My yoga journey began in the late 1990s after a colleague saw a picture of Madonna with her leg behind her head in Eka Pada Sirsasana and suggested we give it try. Little did I know how much of an impact yoga would have on my life.
I have worked in a variety of industries spanning 25 years from advertising, law and eventually yoga. All very different but one thing that stood out was that I was invariably the only person of colour, or one of the few employed.
There were many occasions where I felt was judged purely on the colour of my skin and not my ability. Most of the time the playing field rarely felt equal in terms of role and pay equity. For example, while working in a corporate environment, I was unable to make it beyond a management role despite having a master’s degree. I did not feel able or supported to apply for more senior roles. I felt I had to “stay in my lane.”
Much of my career I had to assimilate to fit in and adapt the way in which I conversed. There wasn’t a term for it then but I was code switching (the practice of alternating between two or more dialects or varieties of language in conversation). My telephone voice became very “OK yah” and proper, while my authentic way of speaking was instinctively withheld.
Fighting for equal pay and access to training that was so readily available to my peers was a constant source of stress and I constantly felt that I was being held back in terms of my career progression.
I remembered attending an interview at an advertising agency, and noticed the surprise on their faces that I was Black. You see my name and voice did not give clues to my ethnicity. I got the job but only after being vetted to ensure I would fit in. I was taken to a leaving do in the company to see how I would interact with the department and only after passing this test did they take me on. This was to be the first of many incidents that made me feel that the colour of my skin set me apart despite being perfectly skilled or overskilled on paper.
I often wondered if working in a toxic environment, riddled with stress contributed to me waking up one morning to discover I suffered with Bell’s palsy. This was something I refused to acknowledge initially but, as time passed and my lifestyle changed, I had to agree with my healer’s diagnosis of stress. Bell’s palsy was my body’s way of letting me know that I needed to achieve a healthier lifestyle. It was the wake-up call that I needed.
Being in a corporate bubble, with colleagues behaving similarly, normalised our stressed behaviours. I could not see that anything was wrong with the long hours, unhealthy eating patterns, and discrimination I encountered.
I found one constant even after I left the corporate bubble, which was the racism that I would continue to encounter. This would take different forms but it still remained — I was about to embark into another industry that was very white: the yoga industry. However, in the 1990’s my first teacher was Indian and my second one was mixed race so I had no idea what I was getting into. There was actually more diversity in yoga back then than there is now, presumably because it has become a big industry and modelled by fashion and image. There was no social media; yoga was grassroots and much more diverse.
Fast-forward to 2020; what a rollercoaster of a year. I believe it’s a journey that we, as humans, had to undergo to see what has become our reality — which, in most cases, was not normal and certainly unsustainable in the long run.
COVID-19 has highlighted many of the inequities that we knew existed; and has brought them out into the open in a glaring way, which can no longer be ignored. Whilst certain ethnicities in the BAME community in the U.K. and U.S. have seen higher death rates, why is this not replicated in Caribbean and African countries? This makes me believe that discrimination and poor living conditions is at the core of what we are seeing.
I am not entirely surprised by the global protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am hopeful that George Floyd’s death and those of the others are not in vain and I am seeing signs that all those that have died have created a lasting legacy that will show that “Black lives matter.”
Black people have endured 400 years of suffering and racism, starting with our ancestors. It certainly has been a very long fight. This all appears to be cyclical — there have been alarms in the past from the death of Rodney King, but they have always been put on snooze.
We all felt a universal, collective grief and anger that was experienced by tens of thousands of people. These feelings have created a community that came out to support the BLM movement. It is a shame that it took the death of George Floyd to create this coming together when there have been so many more Black lives lost.
Eight minutes and 45 seconds has resulted in the world finding the pain suffered by Black people intolerable. It is the wake-up call that has called out the denial of discrimination that has been witnessed so many times previously.
I have traversed so many emotions but think the initial one was numbness, as a form of protection to the profound rage and anger.
Can we please take the lessons learnt to help create and maintain a new normal that is equitable for everyone?
But, sadly, for some, this has only been performative action. Afraid to be called out on their obvious lack of diversity and inclusion, many have gone back to business as usual. Was “Black Lives Matter” just a trending hashtag?
I pray that is a movement and not a moment and does not slow down —replicating the “#MeToo” movement — for the real work starts now.
There is no simple solution to solving racism. However, if our allies use privilege as a tool to amplify Black voices and spread awareness, true systematic change can occur a little bit faster.
What drives real change is when people in positions of power make a concerted effort to include Black people in the decision-making process. This must not be seen as tokenism but a genuine attempt. Also, those in positions of leadership and decision-making need to be educated in implicit bias. A lot of people are biased without being aware.
I would love yoga to be yoga. I would love yoga to be inclusive for studios to hire people of colour for their talent and skill rather than any tokenism. I would love for yoga to reflect the image it’s portraying.
I would like to see allies who have power help to make these changes long and sustained.
Yoga is about union and community. Let’s start to make this a reality for everybody.
Rest in power, George Floyd.