Decolonizing Tai Chi, Yoga, and Meditation Education: Part 1


Dr HerukhutiBy Dr. Herukhuti

I started learning tai chi chuan, yoga, and meditation when I was fourteen. At the time, I had no idea what that would be for my life. Learning the three systems was a part of the educational program at the Junior Engineering Club (JEC), an innovative and radical STEAM-program in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York.

Housed in a squatter-recovered, abandoned building, JEC was designed to introduce science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) studies to black and brown kids ages 8-17 by elevating their consciousness through Eastern and African methods for human development. Hence the tai chi, yoga, and meditation learning. The program was such a funky mix of the ‘hood (we stepped over empty crack vials to get to brownstone building), cultural-nationalism, Afrofuturism, and Shaw Brothers aesthetics that only the 1980s could have produced it.

As I look back now at the environment, I smile at the ironies. Imagine practicing pranayama in room right above a basement that had all manner of dust, debris and discarded materials you’d expect would be in an abandoned building. But we thrived in that environment like the larvae of the Khepera dung beetle does in a ball of shit.

When I left New York for the University of Southern California (SC), I took the knowledge I had gained in JEC and its parent organization the Temple of the White and Gold Lotus with me. I taught tai chi in the university’s intramural program. That was my first time teaching people who weren’t persons of African descent. When a group of us student-activists formed a political sociocultural organization, Brotherhood of African Men and Sisterhood of African Women, I taught tai chi, yoga, and meditation as part of our Saturday freedom school program.

Over the two decades since leaving SC, I’ve taught tai chi, yoga or meditation in an adult day-treatment program for people living with HIV, an athletic club, workshops, and classes of college students. My practice as a teacher has waxed and waned during that time. Sometimes I’ve taught an ongoing class. Other times, I’ve had private students. Currently, I teach a weekly class for the center.

One of the themes from class that has really excited me more recently is my understanding of tai chi, yoga, and meditation as decolonizing practices. I’ve written about this idea for academic audiences in my doctoral dissertation, Our Bodies, Our Wisdom, and in the book Innovations in Transformative Learning: Space, Culture and the Arts. But I haven’t discussed the topic outside of class to a non-academic audience with the exception of the article “Lotus in the Mud: Blackness, Decolonizing Yoga and Tai Chi and My Teaching Practice.” So I wanted to return to that conversation here.

What I have come to know about tai chi, yoga and meditation–both as a practitioner observing the impact of my practice on me and as a teacher observing the impact my students’ practice on them–is that they are effective methods of decolonization. When I refer to decolonization in this context, I’m talking about the process of repairing the damage imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy has done to the body, mind, spirit and soul; counteracting the ways in which imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy continually undermines the ability to strive to be free; and cultivating a resistance sensibility toward imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy–a sensibility that continuously says, “I’m not with that shit” no matter the consequences or how many people acting out of their addictions to imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy tell you “this is the shit, you gotta be down with it.”

In order for imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy–a system that undermines the optimal expression of everyone’s humanity regardless of their social identities and positionality in society–to exist, the vast majority of those of us not on the upper levels of its hierarchy have to concede to it either unconsciously or consciously. We have to allow it to continue. We have to play our prescribed/assigned roles within it. Workers have to choose to be workers. Niggers have to choose to be niggers. The marginalized have to choose to remain marginalized. The privileged have to choose to occupy positions of privilege. The vast majority of these decisions are not conscious. In fact, the perpetuation of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy requires that they not be intentional decisions but rather unconscious, automated decisions that are situational, isolated and seemingly disconnected from any larger processes.

The mechanical nature of staying in one’s place is a function of the efficiency of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. If imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy relied upon people making intentional decisions to comply with it, it would be vulnerable to the unpredictability, inconsistency, and quality control failures of our decision-making processes. So our compliance and cooperation with and culpability and complicity in imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy must out of the needs of efficiency be unconscious for the most part.

That level of mass unconsciousness is achieved through a desensitization process that occurs for many of us at least as early as the birthing process. Desensitization undermines our ability to feel what we feel and know what it is that we feel both in the moment and retrospectively. In the medicalized model of childbirth practiced within westernized societies, conventions place mothers in the least optimal conditions for birthing. These conditions introduce psychic an emotional barriers hormonally between mother and child that contribute to the child’s desensitization. After we’re born, the quality of the foods we eat, including their genetic modification and the chemical treatment, contribute to our desensitization. The educational models we encounter in schools, what Paolo Freire called the banking method of education, further our desensitization by removing us from our bodies, feelings, desires, and sense of knowing what we know.

Much of my work as a tai chi and yoga teacher is helping to (re)sensitize people i.e., (re)introduce and (re)orient them to their bodies so that they can feel fully and clearly what their bodies tell them on a moment to moment basis that reality is. As a meditation teacher, I am doing the same work with regard to the relationship my students have to their thoughts, feelings, desires, and the socializing messages they received within imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

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