Frisky Rant: On That White Woman Who Saw A Black Woman At Yoga And Wrote An Embarrassingly Tone Deaf Essay About It For xoJane

Oh for fuck’s sake, fine, I’ll respond to the click-baiting article about yoga on xoJane. A writer going by the name of Jen Caron (her real name, Jen Polachek, was removed as the byline following the backlash to her article) has written the following essay: “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable With It.” Caron is a self-described “skinny white girl” and what “happened to” her is a “fairly heavy black woman” attended her yoga class and seemingly had a difficult time with some of the poses. Obviously, Caron writes, the fat Black woman who isn’t as “good” at yoga must resent her, in all her skinny white yogic glory, and this (utterly imagined) racially-charged tension made Caron uncomfortable. But the discomfort, the ruined yoga class, was worth it because isn’t her essay about it brave and compassionate? Jen Caron cares. 

So, here’s how Jen sets the scene. She’s at a crowded midday class when a woman she presumes is new to yoga — based on the woman’s nervous energy and lack of familiarity — enters the studio. The woman, who is Black and “fairly heavy,” puts her mat down behind Caron, which means that throughout the class, in various positions, she can see her and vice versa. Even though most yoga positions involve facing the front of the room and thus the back of the person in front of you, Caron still interprets this woman’s eyes on her as “staring.” Now, Caron must have been doing quite a bit of staring as well, because she gives a rather detailed description of the woman’s trouble with the class. Her difficulty with some of the poses, combined with her “staring,” leads skinny white Caron to feel uncomfortable. Because this isn’t, say, just a simple case of a yoga newbie watching the closest person directly in her line of sight to see how she executes the poses. No, no. It’s so much more:

Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class. …

At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.

I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.

Caron sure is extrapolating a lot from the act of one woman staring at the woman directly in front of her in a yoga class. Did Caron leave something out? Did this woman stare her straight in the eyes, make the “I’m watching you” gesture, and then mouth “fuck you skinny white girl”? No? Talk about an obnoxiously self-absorbed case of PROJECTING LIKE WHOA. Get over yourself, Regina George.

There’s a good chance this woman is new to yoga. Maybe she’s out of shape. When I haven’t worked out in a while and then go to yoga, it kills. Maybe this woman has had an injury and is slowly starting her practice again. Maybe this is her first class and five minutes in, she hates this boring shit and just wants to chill in child’s pose until it’s time to go. Maybe she ate right before class and all the bending is bringing on a hot case of the sharts.

And maybe she’s been staring because Caron is good at yoga and it’s helpful/cool/interesting to watch her. Maybe Caron is her “spot” that helps her stay balanced. Maybe Caron has a big old period stain on her high-waisted yoga shorts. Maybe this girl thinks Caron’s “tastefully tacky sports bra” is actually just tacky and can’t get over the fact that she’s wearing it in public. MAYBE MAYBE MAYBE. So many more plausible possibilities than “OMG she’s jealous and resentful that I’m skinny and white and I belong here and she doesn’t.” But the bigger facepalm is that Caron uses this completely imagined interpretation about one woman’s, again, imagined experience — a woman who she does not even exchange pleasantries with — as the impetus for an essay about race, weight and yoga, in which she shows a cringe-worthy lack of self-awareness.

When Caron notices a seemingly new student enter the studio, she’s immediately more focused on her race and her shape as potential signs of “trouble.” Caron has already described herself as a “skinny white girl” so it’s clear that this new yogi is being positioned as her physical “opposite.” Caron writes that her yoga studio preaches “the gospel of yogic egalitarianism, that their style of vinyasa is approachable for people of all ages, experience levels, socioeconomic statuses, genders, and races.” Despite the inclusivity, Caron writes that she has noticed very few Black students and teachers. Now, I live in New York City, a very diverse city; my neighborhood is pretty racially diverse, and like many areas in the five boroughs, the economic levels of the residents are diverse as well. There are a number of expensive, high-rise condominiums just blocks from the projects. Gentrification is everywhere. The yoga classes I’ve taken here and around the city have reflected that diversity. Yoga itself originates in India, a country inhabited by brown people; I agree with Caron that in Western society, yoga has been co-opted as a sport for skinny, white women, but I’d argue that perception is driven more by corporate greed — i.e. companies like Lululemon — and not actual practitioners who genuinely follow and seriously study the traditions of yoga. My guess is that yoga classes usually reflect the racial diversity of the cities and neighborhoods where they take place, and the socioeconomic makeup therein.

Caron doesn’t say whether she’s noticed many “heavy” students before, but the implication is that this woman’s heaviness is also a foreign sight at yoga. This leads Caron to conclude that the heavy Black woman who is having some difficulty bending around like Gumby is actually “despairing” from the impact of this perfect storm of silent racism and body-shaming — despair that has turned to “hostile” “resentment” … AT HER, of course. Thankfully, Caron’s skinny white girl guilt is full of compassion. “I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her?” Nothing, it turns out, as Caron never approaches, speaks to or smiles at her at any point. She doesn’t do anything besides marinate in the ridiculous assumption that this woman’s experience at yoga must be all about her. 

Moving on! I’m not a yoga expert, but I’ve done quite a bit of yoga, all different styles, and can say with assurance that Caron is false when she implies that yoga is not for heavy people. What Caron forgot — or ignored — in her previous explanation for yogic egalitarianism is the fact that yoga is for people of all body shapes, sizes and abilities. Yoga is for people who can do all the poses and yoga is for people who can only do child’s pose. Yoga is for the able-bodied and the disabled. Yoga is for children and the elderly. Yoga is for everyone. As Ami has reiterated in the pieces she’s written about studying to be a yoga teacher, yoga is not about how you look. Writes Ami:

There is no such thing as being “good” at yoga. But if there were to be a such thing as being “good” at yoga it would include: practicing regularly, breathing through the entire class, and not comparing yourself to others. It would have nothing to do with how you look while doing the poses. … Even though yoga might appear to be an external practice, it’s really an internal one.

So fuck this noise about yoga being “unable” to accommodate this woman’s “heavy” body. The only thing unable to accommodate this woman’s “fairly heavy” body is Caron’s poor understanding of what yoga is actually about. It seems to me that this new yoga student understands more about yoga simply by showing up, laying down her mat and staying for the entire class even though some skinny white girl wouldn’t stop staring at her.

It makes very little sense to me why Caron makes a direct connection between the woman’s difficulty in class with her race and body shape. The first few yoga classes — hell, the first few months of yoga — are difficult for anyone. The vast majority of these positions are unfamiliar and use muscles that may be extremely tight and underdeveloped. Balance is a big part of yoga and that doesn’t come easy to everyone. Many days, my ability to hold Tree pose ain’t worth a damn.

Some people, regardless of weight, are just more flexible than others. That can remain the case even after years of yoga. Ami is about to have her teacher’s certificate and can’t touch her toes. I can touch my toes, but I have spent the last 15 years trying and failing to get into headstand. I don’t remember how difficult I found my first yoga class, but given that I still find certain yoga classes extremely challenging, I can imagine Caron might have described me as “despairing” if she was stuck by me in class. Except her misunderstood white guilt and white savior complex wouldn’t have inspired her to write an essay about it because I’m not Black and heavy.

And she also probably wouldn’t have gone home and cried. Yes, cried.

Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a racially charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American race relations, I was shaken by it all the same.

I can’t emphasize this last point enough: Just because you admit that something you’ve thought is probably self-important psychological projection doesn’t make writing it down and publishing it online any less of an example of self-important psychological projection. By all means, have those thoughts. But publishing them on the internet doesn’t validate them. Caron strikes me as young and self-absorbed, who also might be described as someone who “means well.” If she is, she’ll read, think about and learn from the thousands of responses her essay has received (99 percent of them echoing sentiments similar to my own, in a variety of smart and hilarious ways). And the next time she sees someone struggling in yoga class, she’ll just introduce herself instead of writing another “It Happened To Me” that makes baseless assumptions about what has happened to someone else.