Svadhyaya Includes Race, Class, Gender, Privilege and All the Rest

How wonderful that Patanjali put Self-Study or Svadhyaya on the TO DO list!  As the third Niyama (observance) of the Yoga Sutras, Svadhyaya has traditionally meant the study of scripture or the practice of personal mantra. Through the lens of modern psychology it is now commonly practiced as the examination of thoughts, emotions, and behavioral patterns. These understandings of Svadhyaya are valid and worthwhile.

My interest this month is exploring an often overlooked aspect of Svadhyaya; knowing our own social location and what that means in real material terms.

Like many persons of color, I traverse worlds, languages, epistemologies, and ways of being in the world.  Like others in my boat, I have long reflected on the intersections of race, class, gender, 1st world-ness, and other social markers that influence tangible life outcomes for myself and others.  My muscle for this facet of Self Study is strong.

As the current administration rolls out plans for the country and world, I find myself having tougher-than-usual discussions with spiritual colleagues, friends and students; especially those whose social locations have not involved repeated encounters with the systemic marginalization that people like me, and those I feel solidarity with, regularly face.

There are many embedded assumptions in the yoga/meditation circles that bear upon these difficult conversations. A partial list includes: The assumption that individual transformation will magically fix the world; the high value placed on niceness over social justice; the taboo against all forms of anger and fear; the idealization of focusing exclusively on oneself over the value of relationality, inter-being, and solidarity; the belief that violent and oppressive systems are a thing of the past or created through opposition to them; the assumption that everyone is having their own freely chosen equivalent experiences; the glorification of individual effort to overcome all barriers; the overgeneralization of resistance to what is as a hindrance to enlightenment; the idea that truth claims for some are truth claims for all; an infatuation with inner thoughts as the primary driver of the conditions of the world; and the lack of familiarity with the history, power, necessity and gift of collective social movements by oppressed peoples.  

Over the years, I have danced with many of these assumptions; sharing and teaching parts of them myself.  I have felt that some huge pieces of the conversation were missing.  I have been shy about saying so and have experienced real personal harm by questioning dominant narratives. All this in spite of the rallying cry, offered especially to women, to express one's voice, even when it is difficult to do so.

 Exclusive of a deep understanding of the real workings of race, class, culture, gender, politics, economics, history and the structural violence these markers nest inside of, the aforementioned spiritual assumptions are disassociated and dangerous The messy realties of our own relationship to structural power and privilege must come now to the foreground as the very fate of our country, our shared systems, our sisters, our brothers, our children, oceans, forests, fishes, breath and our very own flesh hang over the precipice. 

When universal truth claims remain unexamined, what happens is a kind of disassociation from shared responsibility for our world and for each other.  Perhaps this is what has caused some good-hearted practitioners to suggest that people who are resisting the current regime's policies are erring as spiritual practitioners. Such people are said to be motivated by hatred, upset, fear, anger and negativity. We wrongly allow the White House occupant to determine our emotional states. Our upset is said to worsen matters through the process of "othering" Trump. We are told that our tone is unkind, unskillful, and unacceptable, regardless of how vital the message or how sincere the desire to help people see their own blind spots.  There seems to be little comprehension of the severe manner in which vulnerable groups are violently and repeatedly "othered" (deported, beaten, shot, incarcerated, redlined, poisoned, displaced, invaded, genocided...) or how public policies result in actual material traumas that operate far beyond the level of thought.  

As a person of color unpacking the dominant assumptions in my community, I  have asked a few questions such as, "what evidence exists for this assertion?", "who is really being "othered?", "can you see the protection of a privileged status inside of that statement?". I have tried to make visible the world view in which certain claims sit. In return I have received deflection, criticism, tone-shaming, silencing and personal insult from sincere spiritual practitioners.  

Upon reflection, I see that I have touched upon the sociopolitical equivalent of a weak muscle or an underdeveloped nerve pathway.  I have seen that people whose group identity is not directly under attack do not necessarily share a visceral sense of vulnerability, relationality, or solidarity that might move them to immediate protective action on behalf of others.  I have wondered if what I am witnessing is the conferring of inherent goodness onto those who behave as tyrants as a more comfortable response than standing up to resist them.

These experiences fill me with powerful and mixed emotions; incredulity, anger, frustration, the desire to help, the desire to give up, the desire to retreat into my own racial community, confusion, clarity, and resolve are among them.

I acknowledge that a number of yogis and meditators, of varying backgrounds, are already socially and politically engaged in resistance efforts daily and to those folks, I say THANK YOU and KEEP IT UP!  Even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to march, to call, to write, to insist on better policies, to own your personal or group privilege and use it for the good of others, keep it up!

I know that compassion is a strong value in the yoga community.  So this month, I call on my fellow practitioners to put that compassion into tangible and material action, especially for the vulnerable among us. I ask that we take our warrior poses beyond the mat and into the public sphere, to step beyond the ME and into the WE. 

If we are uncomfortable doing so, devotion and regular practice over time, like all other aspects of the path, will develop our confidence, skills, and synergy. Inside of our action for the collective, each of us as individuals will become serendipitously prone to receiving personal healing.

Finally, I implore all practitioners to take up the task of including race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation/identity, ability, national origin, 1st world status and other social markers as inherent to the practice of Svadhyaya

We know what we stand for.

Let's make it real.