About Shannon Prince
Dr. Shannon Prince is a Black social justice lawyer, legal commentator, and author – and yogi! She holds a law degree from Yale University, and a doctorate in African and African American Studies from Harvard University. Her book Tactics for Racial Justice: Building an Antiracist Organization and Community, will be released in November from Routledge with a foreword from Susan Neiman, author of Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.
You say that “Antiracism is not something one feels, but a skillset one uses to fight prejudice.” What are some key elements of that skillset to cultivate?
As yogis, we often speak of “sankalpa” — intention. As antiracists, one skill we must master is being S.M.A.R.T. about the sankalpas we set for racial justice. “S.M.A.R.T.” is an acronym created by George T. Doran to describe the ideal goal – one that is Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. So, it’s not enough to intend for your yoga studio to become a more diverse place and then expect to manifest that reality. Rather, setting a S.M.A.R.T. sankalpa could entail, for example, constructing the Specific goal of having the proportion of yoga teachers of color on your staff be in parity with the proportion of the local population that is of color. That, in turn, would be a Measurable aim because the proportion of teachers of color working for a studio is quantifiable. This kind of intention is Assignable – you can delegate it to a manager or claim the task for yourself, but, ultimately, one or more designated people must be just as responsible for it as for teaching class or keeping the books. Make the goal Realistic by allowing for a reasonable timeframe in which to achieve it – for example, within the next two years rather than the next two weeks! And that brings us to the last point – ensure that the sankalpa is Time-related. You set dates for upcoming teacher trainings, workshops, and retreats – commit to when you will achieve your racial justice goal, too.
Another skill to master is translating antiracist concepts into language and frameworks that resonate with your community. Explain how critical race theory manifests the principle of satya by examining the truth about past and present injustice or that supporting reparations is consistent with asteya because it restores to Black and Native peoples the wealth and land stolen from them. You don’t necessarily have to change peoples’ entire worldviews. Instead, when possible, show them how diversity, equity, and inclusion comport with their worldviews.
What can people bring from their yogic practice into their antiracist practice?
Yogis often say that the moment we want to get out of a pose is the moment the pose begins. In yoga, we understand that discomfort is not necessarily bad and can in fact lead to growth. Yet, too often, when it comes to racial issues, we prioritize avoiding having uncomfortable conversations, facing uncomfortable realities, and taking uncomfortable actions over pursuing justice. Yoga teaches us that by not running from discomfort we can transform our bodies. Similarly, only by not running from discomfort can we transform our societies.
That said, the Yoga Sutras remind us to seek sthira and sukha in our poses: steadiness and ease. Just as the more we practice a pose, the steadier we feel in it and the easier it becomes, the more we practice our antiracist skills, the more comfortable and natural they feel – and the better we get at them.
How do you suggest I lead a yoga class through various forms of reckoning in order to embody the practice?
In her book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Susan Neiman describes the practice of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung — which is a really long German word that translates to “working off the [Nazi] past.” The past is “worked off” by being remembered, for example through Holocaust memorials and commemorations. Yoga teachers can work off past racial oppression in their own societies by, for example, beginning class with a land acknowledgement, a common practice in Canada and Australia, that recognizes sites’ indigenous provenances. Take a moment to say, “I’d like to start by honoring the X People, the traditional owners of this land.”
Recognize that poses can be a form of empowerment. For example, if you’re teaching class in the wake of a racist police shooting, you might guide your students through some soothing restorative poses and explain how they can use these poses to calm the mind and body in the wake of a traumatic incident.
And why not end class on an inspiring note by reading an excerpt from a speech by civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker during meditation?
Are there some ways you would suggest yoga therapists and teachers working with unserved populations become greater agents and advocates for positive change?
First, build capacity. The best way yoga teachers and therapists can make positive change is to facilitate empowering people in the communities they serve. Can you allow a student of color to take your teacher training for free? Can you and other like-minded people pool your resources to help pay to have a person of color trained as a yoga therapist? If you and other yoga teachers banded together and took turns leading the sessions, might you be able to offer an entirely free yoga teacher training to non-white students? Get creative.
Second, remember that being an ally to unserved populations entails more than teaching them. Buy your yoga mat and your leggings from minority-owned businesses. Don’t just pop into the community and teach or do therapy and then vanish – grab dinner at a restaurant owned by a proprietor of color. Come back with your friends. Put some of your money in a minority-owned bank where it can be lent to people in the community for them to use to purchase assets like houses or start businesses. Circulate your resources through unserved populations, and they’re significantly less likely to remain unserved.
Third, insist upon seeing people like those you serve reflected in the larger yoga world. Write to that yoga magazine and let them know you won’t be subscribing unless you see yogis of color regularly featured on its cover and in its pages – particularly South Asian yogis, as yoga comes from their region. Let event organizers know that you won’t be purchasing a ticket unless yogis of color will be paid teachers there. When you, yourself, have the opportunity to teach at an event, ask the organizers if they have also hired teachers of color. By facilitating the creation of more non-white yoga teachers and therapists, circulating your resources through minority communities, and then advocating for the mainstream yoga world to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, you attack the systems that cause there to be unserved populations at the root and make sure that yoga serves us all.
I liked the suggestion in your Epilogue: “As you go about your day, ask yourself: What is this particular action or inaction creating, sustaining, or destroying in regard to race: diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, or their inverses?” Do you have an example specific to the yoga world?
I had the privilege of being the student, mentee, and friend of Täo Porchon-Lynch who held the Guinness World Record for being the oldest yoga teacher. She was a one hundred and one and a half when she passed away a few days after teaching us students her final class. As she reminded us once, “This is not gymnastics.” What she meant was that yoga isn’t about the stunts we do on the mat – it’s about what we do off of it.
Until her death, Tao was thought to be the only person living who had marched with both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a woman of color whose existence is free of de jure segregation, I live in the world she helped created. Tao was capable of incredible physical feats until she died. But creating a more just world was her true yoga practice.