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Light On Racism

A yoga practitioner, Fulbright Fellow, and Cambridge graduate, Anurag Gupta was unfamiliar with the concept of race before immigrating to the States. Born in India, his scientist parents recognized different cultures, but acknowledged only one human race. Furthermore, yoga was a way of life for his family, not an elite commodity.

Gupta came to America at ten, grew up in Brooklyn, and struggled to find his place amidst a culture comprised of Black, White, and Asian categories. While at NYU law school, he chose to do something about it.

In early 2014, he left his law job to hatch be more, a non-profit designed to change America’s social and racial inequalities. Utilizing dharmic principles, storytelling, research, and social media, Gupta aims to unify Americans and abolish the delusion of race altogether.

On Tuesday September 30, be more launches Vision2040, its first campaign. Inspired by 2040 – the year where there won’t be a racial majority in the United States - Vision2040 will encompass a diverse populace of activists, musicians, religious leaders, and members of the mind/body/yoga community who will offer their thoughts on changes needed to arrive at this proposed date.

Gupta sat down with YogaCity NYC’s Michael Laskaris to talk about his organization, Vision2040, and racism in the Western yoga industry.

Michael Laskaris: What is your definition of racism?

Anurag Gupta: I understand racism to be thoughts, words, or deeds that stem from the beliefs of a color-based human hierarchy. This hierarchy was invented in the Enlightenment era, when European explorers first encountered humans from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. These explorers came from a worldview that equated “whiteness” with moral purity, and when they saw people with darker skin colors, they prescribed negative characteristics onto them.

Unfortunately, we still live in a society where people with melanin in their skin are seen and perceived with bias. At be more, we believe that there is only one human race, but we don’t deny that “racialization” of people with/of color creates and sustains inequalities. We want to lift the veil of delusion that race creates by humanizing all of us, particularly those who continue to be judged by their skin color.

ML: How do you use spiritual concepts to address racism in this country?

AG: be more is founded upon our common humanity. Our mission isn’t to just end racism, but to end the delusion of race altogether. The ideal of a “fundamental oneness” is central to almost all major wisdom traditions. Racism in our country is a disease of the mind and it stems from a separate sense of self, detached from our ultimate oneness. Our work combines the left and right brains, the yin and the yang, and the Shiva/Shakti forces that lie within us all to inform change agents about the root causes of inequities.

ML: What do you hope to achieve with Vision2040?

AG: 2040 is the projected year when there will be no “racial majority” in our nation. To address America’s various race-based challenges (hypersegregation, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration, etc.), we believe that there needs to be an end goal.

For us, that goal is to create an inclusive, beloved community much like Dr. King’s aspiration forty-five years ago. We asked forty change agents from different backgrounds to share one change this country must make between now and 2040 to achieve this goal.

Starting on September 30, we will release each response one day at a time, and will continue to do so for forty days. We hope the Campaign will create an open, safe, and compassionate container for honest (and dare we say fun!) conversations on racism and identity. We are very excited to share these amazing visions we’ve collected on our social media!

ML: How did you first come to yoga?

AG: As an Indian-American, yogic philosophy was a part of my family’s cosmology. In college, my mother introduced to me to the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and subsequently became a member of his Self-Realization Fellowship. I practiced Kriya and simple asana at home for a few years until I discovered Mani and Alan Finger’s ISHTA, and completed my 500 hours there.

ML: Have you had any uncomfortable racial encounters here in the context of Western yoga?

AG: I usually attend yoga classes with an open mind. I will admit that some practitioners of South Asian origin find the mispronunciation of Sanskrit shlokas and the commodification of Hindu gods to be problematic. But if chanting these words alleviates suffering (even if mispronounced), then who am I to judge?

With that said, there have been a few uncomfortable encounters where teachers have singled me out after class to tell me about their trips to India. These moments sadden me as I have only been to India four times and my interests and talents range beyond my outer appearance. While discomforting, these situations fuel my passion for the work at be more.

ML: Is the Western yoga industry institutionally racist?

AG: Given my definition of racism, I’m not sure if it is racist, however, it’s definitely a place of privilege. In South Asia, yoga is for everyone. In the U.S., it’s a product with a price tag. Given the race-based realities of our nation, this is certainly a barrier for people of color. However, the bigger challenge is yoga’s current brand, which is supported by publications and marketing campaigns. There is a serious problem regarding the perception of what an American yogi looks like. Almost half of Americans under age 35 are of color (Black, Latino/a, East and South Asian, Native, and mixed). However, if you were to flip through a yoga publication, you’d think that 99% of Americans are Scandinavian white. This requires serious contemplation on the part of the decision-makers responsible for these publications.

ML: What are some strategies for us to create a beloved community in our yoga world?

AG: Good question! Many marketers have told me that they fear “white” people will stop buying their publications if they profile bodies of color. This is a flawed assumption, particularly in our diversifying nation. But if not, it is doubly important for these institutions to take a stance and transform the hearts and minds of such “white” people. After all, asana is appropriate for all bodies, irrespective of the exterior shell! Acknowledge the race-related realities, set goals to transform these realities, ask for help to accomplish theses goals, and together we can transform our current realities.

Follow Anurag Gupta and be more on Facebook, Twitter, and their website.

--Michael Laskaris

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