The goal of yoga is liberation – escaping limiting thoughts and discovering your true self. The path to liberation isn’t easy. In fact, my path has been quite messy. When I began practicing yoga asana, I felt ashamed and discouraged because my body didn’t move like other people’s bodies. That shame often showed up as anger and negative self-talk when I encountered challenging postures. As I continued to practice, I learned to silence the inner critic and began to meet my Self on the mat.
Svadhayaya has been an important component of my yoga practice. Svadhyaya is the fourth niyama which is translated as self-study or self-reflection. For some practitioners, this means a self-guided study of yoga and sacred texts. For myself and many others, svadhyaya is a continual process of self-reflection and discernment – a process of unraveling the real and the unreal. Today, I invite you to practice svadhyaya as a means of resisting white supremacy.
Since 2013, I have taught courses on Race and Ethnic Relations at Southeastern Louisiana University. My students are often White criminal justice majors with conservative political beliefs. As you can imagine, they tend to resist learning about white supremacy and racial oppression. In 2016, I began to incorporate contemplative practices to help students develop first-person experiences learning about race and racism and soften their resistance. One such practice is reflective journaling (svadhyaya) through which students center their personal biography knowledge. Journaling has been very popular among my students, and in assessments of the practice students have shared:
“journaling has really opened my mind to think a different way. It allows you to stop and really give thought to things that are going on around you, things you might have never given thought to, otherwise.”
“I question [the] principles I was taught. I actively remember things I have forgotten.”
“It’s an outlet for personal thoughts that you aren’t comfortable to say in class”
I share this with you, not to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate the power of svadhyaya as a tool for examining and hopefully overcoming white supremacy.
If yoga means union, anything that causes separation is the antithesis of yoga. White supremacy is a system of oppression that has organized our society so that it’s normal, everyday functioning works to benefit White people and disadvantage non-whites. The ideology of white supremacy is dominant throughout the globe, but in particular, anyone who lives in a White-dominated society is socialized into white supremacist thinking. Ultimately, white supremacists developed the concept of race to divide and dehumanize people. As yoga practitioners, it’s our responsibility to challenge and overcome this ideology.
Therefore, I offer you the following journal prompts as an invitation to self-reflection. They are the same prompts I use in my classroom [modified slightly] and are intended to help you explore the ways in which your life and/or consciousness has been shaped by white supremacy. I often use these prompts in conjunction with active listening exercises to help students learn to talk and listen to one another to find mutual understanding. In that sense, it may be valuable for you to do the same.
- What do you know about race relations in the United States today? How did you learn about race relations in the U.S.? How did it come to be like this?
- What does it mean to be “White”? Who gets to be White? What does it mean to be “American”? Who gets to be American? How are Whiteness and “American-ness” related? What are the consequences of the link between whiteness and American-ness?
- When did you first learn about race? Write about one of your earliest memories about race. What happened? How did you feel? How has that experience affected you?
- How has segregation and integration affected you? Specifically, how has segregation and integration affected your relationships with others? How have they potentially limited or expanded the experiences and/or relationships you have in your life? (Note: I’m using “relationship” in the broadest sense, don’t assume I mean “romantic” relationship)
- How has white supremacy affected your friendships and relationships? How have your friends and/or family members’ attitudes about race affected your friendships and romantic relationships? Where do you think their attitudes about race come from? How do you think your family’s racial or ethnic background influences other family members’ views about race?
- How is white supremacy present in the media that you consume? Who is included or excluded? How are Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) people portrayed? How do you think this influences your attitudes about race?
- What is your relationship to the criminal punishment system? How has this criminal justice system affected your life directly or indirectly? How do you think your race has influenced your relationship with the criminal punishment system?
- Where do we go from here? What is the future of race relations in the United States? Globally? What are have you learned about yourself from this process? If you are a White person what is something you are willing to do to challenge white supremacy in your life? What is something you are willing to give up?
In my experience, students from all racial/ethnic backgrounds have benefitted from this process, but White folks and non-white folks will likely have different responses to this exercise. As always, I encourage you to practice self-care and to be aware of your edge and mindful not to fall over. Remember, the path to liberation isn’t easy and it’s often quite messy. In my opinion, it’s better to be messy on paper or in your own head. Hopefully, this practice helps you to find your own humanity and to begin to recognize the humanity in others.
May all beings be happy and free.
And may my thoughts, words, and actions contribute to the happiness and freedom of all beings.
Learn more about the niyamas here: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/yoga-philosophy-basics-the-5-niyamas