Saucha (pronounced “sh – ouch – a”) is the yogic principle of cleanliness, orderliness and purity. In the studio, simple practices like folding your mats and blankets properly, taking time to make sure paper lands in the trash, and throwing away used paper cups are all simple ways to honor this practice and your community. But, of course, it’s not so simple. You knew that. To see previous discussions on saucha, check out the 2010 version.
These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the language we use, and how clarity, or lack thereof, in our language can become such an important pivot point for our own growth, self-inquiry and judgement. I think about this often, and especially when I am on teacher training as I am now. When I talk with students about Samarya Yoga and what makes it unique, one thing that recurs in our conversations is about our use of language, and the thought and care that goes into everything from the way we offer variations in class, to the way we describe bodies, to the language we use to talk about ourselves. This last one has been particularly interesting to me as I work with the Yoga and Social Change workshop, and with the DIY ~Diversity in Yoga site.
In this conversation, one of the things that comes up a lot is the question of prejudice, racism and our part in maintaining a culture of institutionalized oppression. We talk about the dynamic tension that comes with holding the opposing thoughts of “I am a good person,” and “I am racist,” for example. It is hard for many of us to reconcile these two thoughts, and so we choose just one to hold on to. I think we all know which one. And yet, we live in a racist society. We grow up with racism, and prejudice, and oppression at all levels of our culture. It is a message we get, and pass on, in the subtlest of ways. And yet, we are alarmed, and even offended when someone calls us racist. That is not true. I am a good, nice person. I have been pushing this conversation for a couple of years now and have made some interesting observations and discoveries, many of them laid out in the Diversity in Yoga site.
But there is one in particular that I have been thinking of lately. Maybe part of the problem is that the language doesn’t exactly fit. Or we don’t have the exact language to describe where we are, where we are coming from and where we are going. So we resist language that truly feels off, and without a better alternative, the conversation, even the self-inquiry comes to a screeching halt.
Let me offer a couple of examples from my own experience. I do not think I am racist. Or, at least I don’t think I am A racist. Does it matter? I think it just might. But let’s go backward a little. I was raised in a very integrated town, in fact one of the most racially diverse cities in America, with a legacy of desegregation, and a national diversity index of 248 – the national average being 100. Montclair, NJ itself is in fact, a national recognized study in racial diversity. When our town pushed itself toward desegregation in 1978, my parents put me on a bus to attend school across town, in the “black neighborhood,” despite the fact that there was a middle school right up the street from my family home, which by the way, was just one street up from where the neighborhoods seemed to skew one way or another. I continued in Montclair’s very diverse public schools through high school. I grew up with friends of all ethnic and racial backgrounds – my prom date was Colombian – but Montclair is particularly an integration of what we then just called black and white. At home, I was a part of very open minded and socially conscious family, that itself became quite racially diverse as my brothers and sisters married, creating a next generation of Kennys that span the color spectrum.
So, really, there is no way I could be racist.
But then again, just very recently, this happened: I was at my parent’s house, in Montclair, and decided to take a run. I didn’t have a reflective vest, so my dad gave me a bike light, I clipped it to the back of my jacket and set out to run a familiar route in my hometown. As I ran through the park, I saw a group of kids sitting on a bench. Now, one thing that can get me kind of anxious is a group of teenagers together. I know what I was like, and it could be pretty mouthy and obnoxious. Sure enough, as I ran past, one of the kids called out, “She’s wearing a bike light!” The others laughed. I kept running. The next kid called out, “Hey! Are you a bike?” I kept running, more laughter. Then, as I passed, another voice: “Bitch!” My whole being contracted. I felt rage and reaction flooding my arms and legs and belly. My mind started to go crazy. “I should go back there and get in those kids face. I will get right up on them and mad dog them down, scare the crap out of them, let them know not to mess with me.” I kept running, my mind kept retaliating. I wish I knew martial arts like my friend Tristan. I’d go back there and kick some ass, or at least scare them. Then it occurred to me how crazy I was being, how much that single word had gotten this huge reaction out of me, how Tristan, a real martial artist, heck, a real yogi, wouldn’t even be bothered by some dumb obnoxious kids.
Then this occurred to me, out of the blue: if it had been a group of black kids, it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind that I would go back and get in their face. Why? I don’t know. I guess I’m scared of black kids, but not white kids. Why? I have no idea. I have never been a target by any black person, ever. I have never felt threatened by a black person. I have never had the sense that a black person was being aggressive toward me. I have family, family, that are black. I ran all the way home, frustrated, sad, and angry – at myself, at the kids, and at the culture and society that had influenced and infiltrated me like an ugly accent, even without my knowing, and certainly without my permission. When I got home, I told my parents what had happened. The first question out of their mouths? Were the kids black or white? Confirmation of this insidious bias. “Why?” I asked them. “Just curious,” was the answer. Hmmm.
Ok. So, proof: I am racist. Or am I? I think this is where the conversation gets either interesting or impossible, depending on how you look at it, and how committed we are to talking through it. Clearly I am racially biased. Even in spite of all of my outer most, and deepest beliefs. Even in spite of all of my work, and my friends, and my upbringing (now this is called into question too). This bias is in me, it’s like an accent that I can work to get rid of, but is always there, lingering and ready to come out, just the same way as my Jersey accent really comes through when I talk with friends from Jersey. It’s laying there, dormant, just waiting for an opportunity to be seen.
So, what’s this all about? Is it easier for me to say I am racially biased than to say I am racist or even prejudiced? Yes. Marginally. Is it easier for me to say, and also ring more true, than for me to say, I AM A racist? Yes, absolutely. Why? Well, I think for a couple of reasons. First, my yoga practice reminds me that to say I AM anything is to identify with that thing as if it defines me. Being racist does not define me. That I know without a doubt. But also because being biased seems more like something that is a filter that has been created inside me from my conditioning, from being privileged, and white, and from being from a culture that is at its core racially biased. I don’t feel as much like it is something I am actively doing or being. It seems almost inescapable. And yet, I also know that it is not. However, the only way I might get closer to “losing my accent,” is to become aware that it is there, and not feeling so horrible or guilty or ashamed that I refuse to recognize it. I have to be able to see when it comes out, even in the subtlest ways, to ever be able to change it. Saying that I do not have this bias only keeps me in the cycle of perpetuating this huge source of hurt, suffering and division in our culture.
One of my students recently sent me this video, called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” a Ted talk by a prominent DJ named Jay Smooth. It is a great talk, where the author talks about how we might be able to hear that we are being racist, or offensive, in the same way we might be able to hear that we have food stuck in our teeth. That it shouldn’t be something we feel ashamed about, or need to deny or defend, but something we might actually thank someone for giving us the heads up about. I loved the video and posted it here on the DIY site. Then I kept thinking about it. I thought about how Jay Smooth kept portraying the white folks as being too sensitive, even when someone just wanted to tell them how they were feeling. Then I kept thinking about how on the DIY site, I say the same thing, AND I say (although I didn’t really think of it this way at the time) that the “target” groups are often too aggressive in their presentation, which shuts the conversation down. Who’s right? Both of us. Who is racially biased? Both of us. Who is racist? I believe, neither of us.
This conversation always opens up a huge can of worms. But I am willing to do it. I am willing to take the risk, because I think the conversation has to continue to move forward. But I also believe that the conversation will only move forward if we are all willing to check our language, and the way it confines, construes, defines, scares, perpetuates, repeats, and creates identities that people will never accept. Maybe the question is not whether we should be having the conversation, but more could we find words and descriptions and subtleties that allow people to move a little into places they might feel uncomfortable, instead of pushing them into places they will never inhabit and never claim, and that will only serve to limit or end the conversation and reinforce our own beliefs. Maybe we are not THIS or THAT. Maybe we are something somewhere in the middle, and that’s the place we could meet ourselves and each other. Saucha. Purity, cleanliness, orderliness. Maybe we could use our practice to create the conversation and to soften the rigid ideas that make us turn away from each other. I don’t know. That’s just me. I’m an agitator. I’m an optimist. I AM a human being.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
~ mevlana jelaluddin rumi – 13th century
We’re all in this together.