personal, political, everyday yoga

Tawanna Kane reflects on diversity, access & yoga as a grass-roots movement.

photo by beth dixson,

The faces in Tawanna Kane’s yoga classes in the South Bronx may not reflect the typical face of yoga in North America. The young people on the mats live in juvenile hall or on probation, or are in other ways considered “at-risk,” and the vast majority are people of colour.

As the executive director of the Lineage Project in New York, Tawanna is making yoga and meditation accessible to people who fall outside of the target market of the mainstream yoga industry. She is part of a growing movement to bring yoga into communities that lack easy access to what has become the domain of stylish and expensive urban studios.

When Tawanna stands in front of her students, they see a black woman who has chosen to pursue a path of spiritual growth through yoga. A large part of why she and other teachers at Lineage are accepted by these youth is due to their own diverse cultural backgrounds that reflect the neighbourhoods they teach in.

Even in New York City, Tawanna rarely sees her physical likeness reflected in the studios around town. This lack of cultural diversity is one of the pressing issues of North American yoga, says Tawanna, because if the yoga community fails to reach out to people of colour, or the poor, or the physically challenged, yoga could become simply another expensive pastime of the privileged.

At the heart of yoga is the quest for liberation. And freedom, or lack thereof, is a loaded and life-altering issue for the youth of the Bronx; it is something that they cannot take lightly, or for granted. Every day they face social or personal limitations, such as incarceration, racism and poverty. Tawanna suggests not only that yoga can offer them some options, but that the diverse perspectives represented by her students and others like them offer a chance for yoga to become a force of significant positive change in North America. 

For Tawanna, liberation isn’t an abstract ideal, but a personal, a political and an everyday aspiration.
We spoke in June. Here she is in her own words …

tawanna kane on liberation:

I love the idea of being liberated from my thought patterns. I love the idea of being liberated from my biases, my judgments, my stereotypes. I am uncomfortable, however, with the idea of samadhi or being liberated from this world. I’m very interested in how yogic practices can be used in this living world to better support ourselves and to better support one another as we go through this struggle and joy of living.

So for me, when I think about liberation, it’s on a daily basis. How can I free myself of this thought that I carry with me? How can I help these young people to be free of the limitations they place on themselves that tell them – because he is a young man of colour he will not succeed; they will not go to college; she will have a baby before she’s seventeen years old? How can I liberate them from their limitations, or how can I increase their possibilities so that they can tap into their own potentiality? That’s more what I’m interested in than reaching “enlightenment” or a state of being that is otherworldly.

Right now, for me and for the Lineage Project, we’re in the heart and the heat of a really poor neighbourhood where it’s very festive but there’s constant friction, there’s lots of abuse, there’s lots of addiction, 65 percent of the population is single-parent families. So when you’re in a place that’s so filled with aliveness, I think you have to figure out how to work with that aliveness rather than to get to this “other stage.”

on diversity:
The Lineage Project is in a predominantly Latino and Black community, so most of our teachers are Latino and Black here, and I don’t think that we could do it any other way and still have the same types of interest or numbers. I feel it’s important when we repeat “Namaste” – the Light in me sees and honours the Light in you – to hope for, and to see, a reflection of ourselves. It’s empowering to the young people, it allows them to see the possibility in themselves. If you don’t see that, after a while you become disheartened and I think somewhat dismayed by not being able to see yourself getting to another place. So at the Project when young people see themselves in the teachers, they think, “I could possibly add to this dialogue, I could possibly be a teacher, or I could embrace the fact that this person is a teacher.”

I look at the staff at many of the yoga studios in New York City, and as it is, it’s hard to invite in people of varied social backgrounds and sizes or ability and wellness level. If cultural diversity is not reflected in your staff, if it’s not reflected in your advertisements, this becomes one of the thresholds that you have to walk through if you are atypical of what you see in the yoga world right now.

I think that if the yoga community doesn’t have a more diverse face, then yoga can easily morph into being a white, elitist practice that is similar to rowing or racquetball. I feel that if we want to continue this practice and really have it take root, then yoga needs to be in the hands of a larger group of people than have access to it right now. I’ve thought of lots of different ways that we can become more accessible. I think definitely that staffing at centres and at ashrams should reflect their communities.

on identity and language:

I’ve always felt very inundated by media images that didn’t look like me. I have this body that is atypical, not necessarily of the norm in this country, but definitely atypical of what is considered beautiful. For women of colour, the ability to embrace their physicality and to honour their bodies and honour their curves is really necessary in helping to build self-esteem and self-confidence.

Through yoga I found an amazing ability to feel satisfaction in the person that I was and to honour my own physicality in a way that I had never been comfortable or able to do in my life before. In addition to my cultural background, I have rheumatoid arthritis, so a lot of my ability is seasonal. In learning to work with a chronic illness I had to stop looking at it as preventing me from doing the asanas, but instead allowing me to grow in different ways, allowing me to become more flexible mentally because I wasn’t always flexible physically.

But my identity does still feel very disparate. I see myself as a yoga practitioner, I see myself as a Black woman, I see myself as a professional woman. I have all of these labels and some of them have come together and some of them are united, but I feel like my yoga practice is still kind of set apart.

I’m still trying to find the language for myself and to allow people to understand exactly what yoga and union is. When I speak about it with my students in this community or any of the other similarly placed, disadvantaged communities that I work in, I speak about it as bringing together our minds with our bodies and with our hearts. We can then align those three aspects with truly being free, with truly being present, with truly being available for any opportunities that may surface. So, for example, a young woman really just being available to hold her baby when she’s feeding her. So that’s how I speak of union right now.

I think language is key. When I began to investigate the physical sensation behind a lot of the terminology that has become the lingo of the yoga community, but not necessarily understood by someone outside of the community, it really helped me to cement a message that can speak to people.

There’s a young person at the Lineage Project who said to me, “You know, I want to do the hold-up posture.” I thought, “What is he talking about?” He was talking about The Goddess pose. And they call ujjayi the Darth Vader breath! So the young people are beginning to use their own words to describe yoga. This only happens when people know that what they’re receiving is so strong and so appropriate for their lives that they want to express some kind of ownership over it, when they really want to have a piece of it for themselves in some tangible way. For me, that’s a very exciting shift.

on grassroots yoga:
We don’t give enough homage and respect to the origins of yoga in this country. I sometimes feel that the Westernization of yoga is allowing it to become far too commercial, but I think that there are certain kinds of appropriate transitions and transformations that the practice inevitably will undergo as it comes into communities like the South Bronx or Brooklyn or Baltimore, Maryland. Because if a community doesn’t believe in and own what is happening, it won’t ever stick. Yoga will continue to be brought to them by altruistic individuals, but the community won’t ever own it – it will never be a roots-up movement.

If we’re interested in diversity, how do we tap the rest of the community? I think you do it step by step. I think you do it lecture by lecture. I think you get out into the communities and you let people know you exist. I really think that in many ways yoga is a grassroots movement. We’re creating wonderful structures all around this world that have a belief in compassion, that have a belief in human beings, and an awareness of our shared humanity. The more grassroots communities can have access to these practices, the more we can do to not only have personal transformation but also societal transformation. We can really begin to see how yoga can be a catalyst for transformation and change.

Lesley Marian Neilson lives, writes and raises her daughters in Victoria, BC.

For more information about the Lineage Project, visit their website

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