Meet the New Co-Directors: Tawni Bell wants to capital W-work in dismantling power structures

I went to New York this summer to work at a summer camp that is housed in the ultra progressive independent school where I spent some years on staff. This school was my boot camp for education and introduction to the social justice work I am still learning to do. It felt grounding to be in my old classroom and exciting to reconnect with the folks in my NYC community. As it has been about 5 years since I left New York, there was a lot catching up about my west coast life and what I’m into these days. This means, of course, that I had to repeatedly talk about my decision to become a full time yoga teacher. The response to telling people that I am now a full time yoga teacher is varied but there are some common themes. There is of the smirk of disbelief that accompanies curious eyebrows and the multi-intentioned, “Really?” Or the wide eyed, head shaking, “uh-huh” -- not quite bored but certainly not interested. These responses I can handle. With a little explanation, folks understand how and where I would have made this transition. Other times, however, after telling someone that I am a yoga teacher, the response is to immediately survey my body, as if to check the validity of my story, and find the physical evidence of my chosen career. I can see the investigation for “reward” as it is unfolding. Where are my chiseled features and expensive flowy clothes? Where is the definite enlightenment shining forth from my third eye? This response is quietly offensive and certainly calls my practice into practice. Regardless of whether I choose to respond in turn to this response, it is necessary to name here that the general misunderstanding of yoga in this country pertains to the belief that yoga’s purpose is rooted in weight loss, personal enlightenment, and other forms of ass toning activities.

My transition to being a full time yoga instructor came ten years into my career in progressive education and non-profit pot stirring; daring to challenge patriarchal mismanagement and demanding to know why all voices were not equal. My side work has always been physical activity: dance, roller derby, biking, hiking, yoga, and half marathons. I need the heavy work to balance the emotional and mental exhaustion of education and equity training. And I will be transparent about having a loud (very loud) voice in my head about body image. This voice, however, was not the catalyst for my transition to teaching yoga. The catalyst was working in an industry - industries - and seeing clearly that healing is always last on the list.

There is so much healing that needs to happen. That is evident in how the planet and its people are revolting and coming undone. I am not so naive that I believe my white lady, yoga teacher (and, yes, toned) ass is going to om the world upside down. But, this misunderstanding of the practice of yoga that leads folks to elevator eye me without regard is indicative of how our social services and foundational systems came to be so and to stay so broken for so long. To practice yoga is to begin to notice; to notice what works, to notice what hurts, what is hurtful, to notice where you are and who is around you. The practice of yoga is to heal and then support others to heal as well. If, in ancient tradition, the intention of yoga is to end suffering, then yoga is the work of social justice, as white supremacy is suffering. The patriarchy is suffering. Dehumanizing is suffering.

From what I have learned (so far) in my short time on this planet is that healing comes from community, from support, and from the willingness to change. When I think about that look that I get when I say I am a yoga teacher - the one where I am a spokesperson for whether or not they too should have a new life long commitment to chiseling their attributes through sweat and tears - I am reminded how easy it is to convince someone to change their habits with the promise of changing the shape of their body. If only we were so willing to change our habits with the promise of changing the shape of our society. Shit, we’d already be there.

So, this is what brings me here, to SKY: to continue my capital-W-work in dismantling power structures through community, healing, and support and help others notice how their strengths can contribute to this Work too.


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