Finding Path to Inclusion Through Exclusion at an Oakland Meditation Center

A beginners’ mindfulness and meditation class at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif., which has created specific strategies to ensure diversity in its classes.

OAKLAND, Calif. — If you are a white American who used the Internet between 2008 and 2010, you probably remember “Stuff White People Like,” a satirical but painfully accurate blog about the clichés of the Caucasian, NPR-listening set. Among the things white people liked, according to the blog: “picking their own fruit,” “hummus,” and “appearing to enjoy classical music.” And then, at No. 15: “yoga.”

As practitioners of Asian spirituality are the first to admit, the stereotype is more than a laughing matter — it contains a painful amount of truth. In the 1970s, white (and often Jewish) teachers helped popularize Asian practices like yoga, Buddhist meditation and, later, a Western permutation that came to be called “mindfulness.” The popularity of these practices has boomed through retreats, meditation centers and books by teachers like Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn. But the audience has remained largely white, and middle class and above, the Volvo-and-vino set.

Emily Sigalow, a sociologist who studies American Buddhism, said that it can be a challenge to attract minorities to traditions that are often seen in the United States as therapeutic and self-help-y.

“The Jewish community, for example, is particularly accepting of various forms of self-help, counseling and therapy,” Dr. Sigalow said, “while the African-American community has historically viewed those things less favorably.”

Reaching minorities has thus become a goal, even an obsession, among leaders of many yoga studios and Buddhist sanghas, or communities. Seeking diverse crowds, the leaders hold special sessions for minorities, trying to draw them in, usually without much success.

But the East Bay Meditation Center, a nonprofit center for the practice of Asian wisdom traditions, including yoga, Buddhist meditation, and qi gong, seems to be an exception. Since the center opened in 2007 in a ungentrified part of downtown Oakland, it has come close to matching, in racial makeup, the diversity of its metropolitan area. Almost 50 percent of the center’s mailing list of 8,000 identify themselves as “people of color,” and about 40 percent as gay, lesbian or transgender.

The diversity has been the result of conscious, targeted outreach as well as intentional strategies at the center. Specific classes at the center bar white or straight people — in order to be inclusive of some, they exclude others. Those who run the center say that the practice ultimately makes the center community more diverse.

Noliwe Alexander, who teaches at the center, said the center was there to serve neighborhood residents, not necessarily to make more Buddhists. “The purpose is to bring the community in — inner-city urban meditation,” she said. “Not everyone is going to call themselves a Buddhist.”

Brenda Salgado, the director of the center, said that as part of its diversity efforts, the center has four different sitting groups that meet weekly.

“An L.G.B.T.Q.I. sitting group, one for people of color, a Friday open sit, open to everyone — those can fluctuate between 50 or 100, Ms. Salgado said. “We also have the Every Body Every Mind group, for people with disabilities and chronic illness.”

For all but the “open sits,” the expectation is that only people who identify with the target group will attend. (I learned as much when my request to attend People of Color Yoga was turned down.) And for open sits, organizers use a Web application to ensure that white people do not crowd out others. When the spots allotted for white people fill up, registration is capped to save spots for others.

A board member, Kimi Mojica, a Filipina-American who has meditated at the various sessions, said that the smaller, restricted groups can be entry points for the community. “I think it’s really good for people who have never been to a meditation center to walk into a space where they aren’t feeling anxiety about how they’re supposed to be, or what’s the right way,” Ms. Mojica said. The hope, she said, is that “once you feel secure and say, ‘This is where I want to be,’ you can branch out.”

Larry Yang, a gay Chinese-American and a founder of the center, was trained primarily in the vipassana, or insight, Buddhist tradition. He said that many centers preach anti-racism but fail to welcome people from outside the majority culture. For example, a truly inclusive center, he said, has teachers attuned to issues that matter to racial minorities. He mentioned the feelings that would arise if white teachers failed to mention or teach about the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., or the riots in Ferguson, Mo.

“It’s not as if they’re saying something harmful or negative in the moment,” Mr. Yang said, about other centers. “It’s that the absence of the inclusion is harmful.”

Ms. Salgado said that meaningful outreach goes beyond racial diversity. Like many centers, East Bay Meditation Center asks people not to wear perfumes or strong soaps, because some members have chemical sensitivities to strong scents. This prohibition affects Ms. Salgado, who outside the center is a part-time curandera, a Central American medicine woman, who works with medicinal plants and ceremony to provide healing. She needs to make sure that she doesn’t bring such scents with her to the center.

“Because so many sangha members have chemical sensitivity, this is intentionally a scent-free space, so it is part of my practice to come in here clean,” Ms. Salgado said. “This is one of the few safe spaces in their life. If this space was not scent-free, they could not be part of this community, and their flowerings, their gifts could not be offered.”

The ban on fragrances has occasionally created tensions within the sangha, Ms. Salgado and Mr. Yang said. Some nonwhite members have argued that wearing certain scents, like those in hair products, is part of their cultural heritage, which is being denied in order to pacify those who say they have chemical sensitivities. Ultimately, however, the center decided to keep the policy in place.

Ms. Alexander said that some who attend her sittings stay only for the meditation, then leave before her dharma talk, or lesson. And that’s fine by her.

“They are really there for this moment,” Ms. Alexander said. “To find their way out of the chaos and what’s hectic in their lives. They have found a place to call home, and they can come and actually find some peace — stillness — in a very, very intense world.”

Gina Sharpe, the guiding teacher of the New York Insight Meditation Center, which has also had success building a racially integrated sangha, has worked closely with Mr. Yang over the years. She said that the focus on racial diversity at centers like the one in East Bay is not a matter of addressing liberal guilt or following trends. It is central to their spiritual path.

“The connection between dharma work and undoing racism work is the first noble truth — that there is dukkha, suffering. And is there any suffering in our modern culture worse than racism? And if you can’t go there, your dharma work is incomplete.”

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