what is oppression holistic yoga blog

What is Oppression and Why Do I Need to Know About It? Part 1


Understanding Oppression to Understand How to Create A Better World

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

So, what is oppression? A big question. The experience of going through the restrictions of lockdown seems to have caused a collective contemplation. Due to the brutal murder of George Floyd, the group mind, has been called to focus on the subject of racism, in particular, and oppression in general, as an area that needs our attention.

As I explained in the Black Lives Matter article, it’s my firm belief that by individually and collectively addressing the problem of systemic oppression, we have a chance of creating “the more beautiful world we all know in our hearts is possible”.

In this two-part article (part 2 next week) I will explore what oppression is, why we are all complicit and what we can do about it. The ideas within this article are inspired by an amazing couple called Karl and Alima who run a workshop on this subject. Their teaching totally opened my eyes to the transformative potential of such work. If you resonate with these ideas, please do read Karl’s article here or even better, consider attending a workshop.

What is Oppression?

Oppression may be viewed as organised mistreatment. We are all subject to oppression and we are all oppressors. If you are not convinced of this then have a look at the sections below. No matter what our status in society, no matter what our income level, no matter what our accent or skin colour, gender identity or sexual orientation – we are all oppressors and we are all oppressed. However, it’s important to recognise that certain groups in society experience more frequent oppression in their daily lives; these groups are also more vulnerable to harmful oppression. Other groups experience less oppression and more privilege.

Racism and Oppression

This is why the Black Lives Matter movement needed to highlight the experience of Black people in particular. It has been proven time and time again that people with darker skin tones experience more oppression than people with lighter skin tones. This is true in most countries (even in Africa).

This is due to colonialism and the influence of the eugenics movement. Eugenics was dealt a great blow by the defeat of Hitler and dissolution of the Nazi regime. Yet racism and religious fundamentalism are on the rise once more and eugenics principles are being used by far right, nationalist leaders. As a consequence, it is critical that we self-examine and work through our own unconscious bias and prejudices.

If we gloss over the subject with an “All Lives Matter” type of attitude, we are slightly missing the point. If we don’t further our understanding of racism and oppression as a collective, we will all suffer greatly. In fact many of us are feeling this suffering already. We feel it as deep sadness, anger, confusion and a sense of powerlessness to create real and lasting positive change in the world.

Unconscious and Conscious Oppression

The organisation of mistreatment may be conscious (thought out and applied on purpose) or unconscious (not planned or recognised by the person or organisation acting oppressively). Both conscious and unconscious oppression are handed down through our ancestral lineage and through our institutions.

Unconscious oppression is much more widespread, insidious, invisible and difficult to identify and rectify than conscious oppression. It is self-organising and self-perpetuating. It will continue unless many of us work to interrupt own unconscious oppressive behaviours by making them conscious. Let’s label these oppressive behaviours, so we can get clear on what we are dealing with.

Some Less Harmful Oppressive Behaviours

✔ Needing to be “in the right”

✔ Being impatient

✔ Being distant, sulky, cold or uncommunicative

✔ Standing in judgement, shaming and blaming another person’s actions, without hearing or considering their side of the story

✔ Angry words and/or demeanour


Some More Harmful Oppressive Behaviours

✔ Believing that you are somehow, “superior” or “more deserving” than another person

✔ Consistently ignoring / looking over / rejecting

✔ Ridicule and Hatred

✔ Judging someone by their appearance or accent

Some Very Harmful Oppressive Behaviours

✔ Sexual, Physical or Verbal Abuse

✔ Slavery
✔ War
Imprisonment for minor or political crimes

Playing Our Part in the Oppressive System

We might feel that we are not responsible for the mistreatment listed in the “very harmful” section above. These more clearly damaging and wrong actions are carried out by “middle agents” on our behalf. Middle agents are politicians, police, the army or other entities such as corporations).

We grant them permission to do this by not acting to identify and stop these crimes against our fellow humans. This is why many people just don’t want to know about the reality of where our food, oil, clothes and computer batteries come from.  This sense of powerlessness and inaction enables the very harmful oppressions to continue in our name (even although we could not handle the guilt of committing these atrocities ourselves).

The ticks next to some of the behaviours represent me putting my hand up to having acted out these behaviours myself. Some of the ticks represent behaviours that have been carried out on my behalf, by other people or organisations, the “middle agents”.

So these ticks represent when I get furious about certain politicians; when I tune out the suffering of others; when I order stuff from Amazon; when I purchase certain items (petrol, plastic, unfairly traded foods, computer electronics).

As Within – So Without

The yogic view of the world is that our individual consciousness is a microcosm of the larger consciousness of the whole universe itself. Thus by working to raising our own consciousness, we are raising consciousness of all that is. Raising consciousness sounds like a new age practice for hippies. Yet it is actually a very simply, practical and helpful process. The first stage is to recognise that we are not our thoughts, our body, or our feelings.

We are the “witness consciousness” that observes all these states. Once we rest in this calm, observer state, we may get a glimpse or a sense of connection with all that is. Practicing regularly we become progressively free of the mental fluctuations that plague the mind. In this way, we become less influenced by the ego, which spends it time wanting, worrying, comparing and judging.

The process of raising our consciousness enables us to feel oneness rather than separation. Some people can enter this state of consciousness by immersion in nature; deep focus in movement; or going through a life changing event. However, regular practice is generally needed to keep connected. When the state of oneness is experienced continually, this is called enlightenment. 


Beware of the Spiritual Bypass

This is not all the work we need to do, however! There is more to this than hanging out in a calming, blissful meditative state. We cannot bypass the work of identifying and examining and the habits, beliefs and ideas that we absorbed as young children. Many of the ideas that knock around in our head came from our parents (and the many generations before them). Generally speaking, this is where the unconscious oppressive behaviour stems from.

As we meditate and contemplate, we give space for these ideas to be realised (some of the are under the radar of our consciousness and only pop up when we slow down our thinking). Once we identify such thoughts, we can question whether or not we agree with this stuff that circles around in our mind; we can choose to reject these beliefs and ideas if they do not serve us well.

Often the best way of reflecting on these ideas is to talk through them in a safe setting where there is no judgement. There are many examples of yogis who did not do this work and played out their oppressive and abusive behaviours in the world. For more on this see my article about Abuse Scandals in Yoga.


Ahimsa – Non-Harming and Nonviolence

Yoga is not a religion or an exercise regime. Yoga offers a collection of practices for living a holistically healthy life. There are eight limbs to the overall practice of yoga, the first two of which are a set of ethical principles called the Yamas and the Niyamas. The first Yama is Ahimsa, or non-harming. It is said to be the most important principle, it is also one of the hardest to truly follow in this world! Non-harming is identical to the practice of nonviolence and nonviolent communication. Nonviolent communication is a practice derived from the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, by Marshall Rosenberg. He realised he had to work out a way of dismantling his own oppressive behaviours so that he could be effective in his work as a high school teacher. Now NVC is taught in many US schools and is used widely by counsellors as well. You’ll find a whole course of educational videos by Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communication here if you’d like to learn more about this.

I found nonviolent communication very hard to do (both my parents experienced a lot of oppression in their childhood). There is deeper work to do to interrupt our oppressive tendencies. We’ll look at this next week when we delve into how we are all connected and how we are so easily divided.


In Part 2 Next Week: Understanding Oppressing – Exploring Unity and Diversity


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

join holistic yoga circle

Join my newsletter at www.holisticyoga.subtack.com for a weekly email of inspiring yoga wisdom, plus info on the latest classes, courses and retreats (online and in-person)