Power and Privilege in Yoga


Stock photos used on this blog show the tendency toward white centering when searching “warrior pose” for images.

Chapter IV in Embrace Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki takes us into “Reflection” on the power and privilege that show up in yoga communities. Being that the Western Yoga community is dominated by middle to upper class white women, reflection on and acknowledgement of this fact is important to then know how to begin to transform it toward a more equitable and diverse space.

Barkataki begins the chapter with defining 3 types of power. (pg 96)

  1. Power Over – “external power control” to “dominate or enact one’s will over another”
  2. Power With – “used for uplifting, supporting or helping another person”
  3. Power Within – “internal power…that cannot be given or taken away. It is this kind of power that yoga cultivates.” (highlighted by work of Riane Eisler 2007)

“Power over” is seen in colonization, appropriation, and exploitation. We have discussed these topics in the previous chapters and can see how they have affected the imbalance of representation and access for yoga in Western Society. “Power With” and “Power Within” are the aspects of power that we can develop through our practice of yoga and the Yama of ahimsa (nonviolence). We have to recognize and act in more creative and positive ways through this concept of ahimsa, not just claim it through passive means.

“The yogic practice of ahimsa is not just the opposite of violence or about passively avoiding violence, but about actively and constructively having the power to make a change for the better.”

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – pg 99

So first we have to recognize that there is something needing to change or “make better”. People in privilege have trouble seeing their own blind spots and it can be uncomfortable to look directly at this privilege and then engage in the world differently. “It’s the nature of privilege to not see that we have it” (pg 102). And, like yoga, it is conscious work to change your power dynamic. To notice it also might immediately begin to turn the table to wanting to do something about it. But how?

Part 2 of this Chapter gives some examples of body culture in Western yoga – how we center body, and most specifically white bodies, as the “norm” and also the “right” or “expected” ideal. This leads to the lack of diversity and missing the whole of yoga practice in our Western Yoga spaces. When we begin to “see” it, the reaction can lead to “tokenization” of BIPOC folks and the view of yoga as something other than the holistic spiritual practice it was meant to be.

“The yoga we practice can mirror and reflect the society we are in, or transform it.”

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – pg 113

Western society is body obsessed. We can see this in our advertisements, our hopes of living forever, our separation from the ill and the elderly in our daily life, and in how yoga has become another “exercise.” This “ideal” has literally been sold to us, and centers the body that has already been described dominating Western Yoga – white, skinny, cis-gendered, young, and able. Susanna also mentions Descartes and his “I think, therefore I am” adage that Western civilization adheres. This has come up with students of mine, and I usually laugh and respond that this does not help yoga at all. The truth in yoga is that “We think, therefore we are distracted and attached so much to those thoughts that we lose connection to our True Self.” Yoga Sutras I.2-I.4 say as much – “Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations within our consciousness. When the fluctuations cease, we rest in our own true nature. However, at all other times outside of that yogic state, we identify with the fluctuations.”

Seeking the “yoga body” or “the perfect pose” has little to do with yoga as a holistic practice. And, to attach to “positive vibes only” also misses the point. The above actually fall under the 5 Kleshas, the obstacles to yoga, listed in The Yoga Sutras: Avidya (separation from the True Self), Asmita (attachment to that which is NOT the Self or Ego), Raga (Attachment to pleasure), Dvesa (avoidance of pain), and Abhinivesa (fear of death).

Of course Susanna Barkataki mentions that “yoga is so much more than poses” (pg 112)

“If you aren’t practicing ethics, integrating philosophy, practicing seva, kindness, self-reflection and meditation, working to uplift others, then it’s important to ask: are you actually practicing yoga at all?”

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – pg 112

Our Iyengar Yoga methodology is built on the teachings of Patanjali and The Yoga Sutras. Our Guru and his family are teachers from India and have continuously reminded us to look at yoga from many different perspectives. The Iyengar family literally rebuilt, provided schooling and healthcare, and uplifted the entire community where BKS Iyengar was born. Their compassion and intent for teaching people from all walks of life and backgrounds, abilities and disabilities, reverberates throughout the Institute in Pune, India even today. Still, our Western Iyengar Yoga Communities are not untouched by Western Yoga thought, power, and privilege. I look forward to reading further, reflecting and learning on how and what I bring to my yoga spaces to perpetuate or to disrupt this structure.

This Week’s Reading – Chapter IV, Parts 3 and 4

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.