Lorry Henderson

Yogic Philosophy and Anti-Racism

15 minute read
Author Lorry Henderson

When I signed up for Embracing Identity, I thought that I would have very little to learn as it relates to racial equity. I was raised to be race-conscious. In fact, there was never a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of my Blackness. It was and has been as present to me (in both negative and positive ways) as the breath in my body. What I was particularly curious about when I signed up for Embracing Identity was whether and how this experience might be different than other spaces where I’ve engaged in conversations about race. After completing the course, I can say that Embracing Equity’s orientation toward action made the course a profoundly healing experience.

This fall, I completed my 200-Hour Power Yoga Teaching certification around the same time that I finished Embracing Identity. So when our Embracing Equity facilitators prompted us to create a Critical Action Project at the end of the cohort, I decided to link two major aspects of my identity together: race and yoga. Ironically, the approach to the Critical Action Project itself is aligned with the yogic principle svadhyaya, a Sanskrit term (of the fourth Niyama) which roughly translates to “self-study”. I decided to examine Yogic Philosophy and its potential connection to Anti-Racism and to use what I learned to refine my Sankalpa-- my “intention” for becoming a yoga teacher.

Yoga has been in the background of my life since 2013, when I started practicing at Hotlanta Yoga. I’ll be the first to admit that I was just looking for a workout when I signed up, but what I found was ninety minutes of peace and relief from pain that I didn’t even know I had. Since then, Yoga has become one of the most significant, joyful aspects of my life. Currently, I spend nearly seventeen hours a week at the studio. Practicing, teaching and refining a practice that I intend to pursue for the rest of my life.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I was just looking for a workout when I signed up, but what I found was ninety minutes of peace and relief from pain that I didn’t even know I had. Since then, Yoga has become one of the most significant, joyful aspects of my life. - Lorry Henderson

The word yoga itself translates to “union” or “oneness”. The intention is that the practitioner engages in inner contemplation and then mindfully engages with the world using yogic principles. A few weeks into Embracing Identity, I found myself flustered one day when I walked into the studio and saw a shirt that said, “Yoga: We are all one”. It was a painful moment to see the shirt in our studio where memberships are nearly $200 a month and filled almost exclusively with white women. To what extent was I perpetuating a false, hyper-workout oriented, whitewashed brand of yoga that erased people that I share an identity with?

(For more on cultural appropriation in yoga, listen to this episode of Yoga is Dead, by Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh).

As a result of that moment of seeing both myself and my practice more clearly, I was inspired to examine the unrealized potential of my yoga practice by an interview I read with Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, titled, “How to Be Critical of the Things You Love”. In it, Abdurraquib said, “The critical approach has to move out of the binary of ‘Is this good or bad?’ and into ‘Is this working versus not working? For whom is this working, if not for me? Can I find value in this?’” So I began my analysis with the same questions.

Lorry in her yoga studio
I find most potential for yogic philosophy to align with anti-racism work within Pantjali’s Eightfold Path.

Specifically, the moral code laid out in the Yamas and Niyamas. Yamas are intended to be a guide for our interactions with others and Niyamas are internal work.

Though there’s much more to be said about the Eight Limbs of Yoga and each of the ethical codes, I focused my criticism on Ahimsa (non-violence), Bramacharya (moderation) and Svadhyaya (self-study).

Before we go any further, I feel obligated to point out that Asana (physical practice) is only one step on the eight-fold path. When I learned this, I was shocked and disappointed to realize how much the physical practice is emphasized over the development of character or moral code. And perhaps this reflects how pervasive whiteness is in the wellness industry. The emphasis on the physical practice reflects the preference for what is more comfortable for practitioners.

Ahimsa translates into the practice of “non-violence” and svadhyaya into “self-study”. For some, this means abstaining from meat or not talking badly about others. If we were to use yoga as a tool for anti-racism, this would mean that we examine ourselves and our actions for evidence of harm toward People of the Global Majority and contemplate how we can bring our resources back into balance.

Bramacharya translates into non-excess and is often applied to sexual pleasure. This concept has a lot of potential in the world of yoga and anti-racism. If liberation means bringing our systems into balance, it requires white people to not only actively work in solidarity to redistribute power but also work to reclaim their own humanity that is lost through upholding and bearing witness to violent power structures from which they benefit from. To decenter white comfort and amplify the voices and needs of the historically marginalized. Some of my favorite studios do this by reducing the cost of teacher trainings and coursework in order to increase the pipeline of teachers of color. I think that the Yoga Alliance or studios themselves should require teachers to be culturally competent in order to be certified. On a similar note, I am dreaming of a world that requires each teacher on the roster to offer one class each week that is free to the public and still be paid by the studio.

Lorry, practicing yoga with thirty-something amazing Black Harvard College students as part of their Black Health Matters Conference.

Examining just a few of these concepts challenged me to refine my Sankalpa. People for whom wellness practices would be most transformative are the ones who don’t have access to it. My intention is to use wellness tools (yoga and meditation) to facilitate joy, rest and play for communities who suffer under multiple systems of oppression.

I’m just starting this journey and have found a great deal of joy in the fact that I’m not the only one noticing the unrealized potential in the wellness industry.

I recently signed up for a mentorship about decolonizing my teaching and I continue to be inspired by the work of Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Chelsea Jackson Roberts, Lauren Ash, Julio Rivera, Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh of the Yoga is Dead podcast. I am also grateful for white managers and trainers who explore their own allyship by encouraging me to use my scheduled classes as a testing ground and offering me opportunities to use the shared space for affinity-based programming.

Lorry repping her Embracing Equity swag!

Participating in the Embracing Identity online cohort and developing my Critical Action Project was a truly wonderful, healing experience. As a Black woman, talking and thinking about race has never been an option. However, I can count on one hand the number of times that I've engaged in responsible conversations about race in a way that doesn't require me to sacrifice my well-being for white participants.

This virtual cohort gave me the time, tools, and community that I needed to begin my journey toward healing racial trauma. More importantly, Embracing Equity gave me the opportunity and permission to make it personal!

About the Author

Lorry Henderson (she/her) is a K-12 Program and Equity Lead at Populace, where she collaborates with partners to ensure that their programs reflect a commitment to populations that experience marginalization due to poverty and racism.

She is passionate about designing learning environments that ultimately set students up for lives of purpose, financial security and true agency over their futures. Lorry is a proud Montessori-auntie, part-time yoga instructor and is currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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