Tell Them How You Participated

THETRUTH

By Alexandria Crow

“You motherfuckers need truth and reconciliation with one another. Because the end of apartheid should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn’t. The only reason it wasn’t is because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the system itself must be tried, but because of how systems work they’re so compartmentalized as far as information, the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everybody says what they did. Tell him how you participated.”

– Dave Chappelle

I was watching Dave Chappelle’s most recent special on Netflix this past weekend and I ended up in tears. Not because he wasn’t funny but because like his humor or not, the truth of that statement, in my opinion, is almost impossible to deny.

I have never heard someone summate what I know is necessary not only broadly, but in relation to the yoga landscape.

Admitting to the injuries I sustained as a yoga practitioner and to the factors that allowed for them, meant that as a teacher and active participant in that same landscape, I now had a huge responsibility on my hands.

I had to admit to the fact that I had contributed.

I had participated. 

I had to admit that I had benefited from the very system that allowed the injuries I sustained to take place, for them to be minimized, and for them to continue to happen to others.

I have spent the last 4 or so years actively admitting to the injuries I sustained and how they happened. I have spent that time and more actively researching what is happening at large and offering solutions as best I can to prevent this stuff in the future.

That wasn’t and isn’t all that needs to be done though, and that’s not the part that will truly shape what happens for future generations of teachers and practitioners.

Two years ago I started opening my workshops with a set of disclaimers. Some of them are things like, during lectures I’m conversational and I swear. I like giving the fine print upfront as I know transparency and honesty are key. The disclaimers that really matter to me though are the following. 

1. Don’t believe anything I say. I’m here to ask you to question things and to share with you what I know and have figured out. I’m not here to sell you anything. I’m not here to charm you into buying anything. I’m here to expose what I have learned and how I came to these conclusions so that perhaps things can change. I am here to show you how I currently work and to share with you all of the reasons I do things the way I do now so that perhaps you can use the information to prevent counterproductive outcomes for others. But I am not here to initiate any more blind buy ins, we have enough of those in the yoga landscape.   

2. I am a yoga teacher. I’m not a body worker, massage therapist, self-help guru, doctor, therapist, personal trainer, fitness expert, trauma specialist, psychotherapist, life coach…none of it. I’m a yoga teacher and that’s all. I know a lot about yoga, its philosophies, teachings, and its history. I know about the body as it pertains to a yoga practice and the current issues in the yoga world as it’s the vehicle/tool that we work with in classes. I know a lot about the likely causes of the injuries and issues that are happening out there, issues of the body, group class dynamics and structure, power dynamics in regard to the teacher/student but I don’t know how to fix the injuries that have happened. That’s outside of my ethical jurisdiction. I have ways that I think would diminish their likelihood and perhaps prevent them in the future. But again, I’m just a yoga teacher, nothing more.

The third disclaimer is the one that goes to the heart of what this post is about.

3. I am going to say things that are controversial. I’m going to criticize a lot of what is currently going on out there and some of what I criticize will most likely be some of the things that you yourself do or that you’ve done or that your teachers do or have done. Please understand that I don’t know them nor do I know you and I’m not talking about you or them directly. I am speaking about a former version of myself, that or the landscape at large. I have made almost every mistake that I’ll now criticize. I’ve taught all the poses, done the assists/adjustments, I’ve said all the cues, taught all the alignment, taken the pictures, made the videos, written the blogs for publications….you name it. I’ve been on the cover of magazines, I’ve gained name recognition from being a part of all of those things. If there’s a way to participate, contribute, or benefit from the system then I myself have most likely done it in the past, and I won’t anymore in ways that are counterproductive or exclusive. I didn’t know the ripple effect or contribution that some of my choices were going to have.

If I’m going to criticize these things I cannot participate in them any longer. I made mistakes and will continue to do so for sure, I am not at all perfect. I was always doing my best, I still am. I know you are too. I was and am always working to be informed and educated. You can’t do better until you know more and often that means someone pointing out some tough to swallow information that helps you to look at things differently which can facilitate change. You can’t change anything until your lens broadens or you gain new information. I know that personally, and live from that position. I think we’re all doing our best. In my humble opinion, it’s time to do better. I’m not the police, I’m not an enforcer. I’m more like a D.A.R.E. program educator. I just want you to know the risks and what you’re getting yourself into, and what we’re offering and teaching our students and that maybe what we’re all looking for doesn’t have to carry the risks that we toyed with in the past. I want to share what’s going on out there as well as some of the reasons I have learned that these things are happening. Please remember this and please remember that it’s my ethical responsibility to be as candid and honest as I can be.

I say all of these things and repeat them over and over throughout the weekend. Even with all of the disclaimers, what I expose is hard for people to digest at times. I completely understand that, but by and large more often than not, participants take the information and begin adapting and helping to be the change in their own way that will alter the landscape for the better.

Not everyone likes what I have to say though. I don’t expect them to. That said it’s heart breaking sometimes to watch the injury conversation get co-opted and muted. I find it equally painful to watch other people on the ground working on other tough issues bashed for taking a stand and doing what’s right, which is why one other statement from Dave Chappelle’s show hit me so hard.

“Every fucking person that takes a stand for somebody else always gets beat down. And we watch. Over and over and over again, we watch it. We should pay those motherfuckers for blowing the whistle, because they make our lives better, and we could change the narrative. We could make one motherfucker have a good outcome for doing the right thing and that would make another motherfucker brave enough to do the right thing.”

I’ve lost jobs for speaking out, been bad mouthed, diminished, blatantly ignored, insulted, all of it. I’ve watched it happen to others. I’ve also watched the injury conversation turn into yet another hot button click-bait trend. On one hand the exposure is good but on the other, there’s something missing.

It’s a tricky thing because I am glad that people with public recognition in the yoga world are beginning to admit to the injuries they’ve sustained as a result of their yoga practice. It’s a good thing they’re doing. It’s necessary.

It’s good to know that people won’t have to feel as much shame around that outcome and perhaps students will be less likely to think their injuries came from something else or that they did something wrong or aren’t working hard enough. 

And while that’s good, I feel the need to add gravity to the situation.

I know that admitting to our injuries as students of yoga who also teach, is step one in the process towards change and that it is vital in one’s personal healing journey, as well as in the process of mitigating injuries in our students in the future. But again this is only step one in the changes needed, and at this stage without admitting to how our contributions, participation and gain as teachers within the system has benefited us, the system stays intact exactly as it is.

Why are yoga teachers so afraid to admit to their participation in the system? Why do they so often admit what happened to them while simultaneously keeping all the components that led to that outcome intact? I can venture a pretty good guess at this point. It’s hard enough to look at what happened to ourselves as individuals. That we entered this practice seeking ease or healing that we had yet to find elsewhere and instead found ourselves injured and in pain instead. How could that happen? I’ve asked that question for years now and asking it of myself has been the biggest step to healing. That’s not the most difficult part though, the part that is the most painful is looking at the fact that despite having the best of intentions we’ve put our students in the same situations that led to our pain. We were supposed to be facilitating environments that lead to less pain, not more. It’s a difficult pill to swallow. After that there’s the final gut wrenching step which is to look at all the ways we contributed to and benefited from the system that allows for and creates the outcomes that end in injury. We have to look at all the classes, workshops, photos, social media posts, video content, blogs, and student interactions that we’ve had where we contributed in the very same way that we have now realized ends in harm.

Again, I’ve done it all and I could choose to hold on tightly to the benefits I’ve gained out of fear and to only speak of what happened to me as an individual, not how I participated, contributed and gained. I understand the fear of financial loss, career demise, of being ostracized, and the embarrassment of looking stupid. I get the reasons that admitting the truth of it all is hard. I’m no stranger to that fear myself but I’m supposed to understand impermanence and change as well as the concept of truthfulness. So fear be damned.

The injured teacher group is not alone either, the teachers who aren’t injured but have been listening to the injury conversation and have not heeded the warnings or changed are equally invested in everything remaining the same. It’s not easy to admit you harmed others. It’s not easy to admit that you were wrong but because of the general lack of admission made by teachers, we have yet to change the system at its roots. To date we have allowed for it to stay as is and likely lead to the exact same outcome for the current students that some of us have incurred ourselves and that is far from okay.

Students do not deserve the type of outcome that I and many others have had in relation to a yoga practice. They deserve better, they trust us as teachers, they trust yoga and the outcomes they’ve been sold. They trust that at very least their expectation of feeling better will be met.

I know this is asking a lot. It’s not at all an easy or smooth process. The full admission of my participation didn’t happen overnight either, so I make space for the process that everyone has to go through. In the beginning I was bewildered, and for a while I was just working on figuring out what happened and more importantly how it happened. As soon as I realized a pose, position, cure, anything, had contributed I changed it or dropped it immediately. I had to adapt quickly because at that point I was without a road map, and without support, as this was before the injury conversation became public.

I know that things don’t change in the blink of an eye but there are some things that need to change at a rapid pace because we can no longer make excuses.

We have to stop admitting to injuries while simultaneously saying things that lead people to believe that an injury in a yoga practice is a gift.  Injuries are not gifts, gifts are returnable, injuries are not. 

We have to stop saying that we feel honored to be able to speak about our injuries in national publications, especially in ways that don’t actually help but instead trivialize the conversation by alluding to the solution as being something that can be summated in a top ten list.

We have to stop talking about injuries unless we’re also willing to change what we’re teaching significantly and with transparency. I mean really changing things, the poses, the classes, the dynamics, how the practice is marketed and visually depicted, all of it and not in a way that moves us away from the concepts we are meant to be teaching and exploring in a yoga practice but instead moves us closer. I don’t mean just adding some strength and stability stuff, dropping out pigeon or reinventing the wheel, but instead by inspecting how and why this happened and then creating ways to change the outcome. We have to look at how we are contributing in classes, in the way we represent the practice, all of it, down to the bare bones. We must admit our errors and then we must adapt.

We have to do better than this.

We have to admit to our participation, our contribution and how we gained from the system.

I have gained from the system myself. I gained a platform and a wide audience that allowed me rare and broad access. I benefited from that access and now I choose to use it to speak loudly, with clarity, and transparency, no matter what the cost. I will not contribute to or participate in anything that co-opts, obscures, mutes, or waters down the injury conversation counterproductively and I applaud those around me who are doing the same for the injury topic as well as the countless other issues that involve harm and oppression. 

I know that we get beat down for being the ones who speak up. I have already been through that plenty in the past, as I’ve mentioned. I know it’s scary. I know admitting the truth and letting go of what isn’t helping is terrifying, but it’s what needs to happen. My god, we’re yoga teachers after all, isn’t our job to act with skill and to do what needs to be done?

And like Dave said,

“We could make one motherfucker have a good outcome for doing the right thing and that would make another motherfucker brave enough to do the right thing.”

I’ll go first.

I got badly hurt doing yoga. I have significant SI instability and subluxed my SI more than once. I have degeneration and herniations that are significant at L3/4/5, those verebrae are also rotated. T12 is rotated and torqued laterally. I have an S-curve in my neck that is similar to the injuries seen when someone sustains a massive blow to the back of the head. I have a labral issue in my right hip. I subluxed my left shoulder demoing a pose in a way that I didn’t want the students doing. I wanted them to visually see what not to do. Instead I ended up doing to myself exactly what I was trying to prevent in them.

I had an MRI of my spine when I was about 17/18 years old, when I was a gymnast. Not one of these issues existed. It wasn’t from gymnastics, it was from yoga. It wasn’t even inherently from the extreme shapes or from being unwise, aggressive or anything like that, as one woman said to me in an attempt to shame me and to get me to shut up so that she didn’t have to take a look at her contribution and participation. I was a model student, praised for my skill. My injury was from my participation in yoga as it is currently taught, depicted, and sold and from many other factors that make up the ingredients of the soup that leads to this outcome for myself and many others.

I am not alone. My inbox is full to the brim with stories similar to mine from practitioners and teachers around the world.

There is no doubt in my mind that I have unwittingly hurt others as a teacher. Despite my best attempts not to, there’s no way I haven’t and for that I will say what I have said many times in workshops and in private conversations….

I am sorry for any harm that I caused. I am sorry for my contributions that were unwise.

I naively participated in, contributed to, and benefited from a system that led to the outcome I mention above for myself. Even now, that system continues to negatively impact so many others. I was always doing my best, I know others are too.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I didn’t know the ripple effect of many things.

I choose not to participate in the system blindly as I did before. I choose not to participate in any way that continues to allow for these outcomes to happen to one more person.

I choose to do what’s needed to create change. That’s how progress is made.

“If we see cruelty, if we see inequalities, if we see injustice. Why is that? Am I a part of this? Am I willing to do something about it? Are there sacrifices I’m willing to make to change it? And that’s not always easy but it’s necessary. That’s how progress is made.” -Barack Obama

 montage