The lines were very long at the U.S. Embassy in London the day Shola Arewa, the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) 2016 keynote speaker, had her interview to get the appropriate visa to attend the inaugural conference in August.
After several hours she finally got to the window where the embassy officer, a white woman originally from South Carolina, lectured her to near scolding as to “why is there a black yoga teachers organization? This is wrong, because yoga is for everyone.” What if she wanted to come? Shola assured her that she would be quite welcome.
“The process [of obtaining the visa] has been an absolute nightmare,” wrote Shola in an email. “I left there almost in tears. I could not answer her questions as to why there is a need for a black yoga teachers alliance because anyone who does not know why, is unlikely to understand why.” Despite having such a grueling experience, when all was said and done, the visa was granted.
The need for a black yoga teachers’ organization is frequently questioned. Here is an example of a typical inquiry sent to BYTA about its existence:
Hello, I saw your ad on the back of the Kripalu magazine. I am curious if I could attend your retreat and conference. I am Caucasian. I am also interested to know why you would want to encourage discrimination among race? Are you aware of any yoga groups that currently discriminate as yours does? Is there perhaps a White yoga teachers’ alliance that perhaps I could attend? I’m not sure how we will all one day come together as human beings with hearts full of love for one another when there are groups like this for the black race or any other race.
Disappointed white woman
A clear and carefully crafted answer was necessary to address the assumptions and accusatory tone of this inquiry. This was BYTA’s response:
Dear Disappointed White Woman,
All are welcome to attend the BYTA 2016 conference. We do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The use of the word “black” is in no way discriminatory; it simply describes who we are and it is unfortunate that you have interpreted that as divisive. There are white yoga teachers who are members of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance. BYTA exists because the yoga community in the United States is not an inclusive community. You are correct that we don’t see the word “white” attached to yoga groups and organizations. It is the luxury of domination and privilege to assume the standards and views of the world you set are applicable to all people. It takes only a casual observance of the leaders, teachers, members, participants, and sponsors of yoga focused activities to see that they are overwhelmingly white, and if you are a person of color, often not welcoming. It is the unspoken truth. There has been a 30-year ongoing dialogue in the U.S. yoga community about the lack of diversity in yoga in these “white” spaces; however, BYTA does not exist to fix that issue. Rather, our mission is to support the educational and professional development of black yoga teachers. BYTA has an important role to play in the world of yoga and in all communities.
This question of why a black yoga teachers’ organization has yet to be asked by a black yoga teacher. Inquiries to BYTA from teachers of color tend to focus on becoming members, teaching and training opportunities, business strategies which are inquiries in alignment with BYTA’s mission “to support the professional and educational development of black yoga teachers and to elevate our presence and voices in our communities and beyond.”
Interestingly, those who claim to be color-blind to race and ethnicity are most likely to question the need for groups and organizations aligned to solely support people of color. Could it be that those in the yoga world are just plain blind, whether intentionally or inadvertently, to the experience of yoga teachers who represent diversity in white yoga environments. In a perfect world, we could drop the “black” designation and just be another yoga teachers alliance, but in a perfect world we would simply be called Americans and not qualified as black or African Americans.
The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance is not the first organization for black yoga teachers. It was preceded by the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (IABYT), founded in 1998 by a group of Los Angeles-based yoga teachers and led by Krishna Kaur, who served as the group’s president for more than a decade. There is congruence between BYTA and its IABYT predecessor in the support and encouragement of black yoga teachers, but their missions diverge. IABYT’s mission was to spread the art and science of yoga throughout the African Diaspora. The group achieved great success with this mission before its demise in 2010, with multiple trips to countries in West Africa to offer yoga teacher trainings and scholarly exchange. Krishna Kaur is the BYTA 2016 honoree and will heralded for her trailblazing spirit and leadership for black yoga teachers around the world.
The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance empowers yoga teachers to share yoga at the grassroots level within urban, suburban, rural and diverse communities — in homes, schools, churches, community centers, parks, etc., — which are most often the same spaces where we live. We introduce yoga as a modality to support and improve physical health. We teach practices such as mindfulness and meditation to promote emotional and mental healing from the rigors and stress of being black in America offered in ways that are accessible to those people living with the violence that is ravaging black communities.
Black yoga teachers are no different than other teachers who serve all who seek the path of yoga. We are also uniquely positioned to expand the definition and expectation around who is a yoga teacher and to offer unique and innovative approaches to teaching yoga for those living in the “bubble” of white America. In this way we might come together as “humans beings with hearts full of love,” as expressed by the ‘Disappointed White Woman.’ However, it has to be a two-way street where we cross color lines to learn from each other.
The inaugural Black Yoga Teachers Alliance conference, “Revival: Evolution of Spirit,” will be held at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, August 25-28, 2016, in Stockbridge, MA.
For information and to register, visit: http://www.blackyogateachersalliance.com/events.html