Decolonizing Yoga: YogaCare’s Journey Towards Equity in Practice

Decolonizing Yoga: YogaCare’s Journey Towards Equity in Practice

Below are excerpts from a dialogue between Greg Van Hyfte, former Executive Director at YogaCare, and Yoli Maya Yeh, YogaCare Board Member and Co-Leader of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network. They reflect upon their experience at the 2020 Facing Race: A National Virtual Conference presented by Race Forward, and their ongoing efforts to progress their own equity practices within YogaCare and the Socially Engaged Yoga Network.
Transcription has been edited for clarity.
Audio from Yoli Maya Yeh, YogaCare Board Member and Co-Leader of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network
YOLI: When we founded YogaCare, we were still very much in a charity model—“We’ve got the knowledge,” “We’ve got the yoga,” “We’ve got the systems,” “Let’s take it to the people,” “What can be a [community] touchpoint? Health care centers, communities, park districts?” It was very noble.
We’re showing up, we’re doing things, people are coming, and we’re getting the accolades. All this is amazing. But, the people who were the knowledge holders [of yoga systems, of healing systems] were not the people of those communities— communities of color where these systems originated from. So, we have to call ourselves in [and] out—that is what really needs to happen as we transfer the knowledge now.
GREG: [Equity work] has always been something that I’ve believed in, and it’s something that I haven’t had a lot of skills in navigating personally and professionally. [The Facing Race conference] was an opportunity to gain some skills, mentorship, and roadmap around some of the initiatives and ways that I wanted to do better, and to create a culture throughout YogaCare that is more inclusive and equitable in building diverse leadership.
One of the ways that I’ve really been taking a deeper look at myself as one of the co-founders of YogaCare is how much space I take up in the leadership of the organization, how much power I have in my role. As both a co-founder and as a white man, and looking at that on a deeper level, it has really been transformative for me, personally. I’ve been able to look at how that has had an impact, and, in some ways, a negative impact in creating space for BIPOC leadership to emerge in the organization.
YogaCare Scholarship Alumni and friends at YogaCare’s Anniversary Party fundraiser in Washington Park in 2017
Earlier on in my career, I did a lot more work around intersectionality, particularly working in the HIV field, LGBTQ health, and as a queer person myself. I thought I was far along the path in terms of my own experience of marginalization, intersectionality, and conscious awareness of that, how that impacted my work and my journey. Regarding the racial equity part, I wasn’t really well-versed in how to do that work and how to bring it to my work. That’s been one of the most transformative and meaningful journeys for me personally.
YOLI: One of the key platforms that is my personal rallying cry is decolonization. Decolonization isn’t the goal. Decolonization is a process. I also affectionately say “Every day is a great day to decolonize.” You could turn over a stone within yourself and find something that has been ingrained in you, taught, nurtured within you.
The knowledge of yoga systems, of healing systems–the fact that we have this knowledge is because somebody colonized these lands (including the lands where I’m sitting today), appropriated, stole these teachings, and then put them through the commodification route, capitalized and centered [them] really only [on] one population.
How many times have we’ve gone into communities of color in Chicagoland and have heard some people say “Oh, that’s not for me”?  We were expecting to hear comments about body type, body shape and athletic ability. The first thing we’ll hear about yoga is that it’s for white women. So, we had to pause. Are we promoting yoga in that way?
YogaCare’s first 200-hr Spanish Yoga Teacher Training Program launches in January 2021
We were because we were pulling from a readily available volunteer teaching force—who were mainly white women—to go into communities of color. So, then we got to call that in for transformation.
That’s when we pivoted towards our training program where we recruit from the very communities that we serve and train people to be yoga leaders [and teach] good, therapeutic, culturally competent, culturally relevant yoga. It has been wildly successful from my point of view.
GREG: We started our first internship program last year and were connected to the University of Chicago with the Crown [Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice], Adler University and Northwestern University, and other public health students.
I believe teaching and modeling wellness practices, dismantling grind culture, white supremacy, oppressive tactics like that, we’re teaching future leaders in social work, psychology, and public health about these different aspects. This can have that ripple effect of creating more health and wellness in the communities that we work and partner with. 
YOLI: This work can’t happen in a silo either. We can’t address community health without addressing food sovereignty, housing, joblessness, youth idleness. Our youth literally have nothing to do and nowhere to go. If we’re not talking about a living wage and if we are not talking about the disproportionate effect of the system of white supremacy on Black, Brown, Indigenous people, refugees, immigrants, LGBTQIA –then we’re missing the point, right?
Sometimes this work can really feel like that when there are so many things to tackle. We can’t actually solve it by just thinking about community health; we have to consider other [intersecting issues]. And, here’s the thing – we don’t have to solve it all. There are people, organizations that have their specializations. We need to partner, network, and have more opportunities to connect—whether it’s at a conference, a meetup, online, or whatever. That’s why these kinds of spaces [like the Facing Race conference] are so important because you gain new ideas, and you hear about what other people are doing. More importantly, you also make connections because it really is about weaving a web. 
YOLI: [I think YogaCare embodies] the principle of celebration, joy, pleasure of the senses, being present in the body. Sharing space together, even in the virtual space where we connect and laugh, a space where we share, practice, a space where we sit, eat separately, or together. We didn’t just throw it all out the window because of COVID. There needs to also be space when we freak out.
We’re not just coming together only to do work; we’re coming together to humanize each other and hold space for one another. As somebody who regularly facilitates spaces, I can say that the freedom to check in with each other without a prompt or structure is sometimes more productive than just jumping into the work because you can feel a sense of trust, presence and that you’re being seen in that moment. If not, then I really could just show up as a paper doll version of myself and have that avatar talk for me. We can still humanize our work even in a distanced, remote way. Sharing a breath together—it can be amazing to share rest together.
Audio from Yoli Maya Yeh, YogaCare Board Member and Co-Leader of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network
Audio from Greg Van Hyfte, former Executive Director at YogaCare

GREG: [In the past] I’ve been much more comfortable in and enforcing a hierarchical structure. So, it was a stretch for me to come to see how decentralized leadership was great for equity all around, including racial equity. I’ve taken some very specific steps, including proposing and designing a new organizational chart that was more horizontal than vertical that created space for decentralization in the organization and having a roadmap for power-sharing across the organization. [Then] sharing it with others, having their input, guidance, suggestions, and feedback, seeing where they see themselves fit into the organization and how we can create a more cohesive team.

YOLI: There’s been [other] things that we’ve done [internally such as] analyzing our handbook, analyzing how we onboard people, how we set expectations, analyzing our time-off policies, bereavement policies. [But,] I think we still have a lot of growing to do as an organization.
[There is] the insidiousness of white supremacy and that there’s one right way to be and those are the norms and dictums of white culture. If you’re a BIPOC person, it’s internalized. It shows up in your understandings of success and failure, in definitions of professionalism, in being challenged when you’re intuitively feeling like, “No, this isn’t right.” Then you as a BIPOC person always have to defend yourself and prove yourself.
Darlene Blackburn, YogaCare Scholarship Program Alumna teaching Chair Yoga at the Englewood Community Wellness Retreat in collaboration with Howard Brown Health and Northwestern University’s ARCC Seed Grant project
Those are all tools of white supremacy because their job is to enforce a status quo, to enforce a hierarchy or a social construct of difference—where there’s somebody at the top and you need to aspire to be at the top. Guess what? It’s probably impossible for you to get there but your job is still to aspire for it. There are still ways that even though we can speak the language of DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion), it’s still going to be a while before this work can really come to light.
GREG: [At YogaCare], we have embarked on formal DEI, anti-racism work with a couple of initiatives, including in the SEYN (Socially Engaged Yoga Network) circles for yoga teachers, white yoga teachers for white accountability, and we’ve done some BIPOC support work as well. Those are ongoing initiatives in various forms. We also have been in part supported by Healthy Communities Foundation in doing formal DEI, anti-racism work with consultants like Antara, a wonderful group of consultants that are really taking us deeper and getting under the hood of uncovering things that we need to look at as an organization to continue healing ourselves personally and collectively.
It’s really rich work, and we’re definitely committed to it. I’m personally committed to seeing this work forward for the success of our organization and for the health of the communities that we work in and partner with.
YOLI: I like to think we have a really special tool to help ourselves with that in the form of decolonized yoga because yoga really is all about a movement, practice of breath, practice, a seated practice, a meditative practice that allows you to see yourself. 

About Yoli & Greg

Yoli is a Yoga & Shiatsu Therapist (AOBTA, VYASA, Yoga for the Special Child) and an Educator in Comparative Religions and Global Studies (MA Comparative Religious Ethics). Yoli is a current board member of YogaCare and co-founder of SEYN, The Socially Engaged Yoga Network, a sister initiative of YogaCare.
Yoli works at the intersection of Indigenous Preservation, Healing Arts and Social Justice through the design and implementation of experiential education-based Diversity, Dialogue, Collaboration and Community Implementation Toolkits.
Greg is a queer-identified and genderfluid dreamer, teacher, social justice advocate, and inquisitive soul seeking truth, balance, healing, and interconnectedness on an ever-evolving spiritual path. He serves as YogaCare’s Executive Director and helped co-found YogaCare and the Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN). Greg has been practicing yoga since 1999, has been teaching yoga, meditation, and wellness practices in English and Spanish since 2006. Academic studies include psychology, Spanish, and creative arts from the University of Redlands; and advanced degrees in social sciences, social work, social service administration, and health administration and policy from the University of Chicago, where he was a Schweitzer Fellow.
He spends his free time reading, consulting, and hanging out with friends, family, his partner, Scott, and their Shih Tzu, Hibou.
Learn more about our grantee partner YogaCare and their work to increase awareness and practice of yoga in under-resourced communities to promote health.

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