Stop Leading Yoga Retreats During the Pandemic

It’s been a weird week. I have found myself in the eye of a social media storm, scrapping with high profile yoga teachers about why it is not appropriate to lead yoga retreats during the pandemic. Yes, you read that correctly – apparently it is not clear to everyone. 

Western Yoga Culture is Messed Up

I have been watching yoga teachers act a complete fool throughout the pandemic. It has been very revealing to see just how many yoga teachers are also racist, trump-supporting, q-anon believing, science denying, anti-mask quacks. It has also been telling to see how many yogis are equally appalled, but unwilling to call this crap out when it starts hitting too close to home. 

I think many of us can agree that western yoga culture is pretty problematic. Embedded in the culture is a lot of privilege, white supremacy, colonialism, racism, ableism, and a huge amount of bypassing. Despite this, it is also clear that many of us don’t want to be associated with this version of yoga. We want to evolve, to create a yoga culture of accountability, inclusion, and integrity. We feel so deeply connected to the practice that it is truly infuriating to witness the ever unfolding fuckery.

As my colleague, Madoka Hara says,

“What’s most heartbreaking is that yoga is something we love and cherish and find so much healing from. To see the prevalence of white supremacy like this in something so dear to us is hard. That’s why we get mad. That’s why we call people in. Because we know there is a better way to share, honor and enjoy yoga. But this bullshit? This isn’t it my friends.”

Irresponsible Behavior

That’s why when I saw that two very influential yoga teachers were headed out on retreat this week, I almost lost my mind. The anger that percolated up through my body was a pent up potion that had been smoldering throughout the pandemic. I wanted to scream out into the ether, WHAT IS GOING ON!?!? There are level 4 (very high levels of COVID-19) CDC travel warnings for all of these countries. How on earth is it ok for you to travel there at all, much less to lead a group of other people? 

This is so problematic on so many levels. There were tons of comments on these posts, where the harm caused was being clearly explained. Comments ranged from pointing out the hospital capacity of more constrained countries to illustrating how guideline eschewing feels like major colonizer/white supremacist vibes to the fact that Black and brown people are more likely to be essential workers and are 2.5x more likely to be infected with COVID. People left incredibly thoughtful and educational comments that were largely dismissed, gaslit, or met with defensiveness.. 

My colleague, Angela Davis, who is a yoga teacher and an ICU nurse left this comment:

“I woke up at 3:30 am this morning and could not get back to sleep. I’m angry and my anger has been simmering for months. Many people in the yoga & wellness industry have been intentionally sharing medical misinformation and flouting basic public health guidelines since the beginning of this pandemic. They’ve promoted pseudoscientific cures and outlandish conspiracy theories while looking down upon people who are living in reality with an attitude of smug spiritual superiority. But those who pretend to be acting in the best interests of the community while quietly leading retreats and holding mask free classes in indoor studios are the worst. They’ve built their business on a foundation of yogic principles – ahimsa, most importantly in this case, yet they’ve spent the last ten months engaging in activities ‘under the radar’ that are causing direct harm. I’m done. It’s past time they were called out on their hypocrisy and their irresponsible behavior.”

Bypassing Champions

After leaving my two cents in the comment section, I ended up speaking directly with one teacher who has over one million social media followers. I was able to share my thoughts with her, which included the following:

“I’ve been really trying to process this week and get clear on why seeing people leading retreats during the pandemic is problematic for me. There are a few reasons. One is that it goes against very clear public health guidelines. At no point in the pandemic has it been safe to lead retreats and that has been very clear. It is not a gray area or a matter of interpretation. There is also no way to guarantee a 100% safe experience (especially at airports and on flights). It truly is a gamble and the stakes are human lives. When I see people gathering anyway, despite guidelines not to, it feels like those lives are not important. The pandemic is still escalating. At the 10 month mark, we are entering the most dangerous and deadly phase. This was avoidable. We have all been asked to make sacrifices this year. Some of us have been in strict quarantine while others have carried on as normal. I’m concerned about the mindset that it is ok to carry on as normal or make gambles that put more vulnerable people at risk.” 

My main takeaway from these interactions is that there is a clear lack of interest in accepting any accountability or making any meaningful behavior change. There goes that awesome culture of bypassing again. I will do whatever I want, the rules don’t apply to me or my need to take sunset pics on a tropical beach. Global pandemic be damned. 

Call This Crap Out

I am not alone in feeling angry, frustrated, and disappointed. I have received dozens of messages this week from other yogis sharing similar experiences. People told me they have called out studio owners/teachers for not taking proper pandemic precautions and then were either exiled, gaslit, or ignored. Many people also told me they have been equally appalled by the fact that teachers are still leading retreats right now. I have also heard SO many people express that they are tired of the yoga industry’s bullshit. We all want to be a part of something better than this. 

My response to those who expressed a desire for meaningful cultural shifts is that we need to be the ones to make that happen. Meaningful change starts when we collectively call this crap out and start to model something better. To every single person out there who is just as pissed off as I am, let me hear your voice. Let’s make a rumble and build something better. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are truly all in this together. 

4 thoughts on “Stop Leading Yoga Retreats During the Pandemic

  1. Thank you for being vocal and putting the greater good first, not just in words but in practice. I can’t wait to join you on the mat only when it’s safe again. Until then, I support you fully in all you do!

    1. Thank YOU for all that you are doing as an amazing frontline hero. Looking forward to practicing together when that is possible again. Sending you virtual hugs in the meantime! x

  2. Great post Nicole. As a health care journalist and a yoga teacher, I am one of those who has been in strict quarantine for 10 months. I miss being with people and teaching in person so very much, but not enough to risk someone else’s life or my own. Thank you for writing this!

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