Teaching Yoga in a Changing World

As I sit down to write this there are two pre-teen black girls in the studio with my business partner Noah and me.  They are misbehaving, hiding in the bathroom together and making a mess of our equipment.  They seem harmless though, so Noah and I let them hang out for a while.  For whatever reason they like being here and we have the word “Sanctuary” in our name so it seems natural to keep open doors to anyone who wants a safe place to retreat into so long as they don’t make trouble.  More and more I am coming to feel that simply offering a safe space is one of the most important things that I can do in this world.


It’s been eight days since we were met with the outcome of the presidential election here in The United States.  There have been 10,000 thoughts and feelings that have passed through me surrounding this reality however I am increasingly less interested in offering an opinion about the situation because I believe that it is now the time for action.


My overwhelming instinct is to gather those who I love and ensure that they are safe.  This has been the case with family, friends and the other students and teachers in the spiritual and movement communities of which I am a part.  I could go on and on about how urgently I feel the need to check in on my family and close friends yet in this particular reflection I want to express how this past week has affected my experience of being a yoga teacher and specifically a yoga teacher in Philadelphia.


Since moving to Philadelphia in 2012 I have been exposed to many incredible yoga teachers and I can say honestly that I have not met or taken class with a anyone who I didn’t feel was motivated by an authentic sense of compassionate service towards their students and community.  On the other hand since moving here I have had very few experiences in which the community as a whole has come together to affirm a common purpose.  For a few years I thought that such gatherings were occurring however I was not aware of them. I have instead become aware that there are many small, divided yoga communities acting parallel and sometimes in competition with one another.  That more often than hearing praises of specific teachers, I hear beratement of “yoga teachers in general” coming from within our own ranks.  I experience narratives that are generated from popular media about the flimsiness, new-ageyness or cultishness of yoga being redirected by teachers towards their colleagues and at other studios.  I myself am not innocent and admit to a share of arrogance around my teaching and dismissal of styles that I do not understand.


My interest in writing this article is not to criticize the yoga community in Philadelphia and indeed to the extent that I do I also criticize myself. It is instead to call attention to a more important, more urgent and more noble task at hand that can only be accomplished as a community.  A task that has always been our charge as yoga teachers yet now in this time and place is more clear, pressing and crucial than ever.  Our cultural climate is shifting quickly as a consequence of the results of the presidential election.  While our society prepares for what could be intense and extreme shifts in the Iegal, economic and social landscape, shifts of identity that are just as if not more significant have already begun.


Teaching yoga these past eight days has been different than at any other point in my career.  I have felt a heaviness and worry permeating my students and based on my conversations with other teachers, my experience is not unique.  There is a deeply unsettled and anxious shadow that has cast itself over the people that we are called to serve and over the other teachers with whom we provide that service.  Issues of gender, sexuality and race are only a few of the identity dynamics that are going to be rocked, challenged and potentially dismantled within the minds and souls of our community.  Already those who profess racism and misogyny are feeling more empowered and those who find themselves outside of the “cultural norm” are feeling more threatened.  


I have always thought that our ability as yoga teachers extends beyond offering physical health, strength and confidence to our students.  That through those qualities it is possible to connect them to a sense of inherent dignity, dignity that can be drawn from an inexhaustible inner resource that requires no affirmation from society, culture or other external source.  That it is essential for us to cultivate the entire human through the practice of yoga which includes supporting the unique identity that is true to each individual.  I have only recently begun to realize that this task is not real, relevant, or potent unless it can be done within a community of teachers and in service to a growing community of students.  


Perhaps I have been lucky and therefore unappreciative of the intense and often difficult work of forming and existing in a practice community.  Lucky that I was able to study religion in the midst of free and sharp thinkers and wise mentors such as Kelly Brown Douglas and Ailish Meisner at Goucher College, to begin my journey as a yoga teacher nestled in the love of Kim Manfredi and that Charm City Yoga community in Baltimore and that I had the chance to study meditation and the science of self-transformation under the guidance of Marcy Vaughn with The Three Doors.  Now I believe that I am taking up the mantle of playing my part in cultivating a community that will protect our right to seek self-knowledge, inner strength and pure love through yoga.  That it is beset on me as it is on all yoga teachers to continue the work that has been passed on to us and ensure that any of those who seek yoga will be safely nourished and supported in doing so.


At this point the two girls have left but not after laughing and screaming while they wrestled on the studio floor.  Perhaps they don’t fully comprehend the intensity of our changing times; or perhaps they do and, despite that, understand that joy and love must continue. It is possible that I will be able to learn from more people outside of the normal youngish, white-ish yoga practitioner and I pray that my ability to offer safe space to all who seek it will never be diminished.