As I reflect on a recent article published in XO Jane by Jen Caron “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” it confirmed that teachers who do not incorporate dristi into their classroom do an injustice to all of their students. Furthermore, students who do not actively incorporate dristi into their personal practice stunt the development of their yoga practice and the practice of those around them.
In Jen Caron’s essay, she highlights how a black, heavyset woman who “appeared to had never set foot in a yoga studio” attended a yoga class, and in the author’s eyes, the space was not conducive to this newcomers needs. She cited how the newcomer couldn’t keep up with the practice after the opening “light stretches” and how the new student’s frustrations at her performance were “hostile” and aimed at her because she was skinny and white. Yet, to many readers these observations and “imagined” projections, that were intended to highlight the lack of diversity in the yoga classroom, came off as insensitive and stereotypical (skinny white-woman uncomfortable with an overweight “seemingly” hostile black-woman). However, despite the obvious racial and social connotations that the writer evoked, the essay did serve to illuminate a major shortcoming in the author’s yoga practice and that which is displayed in much of Western yoga… the absence of dristi.
Dristi (or drishti) is a point of focus where the gaze rests during yoga poses (asana) and meditation. This focus, during which the eyes should always stay soft and unstrained, aids in concentration by keeping the student attentive to what his/her body is doing in relation to breath and mind. Each yoga pose has a specific dristi, which also serves to aid in physical alignment.
If the author of “It Happened to Me,” who admittedly expressed that she was not able to “focus on [her] practice,” would have integrated dristi with each pose, she would not have noticed the distinction between how she was performing versus the woman that she described. She wouldn’t have noticed that this woman was “glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous.” Nor would she have [looked] straight at her every time [her] head was upside down,” because the proper dristi for Downward Facing Dog is to look at your navel… not between your legs! She wouldn’t have “imagined” that this woman was judging, stereotyping and resenting her for being white, skinny and a lover of “tacky sports bras”, because her mind would have been focused on counting her breaths and repeating personal mantras.
According to B.K.S. Iyengar in the book Light on Yoga, “[yoga poses] have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body […] but their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.” Yet when dristi is not exercised in the classroom to help harness the mind, the resulting effect is the experience that is outlined in the authors essay; a new yoga student’s frustrated experience with beginning yoga is amplified by the watchful gaze of a distracted and emotionally immature yogi.
I suppose it suffices to say that we are ALL works in progress…
How did you respond to the author’s essay?
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