Why yoga teacher trainings address issues of social justice

April 28, 2023 0 Comments

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When Michelle Cassandra Johnson signed up for a 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2009, she had been practicing yoga and working as a racial justice and anti-racism trainer for years. Even though her training took her through the ancient philosophical teachings of the Sutras, she still remembers the thrill she felt when she was taught about the practice of liberation and was one of two BIPOC students in the room.

The training promised to help deepen her practice, Johnson says. But it felt incomplete.

Her perspectives as an activist, educator, and black person in America informed her approach to the program. “What I felt was missing was the application of what is actually happening to us, around us and in our communities,” Johnson says.

While the social and political issues we’re facing now aren’t all that different than they were in 2009 or years before, “there’s something different about people’s awareness, and there’s something different now about the amount of people talking about yoga and justice ,” she says. “And my question about that is how much of this is performativity and co-optation? And how much of this is a genuine desire to transform our wellness spaces and a genuine desire to do the work needed to create the conditions for health for all?”

In response, she and others launched specialized Yoga for Social Justice Teacher Trainings (YTTs) aimed at addressing her question and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the racial tensions that have emerged in 2020.

Ancient tradition as a tool for modern changes

Social change is complex, multifaceted and requires focused and continuous work. While yoga alone cannot heal systems of injustice, social justice YTTs work with the idea that this practice and philosophy can be used as a tool to promote meaningful and sustainable progress.

At their core, social justice YTTs share the foundational teachings of yoga as a tool for individual and collective liberation. These curricula emphasize that the inner work initiated by yoga is inextricably linked to the outer changes needed in the world.

After her first YTT, Johnson enrolled in an additional 300-hour weekend yoga teaching course. She also studied Bhagavad Gita and began to intertwine yoga with her activities as an activist. This eventually evolved into a work that included a book, teacher trainings, and workshops called The Skill in Action to help people apply deeply transformative yoga practices to become agents of social change.

While the curricula are unique to the specific program and facilitator, most foster a shared space where yoga can serve as a tool for internal and social change, and create greater equity and accountability within and beyond wellness communities. These interrelated areas of focus include:

  • Honoring the roots of yoga and applying the teachings to contemporary social issues
  • Exploring the psychological benefits of yoga for helping people with systemic trauma
  • Making yoga spaces more accessible and inclusive

These trainings attempt to recapture what can be lost, appropriated, and commodified in some popular contemporary approaches to yoga. They do this by providing unique and powerful spaces to explore individual biases and work together on significant collective healing work.

Rest as an act of resistance

All YTTs teach students the physical practice and philosophical principles of yoga. Social justice-oriented YTTs tend to spend more time on the psychological benefits of yoga, including how physical movement, breathing techniques, and meditative principles can calm the nervous system in response to lingering trauma related to racism, sexism, ableism, and more forms of systemic oppression.

“According to statistics, 70-80% of physical problems are related to stress. We know that,” says Gail Parker, Ph.D., psychologist, yoga therapist, and president of the board of directors of the Alliance of Black Yoga Teachers. “We also know that yoga practices—especially restorative yoga, yoga nidra, and meditation practices—induce a relaxation response, which is a true physiological response. We also know that when the relaxation response occurs, blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, metabolism slows, brain waves slow, and breathing becomes more efficient.”

Understanding the complex effects of stress, especially related to systemic trauma, allows yoga teachers to approach rest as an act of resistance in both their own practice and the way they teach their students.

“Racial stress and trauma affect us all,” says Parker, author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Racial Stress and Trauma and Transforming Ethnic and Racial Traumatic Stress with Yoga. She cites the results of the American Psychological Association’s recent Stress in America survey. “Our conditions are different, our circumstances are different, but we are all affected by the problems of race and ethnicity in this country. So my job is to support people to pay attention to that.”

Parker notes that the first step to dealing with racial stress and trauma is self-education, which can be facilitated by the relaxed state that yoga can induce. “Individuals make up the system. If people don’t do the internal work around race and ethnicity, nothing changes. If the focus continues to be external—changing the system without changing oneself, without individual personal transformation—things will not change. And we see it.”

Tamika Keston-Miller is the director of a 200-hour virtual training for social justice yoga teachers through Ashé Yoga. Entitled The Subtle Side of Yoga, it emphasizes the Yin and restorative practices of yoga. Keston-Miller says restorative yoga “rehearses rest,” while yin yoga taps into the resilience that oppressed and marginalized communities already have.

Many social justice-focused YTTs welcome, create safe spaces for those who are often excluded and underrepresented, including BIPOC, queer, and differently-abled people.

Creation of inclusive spaces

Courageous Yoga grew out of what director Jordan Smiley describes as a need to create yoga spaces that require “not only yogic self-awareness, but yogic self-awareness in the collective.”

“This means that we study trauma and how we deal with it, and explore the implicit and explicit ways in which white supremacy, homophobia, ableism, classism, and other harmful biases can operate in wellness spaces and in our world at large.” Smiley says in an email. “We work to cultivate behaviors that consciously destroy and decolonize the spaces we inhabit.” Courageous Yoga School offers both 200-hour and 300-hour training.

Andrea Perez, a graduate of Smiley’s 200-hour training, had already completed the 200-hour YTT course, but the history of yoga and its appropriation in the United States was not recognized in her first program. She found at Courageous an inclusive community of people who also wanted to honor yoga’s roots and create a broader yoga offering.

“I wanted to learn yoga so I could teach yoga to larger-bodied people like me, so they could become liberated like me,” says Perez, who now teaches a weekly larger-body yoga class at Courageous.

Behind the walls of the studio

Yoga as a tool for social change, by definition, takes yoga outside of yoga studios. The Prison Yoga Project (PYP) offers 200 hours of teacher training that integrates yoga into restorative justice models. This means he focuses on self-empowerment and rehabilitation to reduce cycles of crime and recidivism, helping prisons and organizations outside the penitentiary system (such as youth programs and government agencies), offering trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness programs .

“Everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their head and in their body,” says Jen Lindgren, PYP Lead Trainer and Director of the New Hampshire Chapter. Teacher training is designed to work with accessibility, release energy, and allow students to explore the communities they feel called to serve.

Lindgren says the question becomes, “How can we, in our tiny window of support, really be there and offer this practice that people may not have thought was for them?”

Since its inception in 2002, PYP has grown to more than 120 programs in nine different countries, including the United States. When Lingren conducted the first YTT in 2016, she trained ten women who were incarcerated in New Hampshire, all of whom had been released from the penitentiary system. Some of her students from that initial YTT have gone on to become lobbyists, working with adults with autism as caregivers and running mental health support groups. In 2021, the training became a six-month virtual program for all who are called to serve in and outside of prison.

Safety and responsibility

Felicia Savage Friedman’s 200-hour virtual teacher training on anti-racism and social justice draws on her work at the Center for Health Equity at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. The founder of YogaRoots on Location (YROL), Friedman launched yoga programs that would be accessible to people who would not normally have access to the teachings. Think yoga and dance classes in prisons and community classes that focus on driving yoga. Her teaching approach is based on the teachings of Raja Yoga, which focuses on honoring our humanity through meditation and energy practices.

“It really takes our humanity because we’ve never done this level of work. We definitely haven’t done that in the community,” Friedman says. She explains that collective liberation work is done by working on the self in an intimate community where people can be vulnerable while also being responsible.

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