Privilege and Why It Matters: A Yogi’s Primer

yoga silhouette
Photo by Del Mar Surf Camp

Privilege: This term has recently made its way around the yoga blogosphere, but it’s worth asking: What is privilege, anyway? Any why should yogis care?

While yoga and Buddhism today are full of people committed to social action and justice, these broader religious traditions have historically reflected and reinforced inequitable social norms in their countries of origin (for example, the caste system in India, or sexist gender norms in Buddhism). Modern forms of yoga are no different, often exemplifying and strengthening prevailing social norms rather dismantling them.

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In the US, common forms of privilege include being white, thin, able-bodied (in yoga, also strong and flexible), wealthy, young, educated, male, heterosexual and mentally healthy. Most of us are privileged in some ways (e.g., white, thin, educated, male), and not in others (e.g., non-white, overweight, less educated, female). Full disclosure: I am fairly new to this conversation, and I welcome insight from others as to the ways in which my privilege (as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, flexible female) may bias this piece.

Privilege is notoriously thorny to discuss. When those of us with more privilege are called out, it is common to respond with defensiveness and anger at the suggestion that we receive “special rights, advantages, or immunity.” We may feel this questions our sense of free will and the idea that we got to where we are with our own hard work.

But here’s the thing. None of us got where we are alone. Each of us is inextricably intertwined in an interconnected web of relationship, community and society. The opportunities we receive, the connections we make, the social capital we accrue; all are facilitated by how others respond to and value us. Despite our cultural “story” of bootstrap individualism, none of us would ever be where we are without a village, whether or not we are conscious of it. And for those of us with more privilege, that village provides vastly more resources and opportunities, as demonstrated in this video of the unequal opportunity race.

Put another way, privilege is part of life. Privilege doesn’t make those of us who have it bad people; as women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh has said, we “didn’t ask for it and can’t be blamed for it.” Acknowledging our privilege, and viewing it as a bank account to combat injustice and prejudice, liberates us and allows us to contribute towards the liberation of our communities.

By extension, it is important not to take conversations about privilege personally. As political commentator Jay Smooth has articulated, being willing to acknowledge and converse about bias and privilege is analogous to flossing your teeth from the racist gunk that builds up inside you as a natural consequence of living in a toxic environment. Modern yogis should be able to identify with this “gunk”: We practice burning through gunky samskara (oppressive cycles and patterns) to forge more wisdom, compassion and humility, in hopes of freeing ourselves from the ignorance, attachment and aversion that create human suffering.

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As the wheel of samsara (life, death, rebirth) turns, privilege is one way to conceptualize the samskara that enslave us and lead to individual and collective suffering. Samskara exist at the cultural, familial and individual levels, and are learned—including learning to elevate some characteristics (e.g., white-skinned, Protestant, thin) above others (e.g., brown or black skinned, Muslim, overweight).

When we internalize and identify with these belief systems without awareness, denying the presence of privilege and oppression, several outcomes result. First, we often unconsciously engage in inequitable behaviors (e.g., fear and defensiveness at seeing a Black man carrying a gun, versus a reasonable conversation with a white man carrying the same gun) that replicate racism, sexism, sizeism, ageism and other “isms.” And secondly, because many of us generally like to think we are non-biased, we deny that discrimination exists and that we perpetuate it, although a vast research literature solidly demonstrates that we are all, in fact, biased in profound ways, and that this tangibly influences our expressed and subtle behaviors towards those different from us.

Privilege does not just deeply harm those who are discriminated against; it also engenders suffering for the privileged, who are deluded into believing that (1) their success came to them in a vacuum (e.g., “pulled myself up by my own bootstraps”), and (2) that others do not reach similar successes because they have character deficits (rather than struggling due to social, interpersonal, or structural barriers to success, i.e., those “isms”). Kindness, humility, gratitude, compassion—intrinsic qualities—languish when we attribute our success to ourselves alone and deny the role that social forces and privilege have played in fostering our success.

Why does this matter? Our privilege, while giving us external safety and success, constructs barriers around our hearts that prevent us from acknowledging the common humanity of stigmatized individuals we have been conditioned to believe are less valuable. As a result, our self-worth often depends upon others not being good enough, thereby exiling us from our own hearts. A gnawing sense of longing results, as we wonder whether we can truly be appreciated for who we are or whether people really see us for who we are—suspecting that, in truth, we aren’t quite good enough either. Privilege thus poisons us all.

Acknowledging that you possess privilege, and unwittingly contribute to discrimination, can feel quite painful and difficult. It means being humble and owning up to the biases we all have and express towards others, knowing that while these are consciously or unconsciously experienced by most human beings, the power to initiate change starts with you.

It also means being courageous enough to face the reality that your successes may have less to do with who you are as a human being (i.e., your intrinsic qualities), and more to do with external traits that society values (i.e., your extrinsic qualities). While initially a difficult realization, this is ultimately and profoundly freeing, aligning you deeply with the yogic path and attunement to your true, rather than socially constructed, self.

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