While inclusivity, diversity and acceptance are words often used in the yoga community, the reality is that many studio spaces aren’t accessible to everyone. Kula Annex, a yoga studio in Toronto, has confronted this imbalance by creating positive space initiatives and an Anti-Oppression Committee to address an undercurrent of racism and homophobia some people felt in the space.
Recognizing that an accessible yoga space is more than pay-what-you can pricing, the studio posted an FAQ on their website to introduce the ideas of oppression and privilege. The studio has also added Brown Girl Yoga and Queer Yoga classes to the schedule.
Studio Director Christi-an Slomka answered a few questions to further illuminate the intention behind the initiative.
What were the circumstances/events that lead the Kula Yoga community to examine privilege and oppression?
Like any community, the yoga world is not immune to systems of oppression, including racism, homophobia and transphobia. There were instances of oppression at Kula Annex that when named were met with defensiveness and an unwillingness to sit with the experience of the person naming what was happening.
A common response when being called out on a phobia or “ism” was to deflect the possibility that they could have said or done something hurtful or oppressive and instead express that they are a “good person.” It is exactly in this place of attachment to the idea of being a good person that oppression can go unchecked within ourselves and within a yoga community. Over and over the defense of being a “good person” would hijack an important opportunity to challenge and/or get to know the places of fear and hate that have been culturally programmed in our bodies.
It became troubling to listen to people speak of their enthusiasm to sit in the discomfort of Utkatasana (chair pose) and how that extends off or beyond their mat and to then not see that same willingness when privilege and/or oppression was brought into conversation. It became clear that some of us had the privilege to selectively choose the discomfort we wanted to sit in while others had little choice as they looked around a room that they barely saw themselves reflected in. And then, there are all the people who just have never been in the room to begin with.
We decided to sit with uncomfortable questions like: Why does the community consist mostly of white middle-class females? Why are so many of the dominant voices in our community mostly white males? Why doesn’t Kula Annex, or our city’s studios reflect the diversity of its neighborhoods?
Our positive space initiatives are an invitation for people to see that even in a yoga studio filled with the best intentions and a deep knowing/understanding of our interconnection, that the same forms of privilege and oppression that are deeply embedded in the world and often invisible (to the people least affected by them) are operating within the yoga community (including but not limited to microaggressions and systematic barriers to employment, education, and healing). This is Kula Annex’s attempt to open up our studio doors to make it safer and more accessible to those who want to practice.
Together as a community we are learning. Sitting with these questions is painful, complex, and requires constant attention. It calls us to expand our practice into the areas that we have neglected or that may be invisible to us. Ultimately, it is waking us up to issues and areas which we have long ignored, either individually or in our collective culture. We are lucky to have a practice that provides the necessary tools to cultivate compassion, love, integrity and accountability. With these tools we believe it is possible to make this practice and our studio more accessible to more people. It includes and goes beyond reducing our class fees to examining real barriers to practice. It includes examining/acknowledging inequality and injustice in the same spaces we so freely speak of unity and oneness. It includes recognizing that the peace and ease that we may feel in the space has a lot to do with our privilege.
How will the Anti-Oppression Committee work to support the Kula Annex community?
Kula Annex is in the early stages of forming an Anti-Oppression Committee to thoughtfully and critically engage with questions regarding privilege and accessibility in the yoga community. Our hope/mission is that Kula Annex transforms to hold safer space for all who wish to practice, to benefit from a diverse collection of voices and to authentically address our privilege to interrupt all forms of oppression including but not limited to classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, abelism, and colonialism. Together we are interested in valuing the questions over the answers and patiently awaiting the creativity and loving action that arise from this work.
A sampling of some specific outcomes we hope to achieve include:
- An assessment of the needs of the community around safer space
- A statement of our purpose & intentions to be posted for viewing by the Kula Annex community
- A clear and easy way for people to express concerns, report incidents of oppression and offer feedback (anonymously if they wish)
- Incorporation of anti-oppression framework & training into Kula Annex teacher training
- A series of learning opportunities (including but not limited to training for our teachers on how to infuse the committee’s mission into their teaching)
- Sharing the resources that have been helpful to us with the greater yoga community
- Supporting staff so that they can help better represent what’s coming through the committee
- Create a forum for conversations about appropriation and colonization in the context of practicing yoga in Toronto.
Who is teaching the Brown Girls Yoga and Queer Yoga classes? How are these teachers informed and supported?
Brown Girls Yoga is currently being taught by Jamilah, Kula Annex’s studio manager. She self-identifies as a woman of colour. Queer Yoga is being taught by me (Kula Annex’s studio director) and assisted by Mo and Elliott, both alumni of Kula Annex’s teacher training program. The three of us self-identify as queer.
We inform ourselves through our practice, by examining our unique set of privileges, by challenging each other, by listening to each other, through personal study, though personal projects, through life experience, through yoga trainings and by asking questions. We search the internet for examples of this type of work being done in the yoga community and it isn’t easy to find (though we find pockets of inspiration here and there). So we look to the people who have shifted other communities and whose work gives us hope to help us look within our own hearts and community to do the work here. We find support through our practice, from each other, from our teachers, from our students, from our communities and from people we consult with who specialize in diversity issues
It feels important to mention that this has been difficult interpersonal work, it has been messy, there have been tears, anger, and some really difficult conversations. We are grateful to continually move and live through this work as friends.
This is a work in progress where we are not claiming to know the answers but where we feel moved into action. We are open to critique, insight, questions and feedback.