Dharma Talks on Racism and Social Justice

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what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.

This whole year of 2020 has been a tough ride for everyone. The last 6 months in particular have been touch with the Coronavirus pandemic. 

However difficult this has been for me and the majority of the people I know, it has been infinitely more difficult for people of color.

Other events of this year have also brought their struggle to the forefront, triggering massive protests for social justice throughout the country.

“But I thought that yoga was all ‘Downward Dog‘ and meditation. What does social justice have to do with yoga?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yoga and Social Justice

At the end of every yoga class, you probably hear the teacher say “namaste” and then you respond (or not) “namaste.” But what does that actually mean?

“I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of Peace. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.”

That place is where our higher self exists. This means that we are all connected. 

Rhys Thomas, founder of the Rhys Thomas Institute and the creator of the Rhys Method®, a powerful system of healing (not the comedian) says, “The higher self is love. Your higher self lives in a state of oneness with the highest potential within you as well as the highest potential within all humankind. It acts as your conscience, knowing innately that you will only be happy when you treat others as you would like them to treat you.” 

To live yoga, means to live the true meaning of namaste.

So, for the last few weeks in my classes I have been connecting yogic teaching to social justice, racism, and activism in my dharma talks. You can find a few of them below. 

As I write more and more of these, I’ve decided to turn this into a series of posts, instead of one really long one.  The next in the series will focus on the 5 Yamas and how they relate to racism and social justice.

Svadhayaya & Racism

Yoga is about raising our consciousness, about transformation of ourselves into the best version of ourselves possible, to realize our higher self. One of the most important tenets of yoga and the 4th Niyama, Svadhyaya, meaning self-study, is the tool we have to get there. 

Practicing Svadhyaya means being witness to ourselves and our mental habits and habitual actions. It means asking ourselves the questions, “Why am I doing or thinking this?” “Why do I feel this way about it?” and “Does it have to be this way?” 

Practicing Svadhyaya requires Satya (honesty). To truly practice yoga is to meditate on our own belief systems, our own biases, our fixations and patterns that are ingrained within us. 

Being honest with yourself requires another yogic practice: tapas or discipline. As we practice Svadhayaya, we see that we are masters of protecting ourselves from discomfort. We are afraid to ask ourselves the tough questions; that our honest answers might reveal us to no longer be that “good person” we always thought we were. So we look at ourselves on the surface, bypassing these tough questions. But with discipline, we can sit with these uncomfortable parts of ourselves and observe them without attachment or reaction. Observe them as though from the outside looking in.

The recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin has reminded me to take yet another look at my Svadhyaya practice. It is said that silence, whether in word or deed, is complicity. So as I sit with myself in inner contemplation, I have been evaluating my own complicity with my habitual and intentional words and actions in this society where events such as these are all too commonplace. So with Satya, I ask myself “Am I being honest in my evaluation? Or am I trying to protect myself from uncomfortable feelings?”

In questioning our motivations and recognizing our habits, we can then practice the first yama of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Ahimsa, or “nonharming,” as it then allows us to disentangle ourselves from those aspects of our lives that are harmful towards our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.  It allows us to truly let go of that which does not serve.

Traditionally svadhyaya is not a practice done during Asana, our on-the-mat practice, however studying our mental habits on the yoga mat can go a long way towards recognising our habits off the mat too. So, as we hold various poses in our practice this evening, be witness to the thoughts that the pose brings up. Be honest with yourself about the way you think about yourself in the pose or perhaps the way that you are thinking about anything and everything except the pose. Be witness.

Santosha & Racism

True growth does not happen in our comfort zone.

Last week I talked about Svadhayaya and our responsibility to look deep within and ask the hard questions, and one thing that will help us on our inner transformational journey is the 2nd of Yoga’s Niyamas, Santosha, or in English, “Contentment.”

Humans spend a lot of time looking ahead, avoiding the discomfort of here and now. Thinking things like “I can’t wait until Friday!” If we are always living for a future period in time like the weekend or a vacation, we are never really living in the moment and we’ll never be happy. 

Practicing Santosha enables us to sit in uncomfortable situations, like our stressful work week or challenging family life.  It is easy to be content if you avoid those uncomfortable conditions, escaping work on the weekend or our home life on vacation, but then you are not truly practicing Santosha.

So too does this mean that it is easy to see yourself as accepting of people who are “other” when you are not facing the question of your own privilege. As an interviewee living in Boulder, Colorado (one of the nation’s most progressive, but also predominantly white cities) told the author of an article for Elephant Journal online, “It’s easy to accept them when you don’t have to live with them;” talking about the lack of gay bars in his home town. The author, Catherine Johnson, went on to extrapolate this idea to other populations, writing, “It might be easy to be pro-immigration if you know they can’t afford to live in your neighborhood.”

So while you are on your inner transformational journey of Svadhyaya, contemplating the hard questions, remember the yogic practice of Santosha. The fear of discomfort must not supersede meaningful dialogue. Yoga is inherently uncomfortable and to truly practice it, we must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We can practice this physically on our mat, as our asana practice asks us to meet the challenge of a pose and find ease in it. To find that ease even while our quads are burning while we hold ourselves in Warrior 2 or our arms in Chaturanga. So as we go through our practice tonight, do not let yourself be content with a pose when it is easy. Push yourself past your comfort zone purposely, for on the mat as in real life, true growth cannot happen where we are comfortable.

The Higher Self and Social Justice

In this season of autumn it’s only appropriate, as the natural world shreds its old self, to continue our inner transformational work to shed our former selves.

In yoga, the whole purpose of transformation is to connect with our higher self. Our higher self is pure energy, pure light, pure love.

With this concept of our higher self, yoga teaches us that we are all connected.

To live yoga, means to live the true meaning of namaste. “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of Peace. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.”

This means that, as students of yoga, we have a responsibility to others; a responsibility to see social justice done. We’ve been discussing raising our awareness of our thoughts and our actions; being aware of how these things affect other people. Remembering that the impact of our actions is greater than our intentions.

We can begin to ask ourselves-in all areas of our life, “who is in the room?” and “who is left out?” And then venture to ask why. Seek out those who have been marginalized, who’ve been left out. Seek to listen with compassion; to understand, not to respond.

Sakshi & Racism

Transformation is uncomfortable. Change doesn’t happen unless you are willing to do the work. However, because the work is stressful it is hard.

We are attached, emotionally, to our environment- outside ourselves, as well as within. This attachment is what causes us to feel this stress. It is the reason we are so reactive. 

But yoga teaches us to be a Sakshi, which is Sanskrit for “witness.” This means to observe objectively, without attachment; looking as if from the outside.

It’s like this morning, when I was sitting at a red light for 3 cycles because the line for turning left was so long. I could have started to feel frustration build as I watched each light change and then the clock, knowing that with each passing minute, the possibility of being late was growing.

But as I am working on developing my ability to be a sakshi means I was able to detach emotionally from the situation. I made the choice not to feel attached to what would normally have been a really irritating traffic light, and that frustration that I would have felt, just wasn’t there.

As we’ve contemplated our inner selves over the past several weeks, as we’ve observed and studied, it almost goes without saying that we’ve noticed things that make us uncomfortable. Things that we feel an emotional reaction to -an emotional reaction that makes them things that we want to ignore.

When we asked ourselves last week who was being left out in the spaces that we frequent, did we ask ourselves about our own complicity in the reason those people have been left out? Or did our own emotional attachment to the answer to that question circumvent our even contemplating it in the first place?

Did our discomfort with the subject prevent us from seeking out those marginalized people and compassionately listening to their stories?

When we look at ourselves through the lense of the impersonal, it is much easier to confront ourselves and ask the hard questions. It is easier to answer them honestly. We can be conscious of all our inner workings because there is nothing that we feel that we need to hide from. 

We can then respond with our intellect, allowing us to find resolution; to make those changes necessary to transform and to reach our higher selves, connecting us to all of humankind.

With the craziness of the election not quite behind us, it’s probably safe to say that finding that state of mind is more difficult than usual.  Like me, you might be feeling pretty chaotic inside. 

It seems like a lot of things are up in the air and until it all shakes out, our bodies might be in a state of increased activation. I know, for myself, I’ve been in a near constant state of anxiety. 

As practitioners of yoga, we are lucky in that we have the tools to bring ourselves back to earth. And that tool is mindfulness. 

I’m sure you’ve heard about it and are probably familiar with it, but just in case you’re not- mindfulness is the ability to be aware and pay attention to the here and now instead of being distracted by all the thoughts inside our head. 

A good way to start practicing mindfulness is to start with our own bodies.

Noticing the parts of the body that are in touch with the ground. Noticing the breath. Body Scanning.  Feeling your heartbeat and its pulse throughout the body. All these are methods of mindfulness. 

I start every class with the instruction to observe our breath, but then I also say to notice it without trying to change it. That is the non-judgement piece. 

The relaxation practice we do at the start of Savasana is also a form of mindfulness. 

Today we will begin class with a similar practice of body scanning, however we will notice sensation without assigning words like “good” or “bad;” “tight” or “loose;” or “pain” or “discomfort;” simply observing sensation without naming them. Simply witnessing.


what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.
what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.
what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.
what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.
what yoga teaches us about our responsibility to social justice and racism.

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