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Want to be a True Ally? Do the Inner Work

We can create “safer” spaces for trans and non-binary people in yoga spaces. Here’s how. 

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In yoga and wellness communities, the term “safe space” has intended to mean that “all are welcome.” But, the truth is, we cannot guarantee safety for every single person in a yoga space—because each individual has different needs and a personal understanding of what “safety” means for them. It’s impossible to hold space for an entire group of people and ensure that each person’s individual needs are constantly met, especially when what they need may shift or change.

But, while we might not be able to guarantee safe spaces, we can create safer spaces, says yoga teacher and social justice warrior Michelle Cassandra Johnson. Our yoga practice can show us how.

What is a safer space? 

As a transgender, nonbinary, and queer person who has been practicing yoga for twenty years, I know firsthand the need for safer yoga spaces for those of us who don’t conform to gender norms, assignments, or expectations—spaces that welcome and respect trans and non-binary students, spaces where we aren’t misgendered or subjected to transphobic remarks, where we aren’t given dirty looks for being “unreadable” as a “man or woman,” where we can use a public bathroom or changing room in peace. 

Safer spaces and communities are created by and with allies who see, validate, and affirm trans and non-binary community members. But genuine allyship—also often referred to as being an “accomplice” or a “co-conspirator”—is rooted in inner work. We cannot be in solidarity with others without committing to the deeper practices of noticing and questioning our thoughts, our actions, and our relationships. The truth is that allyship, like yoga, is a practice of inner work. And we must commit to this deeper work in order to create safer yoga spaces for all.

Finding the ally within

As a yoga teacher, you cannot guarantee the safety of your trans students. But aiming to create safer spaces for trans folks is within everyone’s reach. Doing so calls on the teachings of yoga, beginning with the yamas and niyamas—the ethical precepts contained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that are intended to guide our thoughts, actions, and relationships.

On our yoga mats, we learn to watch the nature of our minds, to observe our reactions and thought patterns, and to return to the present moment. This is Yoga Sutra 1.2, Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah, in action. Melissa Shah, a yoga therapist trained in the Viniyoga tradition, interprets this Sutra to mean “directing the mind with sustained attention.” 

Slowing down and practicing mindfulness is a yogic practice that supports us in engaging in the inner work we must do before we can fully engage in the outer work of allyship. When we slow down and when we practice mindfulness, we can remember the things that help us to become stronger allies.

Through present-moment awareness, we might be better able to notice our biases, the assumptions we make about others, and the ways in which our minds might be conditioned to see gender. By staying mindful, we can shift our minds, our behaviors, and our language choices in the moment. 

When we practice mindfulness, we can remember that we can’t assume someone’s gender based on appearances. We can take the time to slow down and remember someone’s pronouns—or find the humility to ask if we’ve forgotten. We can choose to replace gendered language and heteronormative images with gender neutral words, cues, and imagery in our practice space and communities. Most importantly, we can acknowledge when harm has occurred—whether we’ve been the perpetrator or a witness—and we can engage in the practice of repair. We can take responsibility and hold ourselves and others accountable. 

Applying the yamas and niyamas

Practicing this way is ahimsa, or non-harming, in practice. But it is also about svadhyaya, or self-study. When you look within, you can reflect on what narratives you might have internalized relating to your own experience of gender. Reflect on the ways you’ve personally experienced internal disconnects, suffering, or harm because of the gender binary and our gendered systems. These are constructs and systems that impact us all, regardless of our gender identities. 

Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks suffer in this system, while cisgender folks benefit from it because they’re seen and upheld as the “norm.” And still, this is a both/and scenario. Cisgender folks also experience harmful effects.

For example, cis men and people assigned male at birth may limit emotional expression, a characteristic associated with toxic masculinity. A system that reinforces heteronormativity also proliferates Western cultural beauty standards.  It promotes body shaming, fatphobia, diet culture, slut-shaming, and other harmful behaviors and beliefs that affect people of all gender identities. 

Beginning the Culture Shift

In order for us to subvert the gender binary and create safer spaces in which all of us can thrive—and especially those of us most impacted by oppressive systems and structures—we must reflect on what we’ve internalized from harmful messaging and how that plays out in our lives. 

This is what it means to take responsibility for yourself and others; this is what it means to commit to the work of holding yourself accountable. Yoga invites us to commit to our  individual and collective transformation and liberation, creating a more welcoming and inclusive world for everybody. 

About our contributor

Tristan Katz (they/them) is a writer, digital strategist, and equity-inclusion facilitator.  Their podcast with Lauren Roberts, ALL THE F*CK IN, is about finding success in business and entrepreneurship without abandoning social justice values. Katz was named one of Yoga Journal’s 2021 Game Changers for their work in yoga, equity, diversity, and inclusivity.