by Chanelle John
When I saw the article, “Why Your Yoga Class is So White”, in the Atlantic last month, I practically jumped for joy. I couldn’t help but think,”Yes! Finally!” I have dedicated a significant amount of my intellectual energy studying the intersections of race, class, and culture. As an avid yogi for the past 6 years, my beloved yoga practice did not escape my racial critique. Seeing an article about diversity and yoga in a mainstream publication like the Atlantic was a huge step in bringing these difficult issues to light.
While I am excited that this dialogue is happening, there needs to be more nuance in these discussions. Some of the most trite reasons for the lack of diversity in yoga still ring true. For example…
Yoga can be expensive as hell. $15 for a class, $90 for fancy yoga pants, and yoga mats can cost anywhere from $20 to $100. Is this costly gear necessary to practice yoga? No. But let’s not pretend the stigma of not having the “right” (re: popular and pricey) yoga gear isn’t a potential deterrent to people of color (POC).
Yoga studios are typically concentrated in areas of wealth. Wealthy neighborhoods are not accessible, convenient, or comfortable for many POC to be in. Now that there are yoga studios popping up on seemingly every corner there is a lot of room for growth in the area of diversity. But this growth will not occur without hard conversations and hard work.
Other “reasons” are problematic myths that need to be debunked. In the article Robin Rollan, the founder of the popular tumblr Black Yogis says the following: “When people talk about money as a deterrent [for black people to do yoga], I’m like, yes and no,” Rollan said. “People find money to buy thousand-dollar bags and shoes, and weaves, those cost hundreds of dollars to upkeep. But African Americans don’t have a great track record when it comes to preventative health. Wellness is not really valued.” I love the blog Black Yogis and I have nothing but respect for everyone out here trying to engage in this discussion. At the same time, I think the idea that black people as a community don’t care about or prioritize wellness plays into some racially problematic logic. We cannot take conversations about black wellness out of their social context. The Boston Public Health Commission’s Center for Health Equity and Social Justice breaks it down like this:
“Social factors such as housing, education, income and employment greatly influence the health and quality of life in neighborhoods and communities. These social factors, generally referred to as the social determinants of health, determine whether or not individuals have parks and playgrounds to exercise, supermarkets to buy fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, job opportunities to support their families, and other resources that allow them to be healthy. While it is definitely important for us to encourage people to make healthy choices, we must remember that people can only make healthy choices if they have healthy options.”
Plus, the “black people spend too much money on weave and expensive bags” argument can easily fall into shaming, judgmental, victim-blaming territory. The solution to yoga’s diversity crisis isn’t for POC to change their lifestyles and spending habits to include yoga. It’s the responsibility of the yoga establishment to break down the barriers that keep yoga out of reach for so many populations.
And what can they do to break down those barriers? This must be an ongoing discussion to effectively make change. After witnessing and discussing these issues, here are three strategies yoga instructors and studio owners can use to bridge the racial and class divide in the yoga community.
1. Acknowledge the problem, then ask the hard questions. For people working on these issues, it often feels like discussions about diversity and yoga don’t make it beyond the communities most excluded by it. It is the responsibility of the leaders in the yoga community to think about ways to make movement for wellness inclusive for all. And a crucial part of this mission is discussing diversity and accessibility. I recently read this quote in an article on the Yoga Journal Blog: “At the lululemon/Yoga Journal Practice of Leadership conference earlier this summer, passionate discussion revolved around the representation of the ‘yoga body’ in popular culture. And the conclusion was unanimous: Marketing imagery must be more multi-dimensional and inclusive—celebrating yogis of all ages, colors, and sizes.” This concept needs to be applied not just to marketing imagery, but to the yoga studio itself. It’s important that these conversations are beginning to occur, but we need to take them a step further. Instructors and studio owners should ask themselves: Is my student base homogenous? Does it reflect the different racial, ethnic, class, gender, and sexual identities that exist? Do the instructors that I hire reflect those identities as well? What can I do to make students of these different backgrounds more comfortable in my space? Which brings me to my next suggestion:
2. Create initiatives to support diverse populations. It often seems that many yoga studios expect minority and lower class students, who have less access to yoga and wellness information, to seek them out. But it is the studios that must work to reach these populations. Studios should not assume that they are a safe space for all. Many people of color and/or working class people I know assume the exact opposite–that yoga studios will inevitably be inhospitable to them. Often times this assumption comes from experience, but the way yoga is promoted can be so alienating to some people that they won’t even set foot in a studio. That is the perception that mainstream yoga must combat.
Outreach can help shift this perception. I know many studios that offer discounted community classes, and that’s a great step. But wouldn’t it be something if studios marketed those classes to populations who really need that discounted rate? Those may not be the same students who would find your studio by the usual methods. Maybe those students would benefit by attending a free talk about what yoga is before they even feel comfortable taking a class. Or maybe they would benefit by having classes that speak directly to their identities. Kula Annex in Toronto has an amazing initiative to make their studio inclusive to all, including adding classes like Brown Girls Yoga and Queer Yoga to their schedule. In their insightful FAQ section, they address the need for those classes: “We noticed that our student base wasn’t reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood/city we are situated in. The addition of these classes is an attempt to invite more people to practice as part of our intention to make the practice more accessible to more people (especially people who may already experience systemic barriers to studio practice).” Having studio owners and instructors who are conscientious and proactive about these issues is an important step.
3. Train and hire more yoga teachers of color. Studios could make a tremendous impact if they made an effort to train instructors from different backgrounds. Despite the stunning array of options one has for a yoga teacher training, these programs are still certifying teachers that promote yoga’s status quo. To effectively combat this image issue, and to teach to diverse communities in a culturally sensitive way, there will need to be more yoga instructors of color. All students deserve the feeling of connection and support that comes from relating to their yoga teacher. Sadly, that is not the experience many people have when attending public classes. As a yoga practitioner for over 6 years, I have yet to attend a single class taught by an instructor who looks like me. That fact motivated me to take my teacher training this year. (Being the sole person of color in my teacher training group was a challenging experience of it’s own, but that’s an article for another day.) By training and hiring teachers from different backgrounds, those teachers are given vital skills to take yoga’s healing benefits back to their communities.
Yoga has often been translated to mean union, or oneness. To me, that definition rings hollow if we interpret it solely as the union of body and mind. If we truly want to live yoga, we must commit to uniting our communities across difference. What do you think about diversity in yoga? If you’re a POC or otherwise “unconventional” yogi, what have your experiences been like at studios where you live?