Why Yoga Teacher Trainings Are Taking on Social Justice Issues

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When Michelle Cassandra Johnson enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2009, she had been  practicing yoga and working as a race-equity and anti-racism trainer for years. Although the training led her through the ancient philosophical teachings of the Sutras, she still recalls the disconnect she felt being taught about a liberatory practice and being one of only two BIPOC students in the room.

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

Her perspective as an activist, an educator, and a Black person in America, informed how she experienced the program. “What I felt like it was lacking was this application of what was actually happening to us and around us and in our communities,” says Johnson.

Although the social and political issues we face now are not that different from what was happening in 2009 or years prior, “there’s something that feels different in people’s awareness and there’s something that feels different now about the amount of people talking about yoga and justice,” she says. “And my question about that is, how much of that is performativity and co-opting? And how much of it is true intention around wanting to transform our wellness spaces and really wanting to do the work that is required to create conditions for everyone to be well?”

In response, she and others have launched specialized social justice yoga teacher trainings (YTTs) intended to address her question and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the racial reckoning that arose in 2020.

An Ancient Tradition as Means for Contemporary Change

Social change is complex, multi-faceted, and takes intentional and sustained work. While yoga alone cannot heal systems of inequity, social justice YTTs operate under the idea that the practice and philosophy can be used as a tool to contribute to meaningful and sustainable progress.

At their core, social justice YTTs share the foundational teachings of yoga as tools for individual and collective liberation. These curricula emphasize how the inner work initiated by yoga is inextricably linked to the external change needed in the world.

Following her first YTT, Johnson enrolled in an additional 300-hour weekend yoga teaching training. She also studied the Bhagavad Gita and began to weave yoga with her work as an activist. Over time, this evolved into a body of work that included a book, teacher trainings, and workshops called Skill in Action, all designed to help people apply the deeply transformative practices of yoga to become agents of social change.

Though training curricula are unique to the particular program and facilitator, most facilitate collaborative spaces that discuss how yoga can serve as a tool for inner and societal change, and create greater equity and accountability within and outside wellness communities. These interconnected areas of focus include:

  • Honoring the roots of yoga and applying the teachings to current social issues
  • Tapping into the psychological benefits of yoga to help those with systemic trauma
  • Making yoga spaces more accessible and inclusive

These trainings attempt to reclaim something that can be lost, appropriated, and commodified in some popular contemporary approaches to yoga. They do so by providing unique and powerful spaces to explore individual biases and work together toward significant collective healing work.

Rest as An Act of Resistance

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

“The statistics run between anywhere from 70-80% of physical problems are stress-related. We know this,” says Gail Parker, PhD, a psychologist, yoga therapist, and president of the board of directors of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance. “We also know that yoga practices—particularly restorative yoga, yoga nidra, and meditation practices—evoke the relaxation response, which is a real physiological response. We also know that when the relaxation response books in, blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, metabolism slows, brain waves slow, and breathing becomes more efficient.”

An understanding of the compounded effects of stress, especially related to systemic trauma, enables yoga teachers to turn to rest as an act of resistance both in their own practice and in how they instruct their students.

“We’re all negatively impacted by racial stress and trauma,” says Parker, author of Restorative Yoga For Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma and Transforming Ethnic and Race-Based Traumatic Stress With Yoga. She cites results from the recent American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey. “Our contexts are different, our circumstances are different, but we’re all being impacted by issues of race and ethnicity in this country. So, my work is to support people in paying attention to that.”

Parker notes that the first step to dealing with racial stress and trauma is self-study, which can be facilitated through the relaxed state that yoga can incur. “Individuals make up the system. If individuals aren’t doing their own inner work around race and ethnicity, then nothing changes. If the focus continues to be external—changing the system without changing self, without individual personal transformation—things don’t change. And we see that.”

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

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

Creating Inclusive Spaces

Courageous Yoga arose from what director Jordan Smiley describes as the need to create yoga spaces that ask for “not only yogic self-awareness, but yogic self-in-a-collective awareness.”

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

Andrea Pares, a graduate of Smiley’s  200-hour training, had already taken a 200-hour YTT but the history of yoga and its appropriation in the United States was not acknowledged in her first program. She found in Courageous an inclusive community of people who also wanted to honor the roots of yoga and create more expansive yoga offerings.

“I wanted to become trained in yoga so that I could teach yoga to people in bigger bodies like myself, so that they could become liberated like I have been,” says Pares, who now teaches a weekly yoga for bigger bodies class at Courageous.

Beyond Studio Walls

Yoga as a tool for social change, by definition, expands yoga beyond the walls of yoga studios. The Prison Yoga Project (PYP) offers a 200-hour teacher training that implements yoga in a restorative justice model. That means it  focuses on self-empowerment and  rehabilitation to reduce the cycles of crime and recidivism, by assisting prisons and organizations beyond the prison system (such as youth outreach programs and governmental agencies) with 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 New Hampshire chapter director. The teacher trainings are designed to work with accessibility, energetic release, and allowing students to explore what communities they feel called to serve.

Lindgren says that the question becomes, “how can we in our tiny little window of support really be there and offer this practice that people didn’t maybe even think was for them?”

Since its start in 2002, PYP has grown to more than 120 programs across nine different countries, including the United States. When Lindgren held the first YTT in 2016, she taught ten women who were incarcerated in New Hampshire, all of whom have been released from the prison system. Some of her students from that initial YTT have gone on to become lobbyists, work with autistic adults as caregivers, and hold mental health peer support groups. In 2021, the training became a six-month long virtual program for anyone who is called to serve within and outside of prison.

Safety and Accountability

Felicia Savage Friedman’s anti-racist and social justice 200-hour virtual teacher training, draws on her work for the Center for Health Equity at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. The founder of YogaRoots on Location (YROL), Friedman launched yoga programs that would be approachable to people who typically wouldn’t have access to the teachings. Think yoga and line dancing classes in prisons and community courses that focused on the yoga of driving. The approach to her training is based on the teachings of raja yoga, which focuses on honoring our humanity through meditation and energetic practices.

“It’s actually claiming our humanity because we never have done this level of work. We definitely have not done it in community,” Friedman says. She explains that collective liberation work is done by working on ourselves in an intimate community where people can be vulnerable while also being held accountable.

About Our Contributor

Allie Sivak is a writer, yoga teacher, and food scientist based in Denver, Colorado. Yoga has been in her life for over ten years, and has helped her immensely in moving through life’s changing seasons. She sees her yoga practice as a life-long tool for embodiment, awareness, and growth, and writes about holistic wellness and culture.

Allie holds a 200-hour yoga teacher certification, as well as certifications in yoga anatomy and Yin yoga, and currently teaches vinyasa and restorative classes. When not practicing on her mat or writing, she enjoys cooking and sharing meals with friends, traveling, and spending time in nature. 

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