The Yoga of White People F’ing Up

by Laura Humpf

Kriya Yoga, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, consists of 3 components: action, study and surrender to something higher than yourself, and I have found the mistakes white people make in navigating race can help us white folks tune into these components in a profound way.

White privilege leads us to expect comfort, in particular, racial comfort, and when we are always in a state of comfort growth rarely happens. When life is running smoothly and there are little to no obstacles in our path boredom or arrogance can arise. Boredom happens when life feels flat, when there is little to celebrate or challenge us. Arrogance can happen when we believe we have figured it all out and that we are above or beyond the experiences of racism, privilege or oppression. This can lead to the false belief of colorblindness or transcending race.

Making mistakes can humble us and bring us to our knees. Mistakes help us re-assess our lives, our spiritual practice, our relationships and even our world. For this, I am eternally grateful for the fuck ups I have made. I am not grateful for the impacts they have had on the people of color in my life because I have hurt people unintentionally. I am grateful that I am able to use my practice of action, study and surrender to keep moving into learning anti-racist and anti-oppressive ways of being in the world.

I grew up to believe I was a “good, non-racist white person,” and I also arrogantly believed I was a “good white ally.” In my attempts at allyship I messed up a lot, but had I not been willing to make mistakes I would not be able to refine and re-examine what allyship looks like and how I can do better.

Action is the first component of yoga, and it is the part of us that shows up, tries new things and puts ideas out into the world. Writing this is a form of action. Going to a march is an action. Starting a meditation practice is an action. Action without reflection can look more like reaction or flaying though. When we are learning new skills it is common to be in a reactive or flaying state. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? It probably wasn’t graceful or smooth. You most likely fell, a lot. Yet you kept showing up and trying again, and eventually, it got easier.

When we do an action we have to take time to see the consequences. Some consequences we like. We feel empowered or closer to someone. Some consequences we don’t like. We feel embarrassed or guilty or someone is angry with us.

This is where study comes into play. One mistake I recently made was jumping right into business with a person of color without any greeting or checking in to see how they were doing. I am grateful that they called me on it. If I just did the action without studying the consequences, I could have been left with a feeling of guilt and shame that could have paralyzed me from engaging with this person again. When reflecting on this unintentional, but impactful mistake I was able to realize a few things: 1. White supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism have taught me that getting things done is more important than relationship building. 2. I want to prioritize relationship-building in my life. 3. I can commit to more relationship-building in my interactions, even if brief, when I connect with others.

This is also where the riding a bike metaphor becomes problematic. When we learn to ride a bike we eventually get to a place where we do not have to think about our action at all. We can do the action unconsciously. When we are focusing on our conditioning and socialization within systems of supremacy and oppression we will most likely never get to a place where we can always navigate it skillfully and unconsciously because we are constantly being conditioned through the media, institutions and daily interactions to live in racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, sizeist and transphobic ways.

We have to keep showing up and figuring out how to dismantle these systems that reinforce white supremacy and internalized superiority in white folks. The layers of conditioning start from birth. According to one study white and Black children as young as five years old show bias towards whiteness, and white children show significantly more bias. You can read the study here.

Many times we do not see our conditioning until it is pointed out to us. I would have seen my behavior as driven and labeled it “good” until my friend pointed out the impact it had on them. This does not discount that I am driven. I believe I can be both driven and committed to building connected relationships.

Surrender to something higher than yourself is the last key element of Kriya Yoga, and I have to be able to learn from my mistakes as well as let them go. If I can not surrender my screw ups to God or the universe the shame and guilt of messing up stays with me. I stay stuck, paralyzed, and silent. I continue to hurt others unintentionally. Yet if I only surrender my mistakes without studying them I do not take accountability. I do not take the mistake as an opportunity to grow. When I can surrender I can also forgive myself. I can allow myself to be human, a white person conditioned into this system of white supremacy that I did not ask for. To allow myself to see the hurt that white privilege not only causes others, but also causes myself.

When I can do my actions imperfectly, grow from those actions, take accountability, let go of the imperfections, but keep the growth, I can keep acting imperfectly. Through action, study and surrender my way of being in the world can become more refined, more nuanced and more in alignment with who I want to be.

Laura Humpf is a yoga therapist and the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga



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