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whiteness is disembodiment:

Notes on white cultural loss

Becoming white is a process of disembodiment.

Growing up in south Louisiana, I was surrounded by Cajun culture, eating boiled crawfish, shrimp etouffee and boudin, listening my grandparents speak Cajun French (their native tongue), and watching old folks Cajun dance at weekend festivals. As a kid I didn’t know how special that was: to be a white person living among a thriving subculture of my own ancestry.

Cajun culture lives on through a mix of economic disempowerment, geographic isolation, and the will of our people. The Cajuns endured forced assimilation in similar fashion to many other ethnic groups. My grandmother grew up speaking Cajun French, but tells the story (echoing so many other initiatives to wipe out culture) of being rapped on the knuckles with a wooden ruler by the teacher for speaking her mother tongue in the schoolyard. Cajuns were cast as a backwards, unintelligent people with everything to gain by giving up their rural ways.

My grandparents, along with many other Cajuns, went along with this. Joining the Air Force, they were able to leave their dirt road town and travel the world. They spoke French to each other only, their own private language, but did not teach my mother or her sisters. They assimilated; they ascended.

The 1980s and 90s were a period of reckoning for Cajun folks, some of whom realized that without concerted effort, the language and all it holds within it would die out with the old folks. French immersion programs were started in public schools, Cajun cooking shows gained traction, Beausoleil won a Grammy, etc.

For many white people in the United States, an upbringing without a coherent cultural narrative is the norm. We are mutts, our backgrounds a mix of largely indistinguishable European lineages. The Irish, the Italians, some Jews to varying degrees, have long ago assimilated, “become white” as it were, traded the specificities of their heritage for the normative ease and homogeneity of whiteness.

Cajuns, on the other hand, have largely escaped the fate of so many other European-American cultures. Make no mistake--I am white, and my Cajun heritage doesn’t deny me white privilege. South Louisiana remains a deeply segregated place, and the racism that exists in all other parts of the country is present here as well. But having a connection to a deep ancestral lineage with intact cultural practices is by and large just not reality for many white people in the United States these days, and I’ve always had that.

I live in New Orleans now, but travelling to Acadiana, where my people have been, uninterrupted, for hundreds years, I had a realization. Watching an old Cajun couple glide around the dance floor on golden threads, I can see it--being Cajun is an embodied existence. All the cultural mores of Cajun-ness live in the body. Language, food, dance, music; these are connected to our corporeal form. They are enacted by tongue, teeth, feet, ears, and arms.

When these practices go away, or have their specificity dissolved into the sameness of whiteness, we are left as floating heads. We become intellects with no limbs, no trunks. This lack of embodiment defines (or at the very least tinges) all of whiteness. White people have been disembodied for generations.

Despite growing up surrounded by my Cajun heritage, I always felt mostly adjacent to it. I loved my grandmother’s cooking, but I didn’t speak her language. Partner dancing seemed embarrassing to me as a self-conscious youngster, and Cajun music sounded whiny and frenetic to my ungrateful ears. Even as I was immersed in embodied culture, I could not practice it myself.

This is a tremendous loss.

This loss is something we cannot speak of, to each other or ourselves. The construct of whiteness is upheld first and foremost by its invisibleness. Whiteness exists by making itself invisible: all aspects that are distinct or distinguishing must be abdicated to assimilate into whiteness, lest we insinuate that whiteness is a thing at all. So we can’t see the loss, even though we wander grief-stricken, groping for any sense of embodiment that connects us to our souls.

How did yoga asana become such a phenomenon in the West? It pairs embodiment with deep spiritual meaning---or at least the vestiges of it. And as white people, we eat it up. It feeds our invisible, unspoken hunger. It fed mine.

Yoga is particularly complex as a practice for white people to engage. Indian people “shared” the practice with Westerners, yes. And that sharing happened under the jurisdiction of a British colonial state and the post-colonial mess that was left.

To say it was freely given is a gross oversimplification of the power structures at play. So what are we, well-meaning white people, to do? Can we begin to examine our true intentions in practicing these arts that are not ours? What isn’t ours? Can we give it back? Can we stop taking it?

And can we start to examine the practices that do belong to us that have been lost? So many European cultures from whence we descended have folk song, dance, drumming, cuisine, costume, language, traditional medicine, and nature-based rituals. What might it mean to take on the work of reconnecting with these lost ancestral arts and practices? What wounds might that heal?

It’s like we have had to put on someone else’s body in order to have one. We’re so divorced from our own bodies, our ancestors bodies. This disembodiment causes disconnection from our lineage and a lack of respect for other cultures. We got told that whiteness is nothing, because it has to stay neutered, invisible in order for the system to function. And we believed it.

Our ancestors traded specificity for power; lineage for privilege. And they passed on the power and privilege and we lost the specificity and lineage. Because of white invisibility, we love the cultures of people of color. We love yoga and meditation and jazz and hip hop because they are exotic, other, unknown. Whiteness is banal, mundane, square, and patently uncool.

Our ancestors are Sicilian, Germanic, Gaelic, Norse, Acadian. But I don’t know how to say the Hail Mary in Cajun French. I’ve never been to Aix-en-Provence. I learned to make a roux from the Joy of Cooking. We’ve never seen the traditions of our people. They are foreign to us. We are foreign to ourselves.

We seek other cultures to replace our own. Instead of learning Italian prayers, we teach ourselves chants in Sanskrit. Instead of making tree altars to Celtic goddesses, we wear Ganesh tshirts. Instead of Klezmer folk dancing, we learn to stand on our heads. We henna our hands and bindi our third eyes. We are no closer to Sanskrit than we are to Italian, yet Sanskrit seems more appealing, more accessible. Because to call attention to how we have no connection to those who came before unsettles the system, a system that even if we don’t intend to be, we are holding up with our very existence.

Here are some questions I’m asking in an attempt to repair the breach.

What does reorienting look like? How can we lean into our own lineages, no matter how broken? What are the spiritual and cultural practices that might actually be mine?

How can I find out more about them? Who is already doing this work? How can I learn from these people?

What are my internalized ideas about the inferiority or non-existence of white culture? Can I hold space for my grief around the bereftness of whiteness? What does it feel like to be in my body in an un-appropriated way? What grief is buried there that might be unearthed? What are the practices that reconnect me to a lineage that is mine, however shredded the threads?

I don’t have to have all the answers, and neither do you. But we do have to keep asking ourselves and each other the hard questions. We do have to keep trying our hardest to destroy white supremacy, not by ignoring it, but by lifting up the strands of ethnic and cultural heritage that were sublimated in order to create it.

We are surely more connected to our own ancestors’ practices than we are to those espoused by an unrelated people on the other side of the planet. Whiteness may be less enticing, less sexy, less thrilling. But perhaps for white people to pursue our own ancestral practices is more human. More humanizing.

Whiteness is disembodiment, but there is knowledge in your DNA. There is wisdom in your bones. Can we resurrect the dances of our grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother? Can we reanimate the songs our uncles sand in the fields, by the fires? What remembering happens in dreams? Can we call it forth into waking?


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white entitlement: on quitting yoga and what comes next

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I published an essay last week about why I’m quitting teaching yoga (tldr: white people should stop engaging in cultural appropriation), and all week I’ve been corresponding with people across a variety of mediums to discuss this in depth.

Below are some of the questions people have been asking me  this week along with my answers. I’m not an expert on any of this, but I am invested in holding space to continue the conversation.

Might it be possible for it not to be appropriation for white people to practice/teach yoga? How could we do that?

Maybe, but it’s pretty unusual. I think it would require an ongoing relationship with Desi teachers, something most white people don’t have and wouldn’t know where to find if they went looking for it. It would also look like a continual contextualizing both of yoga’s roots, acknowledging that these practices come from a specific place and culture that we are not part of, and of our own position as white people in a white supremacist culture.


It might also look like an approach to teaching and practice that emphasizes the philosophy as much as the postures, and not mashing up New Age philosophy and pop psychology and still calling it yoga. Do you know anyone doing all of this?

Wait, but seriously, didn’t some of the old gurus WANT westerners to practice yoga? Doesn’t that make this cultural exchange and not appropriation?

I think the problem with that reasoning is that it decontextualizes those choices from the capitalist colonialist framework  that they happened within. Which isn’t to say that the gurus weren’t aware of that context themselves, but that it’s mighty convenient for us to use that as an excuse without looking really deeply.

Google “Vivekananda world’s fair” if you want to learn about that context. Like, yoga literally came to the west at a *world’s fair* dedicated to *Christopher Columbus*. If that’s not colonialism, I don’t know what is.

That said, there are some living lineages (Iyengar, for instance) where the invitation for westerners to practice is clear and continual and the lineage of teachers is unbroken, ie, there are Indian teachers in the Iyengar family who are still actively extending this invitation to westerners. That doesn’t make it not problematic, but it does clean up the question of lineage a bit.

In what ways are Desi people harmed by white people teaching yoga?

Let me start by saying that I don’t need for anyone to justify their pain on this issue. If a Desi person says they’re harmed, I believe them, full stop. I’m no expert on Desi experiences and am speaking here from my own understanding and paraphrasing of what I’ve read/heard/been told. I welcome feedback from Desi people.

But for the sake of understanding, the way it’s been explained to me is that how we practice and teach yoga in the west isn’t really yoga at all, most of the time. It’s poses with a tiny bit of philosophy thrown in. And it’s painful to see the way this diluted practice is held up as though it’s the same thing as Yoga.

Add to that that many Desi people are excluded or tokenized (or both) when they try to practice at studios, which is extra painful because part of why yoga is marketable is because it is “exotic” to westerners. So we’re capitalizing off a diluted, exotified practice that Desi people can’t find a place to practice. And that’s harmful.

Another larger point is that when white people benefit off cultural practices that are not ours (as in when a white person makes money teaching yoga), it keeps the Desi people who they come from from being able to access the economic and cultural capital associated with those practices.

White people benefit both from the ways that yoga is “exotic” and from the ways we change/dilute yoga to make it more palatable for a white, western audience. Desi people benefit from neither of these.

Can I keep teaching yoga poses that I love if I just don’t call myself a yoga teacher?

If you’re ready to divest from yoga, I wonder what it would be like to experiment with just not using any yoga poses at all for awhile, just to see what that’s like. I think sometimes we like the idea of being able to use something more than we actually need to use it. Is the benefit you get from Down Dog worth a dubious moral position? I’m finally saying no.

It’s my perspective that white people would largely benefit from intentionally moving away from appropriated practices where ever possible and towards exploring our own lineages whenever we can. Stepping back from yoga poses entirely might make space for that. I have a sense that if we divest ourselves from our entitlement that there might be something far richer than getting to keep doing Down Dog on the other side of that.

Can I keep teaching yoga but support Desi groups to balance out the impact?

In terms of advocacy and support of Desi groups or individuals, yes, white yoga teachers should do that, but it’s sort of like carbon offsets and climate change. It’s a nice idea that doesn’t actually solve the core issue. And tbh, I’m more interested in moving the needle in a positive direction and not just neutralizing my negative impacts in order to feel better. I want to act as though there’s more at stake for me here. Because there is.

What about how much yoga has transformed me/my life/my students? Isn’t that worth anything?

Well yes, sort of. My white students have experienced profound transformation via the practice of yoga, but that's been at the expense of the people of color whose culture these practices come from. If what’s good for us is good at the expense of people of color, how good is that really? If what you’re doing is helpful to you and your white students only, how liberating can that be?

But I teach yoga to marginalized communities. Isn’t that important?

I think we have a tendency to conceive of liberation from a place that may inadvertently consider access to normative (rich, white, skinny, straight, etc) experiences as inherently desirable, when that isn’t necessarily true. For example, thinking that marriage equality is going to automatically make life better for LGBTQ people without actually considering the oppressive history of the institution of marriage.

Or thinking, oh, I want yoga to be accessible to low-income people or bigger bodied people or whoever, because it’s not right for only rich skinny people to have access to it (which is true!), but that’s presuming that yoga is something that we should be doing at all. I’m interested in liberation movements that center marginalized experiences. I truly believe that’s the only way out of this mess.

So do I have to just like, quit teaching yoga immediately?

If you’ve made the decision to quit teaching, you can untether from it at a rate that feels sustainable for you--find other things that help your mental health, find other ways to make money, etc.

We all suffer from the effects of living in these fucked up systems (capitalism, ableism, etc). If it takes a minute for you to divest from these systems, that’s okay! It took me the better part of a year to actually quit, from the moment I first decided I was going to. The way I announced things maybe made it look like it was a quick decision but it really wasn’t. Don’t make excuses, but also don’t martyr yourself.

What about meditation? Do I have to quit that too?

Meditation is super vast! A lot of what we know in the west is from Buddhist lineages but contemplative practice has origins all over the world, including in European Christianity.

So do I think it’s appropriation for white people to sit quietly together and breathe? No. Do I think it gets more complicated when we use tools and practices that come from other cultures? Yes. Does that mean we should never do it? I don’t know.

But honestly, my approach at this moment is to go as far away from these questions as possible and see what happens when I think wider and bigger than “Am I allowed to do this?”

What other body-based practices exist and will you ever teach them?

There are a ton  of movement practices that aren’t cultural appropriation when white people  practice them: ballet, pilates, water aerobics, etc. And yes, at some point in the future I may again teach movement classes. But until then, we can turn any practice into a practice of presence if that’s what we’re after! Biking, running, swimming, walking, stretching, etc can all be practices that get us connected to our bodies and breath.

Yoga helps me so much with feeling connected to my body/spirit/divinity. What should I do instead of that?

This is a question I’m suuuuuuper interested in. Some things I’m doing are learning about the ancestral traditions of my European lineages. What foods did they cook? What songs did they sing? What were their dances? Can you start to practice some of them, even if it feels dorky or awkward at first?

What organizations supporting Desi people can I give my money to?

SAALT is South Asian Americans Leading Together and they have a whole host of national programs. They’re at saalt.org

DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) supports South Asian low-income youth and families in New York. Find them at drumnyc.org

What about non-Desi people of color who practice or teach yoga?

This is a complicated question because the history of yoga likely predates its origins in India. (Google Kemetic yoga.) And also it’s not really my priority to weigh in on what non-white people should do on this issue. Some POC teachers and practitioners I know are having this conversation, for sure, and it’s one I’m mostly choosing to listen to rather than crow about.

What about belly dancing/capoeira/karate/etc? Should white people quit those too?

I honestly don’t know a damn thing about belly dancing or its history or how we white people ended up practicing it so I can’t give a specifically-informed opinion. But if it has followed a similar trajectory as yoga (colonization, capitalism, etc) then yes, I would imagine that the same misgivings might apply. Even if you don’t come to the same conclusions, it seems a worthwhile conversation to at least initiate.

I’m really sad that I feel like I have to quit practicing/teaching yoga. Do my feelings matter?

Of course they do! I felt them too. For a moment, I was terribly angry at what I characterized as “the loss of yoga.” But my anger was misplaced. How can I be angry at having to give back what was never ours to begin with? If you feel mad that you have to give up yoga, consider how that’s tethered to your sense of entitlement.

What I’m really mad about it the pain my white ancestors have inflicted on myriad other peoples and cultures. I’m mad about how the effects of that are still playing out, generations later. I’m mad about how much my kin had to be dehumanized (had to dehumanize themselves in order to live with that, and how they passed that disconnection on to me.

Underneath that anger is sadness. What is mine to grieve is the cultural bereftness of whiteness, all the ways that my white ancestors’ cultural traditions got lost in the process of assimilation. I’m grieving every dance, every song, every medicine, every story, every bit of traditional knowledge that was lost in the long process of “becoming white.”

Why does it feel so hard to imagine quitting yoga?

We white people have had a failure of imagination. We have been so entitled to just have the practices of other people for so long that for most of us, we literally cannot imagine our lives without them. And that’s pretty fucking sad.

It’s so ingrained in our being, in who we are and how we navigate through the world, that when we think about giving up these appropriated practices, we simply fall apart. It is deeply challenging to imagine putting it down, because well then what else is there? And that is the question that I’m really interested in.

Truly, what else is there? And where does it come from, whatever it is? And how do we find it? And how do we practice it on our own? How do we practice it together? What does it look like to have communities that are built around practicing things that aren’t appropriated, that actually come from our own ancestors?

What might that look like? What might that feel like? What might be possible if we could envision a world beyond white entitlement?

I don’t know the answers, but I believe there is something, and that’s where I’m headed. In my writing, in my practices, in all my work. That’s where I think we gotta go if we wanna get free. I hope you’ll be there too.


Much love,

Bear

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Beyond Appropriation: a letter to my fellow white yoga teachers

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It’s time for me to quit teaching yoga. It’s time for most white people to quit teaching, and potentially to quit practicing the colonized tradition that we have come to call yoga altogether.

Over the decade that I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the appropriative nature of yoga, but the conversation I’ve been having with myself about it misses the point. The current online conversation white people are having about cultural appropriation (recently, notably @yogagirl) is no better.

Is it racist, we ask ourselves, to be a white person teaching yoga? Is it cultural appropriation? Do we have the right, as white people from the United States, to teach a physical and spiritual practice that originates with brown people, Hindus on a subcontinent on the other side of the globe?

This conversation spins its wheels without any traction or forward motion. It stays firmly in the lane of acceptability and performativity instead of transformation or reconciliation.

What needs to be reconciled is our relationship as white people with our outsized racial entitlement. What needs to be transformed is our cultural and somatic bereftness.

We must have a more nuanced and impactful conversation about cultural appropriation than the one we’ve been having. Side note: I’ve been grappling with how to have this conversation in a way that doesn’t spotlight me. To showcase my process publicly is inherently performative. It’s tricky work to interrupt whiteness--in order for it to diminish, we have to look at it squarely: what it is, how it works, and how to unbind ourselves from its toxic tentacles.

My attempt here is not to center whiteness, but to center it’s dissolution. And whiteness doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not there. In order to talk about how to untether ourselves from white supremacy, we have to talk about whiteness. There’s no un-problematic way to do it.

Many other people all over the internet--namely people of color--have already explained very well why white people doing yoga is usually appropriation. If that’s information that you need, you can start here with Roopa Singh or here with nisha ahuja. I’m writing this not because we need another explanation but because we seem not to believe them.

The question of “Is yoga cultural appropriation?” has always felt more complex to me than, for instance, “Is wearing a bindi cultural appropriation?,” because it is more complex. Esoteric spiritual practices are ostensibly more difficult to parse than a hairstyle or body adornment. Yoga’s history is complicated, I told myself and my students; BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois wanted westerners to practice yoga. Didn’t they explicitly invite us in? Wasn’t this the definition of cultural sharing? Couldn’t I appreciate yoga, rather than appropriate it?

My "lineage" as a yoga teacher is that I don’t have one. I wasn’t invited in by anyone with the authority to do so. Few of my teachers have any deliberate connection to the roots of yoga, to Hinduism or India, or to Desi teachers. (Desi describes people of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora.) My teachers are mostly white people taught by white people who learned yoga from other white people. What I've studied and taught is a mishmash of yogic philosophy, New Age spirituality, and pop psychology. But I have been willing to take this diluted practice out into my community under the banner of liberation.

The truth is, I have practiced and taught yoga because frankly, it felt good and I liked it. White people have largely lost our connection to all of our ancestral embodied and spiritual practices. Yoga filled the void left by centuries of cultural bereftness and racial assimilation. Practicing yoga brought me a strong body, a stable mind, and a spirit that felt connected to something larger. Teaching yoga brought me a sense of meaningful work, a robust community of dedicated students, and enough money to pay my bills. No wonder I liked it.

But this year, things started to change. For a variety of reasons (changes in the neighborhood, more yoga studios opening in town, etc), attendance at my classes, which had once been full to bursting, started waning. My income from yoga sharply decreased, sometimes not even enough to cover my rent at the studio. While I’ve never been in the business of yoga strictly for the money, I started to wonder: was it even worth it anymore?

Writer and scholar Ibram Kendi says, “the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.”

This statement indicts me, and perhaps you too, fellow white yoga teacher. I’ve maintained my connection to yoga because it was in my economic and cultural self-interest to do so. As long as my yoga classes were full and my income from teaching was substantial enough, I was unable, or perhaps more accurately, unwilling to look deeper at the nagging misgivings I’ve always had.

For years I tried to ameliorate these contradictions by bringing my social justice background into my teachings. I gave dharma talks about patriarchy and systemic racism. I taught self-described “sliding scale, consent-based, and body positive” yoga classes. I framed up what I taught as liberatory, because I was at least making a concerted effort to push back against a system that centers rich, skinny, white women and caters to spiritual bypassing of the love-and-light variety. For a time, this framing helped to assuage my cognitive dissonance, but these mental gymnastics are all answering that same basic question:

“Is this appropriation? Is this racist? Am I allowed to do this?”

It’s not like I didn’t know that being a white person teaching yoga was problematic. I’d been called out publically for it by strangers on the internet who said yoga wasn’t mine to teach. “I’m not like those other yoga teachers,” I protested.

An Indian-American friend had privately expressed discomfort about my teaching yoga years ago. She suggested I teach “mindful movement” instead of yoga. “Isn’t that just more white-washing?,” I refuted.

I read Andi Grace’s essays about quitting yoga way back in 2014. “That’s not about me,” I told myself.  

Even my own students raised their concerns to me, asking for explanations of why we chant OM, why we say namaste, why we practice yoga at all. “Doesn’t asteya mean non-stealing?,” they queried. I ignored their input, not because of hatred or ignorance, as Ibram Kendi explains, but because of (financial, cultural, spiritual) self-interest.

That this is the culture we were raised within is not my fault, or your fault either, white reader. The systems that privilege us long precede us. Yet it is no one else’s responsibility but mine for me to stop my willful participation in the perpetuation of white supremacist culture. I have known all along, on some level, that my teaching yoga was cultural appropriation--and I was willing to do it anyway. Let me say that again: I knew it wasn’t right, and I was willing to do it anyway. My ethics got much less principled when I had something to gain from bending them.

This is how white supremacy replicates itself: quietly, selfishly, and with all good intentions.

As I announced last week, I’m quitting teaching yoga.

I am deeply sorry for the ways my participation in white yoga culture has harmed Desi people. I am particularly sorry to those who took the time and energy to point out my errors to no avail. I am sorry my own self-interest got in the way of my willingness to look deeply at myself. I am working to do better. I am committed to continuing this conversation in the communities I’m part of. This writing, hopefully, is a part of that.

Please, white readers, don’t rush to defend me against myself. This isn’t about beating myself up—this is about lovingly holding myself to a higher standard, the standard that people of color have been trying to hold me to for years already. I am capable. I am not fragile. Neither are you.

I hold a vision of liberation in which complicity isn’t connected to dehumanization and disposability, in which we can see ourselves as fully human despite our mistakes, in which our humanity is increased, not diminished, by our willingness to take accountability for our missteps. (Deep bow to Black feminist scholar bell hooks for this profound framing.)

I’m no longer interested in conversations about the finer points of cultural appropriation. I don’t want to toe the line or trade in technicalities. We can’t get waylaid with “Do white people have the right to teach yoga?” anymore. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for years now, and precious little changes from having it, save marginally soothing my own white guilt.

We have set the bar far too low for ourselves.

Some questions I am asking myself instead are:  

Is teaching yoga moving my community in the direction of liberation?

Is teaching yoga the most useful contribution I can make towards a more liberated world?

Is teaching yoga actively helping to dismantle the white supremacist system we live within?  

For me, the answer to these question is a clear and resounding NO.

Some other questions I’m asking myself are:

What am I unwilling to see because it’s in my self-interest to ignore it?

How is my unchecked entitlement making me unable to see the impact of my actions?

What do I keep doing because I like it, because I want to, because it seems impossible to quit?

What are the spiritual and embodied practices that come from my own European ancestry?

How can I actively divest myself from practices that don’t belong to me?

What am I willing to give up in order to dismantle white supremacy?

Look at our foolishness, y’all. Look at the futility of trying to be liberatory in a colonized and appropriated practice. Look at all we must willfully ignore in order to live with that contradiction.

If you care about this work, take this conversation offline and into your own communities. Talk about it at the dinner table. Discuss it at your yoga studio. Support SAAPYA and other South Asian activist groups. Pay back your profits through reparations to Desi people. But most importantly (for white people), get off the spiritual practices that were never ours and can never be ours.

It’s clear that my quitting yoga doesn’t create massive change; it’s one small action taken by one single person. But perhaps we can begin to shift a larger paradigm, one that says that we are entitled to have whichever spiritual practices we please, even if it harms other people, that says that we can take and use what we want, however we want, because what we want is already ours.

This essay isn’t actually about yoga. It’s about the better questions we have to ask ourselves as white people if we actually want to interrupt the status quo. It’s about the ways we’re being called to divest from the systems that privilege us. It’s about imagining a future where we can see clearly that what’s truly in our own self-interest is to work for the liberation of all people, especially when it seems that it’s at our own expense.

When we start to talk about this shift, about what we must renounce, that’s potentially a sea change. When white people can have honest conversations about what we must relinquish, what we must give back that was never ours to take, we may finally begin to move in the direction of true liberation.

Because no matter how you spin it, there’s no liberation in cultural appropriation.

Much love,

Bear

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a letter to my yoga students

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Hello dear ones,

This is a hard post for me to write.

Whew.

Deep breath.

Okay.

Starting in November, I’ll no longer be teaching yoga at Yoga Bywater (or anywhere.)

I’ve been a yoga teacher for 9 years now, and the decision to quit teaching is not one I’ve taken lightly. I’ve been exploring the idea for nearly a year now, toying with ways to teach differently or teach less in an effort to bring my work back into alignment. But none of those have quelled my anxiety about continuing to teach.

My classes at Yoga Bywater are being passed over to the loving care of Tracey Duncan (Tuesdays at 6pm) and Lisa Dunn (Sundays at 11am). I’ll be at the studio teaching my classes until the end of October, so come on through for one last class this month if you like. I’d love to see all y’all’s faces!

The answer as to why I’m quitting is complex and not succinctly summarized.

The first answer is that I’m quitting yoga in order to focus on other areas of my work. Writing, life coaching, and teaching courses have been on the back burner to varying degrees. I’m so very excited to be able to turn my energy more fully towards them. Know that I’m not going anywhere--I’ll keep writing blog posts and showing up on social media and this newsletter will continue to go out (in a new, revamped form!) And in fact, I hope to be showing up in all those spaces more than ever.

Another brutally honest piece of the puzzle of why I’m quitting is that I'm no longer making enough money for it to be financially sustainable. 

My once-thriving classes with 20+ students on a regular basis have shrunk to single digits in attendance. Though I’ve never been a yoga teacher solely for the money, I also can’t justify teaching classes where I make $15. Because capitalism. You might be wondering, Where did all my students go?

The yoga scene in New Orleans is wildly different from how it was in 2009, when I first started teaching. The abundance of studios around town, not to mention the multitude of options for cheap classes, are at least partially to blame. Yoga Bywater had the corner on the cheap yoga market for some years, but now there’s free yoga somewhere nearly every day of the week and most studios offer pay-what-you-can classes on their regular schedule. This is great for accessible yoga in general; not as great for my bank account. 

The Bywater neighborhood has changed: because of sky-high rent and Airbnb, fewer and fewer of my students actually live in the neighborhood where the studio is, and convenience is a major factor in what gets people to show up for class. My teaching has also changed: I’ve become less and less interested in teaching typical vinyasa flow classes, and the percentage of potential students who want to partake of my particular mash-up of functional movement, yoga and meditation is slim.

The longer answer about why I’m quitting is way, way more complicated.

I've been doing a lot of deep digging about what it means for me to be white and teaching yoga in the US in 2018. I’ll be publishing an essay next week that goes into greater detail about all of this, but the gist of it is that I've grown increasingly uncomfortable being a white person teaching yoga to other white people. Deciding to quit teaching has provided me with a profound sense of relief about this moral quandary I’ve been trying to parse for all my years teaching yoga. Stay tuned next week for a lot more thoughts about all of this.

For now, I’m profoundly grateful to you all, the web of connections we’ve woven over the past 9 years. Thank you for being alongside me as I’ve grown as a yoga teacher. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to hold space for you, to be in community with you.

I’ve got nothing but gratitude for y’all.

Much much much love,
Bear

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healing is hard work

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Hello dear ones,

I’ve been gone a lot this summer. Not physically, I’ve almost entirely been in New Orleans, but emotionally, spiritually, I’ve been gone from this space. I’ve still been working with my coaching clients every week, but largely I’ve been absent from showing up for this weekly newsletter.

For nearly three years, I diligently sent out this newsletter weekly. I wrote blog posts and rounded up links and wrote heartfelt missives every week. I was committed to this space in a deep and loving way. But for the past few months, my energy has been elsewhere.

I’ve been doing some really deep work, y’all. Dredging up old wounds, cutting off toxic relationships, tending to my deepest pains. Learning to let go of perfection. To take a different tone. To love myself with relentless tenderness.

There have been a lot of tears. Like, so many tears. Copious and free-flowing. There’s been a lot of laying belly-down in the grass and just letting the earth hold me. There’ve been a number of late night phone calls to friends when I just.can’t.stop.crying.

Part of what’s been happening is tending to the past, the unacknowledged, the denied, the “it-wasn’t-that-bad” parts of myself. Looking at it all and saying, yes, this happened, and yes, it fucked me up. Now what?

I’m sharing all of this not as a bid for care--you don’t need to email me and ask if I’m okay--but as an exercise in radical transparency. (For the record, I am being held in such profound ways by a robust community of friends and lovers and loved ones. And my 12-step people. And my therapist. And the old mama oak trees and the moon. I am well taken care of, trust me.)

And part of what’s been happening is a re-envisioning of what I’m doing in the world, of what makes my life meaningful, of who I am at a core level. Looking at myself and saying, yes, I’m worthy of a glorious life, and no, it probably doesn’t look like anything I’ve done before, and yes, it’s time to GO GET THAT SHIT.

So much of what I do in terms of business is closely adjacent to who I am, so it’s no surprise, I guess, that with all this shifting inside ME, things are also shifting in MY WORK.

I’ll be sharing more in the coming weeks about what these shifts will look like on a practical level, but for now I wanted to simply say hi, I’m still here. I am growing and it’s painful and beautiful all at once.

I’m inspired more than ever to keep showing up for myself and for us. I’ve been writing like mad, words flowing out unprompted at all hours of day and night. Big, core-shaking thoughts, and I can’t wait to share them all with you.

I so appreciate that you’re here with me on this path towards transforming ourselves and transforming the world. More big changes are on the way.

Much love, 
Bear
 

P.S. This seems like a good time to say, if that’s not what you’re here for, there are no hard feelings if it’s time for you to opt out. That unsubscribe button is there for a reason. 

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how being flaky sets you free

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A couple of weeks ago I published a post about being flaky. Did you read it?

It seems like it really got the wheels spinning for some of you, because I got so much interesting feedback about it!

The gist of the post (which you can read in full over here) is that in very many situations,  it's totally okay to put your own needs first, even if it might inconvenience someone else. It's okay to back out of something you said you wanted if you end up not wanting it later.

It's worth noting that there are some situations where flaking out or changing your mind isn't advisable or morally okay. If you're parenting, for instance, or caring for sick people, it's not okay to "flake out" on those duties unless you've made sure someone trustworthy is fulfilling them in your stead. This post also isn’t intended to make excuses for you to back out of social justice commitments if you’re in a position of privilege in the work.

But here's the thing--in order for this being flaky thing to work, there has to be clear and direct communication. Being flaky without communicating just makes you a lazy coward, and that is not who you are.

Saying clearly and directly to someone, "I know I said I would do xyz thing with you, but now I can't," is actually a very hardworking and brave thing to do. It frees you from doing things you aren't up for, and it frees your friend from having to deal with your reluctant, resentful self.  

A reader sent me an anecdote in response to this post that made me happy. Dear reader had plans with a friend to see a movie later; together they ran into a third friend and invited him along. He gleefully thanked them for the invitation and said, "If I don't come, it's because I didn't want to."

Everyone laughed at his honesty. How refreshing to know that if someone is with you, it's because they want to be there! And if they're not around, you don't have to take it personally. This is the kind of freedom that true boundaries create.

However, knowing that you can back out isn't an excuse to make commitments you know you can't keep. The clarity and directness you need to tell a friend you need to change your mind is also needed to tell yourself what you're really up for.

By becoming more skillful at knowing what you need, what you want, and what you have to offer, the number of times you'll have to be flaky will drastically decrease. Win-win.

None of this is to say that we can just be careless in the way we treat those around us. Being generally predictable is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Relationships that have some degree of stability are much more able to weather the moments of unpredictability.

And it's also not to say that being flaky doesn't have consequences. If the people you're in relationships with feel consistently neglected or disregarded by you, they may not want to be in relationship with you for very long.

This same skillfullness also helps you to see clearly when the level of someone else's commitment is workable for you. If someone else wants to spend a ton of time with you, but you don't feel the same way, being able to see the mismatch of your needs and then communicate clearly and directly about it (are you seeing the theme here?) is crucial behavior for not being a lazy coward.

And being able to see when that's a dealbreaker for you is so liberating. It may be painful, yes, to come to terms with the fact that a friend or lover simply can't reciprocate in the ways you wish they could, or vice versa. But when you're able to see what does and doesn't work for you, it's that much simpler to walk away.

Much love, 

Bear


 

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why i'm proud of being flaky

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Why do we value reliability over honesty?

So many of us, particularly those of us socialized female, have a tendency to always put the needs of others first. We’ve been trained to value being reliable and keeping our word above all else. I hear it over and over again from my coaching clients:

“I’d rather not go to that meeting/party/playdate/etc---BUT I said I would, soooooo....”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s never important to put on some #actualpants and show up for the people you’re close to. And for those with kids or other dependents, what you feel like doing isn’t always relevant.

But in so many other cases, we police ourselves and in each other into doing shit we don’t want to do.

For example, I agreed to go on a trip to Mexico this summer with a dear friend. We decided spontaneously over a glass of wine at the neighborhood wine shop. The plane tickets were so cheap that we bought them on the spot.

But in the weeks since then, I waffled. When I thought about going on this trip, I didn’t feel excited. I felt anxious. I felt “off.” It wasn’t personal to her at all, but to me, all my reasons still felt like frivolous justifications.

“I can’t just back out of this trip! We’re travelling internationally! We bought the plane tickets already. She’ll be so disappointed if I don’t go. What kind of a terrible friend am I??” etc etc. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling: I didn’t want to go. So finally, I called my friend.

“I can’t go to Mexico. I want to want to go, but I just don’t.”

She was surprised and sad and disappointed. But it was okay. She called our other travel companion to regroup, and texted later to let me know that everything was cool between us. #goodfriend

What kind of world is it if we value doing what you said you would do three weeks ago over  doing what feels like the right thing to do in this moment? Who benefits when we value reliability over authenticity?

Valuing reliability over all else relates to patriarchy, rape culture, and ableism.

In terms of patriarchy: women are taught to prioritize the needs of others over ourselves. Women are never the center of our own story. That’s not to say that men can’t or wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for others, but when they do, it’s seen as heroic, whereas when women do it, it’s seen as expected, natural, par for the course.

So when we value showing up for something simply to preserve the feelings of other people, we’re upholding that patriarchal position.

The subtle coerciveness of rape culture is based on (among other things) the assumption that consent is irrevocable. If you said you wanted to do whatever-sexy-act last week or ten minutes ago, you’re not supposed to change your mind. Changing your mind is an affront to the desires of the other person, thus, your desires are secondary. (See point #1.)

But consent culture says we’re allowed to say yes now and say no five minutes from now.

We’re allowed to change our minds. We’re allowed to back out.

Ableism presumes that your abilities stay basically the same from day to day, but for folks with disabilities, chronic illness or mental health issues, this isn’t true. Heck, it’s not true even for those of us that are (currently) able-bodied. What’s possible right now, in today’s body and mind, may or may not be possible in three hours or three days or three weeks.
 

The ability to say yes and then change one’s mind without social penalty is crucial for creating communities that are welcoming for differently-abled people.

So being flaky, aka, being okay with backing out of something you previously agreed to, might actually be the best thing you can do for yourself.

And get this, it might actually be better for the person on the other end of your agreement too. Because here’s the thing--when someone shows up to something out of obligation, YOU CAN TELL. It’s often apparent when there’s no enthusiasm.

I’m not saying to bail on people with no warning. I’m not saying to ghost your lover or no-show on your BFF. But with clear, direct communication, you can respectfully state your needs and your boundaries and do what you really need to do.

Yes, someone else might be sad that you couldn’t make it. It might put your coworker in a tizzy for a minute. But if these people really want what’s best for you, they’ll trust that you know what that is, even if it’s inconvenient or disappointing for them.

The idea that we have to prioritize other people’s feelings over our own well being--I’m through with it. It’s bullshit, and it doesn’t serve us anymore.

Here’s to unpacking coercive, ableist norms.

It makes the world better, easier, and more liberated, not just for women or disabled people, but for ALL OF US.

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On Healing A Wound

EVERY WEEK I SEND OUT A LOVE NOTE FILLED WITH RESOURCES, MUSINGS, AND INSPIRATION ABOUT WALKING THIS PATH OF YOGA AND LIBERATION. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!


•It takes as long as it takes. You can try to rush it but it doesn’t work. ⠀

•It will probably take longer than you want. ⠀

•It feels boring sometimes, and tiresome. Do it anyway. ⠀

•When you feel confused it’s because you’re avoiding seeing or dealing with something. Confusion is your ego’s way of protecting you from a painful truth. ⠀

•If you can’t see what the truth is, you’re not ready. ⠀

•You can try to skip healing, but it makes you into a lazy coward. And you are not a lazy coward. You are hardworking and brave. ⠀

•Forgiveness can’t be forced. You can’t forgive someone because they want you to. ⠀

•At it’s best, forgiveness is partners with accountability. But most of the time, forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with your own work. ⠀

•When there is no accountability and forgiveness seems impossible, acceptance is a good first step. Just work on accepting that the truth is true. Accept your feelings as true and valid. Accept that harm has been done. Accept the reality of your pain.

•That’s enough for now. 

Much love, 

Bear

P.S. IF YOU LIKE WHAT I WRITE EACH WEEK, I'D LOVE TO KEEP IN TOUCH. SIGN UP FOR WEEKLY LOVE LETTERS DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX BY CLICKING HERE. IF YOU HAVE THE MEANS, CONSIDER MAKING A FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION TO SUPPORT MY WORK

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The Names We Call Ourselves

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EVERY WEEK I SEND OUT A LOVE NOTE FILLED WITH RESOURCES, MUSINGS, AND INSPIRATION ABOUT WALKING THIS PATH OF YOGA AND LIBERATION. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!

Fat. Ugly. Boring. Stupid. Crazy. Lazy. Selfish. Liar.

Do these words feel shocking?? Would you ever call someone else a fat ugly boring stupid crazy lazy selfish liar? Probably not. (I hope not!!)

When I taught Affirmations for Assholes in January,  everyone wrote down the adjectives they use to beat themselves up.

What do you say to yourself when you feel bad about yourself? What are the words you use to judge yourself?

Then we shared them together so we're able to get those words off the page and out of our brains and out into the open.

That list up there is the words that more than half of the participants wrote down.

UGH. I hate that list. I hate that we feel this way about ourselves.

But there is power in sharing how we feel.

Part of the power of coming together with other people in community (side note: I know that community can feel like such an overused buzzword that it’s almost devoid of meaning), when we are in intentional space with other people, we’re given a lens into the systemic and structural issues that are playing out inside our brains.

When you are alone, it often feels like the issues and problems that are coming up for you are because of your own personal failure, your individual defects, your deficiencies.

But when you’re in a room with other people, you start to see that everyone is experiencing some semblance of the same types of failures, the same types of struggles, the same types of roadblocks. Everyone calls themself the same names as you.

Everyone else thinks they’re ugly and boring and lazy too.

Once you notice the similarities, you’re left with two choices: either everybody in this room just happens to be a bunch of hideous, uninteresting, unaccomplished human beings OR there is something systemic going on that encourages us to feel that way about ourselves.

It’s not hard to see how these adjectives are very directly tied to systemic oppression.

Capitalist and puritanical ideals about work and productivity inform our sense of ourselves as lazy. Patriarchal and racist standards of beauty are thrown at us daily from all forms of media, confirming our suspicions that we’re aesthetically subpar.

(Side note: I don’t ascribe to the idea that fat is an insult! People certainly use it that way, but fat is simply a descriptor that could be neutral if we lived in a different culture that didn’t have such rigid rules about what bodies are acceptable and what bodies are to be shamed and disciplined. Read Dr. Roxane Gay for more on this! )

(Also also, crazy is a word that upholds ableist and neurotypical ideals about mental health. It's messed up that we use this pejoratively!)

So when we come together, we can start to untangle the ways that our own inner voices are hijacked by the narratives of the dominant culture. When we can see the outer influence, we can start to hear our own inner kindness a little more clearly.

“Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save us.” -Yolo Akili

Much love, 

Bear

P.S. Registration closes for Affirmations for Assholes tomorrow! This course is offered online, so it's available from everywhere. In one month, you'll excavate and rewrite the terrible narratives you tell yourself, in the container of a loving community, with support from me! All the details are over here: bearteachesyoga.org/a4a or just click the image below! 

 



 

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What I learned from being (temporarily) very busy

EVERY WEEK I SEND OUT A LOVE NOTE FILLED WITH RESOURCES, MUSINGS, AND INSPIRATION ABOUT WALKING THIS PATH OF YOGA AND LIBERATION. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!

I was way busier than normal over the course of the last two months, and lemme tell ya, I learned some things.

What was I so busy with? I was co-producing an immersive theater show about family, ancestry and white supremacy. Every night we hosted 25 people around our forty-foot-long table to see the show, eat a meal, and share in conversation about the themes of the performance.

It was about 7 hours of my time (and like, triple that in energy) every night for two weeks, not to mention all the running around and late nights and early mornings and short fuses and minor crises of the two months that preceded opening night. I learned lots about race and whiteness, got some new skills in facilitating difficult conversations, and gained lots of knowledge about producing avant-garde theater.

But unsurprisingly, I also learned a lot about myself in all of this busyness. Here’s some of it:

1. When I’m very busy, I quit taking care of myself.

Instead of letting go of the actually extraneous things (scrolling Instagram, for instance), I let go of the things that keep me sane and happy. First I quit seeing my friends, quit going for walks, quit going outside to look at the sky (can’t stop, too busy!!). Then I quit cooking for myself, doing laundry, making the bed, etc.

By the end of May I was wearing the same outfit for three days at a time and eating frozen dumplings for dinner at 1:30 in the morning. Not cute.
 

2. I relied waaaaaaaaayyyyy more on caffeine and alcohol than I usually do.

I’ve been off of coffee for about five years now (Email me if you wanna talk more about this--it drastically improved my anxiety symptoms). I generally drink alcohol once a week or so, sometimes a little more, often much less. Though I don’t drink coffee, I do sometimes use caffeine recreationally (afternoon chai latte is me living on the edge).

But in May, I was drinking tea most mornings because I was so exhausted. Then I was drinking with the cast and crew after the show every night for camaraderie and decompression.  And then I needed caffeine in the morning to function, and then I needed alcohol at the end of the night to wind down.

It was a self-perpetuating cycle, and it was draining and expensive and made my skin break out.

 

3. I realized that my free time makes me richer than money ever could.

My favorite thing is waking up and knowing there is nothing on my agenda for the day. My second favorite thing is having space on my workday mornings for yoga, meditation, journaling, breakfast, and a walk before I ever send an email or talk to a client.

These both went away when I got busy.

(NB: Though I make relatively little money, I recognize the degree of privilege I’m coming from here. My whiteness, my currently able body, my lack of family requiring my care or financial support all contribute to my privilege, which contribute to my ability to have the kind of schedule I do.)

Having a spacious schedule with enough down time and ample breathing room is worth so much to me and I’m willing to say no to things in order to protect it.

 

4. Finally, I learned that other people are really freakin busy all the time. Like way busier than me.

How are y’all doing that?

When I complained about how busy I was in April and May, other people reflected that they were that busy all the time. I seriously don’t understand how y’all are managing being so busy all the time.

If you feel like this, would you write me back and tell me how you manage? And what you struggle with? Because I think I can probably help with this issue but I need to know exactly what’s going on for y’all crazy-busy-all-the-time types.

Do you have thoughts about busyness or spaciousness or the lack thereof? I’d love to hear em! Leave a comment below! 

Much love, 

Bear

P.S. IF YOU LIKE WHAT I WRITE EACH WEEK, I'D LOVE TO KEEP IN TOUCH. SIGN UP FOR WEEKLY LOVE LETTERS DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX BY CLICKING HERE. IF YOU HAVE THE MEANS, CONSIDER MAKING A FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION TO SUPPORT MY WORK

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