Disruption as a Practice: The Responsibility of Yoga Teachers in Dismantling Systems of Oppression

accessible yoga school anti-racism equity kelley nicole palmer social justice Sep 30, 2022

by kelley nicole palmer

There is this particular part of my way of working as a yoga teacher and coach that is part resistance, part deliberate dismantling, and part releasing the need to follow what we are being given as "the way" to do this work and be “successful”.

It's why people told me initially to watch my tone and to not burn certain bridges. It is why my Race Equity workshop proposals went unanswered and ignored. It's why I am fully engaged in upholding liberation for and center my work around Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPoC) at all times, unapologetically.

Let's be clear: without a commitment to making our healing spaces equitable and affirming for all, what's the point?

A shift of consciousness, a reckoning based in healing, moving forward and respecting humanity is under way. My work is committed to holding space for it.

I started practicing yoga with no understanding of the ways that the practice centered whiteness, erased indigenous wisdom, or excluded folks. I learned quickly that even this sacred practice was being swayed by the power of systems of oppression. I know now, how it makes Black, brown, and other folks feel unwelcome, undervalued and leaves most of the humans in the world underserved. It shows up in the industry organizations, studio spaces, magazines, apparel marketing, class pricing and workshop offerings.

And in many ways, for black, brown and indigenous folks like me, there is no safe space to connect to our practice unless we cultivate our own.

We cannot escape the oppression that is literally killing us within the walls of a pristine studio or on a remote yoga retreat. It greets us there too, making it hard to lean into the love and light rhetoric. Practicing means trying to find the least harmful space and knowing deep down that the harm will still find us when we are only trying to find refuge. A decision to put our heads in the sand is mostly a choice to let our own fear or privilege silence us.

In this particular role as yoga teacher, we have a unique opportunity to lay a foundation that shifts culture. To create something new.

This opportunity begins with examining the ways we are upholding systems of oppression in our spaces, class and communities. It is a huge responsibility. It seems overwhelming in so many ways. What if we released the need to solve everything outside of our control and found a single point of focus around creating and cultivating truth, peace, and love in this role. What if we put as much effort into dismantling and upholding our own narratives as we do on making a business out of a sacred indigenous practice?

The reality is that the solutions we seek do not yet exist so we have to open our minds to something totally new.

The shift for liberation in this life will have to be addressed from many sides. My way will not be everyone's way. My focus is what feels true to me, what honors that truth and holds the balance of protecting my joy and raising my own awareness. This often means not doing things the way everyone else thinks I should.

It means having uncomfortable conversations. It means aligning my actions, work life, relationships with upholding what I see as a priority. It looks like examining what I have been told is normal or okay, even when it doesn't "harm me".

A few years ago, I was in a four-day workshop centered around Race, Trauma and Well-Being, through Off The Mat Into The World, and we were digging deeply into the work of talking honestly about race, the trauma racism has caused for everyone, and how we move into spaces of dismantling and healing. It is one of the spaces that helped inform and center my own work around race and equity in healing spaces.

There were many conversations about how powerful we can each be in re-centering narratives and creating something completely new. And what came to be clear to me then and even more now as I approach conversations about social justice from the lens of a yoga teacher is:

We are afraid to go against the grain. We place our comfort over action. We allow fear and guilt to paralyze our actions.


I am in all ways reimagining, recreating and engaging in action. I have been for some time. I am calling all other yoga teachers to action. I am calling you to harness your power. I am calling you to be connected to your own humanity so you can be of service to the collective humanity around you.

Here are five ways to lean into the responsibility we have: 

Learn YOUR history.

We each have a personal history... Our own parts to play in who, what and when brought us to this point. Late last year I was on a panel about activism in yoga and the last question asked was, "How do our personal histories influence our work?"

For me I come from people who chose to thrive. People who existed before enslavement. People who I can only believe felt that their actions would access new levels of liberation for people they may never see in ways they could not imagine. Every part of their choices, even in situations they did not choose, led to my right now. Learning their names, their stories, our stories gives me a deeper understanding of myself and a deep gratitude not only for their sacrifices but also their fortitude.

I am not talking about perfect people. I am talking about all the things, even the unsavory. On the same panel was a woman named Kerri Kelly. When asked that question, Kerri spoke to her own history which she admitted included invaders, oppressors, and connections to systems of oppression. She spoke to learning her who, what, and where. She also spoke to her intention to release that pattern for herself and the world.

Her sharing backs my own truth that none of us will change a thing if we refuse to fully acknowledge and investigate. We need to know where we came from. The disconnection we have to those stories sets us up to repeat and uphold patterns of oppression.

Stop centering whiteness.

Wait. What? I said what I said. Examine the media you consume and financially support. Pay attention to who is in your spaces, what part of town you have segregated yourself to or tried to assimilate into.

I say it often and will be very clear here, as long as you are not actively removing the things that consciously and subconsciously "other" people who are not white, straight, of certain socio-economic groups, you are perpetuating oppression. I am guilty. We are all guilty.

Pay attention to the way wellness is marketed. Who is uplifted as well? Who is centered as normal and welcome? Who is offered the power of leading, decision making and who are you promoting to others?

All of it is sending messages. What are we doing to counter those messages?

Are you willing to unpack the messages we have been sent and that guide our lives in many ways? Messages about how to wear our hair, how to speak, what is good or best or beautiful? Messages about whose lives have value and whose don't? We have the power to curate what we are taking in and being fed. Until we make it a priority, we are upholding legacies of oppression and dehumanizing beliefs.

Reclaim narratives.

There are a few narratives that are often put into my face that I reject. Mainly that, as a Black person, my value and ability to exist are centered on me striving to fit into the box that whiteness carves out for me. It is perpetuated in education systems, work models for success and our organizations. To “win” I am going to be asked to only bring the parts of myself that fit into a white standard of normal, professional and right.

I reject all of that. I reclaim the truth that my wholeness is a gift. I can talk about systems of oppression, demand fair pay, have boundaries about my time and energy, and still have what I need to thrive. I can cultivate spaces that center BIPoC folks and have the resources to make those spaces sustainable. I will not break myself or make my work more comfortable for the rules of whiteness. We deserve more in this community.

Question everything, even yourself.

There is a lie that began somewhere that yoga teachers are all knowing, enlightened beings with an understanding of life that most do not hold. That is rooted in oppression. I am not always right. Sometimes my ego is on full display, I am not self-regulating well, and I move into reactionary patterns. I am a human having a very human experience. I will not always get it right.

All of us are having a human experience.

Our practice asks us to observe ourselves and the world with curiosity, openness and clarity. It provides space for us to make shifts that align us with truth and love. To remove systems of oppression from our communities, we have to be willing to question everything. This is continual work for all.

If we are committed to living an intentional and aligned life, why would there be resistance to questioning, investigating and digging deeper, when oppression comes up? Our inability to ask questions, to call into question our patterns, practices and intentions when teaching, creating spaces and leading offerings fuels that inability to check, question and investigate the world and its systems when we are off of our mats.  

Cultivate new patterns.

We do not have to continue one single thing that does not align with the lives and equitable healing spaces we desire for ourselves and our communities. It doesn't matter if it is all you have known. It doesn't matter if all your friends do it that way. It matters that you feel at peace with it. It matters that it honors the humans you are serving.

We have the power in each moment to choose. Choose patterns that align with your commitment to releasing systems of oppression. I have chosen to focus my work on creating spaces for BIPoC and being an educator to others in some spaces.

Don't think everyone I encounter in this industry supports it. Don't think I haven't had to have hard conversations with people I looked up to or who have perceived power. I am unwavering in my commitment and am not willing to sacrifice for a paycheck, acknowledgement or platform. I get to make a new pattern. New patterns = new solutions/realities.

It is in these ways we create something new.

If we are actively building a new reality within our spaces, classes and communities, how can it not force a shift? We may never see it. That's where we practice our non-attachment. We ground ourselves in our intention, we cultivate peace and know it is all coming.

We are not only asking the leaders of yoga to shift. We are also leaders. Walk in that power.


kelley nicole palmer (she/her) is a writer, wellness advocate and community organizer committed to using the tools and philosophies of yoga to cultivate liberation, joy and peace for herself and others. Her connection to the living practice of yoga, a path of mindful wellness and self realization fuels her work, impacts her life and propels her to want to share it with others through her writing, events and guest teaching opportunities. She remains focused on making this healing practice accessible to all, connecting to communities that are normally excluded or ignored in mainstream wellness circles.

Through in person and online offerings, kelley nicole centers her work on making these connections with authentic and sustainable tool building. Her writing, offerings and more about her can be found at www.kelleynicolepalmer.com.


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