Yoga and Social Justice | Ava Riby-Williams

Social Justice

In this article, Ava Riby-Williams explores social justice and how Stephen Lawrence Day on 22 April gives us the opportunity to explore what our yoga practice is for.

“The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free” -Maya Angelou

What’s happening on 22nd April?

28 years ago today, 18 year old Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a gang of white men in a racist attack at a South London bus stop. The approach that the Metropolitan Police took in the investigation of Stephen’s death over the following 7 years revealed that they acted in a way that was institutionally racist. Since then, the aftermath of Stephen’s death has created ripples of social change which still move through our society today. Similar to the recent life and death of George Floyd, Stephen’s life had a purpose that he was likely unaware of: to spark awakening within us all. In this way, Stephen has lived on.

I was a baby when Stephen was killed, but I remember later conversations around the investigation of his death in my household. Even as a kid I picked up the discomfort and the feeling held amongst my Black family: this could happen to any of us.

What does this have to do with Yoga?

Breathe. Let out a sigh. I know this might seem like a bit of a leap in topic, but hang with me for a sec. 

“Yoga” is a Sanskrit word. The root of the word is “Yuj”, which means “to yoke” or “to join”. It is a practise of finding union; with oneself, and with all of life. Yoga is the means of perceiving reality: a tool that we can use to help us see more clearly and a quality to move through life with.

You might practise Yoga by moving through an asana practise or meditation on your mat and allowing yourself to be fully present to how your body is feeling and all of the elements of your experience as you practise. But the way I see it, you’d also be practising Yoga by taking time to be in nature, or by connecting truthfully with your family or community. Any way of Being that promotes truth, awareness and honours the sacredness of life could be said to be yogic. In this podcast Somatic Coach, writer and teacher Kelsey Blackwell says- Social Justice work is all about wholeness. It’s healing. It’s equity. Her definition of Social Justice feels so similar to my understanding of Yoga.

We are all connected

In practising Yoga, we are given the opportunity to recognise all of life as part of us. We drink the same water that runs down through the streams, out into the ocean and rains back down on us again. It is the same for the air we breathe, the food we consume and the ideas that we all collectively share. Nothing exists in absolute separation. If you track it back far enough, everything comes from the same source. Every aspect that appears as individual is actually part of one great big whole that encompasses all of us. This is the understanding of non-dualism. Therefore, any harm that we cause is a loss for all life.

Oceans swimming with plastic are a loss for all life. The deaths of Stephen Lawrence, George Floyd, Breonna Talyor and Sarah Everard are a loss for all life. Discrimination across any lines of difference between us is a loss for all life, whether that discrimination ends in hate crime or stays quietly nestled in our unexamined, unconscious biases.

Feeling overwhelmed?

The fact that we are all a part of the same whole is not to say that you need live in a constant state of overwhelm at all of the pain that is caused within this whole; nor is it to say that you should to be constantly glued to the news in order to stay “in the know”.  You don’t have to rush out right now to save the whole world. In fact, if you did try to take on all of the problems of the world and “fix” them solo, you’d probably burn out pretty quickly and soon become hopeless. Also, if you rush to help others whilst holding a lot of unprocessed feelings about where you stand in the situation, you might end up causing more harm. Or you might want to help others because you unconsciously see them as “less than”. 

The good news here is that your approach to being in the world in a way that promotes equity and wholeness can start simply. You can start with yourself and the way you treat yourself. As someone who is at least interested in healing practises (because you’ve read this far), you are hopefully better placed than many to take care of putting this truth into action.

What can I do for myself?
  1. Inhale. Exhale on a sigh.
  2. See if you can move into your yoga/asana/meditation practise from a place of deep love and openness to self reflection. No matter what size, shape, colour or gender it is…no matter what abilities it has…no matter how bendy it is…your body is a sacred and unique creation. All life is precious and deserves to be treated as such.
  1. The world inside of us is a reflection of the world outside, and vice versa. When we really take the time to “be in our bodies”, difficult things can come up. Especially if we’ve been avoiding challenging emotions within us for some time. If you are experiencing heartbreak for any personal or collective reason right now, you are not alone. Rage, grief, confusion, fear and depression are all valid responses to facing aspects of our reality. Still, a good place to start in addressing this reality is to start with yourself. Listen to the messages that your body is giving you in this very moment. What’s bothering you and what do you need? Pull more out of your unconscious. Journal, dance, cry or speak to a therapist to help yourself process some of this stuff.

 “The function of freedom is to free someone else”  –Toni Morrison

  1. Become present to what truly matters to you. There are so many paths to take in life which can all lead to truth and awakening. No one path is better than the next. When you can hold more love for yourself, it will naturally spill out to others. Love naturally yearns to be shared. When you do feel to engage with others in acts of service, or in a social justice movement, do so in a way that feels right to you. The best service you can give to the world is to orient yourself towards what you love.
What can I do to mark this day?

To commemorate the death of Stephen Lawrence, explore the work of the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation. Here you can gain inspiration on different ways to practise your yoga or donate to the foundation. 

Ways you could get involved include:

  • make a simple act of kindness to help others in your community
  • choose an artform and express what living your best life looks life for you
  • reflect on what Stephen’s story means to you in your own life and share your reflections at #BecauseOfStephen

You can also visit and donate to support the work of Blueprint for all; formerly known as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. 

>>Practice this Empowered Yoga Flow from Ava, to explore social justice in action<<


About Ava Riby-Williams:

Ava Riby-Williams is a creative and intuitive teacher, facilitator and artist who sparks curiosity and play. Her eclectic teaching focuses on finding presence in the moment, empowering students to become their own inner teachers and recognising ourselves as diverse divinity, in unity.


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