Yesterday I left a Zoom yoga class less than halfway through. That’s no big deal for a lot of people, but I’m also a yoga teacher so I will usually sweat through an even truly terrible session for the sake of camaraderie. It wasn’t the asana (the physical practice) or the interpretation of yogic philosophy that felt problematic. It was the fact that I have taken at least six classes with this person in the past three weeks and she’s only mentioned George Floyd’s name once. When another white teacher in the class said she was really stressed out about the state of the world, the teacher said, “That’s why this practice is so important right now. Fold your hands at your heart and let’s chant.”
This is what woke folx call, “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing is when we use metaphysical concepts, like God or universal consciousness, to sidestep dealing with uncomfortable real world issues or unpleasant emotions. Of course, practices that keep the body and mind healthy are more important than ever right now, but they should be used to help us cope sanely with reality instead giving us a way to pretend that we are all one type of divine being, able to somehow magically transcend the reality of racism. What is actually most important right now is having the courage and fortitude to take meaningful action in the world. Yoga can help, but only if you are committed to more than your own personal happiness.
This is what woke folx call, “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing is when we use metaphysical concepts, like God or universal consciousness, to sidestep dealing with uncomfortable real world issues or unpleasant emotions.
Yoga and meditation can indeed help calm you, which potentially builds your resilience as an activist. But these practices cannot replace taking decisive action towards social change, and I believe that it is the dharma, or duty, of every yoga teacher to remind their students of that fact. Why? Because the wellness industry is terrifyingly white-dominated and right now a lot of white folx exist in the precarious liminal space between realizing they are racists and becoming antiracists. If a teacher they revere doesn’t compassionately invite them to lean towards their discomfort, who else is going to do it?
Refusing to use established spiritual spaces to have real conversations about race is how we lose potential allies and reinforce the structures of white supremacy in what are supposed to be “safe spaces.” Non-Black yoga teachers who teach non-Black students, you have a role to play in the revolution. Teach others that bypassing oppression — or elevating to another plane — will not make us more equal. You can give your students tools that will help them address our flawed reality.
You can find spiritual bypassing in yoga and meditations studios, but you can also find it in places of worship – spiritual leaders of all stripes espousing the “God does not see color” ethos. But as a yoga teacher, I feel like this is a dangerous misuse of the honor our students pay us. It is not our job to offer people a way to bypass discomfort — with spiritual practices we stole/borrowed/appropriated from brown people, no less. It’s our job to teach people how to be curious about discomfort — whether it’s physical, emotional, or psycho spiritual — and offer them tools for navigating the world in the face of frustration.
Yoga and meditation are tools for self-inquiry and building resilience. The philosophies we promote can be used as frameworks for understanding how and why to participate in social justice movements. If we explicitly frame our classes within a social justice context, we could arm potential allies with some really great tools. Everyone wins in this scenario.
Hot, chiseled yoga influencers may look good on Insta, but when you move past the optics, the toxic positivity of the love and light gospel is really a flaccid neoliberal whitewash of thousands of years of philosophy and practice.
The truth is that the teacher whose class I left wasn’t trying to be a bad ally. She just might not have the tools to have this conversation. Yogis, spiritual guides, and anyone who accompanies folx on metaphysical adventures, need to be okay admitting that they don’t know, but that they're on a learning journey, too. Saying that you don’t have all the answers is an act of humility, as is trying to educate yourself without being a burden.
Using yoga and meditation classes as safe spaces to inquire into discomfort is, actually, what yoga is about. Don’t be fooled by the “good vibe tribe.” Hot, chiseled yoga influencers may look good on Insta, but when you look past the optics, the toxic positivity of the love and light gospel is really a flaccid neoliberal whitewash of thousands of years of philosophy and practice. Anyone who tells you that you will be happy and the world will be peaceful if you just #doyogaeverydamnday is a total charlatan. Yoga and meditation can be relaxing and life-changing, yes, but it is a relaxation born of self-knowledge and acceptance. It requires full frontal self-confrontation that is simultaneously gentle and unflinching.
“We Are One” is just “All Lives Matter” that smells like patchouli. It denies the material and political realities we exist in and prevents otherwise goodhearted people from becoming warriors in the fight against injustice. This is a terrible strategy for creating a better world, and the truth is that it doesn’t actually feel good. According to the Bhagavad Gita, there is no greater shame than backing down from a just war, and the toll this shame takes on the minds, bodies, and souls of the avoidant is karmic in its destructiveness. Literally.
What I am ultimately saying is: Love and light are worthy tools when you can learn to use them to expose and then dismantle injustice. Without this application, they are sterile dilutions of centuries of Eastern thought that do nothing but whitewash our fragility into temporary remission. Spiritual bypassing serves no one. The discomfort white folx are feeling right now will come back if it is not thoroughly processed. And make no mistake, it will come back in the form of injustice for all.
I’m not a perfect ally or a perfect yoga teacher. In fact, I am currently on hiatus from teaching because I need to do some personal anti-racist work and learn how to integrate it into my teaching practice. Not all yoga teachers have the luxury of taking time off without worrying about losing their audience or their income. If you are a teacher and you can’t, now is the time to invite your students into your process and to be transparent about it.
I believe that, at its heart, white supremacy is a spiritual problem.
If you are a yoga student, let your teachers know that you will support their efforts to become better allies and that you will not expect them to be perfect. If you don’t have a practice but are interested in one, consider seeking out a BIPOC meditation or yoga teacher and read dharma books written by people with marginalized voices who are actively promoting an antiracist approach to yoga.
You may be wondering if I am going back to that teacher’s class. Yes. And it’s not just because I had to borrow from my savings to enroll. This is a great chance for me to exercise my agency as a student and say, “Hey, I really respect you as a teacher and I would really like it if we could have a more explicit conversation about racial injustice in class. I am struggling with how to become a better ally and I bet a lot of the other students are, too. Your knowledge and experience in yoga philosophy and practices are far greater than mine. Could you offer your insight about how to approach this from a yogic perspective?”
I believe that, at its heart, white supremacy is a spiritual problem. To me, that means that defeating it will require spiritual solutions in addition to — but not instead of — practical material strategies. We must all now get right within and without, not just for ourselves, but for every other living being, as well. If we are truly “all one,” our commitment to using spiritual practices as inroads instead of bypasses will be of service to all.