The Western yoga and museum industries are born from the same complicated histories of colonialism. Acknowledging that both have benefited from, participated in, and helped build structures of systemic white supremacy is the first step to generating equity and justice. I am a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male that grew up in the privileged United States middle class. That reality is a major force that opened up doors for me to work in yoga and museum spaces. Earning allyship with BIPOC communities in the effort to collaborate in the fight for radical transformation means unpacking white privilege. Moreover, it means rethinking how we all relate to the material world.
The University of Leicester’s Cezare Cuzzola argues that, for museums to become socially-engaged, they must reinterpret objects as means to promote inclusion, tolerance, empathy. Quoting Jamaican-born artist, curator, and researcher Rachel Minott in “Objects of Decolonization: The Social Role of Museums in Leading Public Discussion,” Cuzzola reminds us that museums are built around objects; therefore, the stories they tell are object-focused. This is problematic because these stories end with the objects themselves, ignoring the often traumatic histories of how those objects were collected and the myopic narratives they deliver. For centuries, white people—especially straight males—roamed museum galleries seeing themselves represented. That provided white folks a historical framework to understand our personal lives. Now consider how damaging it was for anyone that didn’t identify as a straight white male to be excluded from that experience. Consider how their self-esteems and senses of worth, both as individuals and as members of the global community, were shattered.
Reorienting towards object-driven relationships, can transform that injustice. Michelle Cassandra Johnson, a black woman, yoga teacher, and dismantling racism trainer, gave me the inspiration with Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice for Just World. Skill in Action, she writes, “is a way of life that illustrates what it means to live yoga for the transformation and liberation of all beings. It is an analysis of yoga that accounts for institutional and cultural forms of oppression while holding liberation at the heart of its practice.” She grounds this practice of connecting to all beings in the name of universal justice with an invitation to choose “[A]n object that represents what creating a just world means to you. Choose an object that is meaningful to you. An object that represents freedom for all beings everywhere.”
When museums cling to objects, they fix meanings and stories to those objects. The result is that they limit the potential of those objects to relate to varied audiences. Consider Sandro Botticelli’s painting Birth of Venus (c.1483). Framed as one of the most famous and influential expressions of Italian Renaissance art, the depiction of Venus’ body also came to represent ideals of feminine beauty still dominant in 21st Century Western popular culture. White femininity became the default for relevance and desirability. The mainstream Western yoga industry is filled with white women that exhibit these characteristics. In no way do I mean to demean the contributions of women like YouTube yogi Adriene Mischler of Yoga with Adriene fame or influencer and academic Odette Hughes. I have learned from and practiced with both of them. Rather, I am suggesting that we can understand the space they hold as one type of experience that can be put in conversation with many.
Imagine if we recontextualized Birth of Venus in an exhibition that illustrated depictions of feminine beauty from all over the world from the 15th Century. Letting go of the idea that any museum could possess a defining narrative of beauty would enable generous conversations. It would cultivate the curiosity necessary for people from all over the world to learn from one another through equitable exchanges of knowledge. Imagine if we committed ourselves to creating diverse yoga spaces that understood the “threefold harmony” of mind, body, and spirit of Karma yoga as different for different bodies. Female, male, transgender, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and other groups all bring varied perspectives from their lived experiences into their yoga and meditation practices. It is our dharma to honor and cultivate those individualized perspectives on the mat so we can have a just world off the mat.
That change begins with understanding how each of us experiences material reality differently. Yoga reminds us that materiality breeds attachment. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “great is the [hu]man who, free from attachments, and with a mind ruling its powers in harmony, works on the path of Karma Yoga, the path of consecrated action” (Chapter 3, Verse 7). To detach from materialism, begins with seeing objects as means to liberation. Instead of understanding Birth of Venus as object communicating a definitive narrative, what if we understood it as an object that unlocks conversations about multiple narratives? Meditation can help us internalize new relationships to objects. The process begins with choosing objects in our own environments that symbolize change, meditating on the energy of those objects, and reflecting on their meaning in our personal, social, and political lives. That reorientation has the power to help us learn to respect how others see the world. Once we do that, we can begin transforming our cultural institutions and our global communities.