Dear Racist Yogini: It’s South Asia Calling and We Want Our Yoga Back

Photo by Bernard Gagnon via Commons Wikimedia
Seated Buddha, Gal Viharaya, Polonnawura, Sri Lanka

By Sayantani DasGupta

Dear Racist, Size-Shaming Yogini at XO Jane,

It’s South Asia calling. And we want our yoga back.

Okay, truth, I’m just one Indian American woman, not actually all of South Asia (where, n.b. we brown folks like to capitalize the ‘S,’ just sayin’), but on behalf of all my mystical, exotic peoples, I just wanted to say that we don’t think that you all can handle the responsibility of our ancient tradition any more. We don’t care how much “well-versedness” you have with our asana, we are afraid we’re going to have to rescind your yoga privileges.

We’ve been feeling concerned for some time now, since, as you so rightly say, “yoga comes from thousands of years of south Asian tradition, it’s been shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women.” I mean, let’s please remember just a decade or two ago, you people were wearing sweatbands, neon work-out leggings and dancing around to Jane Fonda. We are having to do some ujjayi breathing just thinking about that.

We’re not even going to get into nit-picky details like the fact that yoga isn’t a sport, but a tradition with deep religious and cultural roots. For more on this you might have checked out the exhibit on yoga at Washington D.C.’s Sackler Gallery called, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” If you missed it, you can still read this New York Times Article on the exhibit, “Eons Before The Yoga Mat Got Trendy,” which reminds us:

“Yoga…is not a matter of meditation mats and Whole Foods Wellness Clubs. It’s a shattering personal revolution…How else would you characterize a spiritual discipline that directly and boldly addressed life’s most intractable problem, the persistence of suffering, and took practical, but radical steps to do something about it?”

And we’re certainly not going to get into how deeply annoying it is, as a South Asian American person in yoga class, to be expected to be some kind of extra-spiritual yoga expert, see our cultural symbols coopted and diluted, or to hear a teacher mangle Indian words or Sanskrit slokas. (But to that end there are interesting initiatives like South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America seeking to make space for South Asian teachers and students of yoga in the U.S.).

But we have to draw the line at the kinds of racism and size-shaming found in your recent essay, “There are No Black People In My Yoga Classes and I’m Uncomfortable With It”. Because, well, it’s horrific. And we’re seriously not down with you using our heritage to put down our brothers and sisters.

Let’s just review the facts, shall we? Your essay was written after what you describe as a “young, fairly heavy black woman” had the audacity to plunk her mat right behind yours during a busy mid-day January class, a month when yoga classes are apparently flooded with “last years repentant exercise sinners.” And the tragedy of having to deal with a fellow student “atypical to the studio’s regular crowd” was only exacerbated as this woman proved herself inferior in the downward dog department, and then somehow freaked out, only to spend the rest of the class “wide-eyed and nervous,” “in panic then despair.” You finally describe watching her “crouch down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable.” (Um, so on a side note, did you not realize that describing women of color with animalistic metaphors was like a racist thing? And by racist, I mean, NOT GOOD.)

But the zinger in your essay comes later, when you explain how this woman’s (apparent) bad yoga day was in fact all about you. In your words:

“I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”

So, let me get this straight. The astonishing presence of this woman of color in your yoga class who was – perhaps – giving you some kind of reverse size-discrimination stink-eye made you break down and sob hysterically when you got home, realizing that your donation-based, hipster-welcoming, eye-pillow-handing-out little slice of urban nirvana may not be as racially inclusive as it could be?

Am I getting all this right?

You also went through some kind of moral struggle about whether or not this African American woman might be approached, or spoken to, like, say, a fellow human being. In your words:

“I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same.”

Now, don’t get us wrong, oh, racist yogini-ji. In the words of another XO Jane writer who so eloquently called you out:

“You see, I don’t think …. you have anything but good intentions, and yet you are using them to pave the road to hell. Further enacting a societal ill in your efforts to call it out is the worst kind of white privilege.”

The question is, as you point out, so much bigger than yoga. It’s about a lack of empathy and humility; it’s about imposing your own assumptions on another; it’s about making yourself and your own issues necessarily at the center of every conversation. Oh, right, kind of like what’s happened with your sports-complex-appropriation of yoga.

So, enough already. We’ve come for our ancient tradition, and you need to give it back. Don’t make us get all warrior-2 on you. 

K? Thanks. Namaste.

For more hilarious and outraged responses to the original XO Jane essay, see this response from another XO Jane writer, this hilarious one from Gawker called, “Black Person in Yoga Class Causes Profound Moral Crisis,” and of course, this HuffPo Black Voices’ post, “It Happened to Me: There are No White People in My Twerk-Out Class and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It”.

9 thoughts on “Dear Racist Yogini: It’s South Asia Calling and We Want Our Yoga Back

  1. Rage is great! Anger is great! Directing it towards bettering society is great! But your words read as really hateful and sarcastic, Sayantani!

    You’ve also put some of the phrases the author of the original xoJane article wrote out of context. She criticizes the commoditization of asana practice and turning it into a “western sport”… you’re agreeing with each other yet you use her phrase here in a way that makes it seem like she wasn’t discouraging that perspective herself. Caron’s thinking in the article was incredibly premature/ignorant (that racism pervades everything – yoga studios in nyc of course included, should be no surprise to her -yet is of course a problem that’s always due a spotlight & humane – if – angry dialogue), her possessive attitude, objectification (the unnamed woman indeed becomes so Othered that she can’t even be approached) and projections are extremely problematic (which she notes), but your critique would have been so much more valuable if it wasn’t so ad hominem and instead revealed your deeper thoughts – steeped in study (i won’t say ‘well-versed’!) about those issues.

    looking forward to this, though :

  2. ignoring the heritage of caste and varna, a “you people”, saying the studio is handing out pillows, and most typical of the many responce articles: reading jen’s article as a polemic against someone other than jen herself … i wonder why the author is casting stones when her own delusions and group-think are on full display.

  3. I’m kind of shocked by some of the comments left here. The writer didn’t say that white people should not practice yoga — rather the writer asks for white people to stop acting like it is theirs (in pretty much the same way they tend to take over everything that is sacred to many different people around the world). I appreciate this article as an African-American woman for it is not often when people of other races speak out with us. Thank you, Sayantani, for speaking.

  4. Sayantani,

    I think this is a very important response and I thank you for it. I am a dedicated practitioner, have been since studying yoga during my youth and half of my adulthood in Kolkata, and I really appreciate your courage and clarity in writing this. And as an Indian, I do not think you are “defending” us, simply stating a truth that many of us who practice regularly feel. The way yoga has been corporatized, and made popular–through images of women, always white–in print or in visual culture, is already difficult. This is not the spirit of yoga at all. The way in which a practice can be taken over, while the people from whom it came can be maligned is indeed quite amazing to witness.
    At any rate, thank you very much for this article.

  5. Thanks for comments, all. India – not trying to save you just protesting against yoga being used in racially exclusionary ways in the U.S. Laura – obviously the essay hit a nerve and for that I apologize, really, not trying to take back anything, except noting that yoga studios in NYC and other places are increasingly unfriendly places for people of color and that’s not Ok.

  6. I could only read through half of this post before I had to give up. I appreciate and sympathize with your concern regarding the over-commercialization of yoga and its sacred symbols, but while you are yelling at one human for patronizing and owning yoga you make identical claims for yourself. Yoga, as you well know, means Unity. A discussion on race, and one so racist as this (with all your venom against white American women) really shows that you 1. know nothing about the spirit of yoga, in spite how you claim it for your ancestral rights, and 2. need to take a deep breath and listen to your racist ego talking about other racist egos. Really. Yoga is a mirror. What do you see?

  7. Many years ago devastating floods hit the Carolinas (eastern coast of the U.S.) . On the top half of the front page of the local paper was a large picture of floods swirling around the metal roof of a barn, water up to the edges of the roof and animals who had found shelter on the roof. Almost all of them were cows and pigs. Now I have been told that those two animals don’t generally tolerate each other particularly well. Due to the circumstances, however, they were able to tolerate each other considerably well. None appeared in an adversarial posture towards each other. They were all just lying down, some right next to each other, all relaxed and I guessed just waiting for the waters to go down.

    Maybe they were in some kind of communal savasana together, I mused.

    As I turned the paper over to its lower half I experienced the most visceral reaction possible. I had to sit down. The by-line of the article read: “Residents of East and West Timor Killing Each Other.” The report went on to describe how this religiously divided island nation’s inhabitants were involved in slaughtering each other, Hindus pitted against Muslims. No one regardless of age or sex was being spared.

    I turned over to the top of the page and thought to myself how if I had to choose between becoming a cow or a pig or a human in the next life, I just might be better off as a pig or a cow. At least if the floods hit my neighborhood, I would be safer on some barn’s metal roof with those who were not my own kind than if I were a human with my own kind killing and getting killed on some island.

    Is there not room enough on the world’s mat for everyone?

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