Accomplice over Ally – Equity over Diversity


Image provided by – Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

Parts 3 and 4 in Chapter IV cover some interesting clarifications on terms and the roles played in Western Yoga communities. The levels of being an ally to an accomplice and knowing how equity is different from just diversity are important distinctions to make as we reflect on how we show up or act in our society and community.

For many of us, the role of “ally” is comfortable and doable. We can see places where we might support or speak up to create change in society and community with our votes or the places we shop. Taking the next step of putting ourselves into new and more active roles as an accomplice is a whole other story. I know for myself, my time and energy can be easily focused on “my space” and “my life”, but what is “my life” without the community that surrounds me? Centering myself as merely an ally, without having to actively work to disrupt the imbalance in social structures that I know allow me to continue to thrive and others not to thrive, keeps me at a comfortable arms length.

Being in the Iyengar Yoga lineage and tradition can in a way make us feel we have automatic accomplice status, at least within the yoga world. We follow many of the decolonization keys listed by Susanna Barkataki on pages 130-131 in Embrace Yoga’s Roots. Our dues to our national organization partly go back to the institute in India, we uplift our Indian teachers and emphasize the roots and traditions of the practice of yoga. We hang photos of the Iyengar family in our studios and start each class with the Invocation to Patanjali. We do not play music in class and treat the practice as a full subject to learn and commit to over a long period of time, not just something you “do” as a daily workout. Iyengar Yoga spaces can actually feel foreign to Western Yoga practitioners because of these things. However, this doesn’t automatically mean we are a more diverse and equitable space. In every yoga space, we might easily fall into “spiritual bypassing”, or just the deluded assumption that just because we practice yoga that we are “yogis”, perfect in all our Yamas and Niyamas.

Yoga is a practice. Period. And not just one of the physical body of asana. To practice truth and nonviolence, to practice moderation and self-study, to practice non-greed and cleanliness takes reflection on how we are in the world and our community. Do we use more than we need when others don’t have resources at all? Do we covet more than is necessary when others don’t have basic securities? What am I benefitting from that others don’t even have access to? These are difficult questions, but they must be asked.

Ultimately, as we look at our place in the world, we have to start realizing that like being an accomplice over just an ally, finding equity means more than diversity or equality. The image I chose for this blog has been one I find VERY helpful. Accessibility is not an equal measure. We have to look at any one person or group and know that their support and/or needs are different. Our baselines are not the same and our ability to create equity must be a work of knowledge, reflection, togetherness and collaboration.

Iyengar Yoga can be seen as taking an equitable approach to yog-asana, but still here in the US we can absolutely fall toward a Western centered lens. BKS Iyengar formulated the use of props along with multiple approaches to asanas as he observed more and more bodies from more and more countries and communities over his lifetime of practice. To come to what we would call a “unified presentation” with any posture, a Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher is trained to teach any body walking through the studio door. To maintain even a “basic” Trikonasana (triangle pose) long enough to engage the mental and emotional aspects of the holistic yoga practice, bricks or a trestle or a wall may be used for varying issues and needs. Everyone is able in the eyes of the Iyengars, and the variety of postures and approaches are for the variety of abilities and possibilities in practitioners. Yet, teachers and practitioners here in the West can easily have preference for the demonstration of those able to present a pose. Or, have a conquest-centered mind that because a physical pose merely exists it must be done. I have found it interesting to compare that more often than not, with an Iyengar teaching, the one in the class being pulled up on stage or into the limelight is the one who sometimes needs the most help or support. For them, the full experience of the essence of a pose is the real practice of asana, and any “ideal” of a posture has evolved and changed over time the more that is learned. This evolution of the practice and method can be seen in the many texts from the Iyengar Institute in India.

The constant play between Eastern Iyengar Yoga and Western Iyengar Yoga for me is an interesting study and is more clear in reading this book. We cannot assume that because we have these traditional roots in India that we are immune to the social reality of Western Yoga. Our community does reflect much of what Susanna Barkataki mentions in this book because we live and practice in the West. And, to the urging of Abhijata at our most recent Convention, if we want Iyengar Yoga to continue, we have to find ways to open ourselves up to more community and co-creation, collaboration as practitioners and as people. We have the tools and the practice to “Embrace Yoga’s Roots” AND share the subject in a more equitable way in Western society.

This Week’s Reading – CHAPTER V, Reconnection – Part 1

Jennie Williford CIYT

Jennie Williford (CIYT Level 3) is a transplant to LaCrosse via Montana, Illinois, and originally Texas. Throughout her life moves and 5 trips to India, Jennie has acquired a well-rounded and multi-faceted approach to Iyengar Yoga since her start in 1998. Jennie loves the experimental and explorative nature of yoga in accessing deeper knowledge of the Self on every level. The practice of yoga can be intense and introspective, however as practitioners we can be light-hearted and open-minded in our discipline. Jennie is intrigued by the philosophy of yoga and hopes to share this depth of subject while teaching the physical and mental benefits that come from the practice of posture.