an anti-racist, fat/trans/queer-positive yoga studio? kula yoga’s positive space initiative

Image by EK Park, via torontobodymind.ca

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.

  1. I could not love this more! Thanks for sharing, Roseanne, and lots of support to y’all, Kula Annex!

  2. Roseanne –
    awesome. thanks for covering this extremely worthwhile initiative, and sharing it with your readership. though i am obviously biased as a member of the kula community, i could not be prouder of my colleagues, fellow yogis and friends for taking these steps within our community, asking some really fundamental (and hard) questions about our practice, its relevance in the world, the barriers it creates or perpetuates and making the time, space and effort to work towards social justice, inclusion and equity in a world where those words are too frequently used without full meaning behind them. . x

  3. I have done a few yoga videos, but never taken a class. As a fat queer with very little coordination, I have never felt as if that was a community to which I belonged. How I wish I were able to come to Kula! Thanks for sharing.

    • beth, send me a message at roseanne @ itsallyogababy.com and I’ll try to connect you to some resources in your town or online!

  4. It’s about time…any chance of something like brown girl yoga in Montreal?

  5. This is great to read. I was wondering what the Kula take is on fat people & yoga? Fat was not really mentioned in the q&a, though addressed in title. I’m personally looking for a place to start up yoga in in Toronto again after a long break and am very nervous about my size. It would be cool to know if this could be a place for me. Thanks!

  6. “to address an undercurrent of racism and homophobia some people felt in the space.”

    hmmm i think these words might be reductive and not reflect the complexity of a very long process within the broader community; we wanted to address instances of entitlement, privilege, gaps between ideas and actions, to consider cultural appropriation in the context of yoga, a lack of diversity among top teachers, studio owners and goers, how race, gender, class, heteronormativity, etc imbalances can play out in classrooms given the dominant group, there’s so much more… it was a long nuanced process of conversations and experiences… it’s ongoing…

    <3

    • hi jamilah ~ yes, they are a bit reductive, mainly for space considerations and because i’m not privy to the complexities of the conversations. i just wanted to provide a short intro and let christi-an’s response to my questions speak for the process that the kula annex community has been going through. i appreciate your further elucidation here, as well.

  7. Namaste – If I may be so bold as to say that by segregating a group out – ie Brown Girls or Queers – you defeat the true purpose of inclusion.

    Ideally, there would be no need to isolate a particular group. Would it not be better if everyone could be encouraged to find the similarities we have with those who might appear or behave differently?

    Please do not get me wrong – I am fully in support of the idea behind this but it seems to that by going about it in this way, you have circumvented the solution. Now “Brown Girls” don’t have to mix with the white middle-class females to whom you refer. Now the “Queers” can be separated from the white middle-class males to whom you refer…

    Meaning absolutely no disrespect, it appears to me that this does nothing to truly establish a sense of equality, equanimity and inclusion.

    So you know I am turning 45 in 48 hours. I am a jock/musician/geek who has friends of all colors, preferences, shapes and sizes. I am white. I am middle class (I guess). I live in Montreal and am working for the summer in Kuala Lumpur.

    I heartily applaud the motivation in what you’re doing – I merely question the methodology.

    Namaste.

    • Hi Victor,
      I see your point but as a “brown girl” I would like to do yoga in a space I feel more comfortable in, somewhere which is much more diverse and reflective of the plurality of the population at large. The posh yoga studios in Montreal make me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, and no, it’s not about being “anti-white” or reverse racism or anything of that sort.
      I wrote up my reasons here:
      http://earthenergyreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/why-i-left-yoga-and-why-i-think-a-helluva-lot-of-people-are-being-duped/

    • Hi Victor,
      This is a common response to such (wonderful) initiatives.
      I’m sure someone will also speak more to this, but the reality is that we DON’T currently live in a safe, inclusive society and these initiatives are so essential in moving towards that ultimate goal of complete cultural and social inclusion.
      Our reality, no matter how certain individuals may feel/live, is that the these issues (racism, homophobia, fat phobia) are very prevalent and remain as undercurrents in the general Canadian society. It’s a complex issue that simply moving to 100% inclusion and expecting results hasn’t worked.
      The complicated questions/concerns work best when addressed from a variety of methods and perspectives. I see this fantastic initiative as one part of addressing a larger, more systemic issue.

      • I agree. When you don’t have safe spaces, it does help to create a place where it is absolutely known that usually oppressed or excluded people are free. And I don’t think it means that non-queer, non-fat, non-brown, non-whatever people are not invited. It is just letting them know that if they are going to come to these classes, they better be really comfortable with people outside of their own demographic. I think it’s a great idea.

        • Agree. A very large person I knew who does yoga once described to me what it was like to be the only fat person in a yoga class … and how comforting it was when she practiced in a class that catered specifically for large women – to be able to look around the class and see her size reflected back at her was very affirmative and validating for her whereas when she attended a “regular” yoga class she felt her body was not culturally accepted … that it was not considered okay.

    • Victor,
      I am a fat yogini and I teach Yoga for Round Bodies classes in Toronto (and now train teachers). This is a common question that I receive all the time, that “segregating” is anti-yogic (in fact, I’ve even received hate mail—from yoga teachers!—to this regard. Frankly, several pieces of that hate mail seemed like thinly-veiled fat hate).

      If we look at this from the perspective of the students, instead of from the perspective of any one principle, I’m sure we would get a very supportive “yes” to creating specific classes for specific groups who feel left out of the mainstream yoga loop. Almost ALL of my students have reported either feeling too intimidated to try a “regular” yoga class, or when they have tried, they give up after an attempt or two because they were either exluded, shamed, highlighted in uncomfortable ways, or the teacher didn’t have a clue how to modify poses for them.

      The unfortunate truth is, studio-land is not always inclusive. When I started my yoga journey there were many classes I felt uncomfortable in, but two studios in particular where I felt *glaringly* unwelcome. When my first Yoga for Round Bodies graduates went out into the world, one of them even met resistance and repugnance from a studio in Montreal who didn’t seem to want fat people coming in droves to their studio.

      Perhaps what Kula, myself and others are doing in the yoga world will open discussion around yoga and privilege that will eventually lead to “regular” classes being more inclusive. That is my hope.

      • tiina,
        you’re not the only one who has had an experience of that sort in Montreal. I have had the same experience here but it wasn’t so much as the studio itself but some members of the clientele who basically gave off this “How dare you come into this space?” vibe.
        Not welcoming at all.
        I even had one bigoted yoga instructor come up to me and say “You’re an Indian girl. You have to be assertive to get things done because you’re Indian, you’re not white and no one will listen to you.” True story.

  8. Bravo! Halifax really needs something like this….

  9. Hmmm, I’m sort of with Victor on this one. But what I really wanted to say is that even us white middle-class women don’t like those trendy studios so much… I didn’t feel at home in a yoga shala until I found my way into an Ashtanga Mysore room. In my experience these are the most diverse classes I have ever seen: all colors, all sizes, all ages, all genders, all sexual orientations, covered in tattoos or not everyone in there was welcomed and working hard and full of life. It was an eye opening experience for me and I’ve never looked back. I recently moved from California to Boston and the Mysore class at Back Bay Yoga is the same. Beautifully mixed. So what is about Ashtanga? Dunno. But I’m grateful to be in a space where everybody is already welcome with no need for special classes that further segregate people, although I understand the need from a stepping stone perspective.

  10. Yay to the kula! So pleased to see this … as someone who is completing their degree in social work it’s about time anti-oppressive practice made it’s way into yoga 🙂

  11. Yoga is about making the unconscious conscious. That’s why since 2005 I have been including an Anti-Oppression workshop in our yoga teacher trainings here in Hamilton, Ontario.

    Congratulations to Kula for it’s positive space initiative.

    More and more people are doing their part to create safer spaces for us all to share.

  12. THIS IS THE BEST THING I HAVE READ ABOUT YOGA IN YEARS. Seriously. I am so happy that someone is doing this. I teach a queer/trans yoga class once a week in Montréal, and the demand far exceeds my capabilities at present moment. I’m also frustrated and troubled by the nearly total lack of self reflexivity and awareness of racism and colonization and cultural appropriation in yoga spaces. Lately, the teacher with whom I’m currently doing a certification in curvy yoga and I have also been talking about how absurd and dangerous it is that so many yoga teacher trainings don’t have ethics components at all, and that even if they do, questions of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, able-ism, etc. don’t often come up. Definitely going to try to make my next trip to Toronto include a day where I can check out a queer yoga class there!

  13. I have the same type of questions as Victor. I am a middle age white woman and I also have a yoga teaching certificate. I have not started teaching yet because I’m not sure how I fit into the ‘yoga world’ at this point. I have often felt out of place in many of the yoga studios despite easily blending into the group via appearances.
    I think the initiative is wonderful if people feel that they need a place to feel safe, accepted and free to be themselves. Yet I’m not sure how I feel about creating these pockets of identities based on color, sexual orientation etc. I’m probably not fully aware of the issues and I don’t intend to sound insensitive! I just wonder if these educational tools maybe should be provided to studios and teachers, so that from the onset they will welcome people in their classes with saying ‘all sizes, color, sexual orientation, religion welcome’ and really embody that in the way they receive each student.
    How will we get to know each other and feel comfortable with each others’ differences if we are segregated? I’m just an awkward white chick and would not want to compare my stories to the challenges of other groups in question. But I would not want to be in a class full of awkward white girls, although I probably would feel more comfortable! I would love to see that the studios I go to have a space of acceptance and openness to include others than just the fit-bodied white middle class women in their lululemon gear. It is sad that this seems so out of reach. All that said and given these realities, I do applaud the efforts of Kula and I hope they will succeed with their mission!

    • I second what Andrea’s put below but also, I think what can help in developing an understanding of why what appears to be segregated classes is actually a more inclusive practice …is to gently examine our own privileges. And I speak as someone who had absolutely no idea of the privileges I carried until I studied them … sometimes we just don’t realise how privileged we are until we look closer … for example if you look at white privilege (see the list here: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html ) you start to realise how much freedom you have in your life because of your skin colour. And then, when someone made me aware of thin privilege (see here for info: http://lindabacon.org/HAESbook/pdf_files/HAES_Thin%20Privilege.pdf – and there’s loads more info if you Google thin privilege) I suddenly saw for the first time how fortunate I was that my body size was deemed acceptable by the wider culture … and I find that examining my privileges is an ever constant process … and my life is richer for it. So enjoy the journey of exploring your own privileges … it’s an interesting experience 🙂

  14. First, I’d like to say, “YAY, Kula! I love you!”

    And then, I would suggest checking out Kula’s FAQ page as it addresses quite directly the questions of Brown Girls Yoga and Queer Yoga and the possibility of these classes seeming more exclusive than inclusive. Check it out below:

    http://www.mykulatoronto.ca/positive-space-initiatives

    Much love,
    Nicole

  15. Harsh labels got us here, so why are we using the same harsh labels to name classes based on identities.This is a great idea, but does the name of a class really have to make such an overt and uncomfortable statement where people see as segregation. A title like “Diversity Yoga” “Freedom Yoga” “LGTBQ Yoga” “All Sizes Yoga,” are Inclusive without excluding, but also give room to explain what is trying to be accomplished. Here in Toronto there is much talk going on, and some of it is not so kind about Kula, because it is hitting peoples buttons and is a sensitive topic across all colours, sizes, limitations. Many people say they now would not step two feet into the studio. When people are forced into an uncomfortable position nothing is really accomplished because people put their barriers up.

    So I agree with victor about questioning the methodology. But proud that Kula is stepping forward to make a positive space for all. Because of these classes when I’m a yoga for the last 2 weeks, I am more concerned at the diversity ratio, then holding my pose right or listening to the teacher. Walking into a studio wither it is Kula or another studio, I’m more insecure about my homosexuality and now insecure and guilty about being a white woman.

    My other question is; why does this accessible yoga have to be done in the public studio. No matter how hard a studio tries, some people are just not comfortable going to a studio, they prefer a community centre, a rented open space, or the comfort of someones home studio. Studios are intimidating not because of type of people that go, but just because it’s a different space that people are not use to nor may ever get use to. You would never find me in a gym or a club, even if it was just for gay women.

  16. hey,
    this is just a note for any teachers who come across this and want to find ways to make their teaching/space more accessible… i teach with a collective based in berlin, and we have a little initiative that we encourage all yoga teachers/businesses to adopt! it’s called ”community feedback yogis”, and it basically consists of giving a number of free classes to pre-chosen folks (as wide a range as possible) and then gathering their feedback and rewarding them for their time with a gift certificate or some cash. hey, presto, feedback! then you can know more about where and how you can improve your space and your teaching 🙂 more info here: http://www.englishyogaberlin.com/wanted-community-feedback-yogis/
    take care
    meg

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