pleasure is political

In remembered rapture, bell hooks writes of visits to Toni Cade Bambara shortly before her death. I want to share what hooks writes about the subject of their last conversation because so many of my friends – especially my friends who are teachers, activists, writers, and/or scholars, jobs that often involve constant work with and against and for political and ideological convictions – have at one time or another had to learn, and re-learn, the importance of making time for self-care. As Audre Lorde reminds me daily from my phone’s home-screen: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

hooks writes:

Toni wanted to talk seriously with me about her concern that I was working too much. She felt I was allowing myself to become too isolated, that I needed to get out more, to socialize–to have more fun. We talked about the fun times we had shared. We talked about the place of pleasure in our lives. She wanted me to remember that pleasure is political–for the capacity to relax and play renews the spirit and makes it possible for us to come to the work of writing clearer, ready for the journey.

from remembered rapture: the writer at work, page 237


American Yoga

Often, when people find out I teach yoga, they ask “what kind of yoga do you teach.” My standard answer has become: “American yoga.”

Most people immediately get it. For many of us, our access to yoga, or to any form of mindful movement for that matter, is not directly connected to an ancient practice. Or even to a pretension to lineage. It is the yoga that is taught in gyms, community centers or corporate studios. Sometimes, depending on our disposable income and where we live, we may have access to smaller independent yoga studios but chances are the teachers in these studios were trained in American yoga as well.

In dubbing this practice American yoga I do not have ambitions of copyrighting some star-spangled, we-are-the-world, sequence of movements. What I mean is that the style exhibits the positives and negatives of the assimilation that happens to many cultural practices and products in this country. I am thinking along the lines here of American English, Chinatowns, and Tex-mex. This may put some purists off, but I am not sure how else to describe the yoga I practice and teach today.

rainbow yoga mats
What American yoga looks like to me.  (Photo by cheeseslave on Flickr.)

I have been thinking about this more and more recently given the push back against this form of yoga from various quarters: from members of the South Asian American community, most vocally via the group South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA); from practitioners of long-standing yoga lineages; from non-practitioners who see the practice as materialist and elitist; from minority communities who note the increasingly white profile of yoga in the media; from women concerned about the body-image issues that the yoga industry perpetuates; and from the media itself as the increasing popularity of yoga makes the practice ripe for parody.

I want to quarrel with many of these objections to American yoga, but I can’t. Because they each have a valid point. They have a valid point because it is American yoga. These faults are part of the society at large and whatever is showing up off your mat is sure to show up on your mat. Also, my Caribbean immigrant self, a product of colonization and neocolonization and one of the most complex color-coded, class-conscious societies, identifies with cultural loss, particularly when loss is really the result of theft protected by institutionalized systems of oppression. And the academic in me, who works to make such systems visible and thereby less powerful is torn about the ways in which yoga shows up in this country.

My worry, however, is that the current backlash against yoga as it’s practiced in America today will obscure the benefits that it does bring to a variety of communities. The volume of various discourses in this conversation – on “restoring yoga to its roots,” on yoga as white and exclusionary, on yoga as too expensive, on the outrageousness of yoga attire and yoga instagram and yoga-themed whatever – make invisible the spaces that are working in the spirit of creating change from the quiet of committed, consistent practice.

I teach in one of these spaces. The picture of the young, white, lululemon-clad yogini that is held as stereotypical of yoga practitioners has little meaning in this space located at the heart of Brooklyn, near the aptly named “Junction.” My classes reflect the neighborhood with its dividing line of Caribbean and Orthodox Jewish populations. We have the occasional male student in class, but I am mostly teaching to women who have never practiced yoga before stepping into my class. I don’t know what the critics of yoga want it to look like instead, but I do know that I want to insist upon keeping the practice available and attractive to these students who find solace in this space.

I like to think of my American yoga class as a mindful mash-up of traditions. I play music I like, tracks that are certainly not “yoga music” but are consciously chosen to enhance both my teaching and my students’ practice. I use the Sanskrit names only on occasion and I do not chant, but I always close with namasté because despite the various parodies, the word still holds power. I ask students to dedicate their practice and sometimes we repeat a metta meditation at the end of class. My students know that this is a safe space where they can be brave and yet can choose silence; where they can laugh when they fall and cry in savasana; where they can be seen.

This is my yoga community. We are not often represented in the advertisements for or the arguments against yoga in America but we are here, making space for our practice whether or not others’ ideas of the practice make space for us.