Yoga Podcast Episode 44: A Dialogue on Racism with Shanna Small

Today’s guest is Shanna Small is the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Project and a teacher/student in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our subject is racism. Though not the kind of overt prejudices and discrimination that most of us think of – but a type of racism that is almost more destructive. Because it’s unconscious. It’s implicit. And it’s so deeply embedded within our institutional structures that we barely recognize it. And this includes our yoga culture – a world that is predominately white – and privileged white, at that. 

Now, as a black woman, there was a time Shanna did not want to call attention to the color of skin. You’ll hear her explain that from the time she was a little girl, she was taught that to be accepted in a white world, she must blend in, assimilate, and make others comfortable before she could show herself.

And so for many years, Shanna did just that. But not now. Not anymore. Now, Shanna wants you to see her color. Because she wants you to see HER.


It feels like there is this elitist society that you are on the fringes of and that you’re not fully, really invited into, for a lot of people. 

Blending in

In America black children are often raised in a way that you should, you should try and fit in and don’t make waves, you know – if you just try and fit in and don’t make waves, the doors will open for you and you will be given a seat at the table and that sort of stuff.

And it’s just so not true. And I don’t know why I believed that because you know the civil rights movement sort of blew that right out, they were like we can sit around and wait for people to integrate or we can just force this integration. Because it’s not going to happen. And it’s the same thing, because we can sit around and wait for a black person to get big enough in the yoga world that people think it’s ok to now start inviting them to speak and be on your panel. Or you can just start blasting the doors open yourself. 

Celebrating Color

Why wouldn’t you want to see color? Right? It’s beautiful that we are all on this planet and we all look so different. That is gorgeous, that is beautiful. Why would you want to ignore that?  Don’t ignore that. See color. There’s nothing wrong with seeing that someone is different and then from that place, that’s where we can start to honor people, honor the differences. Honor the different cultures. And not seek to erase or ignore what makes us uncomfortable, right?

We want to be seen. 

Creating Change

All big changes require us going out of our way. I mean that’s what we’re doing with yoga. That’s what we’re asking people to do. We say, this yoga is going to change your life so I’m going to need you to practice 6 days a week, I need you to do the poses in this order this way, you know because we’re promising this big change in your lifestyle, waking up at 4 am in the darn morning but in the end, you’re going to get this huge change, so it’s worth it. So we understand, if we really thing about it, that this change requires our yoga people know that. But when it comes to stuff like his – mmmm you’re reading too much into it. Whatever. Then you don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Like I didn’t want to be uncomfortable. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to be the person to speak on this at all, and I had to become uncomfortable and that’s just what is going to happen.

If we want to see change, people are going to have to get uncomfortable. 


I’ve been looking at this idea, like how people provide a way for people who don’t necessarily have the coin to attend these yoga classes – how do they make it possible for them? Are they using programs that make it obvious that there’s an Us and Them. Meaning that it’s obvious that this is a person who could not afford to be here? And your program is unintentionally pointing that out.

Like for instance, I’ve had people tell me, I don’t like bing the person who cleans the studio to get classes. And I didn’t understand it – I didn’t understand it. For a long time. I didn’t get it at all. I was like, all you have to do is wipe down a mirror and you get some free classes? Go for it! But that makes it obvious. That makes it so obvious, I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here with you with you people who can afford to come here. And I have to clean the toilets. It’s stuff like that, how are you making it so people are really included and not set apart. 

Journey Into Fearlessness

I’m going to bring this back to the Bhagavad Gita.  Everyone is in the BG and everyone is a character in the BG at some point in their life. So like I was Arjuna, I see things going on in the world but I was like, Nah, I’m going to renunciate. That was Arjuna, Ok I know I got to go to war, and I know this is going down, but I’m scared so I’m just going to renunciate. And that was like me. I see all this going down but you know what? I’m just going to prepare myself to live in a cave one day,  

Valid path, but it’s not yours. And so I had to have that moment with myself. Is that my path? Is that my path right now or am I taking this path because I”M afraid. Because I’m afraid how that will affect my yoga career.  

So like the fear of what will happen – but what will happen if I don’t. You are the one right now in the space – you’re the one. Do it. And that’s just where I had to get at. I’m enjoying this journey into fearlessness. 

Next stop on that journey for Shanna? Live group discussions on the Yoga Sutras – exclusively on ompractice

Special thanks to Zoë Ward for her amazing sketch of Shanna, featured at the top of this page. We are huge fans of Zoë’s and grateful for her talent and contribution. Follow Zoë on Instagram. She’s a hoot!


The Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast is edited and hosted by Peg Mulqueen along with Meghan Powell. We are an incredibly small but dedicated mother-daughter team – and we bring each episode to you without any third-party advertisers.

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