shallowness to our westernized, commercialized yoga practice. Yoga’s development as a philosophy and as a fitness trend, has taken place over thousands of years, all across the globe. It doesn’t have a central coordinating body, or even a central text necessarily — though one might argue the yoga sutras fill this role. The point is that yoga is not really definable. The word yoga evokes different feelings, images, communities and intentions. It’s used by the military to teach focus as readily as it’s employed by progressive activists to heal from burn out. It knows no fixed identity. In some ways, this is what lends yoga it’s power, popularity, mystery and appeal.

 How did you find your way to yoga?

For me, yoga started as a tool for personal growth and healing. I turned to the practice at 18 after being sexually assaulted at a time when I was suffering from severe anxiety and moderate addiction. You might be surprised to hear how many people have stories like mine. Most people come to yoga to heal some kind of suffering. This creates an often unacknowledged dark side to our communities, but also makes what we offer a powerful tool to build resilience, relaxation and sustainable political resistance.

Eventually my practice fell away as I took up a more than full time commitment to environmental and social justice activism. With my first experience of burn-out after the 2010 Olympics I came back to yoga. My practice was a balancing force of stillness and calm in my busy, chaotic, force-focused life. Eventually that balanced tipped so far out of whack I found myself exhausted, lonely (even while surrounded by community) and even more burnt out than where I started.

Needing to regroup and heal I took my teacher training and spent a year studying, teaching and living at Occupy Vancouver. I saw this time as “cocooning.” This year I’ve come out of the protective space I cultivated, newly inspired. I want to use yoga as a form of community organizing and open up political dialogue about the meeting places between our bodies, our breath and the realities of our lives. I founded Community Yoga Vancouver with teachers who care about making yoga more heartfelt, uncomplicated and accessible. As best we can we’re eliminating the material crap that keeps people from practicing or feeling like they don’t belong.

You’ve written some about how non-inviting yoga can be to people outside a very specific demographic, both financially and culturally.  Yoga’s most financially viable element seems to be tied to traditional lookism, in the way that many health outlets are.  How difficult is it to maintain a venue that’s counter to that?

Like I said before, there are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga. Yoga studios capitalize on peoples’ insecurities about their bodies and on their deep loneliness and disconnection from spiritual fulfillment. They promise students’ the “yoga butt” (or some other ridiculous incentive) that simply keeps people trapped in a cycle of self-hatred, judgement and grasping. Not all studios do this, but many, particularly those that see the practice as simply a fitness trend, do. It’s a frustrating trend to watch grow and one that demands a consistent critique — I feel.

. . . There are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga.

For us — it was completely natural to open a space that celebrated and offered sacred protection to bodies that fall outside the norm, which really, is most bodies. We don’t promise our students they will magically transform into someone else. We offer them space to be exactly as they are. In practicing self acceptance our students support each other to do the same. Hopefully this ripples out to the broader community as well.

We really do believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga and we work to challenge the commonly held definition of what that sentiment means. We teach our students to find contentment and acceptance in their bodies. We teach them skills to balance fierce presence with deep surrender. We want them to acquire love and reverence for each moment – even when that moment demands struggle.

This was natural to us politically, but also personally. My partner in the project is a self-identified fat-femme-queer teacher. As her ally I willingly identify the anonymity,  access and privilege I have in a regular studio. I can blend in if I want because I’m thin and flexible, but that is not what my practice is about. Also that is not to say she isn’t flexible. She can open her hips waaaay wider than I can.

My practice and teaching is about honouring truth and discovering authentic embodiment. I think it’s dangerous to take steps away from that understanding, to make your practice conditional on your body looking and performing a particular way. Doing so will take you away from the fundamental truth that this practice, this life, is ultimately grounded in your breath and that is something almost anyone can access. It is not always an easy process because we don’t have a well-rehearsed business plan, like most other studios. We have to be creative and willing to take risks. We are lucky to have mentors and a quickly growing support network of senior teachers lifting us up, celebrating and encouraging our work. We are by no means dong this work alone.

I’m not sure that real diversity makes for something as easy as people would like it to be, nor that it makes for the kind of serenity people who practice yoga generally associate with its natural environment.  At its simplest level, it’s just fairer.  As a yoga instructor who wants to tap into that, what are your thoughts on the kind of diversity that’s perpetually lacking because it isn’t easy?

I think most studios see diversity and accessibility as most directly related to class prices. Sometimes they will offer a free class or two or do energy exchanges for free passes and they consider this opening up their studio. It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

The barriers are more complex than price. Some studios intentionally create, though usually don’t acknowledge, the barriers they set up to accessing their space. They want their studio to have a sense of a prestige. They aim to increase the sense of belonging for a select, privileged group. Some of this is related to “just paying the rent,” but much of it is masked elitism and classism.

There is an implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that yoga studios are places of serenity and therefore are not political, but this simply isn’t the case. The politics of belonging play out in every class where every students look, dress and move in the same way. We are grooming people into the status quo and calling it liberation.

In some ways, these dynamics make our work at Community Yoga Vancouver easier. By taking a stance against exclusion people can see what we are not. There is a growing resentment toward corporate yoga culture and, in a way, we make use of that. The physical space for our classes is sparse, unevenly lit and strangely shaped. It’s a typical East Van anomaly and we chose it on purpose. We want to embrace the strange, the unpredictable and the unpolished. We value raw honesty over pedicured pretense and it shows in our space, our politics and our classes.

Some neighborhoods are just more stressful than others, and I’ve heard the sentiment of how great yoga could be for the people who live in some of the harshest ones from people who have some familiarity with those places while fitting in well enough with the typical yoga demographic.  I’ve felt like this was one of those obvious sentiments that generally ignores the way the world often works.  The financial and cultural divide between the two worlds is a great one, so where do you think the border is?  And how out of the way is it for people on either side?

There is some incredible work being done to offer yoga to marginalized communities — prisons, women’s shelters etc. Street Yoga, Yoga Outreach – they do wonderful inspiring work to offer yoga without all the glitz and stuffiness of a studio setting. In terms of neighbourhoods though, I think yoga teachers and studio owners, people who have personally benefited a great deal from learning about yoga, often take the attitude that yoga will always be welcome and helpful, wherever they offer it. Frequently there is a sense of perceived need and yoga is offered as a solution. The problem is that often we aren’t asking — what is the actual problem here? Is it a lack of yoga? Or are we looking at a community shaped by a history of racism, colonization, violence against women and institutionalized poverty? When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

All that said — I think yoga can work to increase well being and deepen connection to spirit, if people want to learn the practice. Even so, for yoga service to work well we need to be conscious of the context, the historical and political realities, within which we make our offerings. Without this knowledge we’re imposing solutions that are not grounded in understanding. We run the risk of reinforcing and deepening the divide between server, service and served.

For Community Yoga Vancouver it was important to acknowledge a service gap that exists between very marginalized people and middle- to upper class people. Both these populations have people working to provide them with yoga, though in starkly different ways. What this produces is a gap between the two groups, where the working class is underserved. We created a pricing structure that makes yoga accessible to people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, but aren’t necessarily experiencing life-altering poverty. This approach was hugely influenced by the Community Acupuncture movement, which seeks to serve the same population and also utilizes a community based model.

Is it a necessity to practice yoga in a group?  Is there anything that you think is gained from it as a social endeavor?   

Fundamentally, yoga is a journey inward, sometimes to a fault. It has often been used as a transcendental, individuating practice. “Turn inward to find the divine.” This approach lends itself simultaneously to reinforcing attachment to the self, in the short term, and on the other hand, supports empty rhetoric about discovering oneness. Actually discovering “one-ness” takes more dedication that the average yoga practitioner possesses —  myself included, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Can you see the contradiction here? You come to yoga alone, leave alone and then wear a t-shirt that says “We Are All One.” If we really believe that, if we really want to honour our connection to divinity and therefore to each other and existence in general, why not do so both in our practice and in our politics? It’s not an automatic connection, but it’s one we can cultivate.

That’s a pretty heady answer. So let’s break this down a bit. Yes, you can practice yoga alone. I have an at-home practice I find invaluable. The limits of this, though, are that we perpetuate self reliance over community ties. We don’t learn to release tension and holding in a trusted circle of our peers: people who are hoping for the same release, release that can only come with trust.  Trust in the safety of our bodies, the safety of space and the safety we find in community.

We don’t offer our presence up in service to others when we practice at home. We lose the potential for connection. When we practice together we offer ourselves up as examples of people in process. We might be turning inward to discover peace and stillness, but we do it together because part of our practice is developing unconditional support for ourselves and by extension, for others. When we practice together we build empathy because whatever patience we show ourselves, we extend to everyone else in the room. This kind of radical empathy and space-holding makes for rich, lasting community ties … and hopefully solidarity as well.

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Thanks to Andrea for her time.  Find her blog at http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/