Without going into too many details—because believe me, her piece had waaaaay too many—I’ll give you the short version.
One time Jen Polachek, uh, I mean Jen Caron, went to a yoga class in Brooklyn and saw a “fairly heavy” Black woman on the mat behind her. After not being able to keep up with the bendy routines, the woman spent the balance of the class “staring directly” at Caron, who watched as the woman plunged into “despair” then “resentment and then contempt.” In the end, Caron felt so disturbed by the Black woman because she assumed the woman was focusing all her mind power on Caron’s “skinny white girl body,” because…why wouldn’t she?
Caron’s long, completely self-absorbed essay would have been utterly laughable if she wasn’t trying so hard to be serious. I mean, Caron was so unnerved by a fat Black woman attempting yoga she went home AND CRIED, y’all. CRIED!
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? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?
I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. 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 really don’t know what’s worse about this essay. The fact that the writer heaped a myriad of assumptions on a “fairly heavy/heavyset” Black woman without even speaking to her, or the fact that she subjected us to her narcissistic ramblings.
As I said on Facebook, this essay is the personification of White privilege. Nothing SCREAMS White privilege more than a White woman in a yoga class who thinks her “skinny white girl body” is surely being coveted by a heavyset Black woman who is most-likely just trying to learn how to properly hit the warrior pose.
In the midst of her navel glazing, Caron failed to realize or even acknowledge that Black women—like many other types of women—practice yoga as well. While they may not be sweating it out in her studio, which she admits is overrun with male hipsters, many of us are yogis and yoga devotees, even if we happen to be “fairly heavy.” Just because Caron’s never taken a moment to notice—or even speak to–a Black student in her class doesn’t negate the fact that many Black folks practice yoga.
A quick Google search of “black yogis” would have pointed Caron in the direction of several African-Americans who regularly practice yoga (I mean, there’s a whole Tumblr dedicated to Black Yogis). Women like Chelsea Jackson of Chelsea Loves Yoga, Faith Hunter of Embrace, Sariane Leigh of Anacostia Yogi, and many, many more are not only practicing, but are teaching others as well. But Caron’s piece wasn’t about learning more about Black people who practice yoga, it was about turning herself into a victim.