Circle Yoga's Anti-Racism and Allyship Discussion Group

by Mercedes Santos, CYC Teacher and Board Member
March 2021

Antiracism and Allyship Group

The Anti-Racism and Allyship Discussion Group at Circle Yoga Cooperative (CYC) was born in June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and as Black Lives Matter protests were emerging in cities across the country. In the months of the COVID-19 pandemic leading up to that time, I had been hosting a monthly virtual “happy hour” get together to help keep the Tuesday morning Gentle Yoga students connected. As our topic for the June happy hour, I chose a discussion of the CYC Board’s recent statement underlining CYC as a community of anti-racism practice and allyship. It was clear after that discussion, that here was interest and energy for exploring how our shared yoga community could help to meet the promise of the Board’s statement. So, I invited all those who were interested, to help create an anti-racism/allyship study/discussion group. Twenty students signed up for the project and we began to meet every other week starting in July. The group ended up meeting twice a month for 8 months.

We needed to start with the foundations, and for the first 5 months I facilitated the study and discussion of a variety of topics related to systemic racism and white privilege. The first assignment was for everyone to prepare and share their racial autobiography. For many it was the first time they’d ever thought of race as being a relevant part of their own biography. The reckoning had begun.

Early discussions focused on learning key concepts and how systemic racism and white privilege manifest in our day-to-day lives and in our society as a whole. Participants learned how to talk about race and white privilege and to take responsibility for their speech and actions — recognizing that what matters most is the effect of our speech and behavior and not our personal intentions. We studied what anti-racism and allyship sound and look like, and how to bring these tools of social justice into our lives and our communities. We talked about waking up and speaking out (bystander intervention), microaggressions and implicit bias (our own). For each meeting, I provided a boatload of reading and listening materials required to prepare to participate in the discussion. Not a single person turned away from the work, and every one who began the group, was there at the end of these first 5 months.

It was a time of deep learning, humility and connection. It was a time for each participant to face how they had colluded – over a lifetime – to sustain the systems of racism and white privilege that we all live in. It was also a time to bring down any walls that we’d built in our minds that separate our yoga practices from the lived experiences of racial and other forms of injustice.

We did a reboot for the last 3 months of meetings. I invited those 15 students who were able and wanted to continue with the group to take responsibility for choosing topics, sending out educational materials and leading the discussions. At the beginning of each meeting, another student volunteered to bring a moment of joy to the group. (The gravity of the work we were doing was heavy.) Another presented their 10-minute autobiography that helped others to connect the dots between their life and the learning and work of the group.

The topics that we explored during this time included:

  • The history of racism in the U.S. and how the present reality of economic, social, educational, etc. disparities have been created through a series of purposefully racist policy and law
  • The school to prison pipeline and school disciplinary policies
  • Political history of race-based reparations
  • Racism and segregation in housing
  • How to build empathy between Black and white communities and to address the separation between them
  • Art as social protest
  • Making our CYC community more inclusive and anti-racist

In February 2021, after eight months and 15 meetings, the Anti-Racism and Allyship Discussion Group found itself at another crossroads and needing to answer the question: What comes next? There were many diverse interests among the participants and without any clear paradigm around which to organize, we decided to take a hiatus from regular meetings. We will reconvene in three months to check in about moving forward.

Below is a sample of some reflections from a few of the CYC students who participated in the group.

The . . . group provided me with the opportunity to: rethink the way history has been written, learn how to be a better ally, the importance of speaking up more, how to be a better listener, examine my own racial/ethnic identity and ideas— and provided a safe space to meet and learn from others. — Susan Rubin

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Recently, I offered to Co-Chair an Anti-Racist Working Group with NOPE Neighbors, the local political action group I’ve been very active with for the past few years. This . . . is a direct result from our Discussion Group and I look forward to continuing to move the effort forward. — Aurie Hall

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The whole experience has enlightened me, challenged me, and changed me ... — Karen Schaar

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Always a student of history, I have been able to see things with more nuance and awareness because of the stories we have read, and it has helped me think about what I can do at this stage of my life to be more active in my community. — Elise Shapiro

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. . .What I found (in the group) was the consequence of our isolation in our separate communities. Communities which are not at present separated by law but custom, fear, and obliviousness to how we got to this point of racial and ethnic division and how deeply rooted it is.

We all have discovered, I believe, the power of honest discussion about matters that — through thoughtful leadership and frankness — have been elusive or heartily avoided. We have shared our stories, learned a bit about each other and recognize the distance we have yet to travel to make our ideals about ourselves, our community and country a reality. — Judith Winston

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The . . . discussion group has . . . been eye-opening and inspirational. Yoga aims to help us become more centered in our lives. Fighting racism is key to leading a more centered life in harmony with others. This group is helping us see that synergy. — Scott Schneider