Interview with Irene Lo, Anti-Racism Yoga Facilitator and Intuitive Tarot Reader17 min read

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Irene is a Mystic and Movement Guide for women of colour and allies.   Currently based on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish People including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, she is a cisgender Taiwanese Canadian woman with Han/Hakka ancestry.  Ricepaper Magazine interviewed Irene as part of its Asian Canadian Creatives series.

Ricepaper: In your yoga classes, you try to create a trauma-informed container to centre the experiences of BI&PoC students.   Can you share with us more about this approach?   

Holding a trauma-informed space is about centering the needs of the students. I like what Zahabiyah A. Yamasaki says about trauma-informed yoga and how the goal is “to support the healing and growth of survivors and, at all costs, to avoid retraumatization.”

This approach is not top-down or hierarchical, although there is still a structure. I, as a teacher, am not focused on enforcing my will over the needs of the students. It’s a different dynamic of power where I share power with my students so that they are empowered to make the choices that they need to for their bodies. 

This looks like letting my students know clearly and throughout the class that they do not have to listen to all of my cues. That they have the permission to do something different, to rest, or leave the class. This is about divesting from the idea that we have to follow everything that a teacher says at the expense of our own knowledge. One of my trauma-informed tarot teachers says I don’t have to be wrong for you to be right and this applies here too. We can treat a teacher with respect, and also know that we are the stewards of our learning. 

Sometimes, I feel like we give our power away to teachers. I get it. Instead of tuning in to your body, it can be easier to ask the teacher, what am I supposed to feel here? It takes time to build that relationship with your body, to listen in the stillness. It can be comforting to know that someone else can tell us what is the right thing to do, and in that way, we don’t have to stand behind the strength of our own convictions. We can stay safe as a student, passively taking in information. To grow, however, we need to listen to the teacher within. 

A trauma-informed space is important for BI&PoC folks because many of us carry ancestral trauma that has literally changed our DNA, where we carry memories of pain passed down through our lineage. Many of us have histories of colonization, immigration, war, famine, and poverty and when we enter a yoga space in the west, it can be a traumatic experience. Yoga in the west has become so whitewashed that white people are considered the experts of a wisdom tradition that is not theirs, that comes from India. 

A trauma-informed approach is connected to the larger conversation around decolonizing yoga. By centring the needs of students and specifically that of BI&PoC students, this looks like not knowing that a yoga class is not a fitness class and that in terms of class dynamics, there is no catering to or soothing of white fragility. I centre the needs of BI&PoC students by focusing on their experiences. In tandem, I make a conscious effort not to allow whiteness to dominate or suck up the energy of a space that I hold. 

I provide yoga experiences for women of color and non-binary kinfolk and right now I’m currently in a 4-week yoga program called Yoga for Radical Rest: AAPI Joy with 22 wonderful souls. So much feedback has been on how this space is necessary, a space just for us. I also provide yoga for allies, and the white folks that are doing the inner work and supporting me on Patreon have all expressed a desire to decolonize yoga, alongside personal wellness intentions.

Yoga is a challenging space to be in, to connect to the body and to still the mind, and a trauma-informed approach invites the teacher to meet the students where they are at.

Ricepaper: You’ve given yoga classes on spiritual capitalism.  You’ve said that there is so much cultural appropriation that occurs in yoga we don’t even recognize it for what it is.⁠   Can you elaborate?

We are familiar with one face of spiritual capitalism and in the context of yoga, it is the White girl’s inexpensive “yoga clothes” uniform, that of the form-fitting leggings and crop top. However, what I am interested in and have done a few workshops on is the cultural appropriation of the wisdom of yoga and spiritual traditions.

Spiritual capitalism is a term that I thought I came up with before doing more reading on this topic and discovered an academic had coined the term. In my initial state of inspiration, I created a series of Instagram posts for my community to reflect on how spiritual capitalism shows up in practice.

So much of what we see on Instagram is the look of spiritual practice, but performativity also comes through in what we value when it comes to knowledge.

A big part of my spiritual practice is ethics and self-inquiry. In our quest for knowledge, are we falling into capitalist values of consumption and production? It’s not uncommon for students of spirituality to want to “conquer” and “know everything.” This comes from a genuine source of curiosity but it can be insidious and bring capitalist values into spirituality, that which is ultimately separate from the marketplace. 

We can’t know everything about yoga. Not in one lifetime. Not in many lifetimes. Yet teachers will pretend like they do in how they market themselves to students. They will learn a little about something and immediately try to sell it or they will learn one thing from one tradition and mishmash it with another tradition. This can happen if you sit in the seat of teacher, a student, or a spiritual dilettante, and this isn’t to say that you can’t do this, but that most of the time, when I see people that are, they are participating in toxic New Age spirituality where they think they can cherry-pick whatever they want and it’s all gravy because of their good intentions. It’s really cultural colonialism, by any other name.

Spiritual capitalism is about how capitalism shows up in your spiritual practice, and I am interested in exploring how we consume knowledge. Why do you want to conquer/know everything? There is the implied assumption that you can, and that it is a good thing to do so. But why? 

A common question students often ask is, what book do you recommend? I am a bookworm and have 5 books on the go at any given time, so I love this question, but it also brings up interesting reflections on how the value we place on knowledge, transmitted via print or orally via a teacher. 

So this is also the piece about how knowing something rationally isn’t the same as embodying it. And this isn’t about gatekeeping but being able to critically think for ourselves. 

Spiritual capitalism can make us hard on ourselves for not getting it right away. When we are aware of it, we can then be more gentle on our journey. Not get hung up on being intellectually right but living in alignment with the values that our practice teaches us so that we can show up for ourselves and for others. 

I also want to mention that the commodification of wisdom also looks like falling for an Orientalist fantasy of eastern spirituality. Some white people don’t like to hear it but Eat, Pray, Love is as problematic as goat yoga. At least for me. Because it comes down to your intent versus impact. It’s hard for some people to understand that these stereotypes are dehumanizing because they are meant to be “complementary”, but the truth is, stereotypes prevent you from engaging with the person beyond a colonized worldview. 

Irene Lo

Ricepaper: Your workshops provide a decolonized perspective on how yoga practitioners living in modern society can reclaim yoga practice with integrity.  Could you let us know what it’s about?   

There is a level of entitlement in yogic practitioners in the west that is unbecoming. There is a certain ownership of yoga in the west that needs to be deeply questioned. I think everyone in the yoga space has bumped up against a white woman who thinks she knows more about yoga than you do. As a younger teacher, I bumped up against that judgment many times.

We practice yoga but we live a householder’s life. We need to pay bills. At the same time, we don’t have to buy into capitalist ideas of the world in how we sell ourselves, market our offerings, and facilitate experiences for our students.

Reclaiming yoga with integrity is recognizing there is no “authentic” yoga but that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. This is a spiritual tradition that can be traced five thousand years back. It is vast and rich. It should be respected. Think of something that you hold sacred. It doesn’t have to be a religion. It could even be a hobby that you know a lot about. Doesn’t it offend you, doesn’t it hurt when someone doesn’t understand your interest and then purposely tries to profit from it? This is what happens to yoga when it is commodified and sold back to us as a lifestyle to consume.

How I reclaim yoga with integrity looks like teaching what I know. I don’t pretend to teach what I don’t. I am transparent about who I learn from and what I have learned. It goes without saying that I amplify and support the work of South Asian and BI&PoC voices in the yoga community. 

As a teacher, I am also a student. I am aware that what I learn may change, and I continue to educate myself. I know trauma-informed and anti-racist education is essential to my yoga study. I learn about the colonial and political history of yoga so that I remain critical and do my part to reduce commodification, cultural appropriation, and ancestral trauma that is inherited as the yoga that is practiced in the west. Some teachers say that they don’t have time to practice yoga, and this is a real statement, but I also honestly feel that you should not teach what you do not practice. I teach yoga asana because it makes me feel at home in my body and in this world. 

Ultimately, this is about taking your yoga off the mat. It is about divesting from the colonized worldview and of not agreeing to go along with the values of white supremacy culture. 

Ricepaper: Can you tell us more about why yin and yang are important for our health?   What is yin yoga?  

Yin and yang are Daoist concepts of energy where everything and all things can be divided into aspects of yin and yang. They are the polar energies that exist in everything. Things are relative to each other, based on the situation. We don’t want to have all yin or all yang – we want there to be a balance between the two while acknowledging that balance changes. This is relevant for our health because our society is all yang – go, go, go. We are out of balance with rest and yin energy. 

Yin yoga is a style of yoga asana that focuses on passively stretching our fascia for longer periods of time. As opposed to vinyasa or hatha yoga, yin yoga holds poses for 3 to 5 minutes at a time. Some teachers will hold up to 7 minutes on a side! You can imagine that yin yoga can be quite activating, so it’s not a restorative style of yoga, although it may seem relaxing. Again, there is this idea of relativity. Yin yoga is “yin-like” compared to vinyasa yoga but not so for a restorative yoga class where the purpose is complete relaxation. 

Our connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, joints) appreciates passive stretching. It helps our fascia tissue to build flexibility and range of motion. Sometimes we think it’s our muscles that are stiff and that prevent our range of motion, but it may be that our fascia, which acts like a sausage casing holding everything, is shortened, constricted, or tightened. Our connective tissue doesn’t stretch a lot because fascia is stiff fibres that enjoy passive stretching. The connective tissue is considered yin-like as opposed to the yang-like muscles. Yin energy brings to mind ideas of receptivity, coldness, darkness – the void. Yang is light, full of activity, and warmth. You can see where the name of this style of yoga comes from, and the merging of Eastern maps of the body with Western maps of the body that are thoughtful.   

People enjoy vigorous styles of yoga because it keeps them moving but yin yoga is a great style of yoga to incorporate into your regular yoga routine for numerous reasons. If you want to be physically stronger, this is one way to get stronger. If you want to be mentally stronger, holding a pose for a few minutes requires mental endurance too. Yin yoga is a channel for you to go inwards and come into a meditative state. 

Ricepaper:  You’ve suggested that traditional yoga sessions ending with saying namaste is an example of commodifying spirituality, a way for us in the west to feel spiritual without actually being spiritual.  Can you share more about your thoughts?    

Thank you for this question. The namaste debate is the gateway for most people in decolonizing their yoga practice. For those that are unaware, the argument has been made by some South Asian yoga advocates that you should not end your class with namaste because it is a prime example of how yoga is taken out of context in the west for the purpose of cultural appropriation. You can do more research to read up on it but that is the main gist. 

It’s unfortunate that students have been conditioned to believe that this is how you end a yoga class. I will have students come up after class to comment on the fact that I don’t say namaste to end class. Because yoga has been commodified into a marketable good, there is a formula to yoga classes that can be comforting but it also leads to this belief that a yoga class looks a certain way.

Personally, I haven’t felt connected to the word, and I’m sure it has a lot to do with being in yoga spaces dominated by white people whenever I’ve encountered the use of namaste. I’ve experimented with saying it a few times to end the classes that I teach, but I have my own ways of ending class that are authentic for me in offering reverence for the practice. 

And this is what we are tapping into when we say “namaste.” A sense of gratitude for the practice. But the thing is, we don’t have to use that word. There are other beautiful lines to offer for students.  In most of my classes, I will end with an invitation for students to thank Mother India for providing us with the practice. This is meaningful for me to ensure the space I hold consciously honours where yoga comes from. Due to how commodified the practice has become, some people aren’t even aware that yoga is rooted in a wisdom tradition or that it even comes from India. 

However, I do think people can get stuck on this issue as the end-all, be-all. Or that there is only one right answer. For me, this is just the beginning of reclaiming yoga. Although some South Asian educators are vocal and passionate about this issue, I’ve also practiced with South Asian teachers who I respect that also end their class with “namaste”. I share this because there is nuance here, which is important to acknowledge. 

Doing this work is not about being superior to others. Hopefully, we are doing this work to understand how we can come into the right relationship with our spiritual practice. And in this way, we can live with kind strength and peace of mind in how we treat ourselves and those we are in community with.

Irene Lo

Ricepaper: You identify as a mystic and offer trauma-informed and intuitive tarot readings.  What is it and what can we learn about our past and future through tarot cards?   What’s the history behind it? 

Tarot is the language of symbolism, the language of intuition. We know that these cards feel and are mystical because they do have psychological and philosophical systems embedded in them due to the social context they were created in, a highly creative atmosphere with its blending of secular and spiritual ideas in Renaissance Italy. While tarot may have started off as a card game (with playing cards invented in China and India and making their way to Italy along sea routes from Mamluk Egypt), tarot is now firmly established as a part of the Western Occult tradition. 

There is so much misinformation about tarot’s origins that I have had to decolonize my tarot practice. I’ve led workshops and lectures on this topic. It is not a spiritual text from Egypt spread by the Romani people in Europe. There is no link to Hermeticism, and there is no secret code associated with Kabbalah and the Hebrew alphabet. And I mean there was none of this when it first originated. Most of these orientalist claims you can trace back to French occultists who were hypothesizing hundreds of years after tarot first appeared in Italy. Hypothesizing is based on flimsy evidence that has been disproven by tarot historians today. That being said, there have been rich associations with tarot due to their work and how later occultists have added on to it. I am thinking particularly of the astrological and the elemental associations that we have with tarot which is likely a later addition. 

Tarot is considered divination and in popular understanding, tarot can be scary because it has a reputation for predicting our future. And receiving cards with the word Death or nine swords sticking out of someone’s back don’t exactly seem like the most welcoming message! However, most tarot readers, or at least the tarot community that I am in, believe that we can learn more from tarot, not just cartomancy or divination through the use of cards. 

Reading the cards for clients is a sacred experience. This experience is for those of us who know there are messages that we can receive and information that we can use that do not rely on the rationale. Tarot shows us that the irrational and the illogical do not mean it is impossible, or wrong. What we cannot explain with our mind is not something to scoff at, ridicule, or fear. 

For me, I have received much healing from the tarot cards in how I have felt seen through the cards. Some people don’t like it when the cards read them to filth but I feel reaffirmed when I receive cards that show me what I needed to hear. This is the medicine – it doesn’t always taste good, but it’s what’s needed to heal. There is also this trust that I have with my intuition that I didn’t use to have. Tarot anchors me in this present moment, showing me what could happen, with the reassuring knowledge that the future always changes. The practice of reading myself is a deeply meditative practice. The cards reveal what I already know. 

Irene is hosting a community event at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden on Tuesday, May 10.    Visit Irene Patreon site if you’re interested in learning more about and supporting her work  For those people who join her Patreon at the Moon Daughter tier for the month of May, they will receive a free 60-minute tarot reading with me via Zoom.

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