Santa Cruz yogi Valerie Moselle has been trying — and failing — to quit teaching yoga. She loves it, but she also believes yoga is too often a “colonized white space of privilege, rife with cultural appropriation and spiritual bypassing.” In a Community Voices op-ed, she explores the dichotomy and her own mixed feelings and writes about the warning sign she’d like to post outside her studio for her students.
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I’ve been trying hard to stop teaching yoga, but I can’t seem to help myself.
So after closing Luma, my downtown Santa Cruz center, in 2021 amid the pandemic, I have recently rented another space.
It’s directly across the street, in the Santa Cruz Art Center. I’m calling it the Center Street Studio, and as much as I’d like it to be, it’s not a safe space.
Let me explain.
The pandemic, combined with the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, caused me to think about myself, my life and my yoga practice through a new lens — and I don’t like what I see.
This world — the yoga world, my world — promises relief from physical pain and to bring us closer to experiences of wholeness. Yoga promises to imbue our lives with quiet, peace and ease, heal our physical bodies and connect our disenfranchised souls. These are tall orders for a practice most engage in only once or twice a week. And perhaps it succeeds.
But the yoga world — my world — is also, disturbingly, a colonized white space of privilege, rife with cultural appropriation, spiritual bypassing and conspirituality.
There. I said it.
Also, if you haven’t been following the yoga news these past few years, you might not know the unfortunate reality that many of the industry’s most formative icons were physical, sexual and psychological abusers. These yoga gurus were often enabled by Western followers who were either blinded by devotion or unwilling to give up the sanctity of their beloved affiliations, despite the atrocities they witnessed, experienced themselves, and in some cases replicated in their own student communities.
Many nationally recognized teachers, some in the Bay Area, and some local yoga teachers — ones who are now a generation or two from those who first popularized yoga on our shores — profited in fortune and fame from their devotion to and affiliation with their teacher lineages. If you don’t believe me, google your teacher. Then google the lineage they hail from (if they haven’t already struck it from their bio).
I know, it’s disheartening. I keep trying to quit.
In an effort to be part of the solution, I have tried to make earnest changes to the way I hawk my yoga wares in our community. I scrutinize my language and cue-ing for inclusivity, include images of adults of all ages, body types and skin color in my marketing, offer sliding-scale pricing options, proactively take on my own racism and bias, and educate myself about the systemic barriers to inequality that persist in my field.
Even so, I struggle with cognitive dissonance as I operate within a systemic societal paradigm of unfairness. As I said, the emergence of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter moved me.
I am troubled by the rise of fascist, patriarchal and racist sentiment, along with the paring-back of protective human rights and environmental regulations during a time of profound political and social unrest. Continuing to offer yoga feels like a Band-Aid for our collectively frayed nervous systems, and my life-force energy might be better spent serving other causes.
Yet I cannot seem to help myself. I keep teaching.
I used to agree with you
As I write, I brace for a flood of comments from you. This is a yoga town. You will stand up for your personal experience with yoga and how your lineage is not part of that story. Ours is a practice of nonviolence, after all. And we are part of the solution.
I welcome your anecdotes of joy and healing.
Do share how yoga has changed your life for the better. How its teachings on oneness, interconnection and harmony have brought you closer to yourself and others.
I know … your teacher is not “one of those.” I’m obviously missing the point.
Don’t I know yoga is about unleashing human potential? Aligning with the universe? These are ancient practices after all, steeped in universal truths that we are now rediscovering with every chaturanga.
Also, it healed your back.
I used to argue alongside you.
However, now I see this is not an “either/or” situation. It’s not a “Western yoga is good versus Western yoga is bad” dichotomy. It’s a “yes/and.”
Yes, our yoga path can potentially lead us to equanimity, wisdom, self-knowledge and unity. And it also came to us and continues to manifest through us, tarnished and corrupted by systems that serve our positions of privilege, bias, racism and ableism. The problem is we will never experience the former without confronting the latter.
I worry that as practitioners and teachers, we are mistakenly comforted by the idea that our intentions are enough.
If we show up on our mats and visit the idea of our grace, inclusivity and acceptance, we will discover that we really are “all one,” right? That it really is “all good,’’ right? All we have to do is sweat, chant and breathe, and “the veil of delusion” will fall away … right?
Or are these mantras mere crutches that subdue our nagging anxieties? How else can we reconcile the atrocities of our lives, like the war in Ukraine and that 10-year-olds can no longer get abortions after a rape (or that a 10-year-old became pregnant in the first place).
Are we collectively engaged in a cultural phenomenon of self-soothing that serves only to sustain our ongoing fragility, sensitivity, and self-absorbedness? BTW ... did you know Hitler was into yoga?
We can do better.
Thoughtful, sane, knowledgeable, gentle, virtuous and nonviolent teachers did manage to emerge despite colonialism, despite capitalism, and despite our exposure to mistaken gurus and convoluted, stolen, sterilized and remodeled teachings. Teachers like me are working to be more than charismatic magnets for weekend yoga warriors.
We’ve harbored long commitments to inner work and personal practice. Our dedication to study, our devotion to philosophy, and our experience as teachers enable us to help, heal, inspire and care. Some of us have even succeeded in respectful integration of Indigenous teachings (if that is indeed possible) and share them from a place of honesty and generosity.
That is something. It matters.
But is it enough?
I want to post a warning for my students
Have you noticed most of the people in yoga classes are white, nonreligious but “spiritual,” culturally Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, and economically privileged? Perhaps we are drawn to yoga because of a profound disconnection from our own Indigenous roots.
We think yoga festivals are the best vacations, and all the more fun on plant medicines. We gravitate toward feathers and beads, enjoy culturally appropriated tattoos, emotional catharsis, chanting, herbalism and speak openly about aligning with prana.
There is nothing wrong with any of this. So long as we don’t whitewash our own and others’ current challenges, evils, suffering, pain and injustice.
Truisms like, “this must be the universe trying to teach me,” and, “this is happening because things have to get worse before we all wake up,” promote self-flagellation and paralysis in the face of real injustice. They have to go.
We must utilize our privilege for good right now. Not after we adjust our vibes to attract yet more abundance. And no. It’s not enough to offer free yoga to disenfranchised communities. People need food, shelter, education, safety and health care. Yoga’s great. But first things first.
That world — the yoga world, my world — is why I feel I have to stop teaching.
And yet, I continue. I even invested in furniture and plants for my new space.
I feel like I should post a sign. Warning: Unsafe Space.
Here’s why. When you come, many of the following are likely true.
You’ll probably get injured. Because you have a body and we do things with our bodies, if you practice for any length of time in my space, an injury is almost inevitable. I will try to give you lots of information and alternative options, but at some point, you will probably make a mistake. Or I will. Also, I am not a doctor, or a physical therapist, so though I might have some experience with bodies, if yours is hurting, I might not be qualified to help you.
I will probably say or do something that will trigger your trauma. In a public forum, I can only be a generalist, and do my best to avoid things that might be triggering for you. Because we store trauma in our bodies, and our practice is an embodied practice, at some point I’m going to ‘hit a nerve’ with something I say or do. Also, though I have been trained in trauma-informed teaching, I am not a therapist. I can offer validation, and acknowledge your experience. But I’m not actually qualified to help you navigate the emotional firestorm I might inadvertently ignite.
If you are a person of color, my class will probably feel like a white space. For systemic reasons that influence location, cost, my teaching style, the students I attract, and the cultural effects of industrywide marketing, not to mention that I am white, able-bodied, educated, and teach in English, if you are a person of color, my class could feel unsafe for you, regardless of my efforts to build equity, inclusion, representation and justice into my teaching, pricing and marketing.
If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, my space will probably feel heteronormative. In addition to the same reasons listed above, and despite close relationships with queer and trans people in my life, if you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the fact that I identify as a cisgendered straight woman might make my class feel unsafe for you, regardless of my efforts to build equity, inclusion, representation and justice into my teaching, pricing and marketing.
If you are a member of a socioeconomically disadvantaged group, my space will probably feel exclusive. In addition to the reasons listed above, and despite my working-class roots, my yoga space might feel like a place designed for folks with economic privilege, regardless of my efforts to offer sliding-scale pricing options, and to keep the interior design simple. It will probably not help when you see me climb into my Tesla after practice, a car I own because of the unfair economic circumstances I enjoy in my marriage to an educated, cisgendered, white man of privilege.
Oh yes. And … you might get COVID-19. Though we are all vaccinated, there is airflow, and though no one frowns on masks, there is still the problem of the pandemic.
I am a yoga teacher.
In my adult life, I have always taught yoga. It has been my primary profession, my primary area of study, and my primary passion. I guess at the end of the day, I still hope I can be part of the solution … one that inspires inquiry, and includes useful tools for regulation, personal growth, and insight.
I have certain skills that help folks feel better, and in these uncertain times I feel motivated to help as many people feel better as I can.
In truth, I am probably just a glorified fitness instructor.
Either way, I really do want my new space to be (and feel) safe. But I have to admit, and I’ll say it out loud here one more time. It’s not. It’s just not.
Not yet, anyway.
Valerie Moselle is an advanced yoga and breathwork teacher, author and entrepreneur. She is the author of “Breathwork: A 3 Week Breathing Program for Clarity, Calm, and Better Health” and the co-founder of Luma, an award-winning, family-focused center that closed in 2021. She holds a bachelor’s of fine arts from Cornish College and has been a Yoga Alliance certified instructor since 2002 (ERYT-500). She is also a Yoga Alliance continuing education provider (YACEP) and has a specialization in prenatal yoga (RPYT). She has studied closely with Lisa Walford, Don and Amba Stapleton, Maty Ezraty, Chuck Miller, Pulak Rajan Shukla’charya, Paul Grilley, Colette Crawford and Jules Mitchell and taught alongside industry leaders including Shiva Rea, Seane Corn and Eric Schiffmann. She collaborates with international “Breathe to Heal” teacher Max Strom coaching teachers around the world. She has lived in Santa Cruz since 2008.