Jivana Heyman 12:48:47
Hi everyone, its Jivana I just want to come on for a moment and thank our sponsor, Offering Tree. They're an all in one, easy to use community backed business that saves you time, energy, and money as a Yoga teacher. Offering Tree allows you to create a website in less than 30 minutes. Plus you get a discount through Accessible Yoga. Just go to offeringtree.com/accessibleyoga to get your discount today. Okay, here's our episode.
Anjali Rao 12:49:17
Welcome to The Love of Yoga Podcast. I'm your host, Anjali Rao. This podcast explores the teachings of Yoga for self and collective transformation. We dive into how spirituality and philosophy can ignite social change. I share conversations with folks who are on the front lines of justice and liberatory movements, thought leaders, change makers, and healers.
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa is a scholar and practitioner of indigenous contemporary dance, North American Hand Talk, martial arts and Yoga. Professor Blu Wakpa has taught a wide range of interdisciplinary and community engaged courses at public, private, tribal, and carceral institutions. In 2020, she was the first assistant professor at UCLA to receive a Chancellor's Award for community engaged scholars. She is a co founder and co editor in chief of Race and Yoga, the first peer reviewed journal in the emerging field of critical Yoga studies. It examines issues surrounding the history racialization, sexualization, inclusivity, or lack thereof, of the Yoga community. The journal features research based articles, editorials, and reviews of books, films and art exhibits. I'm so excited to have this conversation with Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa. Welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 12:51:17
Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here today.
Anjali Rao 12:51:21
And can you first maybe start this conversation with sharing about the work you do currently, how you got here, perhaps share some of the points of entry into your own work?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 12:51:34
Sure, I'm currently an assistant professor of dance studies in at UCLA and the Department of world's arts cultures and dance. And I came to this work through a variety of you know, lived experiences outside of academia and academic experiences. Prior to going to doing my PhD, I did an MFA in creative writing. At that time, I did a Yoga teacher training that was in 2009. And I also at that time, had a relative, a young relative, who had addiction problems, and they were in and out of juvenile detention centers. So I was thinking at that time about, about Yoga, movement practices, their potential for healing within a violent system of settler colonialism. And so that sort of was the basis for my dissertation project, which has since evolved into my book project. And I'll also say I had, you know, some training and some experiences even as a child that continued to influence my work today. So my mother was my first Yoga teacher, I started doing Yoga at 14 years old. And she was teaching at that time and my father's karate school or our family karate school, which was located in in Napa, and my siblings and I all, we all trained together. So that was really and I started doing karate at age seven, so that it was kind of like I had the background in the martial arts, in Yoga, and then also was doing Yoga teacher training and thinking about you know, the carceral, the carceral system. And how can I think critically about this and think critically about my own practice and my own teaching of Yoga, because when I finished the Yoga teacher training, we were required to do hours. And those hours could be done, you know, in Yoga studios, which I think pretty much everyone other than me did. And I offered those Yoga classes in a detention facility for girls who were incarcerated in San Diego.
Anjali Rao 12:54:25
So that's began your foray into looking at Yoga, critically of, and bringing that into context with race and the settler colonial experiences of all of us, like, I'm also, you know, a guest here in settler colonial land. So I appreciate bringing that lens a lot, because we really, I'm really trying to get more conversations in where we examine Yoga critically, when it comes to race, or gender, or caste. So I'm so excited to continue this conversation. And I also was reading up about the, you know, the how you found or thought of Race in Yoga, the journal itself, and it grew as a conversation, really. So can you really talk a little bit more about that?
Speaker 3 12:55:22
Yeah, so at that time, I was at UC Berkeley doing my PhD in ethnic studies. And I think it was about the second year in the program. And I was continuing to teach Yoga and carceral settings, I was working with a program there called Niroga. They had a whole teaching and teacher training that was dedicated to learning pedagogy in order to implement best practices when working with youth who were incarcerated, teaching them Yoga. And so it was through those experiences. And at the time, there was very little available about Yoga from an intersectional approach. And if you were even to search race and Yoga, what you would come back with are statistics, you know, but that, but beyond that there was very little available. And so I wanted to think this through and I wanted to think this through in community. And so at that time, I started a Race and Yoga working group. And we met on UC at UC Berkeley, in the same building that the Ethnic Studies Department was, and we invited, it was scholars, students, faculty, people who were teaching and practicing Yoga in the community who did not have a university affiliation. And we started to do different readings and have conversations. And then I did that for a couple of years. And then I met Dr. Sabrina Strings, who was I believe a Chancellor's, UC Chancellor's postdoc at the time, and she, once she got to campus and in the area, she wrote me and told me that this was, she was also a Yoga practitioner and an academic. And she wanted to explore this further. And so then we created the first Race and Yoga Conference, we had a couple of Race in Yoga Conferences, or maybe a few Race and Yoga Conferences. And then eventually, that led to the founding of Race and Yoga Journal in 2016, I believe, and another person who has been really key to that is Jennifer, Dr. Jennifer Musial, who is our and I think has always been our Managing Editor. And I will say I'm, I'm now the editor in chief, I was prior to that I was the CO editor with Sabrina Strings, but she stepped down just to work on she has a lot of other projects going on and had a lot of a lot of success, wonderful success with her, her first book as well.
Anjali Rao 12:58:13
It's wonderful. So, I want to just draw back, go back into the the, your own growing realization that you know the liberatory practices of Yoga were and have been exclusive, that people from many marginalized communities do not and did not have access, or they did not feel that they could belong or feel safe in a Yoga studio or any other Yoga community or space. How has your understanding expanded or evolved since that time? Has it changed, has it shifted?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 12:58:55
Yes, well, first, I think I am. I want to clarify that in dance studies, a foundational understanding is that movement practices are fluid, meaning that they can have many meanings for the people who are doing the practice, or the people who are watching the practice. So I think it's really hard to say that Yoga is liberatory, or it's not liberatory, often it's a mix, right? There are certain things that are happening that are subversive. And there's and there are ways that the Yoga practice is also simultaneously reifying, these dominant structures. So for instance, I'll give you an example of that I have a chapter forthcoming, and I believe it's called Scholar, an article forthcoming and Scholar and Feminist online. And the issue is on aging. So I wrote a article on quote, unquote, aging, women of color, engaging in radical movements. And one of the people that I interviewed, she speaks to working at a school in LA, in which the teacher turnover rate was really high. And the way that she was she articulates that she was able to continue at that school, one of her practices was Yoga, and she would do the Yoga in the morning, and she would do it in the evening. Right. So there's a way that this is healing, promoting healing and wellness for her, but it's also allowing her to, to continue working in this capitalist system, right. So that is sort of foundational to dance studies is that, you know, these movement practices are very fluid. And, and we see this too, like this is my book project examines this as well, you know, at Indian boarding schools in the US, they would often have Native students do these plays in which they could wear native regalia, right. And there are many ways in which that was intended to assimilate and convert Native students. And yet they also one of the arguments of the book is that they also found ways through their movement practices to perpetuate their native identities in overt and subversive ways. So I think when we're talking about whether Yoga is liberatory or not, it really depends on the particular context.
Anjali Rao 13:01:46
Absolutely, absolutely. I completely agree. And the teachings of Yoga itself, I mean, they're so expensive, and they're so contradictory and paradoxical. So the same concept, for example, can be co opted, by a system of oppression, like for example, dharma can be co opted in so many different ways. So I completely understand what you're what you're saying about, you know, the liberatory liberatory teachings themselves being absorbed by a system of oppression, like capitalism, for example. So where?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:02:29
May I, oh, and I just wanted to say that I wouldn't want to not highlight this, which is that there has been people on social media, in mainstream articles, in scholarly articles. There's so many people doing so much important work since the time that I founded Race and Yoga Journal. So I just want to say that like, yes, there, you know, Yoga does, you know, further these systems of, you know, the social structures, dominant social structures, but a lot of people are challenging that. And I would encourage you to look at, you know, some of the folks that we highlight on Race and Yoga social media, or even in our journal, which is an open access journal, which was really important to us, right, because a lot of scholarly journals, people, if they don't have a university affiliation, cannot access them. So since its very founding in 2016, Race and Yoga has been an open access journal. And I don't think we've I also don't think we, maybe one time we charge like $5 but I think we've beyond that we've never we also never charged for a race and Yoga conference. Like it was really important for us to make the conference and the journal are widely accessible.
Anjali Rao 13:03:49
I love that because I feel like you know, scholarship in especially in Yoga spaces, which is again, one of the contradictions, is so elitist. Very few people who are everyday practitioners can even access some of the teachings. So, I really appreciate the equity feature of your journal and your work so much. Where do you think we are now in, in the Western framework of Yoga? What are some of the things that you have seen change? State of Yoga in the West, if you will?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:04:28
Well, I mean, I think, like I said, you know, there's a lot more people doing, you know, writing, drawing attention to the ways that Yoga has often been an exclusive practice in the US, but also, you know, people are taking material steps, right, like there's Yoga teacher trainings that offer scholarships now, for People of Color Yoga practitioners. Or there's classes, right, more attention, I think, to sliding scale classes. And so I think a lot more people, not always, but I think a lot more people are aware of these issues, there's a way that that can be like Yoga and social justice can also be co opted, right, and can come the next thing as well. I do think there's more, you know, part of it, is the work that people are doing, but part of it is also I think the times, so I do think there tends to be like more, more awareness about that. And then also, I think, in academic circles, and even like social justice circles, there tends to be like, the way that settler colonialism works is that often tries to obscure or conceal contemporary Native peoples presences and practices. So I think there's also more attention, like at Yoga conferences or Yoga events to think through, like, what are the politics of practicing Yoga on occupied indigenous land? Right. So I think that's another thing that is coming more to the forefront. And I think native and indigenous Yoga teachers are also raising awareness, you know, they've been instrumental in raising awareness about these important issues.
Anjali Rao 13:06:25
Hmm. Beautifully said, Thank you for sharing that. In Where do you think we can go from here? Like, how do we? How do we tap into the transformative potential of Yoga? Like you said, you know, the liberatory practices of Yoga, can be co opted and have been co opted? How do we hold that intention with the potential to reduce suffering, especially in the world that we are living in today? Where racial differences, Trans rights being attacked so often all, you know, in so many states, reproductive rights being attacked in so many states, with all these issues that are going on; how do we, do you think in your opinion, we can tap into the potential of Yoga to reduce suffering?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:07:28
Yeah, I mean, I think it's a really good question. I think it's a personal question. You know, and maybe there's no one one, there's definitely no one size fits all answer to that. But you know, I think a lot of what we discuss in dance studies is that movement practices have the potential to be transformative. And what we practice on our mat, we can also take off of our mat or we should also be taking off of our mat. So I think for example, practicing generosity towards yourself is something that can that can be practiced you know, when you leave your mat when you leave your studio. Another thing I've written about I have Cara Hagan has a book called Practicing Yoga as Resistance: Voices of Color in Search of Freedom, and I do I look at a video called Hozho Yoga that Haley Laughter who's a Dine practitioner. She made a short video and uploaded it to YouTube and in dance studies another central premise is that movement is a source of knowledge and theory on its own right, which is also, I think, an indigenous understanding. And so I think there's ways too that Yoga can enact really important relationships that can challenge settler colonial constructs. So for instance, one settler colonial construct, which can be very harmful is anthropocentrism. Right? This idea that humans are superior to, you know, more than human kin: air, land, water, non human animals. But in Yoga, we're taking those forms, right? And so like, what does that mean? And, and how can, you know, training our body in those ways, and taking the forms of these different non human animals, you know, forged, allow us to forge and think through and move through different relationships? So that's part of, you know, what, what I'm doing in that paper and that I think, you know, probably deserves more intention as well, right. And there's a different, you know, you Yoga also has indigenous roots, right. Yeah, absolutely. And so I think, what's interesting that I write about in that paper, and, you know, with other papers I've written about Native people, or about and, you know, with permission of Native people who are Yoga practitioners, is that Yoga becomes a way for them to actually further their Native and indigenous identities, right? They, they discuss that, and they talk about that. So definitely Yoga has these powerful, transformative possibilities. And I think, you know, people can, can locate those and apply those in many different ways, and many different contexts.
Anjali Rao 13:10:43
Jivana Heyman 13:10:44
Hi, everyone, I just want to pop in here really quick, and remind you about our sponsor, Offering Tree. As Yoga teachers, we are our own business managers, website, designers, and producers, it's a lot. And Offering Tree offers an all in one platform that makes it easy to succeed while we're doing all the things. And I just like to say that through this partnership with The Love of Yoga Podcast, Offering Tree has shown that it's committed to supporting accessibility and equity in the Yoga world. Offering Tree is a public benefit corporation. And they're driven by a mission of wellness accessibility, which we share with them at Accessible Yoga. As an Offering Tree user, you'll get to join a supportive educational community. And you'll also get free webinars with top experts in wellness and entrepreneurship. And of course, you get a discount. So go to offeringtree.com/accessibleyoga to learn more, and to get your discount. Okay, let's go back to the episode.
Anjali Rao 13:11:45
Yes, absolutely. Yoga has very indigenous roots. When we're talking about the history of Yoga as well, right, I mean, the, the systems and the teachings and the traditions of Yoga, absorbed and integrated indigenous populations and belief systems of the Indus Valley, civilizations, if you were to look at history, so I think it's in parallel to what what you're also sharing. So I appreciate you bringing that in. And I know you're, you know, dancer, and I'm really interested in learning more about it. And if you could share with the listeners to something about the dance form that you practice, and teach and share and are an expert of. As an Indian classical dancer myself, I'm also very interested in a multidisciplinary approach to sharing the teachings of Yoga. So can you delve into some of the core tenets of indigenous sign language?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:12:50
Yes, yes. Um, so, indigenous sign language. It's also been called Plains Indian sign language, although people say that's a misnomer, actually. Makah Blu Wakpa say that's a misnomer because it's, indigenous sign language or North American Hand Talk is the lingua franca or common language that united indigenous peoples throughout North America. And so it wasn't just only, you know, plains, indigenous peoples who were using this language. But yeah, it had a variety of different purposes. People used it within the tribe. They would often, a lot of times when people hear about sign language, they think, oh, you know, they must be deaf. And part of that has to do with you know, Cartesian Dualism and seeing movement practices as inferior to written to spoken word and to tax. But actually, many indigenous people would sign along, along with their speaking. And if you think about this, it can have many different benefits, right? It can be an inclusive practice, because elders understand what you're talking about. Young babies can even respond, right? Like, we know that babies are able to understand and communicate before they're even able to speak, right. So that's why they use sign language. And then it was used. It was used in context when people didn't want to speak or maybe it was even, you know, that you didn't want someone to overhear you. Or maybe it was dangerous to speak, such as in a warfare context. And it was also used when people from different tribal nations got together, and they didn't share a spoken language. And so they would use, they would use sign language to communicate, right, for like purposes of trade. So it had, it had and it has many, many different purposes. Makah Blu Wakpa also discusses the ways that like when people are revitalizing their native languages, many native languages are endangered, or sleeping. And that has to do with ongoing colonization in Indian boarding schools, a long history of, you know, educational institutions, Native people being forcibly and coercively taken into these institutions where they are prevented from speaking and signing their languages. And so it can be used alongside, it can also be used alongside spoken language, indigenous spoken language revitalization, and that can allow people to be fully immersive in indigenous languages. So, if you don't know the word, you know, maybe you know the sign in indigenous sign language. Yeah, so it has a lot of different purposes. And then, just most recently, people and indigenous people have also incorporated for, I mean, this is a long history, but they've incorporated indigenous sign language into their dances. And then just recently, I wrote a paper about an article that was published in American Quarterly that looks at Buffalo Dance, which is like a 15 second silent film, which is actually not a Buffalo Dance, although it was, it was called a Buffalo Dance, because it was used to promote Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but it was actually not a Buffalo Dance. And the the dancers use North American Hand Talk in the film, and so I do like an analysis of that, and discuss the ways that it evidences there, you know, expressions, bodily expressions of sovereignty and survival.
Anjali Rao 13:16:38
Oh wow, that sounds fascinating. Where would we find all this work of yours?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:16:43
Yes. So I'm, I'm interested, as I was saying, an open access. So I tried to take everything that I've published and make it available [email protected]. So I think some of those some some things that I discussed are forthcoming. But if it's been published, I think most of them are available on my academia.edu. And you can just download a PDF there.
Anjali Rao 13:17:08
Oh I love that. I'm going to definitely take a look at that. I love academia.edu. So one more thing that I wanted to refer back to your statements, and actually an article in the recent Yoga Journal, which I thought was really interesting to talk more about. It's titled transforming space, spatial implications of Yoga in prisons and other carceral sites, in which the author examines the possibilities and limitations of practicing Yoga in prisons. And it was wondering if we could, you know, how can we hold the discourse and the movement for abolishing along with the practice of Yoga in prisons? Any thoughts on that?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:17:57
Yes, I think it's I think it's a really good question. Of course, the critique is, is that, like reforms, abolitionist, understand that reforms to the prison can actually make the prison, the carceral complex, stronger, because people see it as being more humane, right. Whereas like, abolition is about the dismantling of, of prisons. But also, I think, abolition perspectives recognize that people who are and were incarcerated are really experts, and that their understandings are really important, like their tactics of survival are really important for thinking about how to dismantle the system, right? And so there are, there are people who think that, you know, it's it is it is important to work with Native people who are incarcerated. I think one thing that is emphasized is to not become a member of the prison industrial complex, right, but to be able to do that work in ways that are subversive. And, you know, it's walking a fine line. But I think, I think all of us are, or not all of us, but I think a lot of people are working, thinking about how to work within and against the system. And so I don't see those two things being at odds. And also, I think part of abolition is about care, and thinking about how to build a caring society. And I do research with people who are incarcerated, I work closely with George Bluebird, who is an elder, Lakota elder activist artist, grandfather, father, who has now been incarcerated, just recently, for four decades. That anniversary of the four decades past. And so he and I do a lot of collaboration together. And, you know, it's important, the way that I approach my book project is not just like, you know, this, it's important, I think, as an ethnic studies scholar, and as a dance scholar, you know, aiming to do decolonial work that I reveal the ways that people are, resist, you know, people who are incarcerated are resisting and challenging the system. And it and it's important for me to enact reciprocity in my work, whatever that may look like. And so for me, you know, the care doesn't end, you know, at, at the prison door, but I, you know, think about how that can, you know, how those collaborations can continue, and how to work within these, these confines to do caring, and, and reciprocal work that is also, you know, the work that the people who are incarcerated are already doing and want to do. And I think another short answer to that is, I think that we need, you know, many different approaches and many different tactics to doing this work. And, you know, I think a lot of times too, when we talk about, you know, Yoga in prison, a lot of times what we tend to focus on or tends to be focused on in scholarship and mainstream discourse, are the sanctioned programs, right, the programs that people have gone in and implemented, and, but there's also a lot of people who are incarcerated, for instance, George Bluebird is often asking me questions about Yoga, right, and he has his own practice. I don't know that he's ever like trained with anyone who has come in there and taught Yoga, but he's developed his own, you know, unsanctioned practice. And I think that, you know, I think that it's really important, you know, people who are incarcerated and people who are incarcerated for very long sentences, it's very important for them to have these tactics of survival and well being within within the prison system. And just because, you know, you might be offering that as a Yoga teacher, and people might be experiencing, you know, really important moments of, quote, unquote, liberation, you know, that doesn't deny that these people are still incarcerated, and that the system, you know, must be dismantled.
Anjali Rao 13:22:41
Right. No, I would I appreciate this response. Because you're really inviting an expansiveness into this conversation, and it's that it's non-binary approach that, you know, yes, abolition, and, you know, we need to kind of work within the system to share like, what do you say, a practice of transformation, of a practice of restorative offerings for the folks who are incarcerated. So it's like a both and situation. So I do appreciate that. And this is again, a personal question, because I really do believe that for for all of us, and especially for folks like you who are working within such different capacities, as a professor, as a person who's writing a book, as who has always lived experiences and working within such marginalized communities, how do you take care of yourself? What do you what are your some of your non negotiables of self care if you will? I know that's a very cliche term. But how do you build capacity?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:24:04
Yes. I mean, movement practices really are very central for me for my well being. And they, they always have been from the time when I was a kid and doing martial arts. I wrestled even. I wrestled, like, like freestyle and collegiate style, which is kind of wrestling that people do in high school. And then I was on our, our women's national team, which is what they called the wrestling team, women's wrestling team prior to it being in the Olympics. So it's like rigorous movement, and you know, not always rigorous, but I definitely, there's something about rigorous movement that makes me feel very good afterwards. So I, you know, I have a regular Yoga practice, I like to go for walks with my children, and our dog. And I recently started doing for about a year I watched my kids do folklorico dance. And finally, it occurred to me, you know, why am I just sitting here watching? I think, I think I should practice along with them. You know, like, I've been watching this for a year, and it's also has the added benefit of my kids are still young. So after they finish, they would like run to me every song they'd like, run to me, and try to sit on my lap. But now when I'm on the floor, dancing with them, they enjoy it, I enjoy it. It's good for all of us, and they can't run to me, right. To escape, we're on the floor, you know, floor too. I think, I think that's, you know, I have I have as different spiritual practices and religious practices that are important to me as well. You know, I have friends, I have a strong network of support with my friends and my family. So, you know, I think the tactics that, you know, a lot of a lot of other people have as well.
Anjali Rao 13:25:51
Oh, thank you for sharing that. And where and how can we support your work?
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:26:02
Oh um, you know, I'm, the articles are there on academia.edu. I mean, I think, I guess part of my work is like, not making it about me. So I guess I think what I would say is like, yeah, the articles are there if you want to check it out. But instead, maybe something powerful for you to do what to be think about like to learn, if you don't know already, whose indigenous, what the indigenous people whose land that you're on, and maybe if there's initiatives, like local initiatives for the people whose land that you're on, that you might contribute to, in some way, either monetarily, or through volunteering or something like that. So yeah, I would encourage people to think about, you know, the whose whose land there they are on and how they can be respectful and reciprocal, with their own daily lives.
Anjali Rao 13:27:01
Oh, that's beautiful. It's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. And I'm so appreciative of your time, and sharing so generously with our listeners. And I cannot wait to go and take a look at all the articles that are on academia.edu. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa 13:27:18
Thank you. It's such an honor to be in conversation with you. Thank you.
Anjali Rao 13:27:23
Thank you so much.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai