are yoga classes for fat/queer/disabled/etc folks exclusive & “unyogic”? have your say!

Making yoga accessible to more people (image via beeryogi.com)

Last week’s blog post on Kula Annex’s positive space initiatives and Anti-Oppression Committee seemed to strike a nerve. While some people applauded the Toronto yoga studio for discussing privilege and oppression within the studio context, others expressed concern that classes designed for specific populations don’t establish equality or inclusion.

“How will we get to know each other and feel comfortable with each others’ differences if we are segregated?” asked one commenter.

A similar conversation popped up on the Yoga for Round Bodies Facebook page a few weeks ago, when somebody posted the question: “How exclusive this is, far from yogic!”

So, what does it mean to be “yogic” in this conversation? How inclusive are yoga classes for everybody/every body? (Take a look at this Google Image gallery for the search terms yoga+for+every+body and see how many of the books/products represent every body.)

As a teacher, how do you create an inclusive and accepting atmosphere in your yoga classes? As a practitioner, do you feel safer and welcomed in a class designed for your body type/ability/sexual orientation/race – or do you prefer to take part in “regular” classes?

19 Comments

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  1. The photo you used to illustrate this story is a good one. When a certain population needs more teaching/assistance/attention, then that seems to be a good use of a separate class, like Yoga for Arthritis or Pre-Natal Yoga. Both populations require an instructor knowledgeable about how to address the distinct physical conditions of being pregnany or having arthritis. But separate yoga for queer/of-color/trans/etc., unless the students have physical limitation or conditions which require a DIFFERENT method and/or approach of teaching, don’t seem to me to make as much sense. Donation based classes, YES, we desperately need more of these, and not just at off-hours of the schedule but at all times. Veterans’ classes, ok, perhaps there is a special PTSD technique explored in these that isn’t in regular classes. But able-bodied and able-minded students in separate classes? How about we address the societal problems that lead to people feeling marginalized, instead of de-facto condoning the marginalization by creating “special” classes for these popluations? Don’t we just fit into the dominant paradigm’s exclusionary nature by doing so?

  2. Definitely torn on this subject. On one hand, folks who feel they are extra curvy or have disabilities are afraid of the super skinny yoga fashion plates they might find at one of their local studios. They might be extremely receptive to a class that is “directed” just for them. On the other hand, yes, we should all practice together and good teachers should teach modifications of postures to any class and the students in the class should be able to find their space no matter how super bendy or sit-quietly-and-breathe the class is. It is a big dilemma.

  3. Talking about privilege and oppression always seems to bring this reaction, where people suddenly strike back about how “un-blah blah blah” it is. Sure, it would be great if “all of our yoga classes welcomed everyone and offered assists for everyone” but look around! It’s not happening! I used to run a blog that posted pictures of your average joe doing yoga, only it was really hard to get pictures of anyone other than some (white, thin) model doing handstand on the beach.

    Until we actively examine our own assumptions and look at the unexamined ways that privilege acts in our own lives, it won’t. Look at the language that you use in class. Look at how you think about fat people, Black people, people with disabilities… What do your actions say? How often do you interact with anyone in these categories? Do you realize how advantaged we are, over most of the world’s population, that we can even afford to sit here and have this conversation online? (Rhetorical you, not directed at anyone in particular).

    • I would also add that creating classes for a group of people is not necessarily segregation. Forcing an individual to only take that class is segregation. Creating a class so that they do not come into your class is segregation.

      I see this more as creating a safe space where someone will know the teacher respects them and their lifestyle, something that could evolve. An invitation to people who feel excluded by yoga advertising, yoga corporatism, mainstream yoga culture images.

      I mean, perhaps there’s a “curvy yoga” class that gets a really great rep so women and men of all sizes join eventually… But the curvy women who started going there had a space to feel safe, accepted, celebrated, and know they can trust that teacher to maintain that space even as the wider crowd joins.

  4. I agree with “A”:

    Inclusion is great- it’s the ultimate goal- but the reality of our society and North American culture is that discrimination and the “isms” are still VERY present.

    So- since the reality is that the general culture today has “isms”, we can assume that expecting the general population to simply jump and provide a “safe and inclusive” space won’t happen.

    I see having safe spaces for people to practice is ONE step in a solution towards a complex and very real societal issue.

    A step that provides a place for people to learn and practice yoga, grow in confidence and to bring awareness to others who may not have understood the significance of discrimination that many continue to face today.

  5. I’ve taught many different populations as a yoga teacher, and this is something I’ve always battled with. There was a studio in my neighborhood a couple years ago that only offered segregated classes. There were only two classes open to me, because I didn’t fit in any of the catagories. I don’t see how yoga for LGBT is that different from regular classes.

    That said, I have taught classes just for sexual assult survivors and veterans with PTSD, as there are special techniques that apply to those populations.

    I’ve also taught large clasess with a giant mix of races, ages and abilities. Location is key – some students aren’t able to pay the absorbant fees of studios these days, and they may feel intimindated to come. Yoga can and should reach out to the community – rather than trying to come up with segregated classes to get the community to come to them.

  6. This is definitely something I think about all the time!

    What I find is that most of the time when someone is asserting that we don’t need specialized classes, they’re not a member of the group which they’re trying to decide what’s best for. For example, I often hear from people in thinner bodies who think we don’t need Curvy Yoga because yoga “should” be for everyone. Like A said above, I don’t disagree. However, it’s privilege that allows a thinner bodied person to say what a bigger bodied person needs because they have the privilege to “pass,” regardless of their personal body image or self-perception.

    I also think that choice is at question here. For example, just because there are classes for curvy people, LGBTQ people, veterans, cancer survivors, etc. doesn’t mean that those are the only classes those folks can go to. They’re just options; if curvy people prefer to practice in curvy classes, great. If they prefer to practice in general classes, also great.

    Marginalized groups have a long history of coming together to find community, solidarity and to effect change. I welcome this in yoga; I think we’re in the infancy of these conversations, and I’m in full support of more accessibility and ways to open more doors in yoga.

    Thanks for opening/continuing the convo, Roseanne!

  7. I agree with “A”.

    I think a lot of people just don’t see the privileges they have … take some time and think about what it would be like to be a person of size and enter a yoga studio these days? Very few studio classes cater to people who are culturally outside the norm … hell I had a student in her 60’s attend a studio class last year after taking up yoga with me (I teach through the library system off and on) and she said that every class she went to at the studio the teacher singled her out (and not in a helpful way) because she wasn’t young and bendy like everyone else attending … the teacher wasn’t teaching from an inclusive place (i.e. beginning with gentle modified poses and then adding on) so any student who couldn’t do the specific movements stood out … and as just about anyone can be a yoga teacher these days it’s very difficult to address these issues …

    … why deny people who are marginalized in society the opportunity to be validated with a class for them? Last time I was inside a yoga studio I found it intimidating (and I teach yoga) … the whole thing makes me sad – I think people have a right to have a class where they feel accepted – and if that means having separate classes for people who are large or queer or whatever then let it happen … I know for sure I wouldn’t find it validating if I was a person of size trying to access “regular” classes in studios these days …just put yourself in other people’s shoes and think about it …

  8. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s like the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome … everyone talks about equal opportunities but what does that mean in practice? Some people start from more challenged places – so equality of outcome is a more effective measure of success than equality of opportunity … i.e. having classes targeted at specific populations is fairer in terms of equality of outcome because it consciously addresses the barriers to yoga that certain populations face …

  9. I agree with all the “As” (A, Anna, Angela) & others who agree with them. Given that the vast majority of yoga classes cater to a very specific demographic (white, female, thin, bendy, and young-ish) why the heck not have other classes designed to appeal to those who for whatever reasons don’t feel comfortable there?

    I don’t see it as segregation; I see it as creating a supportive environment for those who want yoga but don’t for the moment feel comfortable with the “normal” environment. That may change; it may not. But for now, they have somewhere to go that works for them. I see that as very positive!

  10. Yoga is liberation from the constructs of our mind. Separation creates constructs. Every time you label yourself, you create a construct or identity. An “I” that makes the ego stronger and the samskaras or negative mental patterns grow.

    I understand that in order to start yoga, people feel safe with these constructs but a good teacher’s job is to move their students away from these constructs. So essentially, the people in all these classes should slowly move out of them either into a personal home yoga practice or back into the general population.

    The exception being for people who have physical issues, that are not easily reversed, that keep them from being in the general population, like for instance they are in a wheel chair for life.

    Being overweight, PTSD, LGBT etc are not issues that would keep someone from being able to join a normal yoga class at some point. To allow your students to stay in a specialty class with you for eternity to be bound by their own mental constructs is actually a disservice for them & a sign of a teacher who does not live according to the principles of yoga.

    • Re: I understand that in order to start yoga, people feel safe with these constructs but a good teacher’s job is to move their students away from these constructs. So essentially, the people in all these classes should slowly move out of them either into a personal home yoga practice or back into the general population.

      Shanna I absolutely agree with you here … but the trouble is that when people do move from a “specialist” class to a regular class and then encounter teachers who either haven’t got the skills or aren’t interested in teaching from an inclusive perspective they then get remarginalised.

      Going back to the student in her 60’s who I cited earlier … she was someone who really enjoyed my classes and wanted to pursue her practice (and I don’t teach at the library constantly) – I really encouraged her to seek out other places to practice yoga and she went to a studio near where she lived and found that everytime she practiced in the studio class she was singled out … what do you do? I was really sad when I heard her tell me her experience.

      I mean, where I live most of the studios cater for young fit white people – there’s no getting around that … they might market as yoga being for allcomers but when it actually gets around to having people in classes not everybody has got the skills (or seems to want to learn them).

      With seniors there are other issues as well – like transport (getting to classes) and finances (affording classes). If the studio near you doesn’t provide a suitable class, can you travel further? A lot of seniors don’t seem to be comfortable doing that in my experience.

      In terms of finances, most of what I would call the “affordable” classes for people on limited income require that you sign up for a series (for example, through the library or through the council) … for seniors who’ve never tried yoga before, it’s a leap of faith to hope that the 6 week series (or whatever length) is going to be with a teacher who’s style works out for them … I have seniors who come back to me time and time again because they know what I teach works for them and I would dearly love to recommend some other teachers in my community but I just don’t know of anyone who teaches really gentle yoga anymore … most classes at studios are hot yoga or anusara yoga or iyengar yoga and the class fees are a lot more expensive and out of the reach for low income seniors ….

      and in saying all this I’m not saying that ansura or iyengar is necessarily unsuitable for seniors but the classes I’ve been in that have taught that style of yoga have been very very physical … and most of the seniors I teach are in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (I currently have someone who is 86 in my class) … and if they were to go to a “regular” very physical asana class they would stand out like a sore thumb!

      Please excuse my rant but I find it so frustrating that the yoga community don’t see the need for more classes for “normal” people and “marginalised” people as an issue – because those are the very people who I’ve found really find yoga helpful … I’ve taught yoga to people in prison, people with mental health issues, people with addiction issues and very very large women (as well as seniors, kids and families) and almost to a one I’ve encountered the mindset that people don’t think yoga is for them because they aren’t flexible enough and then when they do try the gentle yoga I teach they love it! And in saying this I’m not mouthing off as some great teacher because I’m really not … far from it – I have so much to learn and make mistakes all the time (and learn from them) but I have faith in the practice – that gentle can be powerful and accessible to everyone and I’m so so sad that so many teachers don’t seem to teach from an inclusive perspective because it closes the door to so many people trying yoga … and I really don’t know what the solution is to this connudrum ? Until the dominant yoga paradigm of physical asana = yoga changes, I don’t think yoga is accessible as it purports to be in studio land.

  11. I think thee types of classes are as relevant and necessary as labeling classes according to level. The ‘multi-level, drop-in’ style class that has become the norm in the Western yoga world is fine for part of the population for a limited amount of time. Unfortunately it excludes most people that fall outside the narrow lines of thin, young, healthy and fit. It also excludes those with a very regular, longtime and serious yoga/spiritual practice. The need for specific classes to suit specific needs is not exclusive, I argue that instead it includes and opens doors for more rather then less.
    One size does not fit all!!

  12. Lots of issues here, and lots of thoughtful comments. I don’t see specialized classes as being exclusionary. They are a choice for people that find them appropriate. We all have different needs depending on age, body type, general health, etc. I’m 57 and have been practicing yoga for 30 years and have maintained my conditioning, but I would not want to go to a power, hot, vinyasa-type class. That type of practice doesn’t appeal to me and is not appropriate for the stage of life I’m in.

    Many of the younger teachers in fast-paced classes have not yet developed the “eye” to look at people and assess how they should modify their practice if they don’t fit the young, slender mold. It takes years to develop an eye that sees individual patterns and needs. So many popular classes are jam packed, making it hard for a teacher to see what’s going on, or move around the room. Also, in the more exercisey classes the sequences go by so fast that there’s no time for thoughtful adjustments. People with any sort of special needs are not likely to have them addressed in these classes.

    From a teacher’s point of view, having a student with extreme special needs in a class with able-bodied people is not ideal. Years ago I had a student who was blind, had club feet and next-to-no flexibility. While it was inspiring that he came to class for several years despite his limitations, and the rest of the students were always welcoming and kind to him, I found that I had to spend so much time tending to his needs that I neglected the rest of the students. He ended up finding a senior class closer to where he lived, and this worked out well for him.

    As tm says above, yoga is not “one size fits all.” Even the more structured and developed styles erroneously (IMO) try to fit everyone into a particular mold—think Universal Principles of Alignment. There’s a reason that yoga was always taught one on one until the 20th century. Each person comes to yoga with different genetics, habit patterns, emotional and mental histories. These all play into what yogic path each of us needs to emphasize.

  13. I hate the word ‘privilege.’ It has come to represent everything that’s wrong with movement feminism and political correctness in my mind’s eye. It is the abdication of personal responsibility and the embrace of bitterness and shame. It’s the claim that any accomplishment of my own is not due to my hard work but rather inequality and luck and that is so much BS.

    When we have special classes for people who really don’t have special physical needs, what we are really doing is encouraging people to be ashamed about themselves, to think of themselves as different. 90 % of shame is something we do to ourselves, and if you have ‘brown girl yoga’ or ‘fat girl yoga’ you are not encouraging those individuals to let go of their shame and accept themselves for who they are. The problem is rarely the other people in the room.

    • Speaking of privilege, it might be helpful for you to check yours. No one is saying that your accomplishments are not the result of hard work, only that we all need to look around and explore the ways in which “inequality and luck” have contributed to our own successes and failures. None of us exists in a vacuum. We all have privilege, and ignoring it is pointless and damaging.

      I think safe-space yoga is a great idea. I’m as stereotypically yoga-girl as they come: white, thin, straight, and cisgendered. Every yoga class I go to is filled with people who look like me; yoga classes are automatically a safe space because my “type” is represented. But what if it wasn’t? If I was queer or a person of color or a member of any other frequently-excluded group, I’m sure I’d get tired of not seeing anyone else like me in yoga classes. I’d feel like I didn’t belong and would probably welcome the opportunity to practice with others like me. It’s not encouraging self-hatred and divisiveness, as you seem to think–it’s offering a place where people feel accepted. That’s all this is about–examining the ways in which we’ve excluded people, however unintentionally, and taking steps to meet their needs.

    • I disagree with ‘90% of shame is something we do to ourselves’. Our culture sends unrelenting messages about what is considered acceptable such as ‘thinness’ and ‘straightness’ As social beings who depend on each other for survival, it’s difficult not to internalize these messages because on a primal level we fear being rejected our group.

      Of course we all have our challenges in life and we as individuals choose how we respond to negative situations. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the negative impact discrimination and resulting alienation has on individuals.

  14. This seems like a great idea, but now currently i feel uncomfortable practicing a studios that segregate classes. As a homosexual i felt more comfortable at a yoga class because I knew no cared about my sexuality, it was just about practicing yoga. Now I feel like my story has to be laid out on the line for every to see. I feel very exposed and I am confused if I want to continue practicing in a public space. I also do not like the word queer and it upsets me that a class would have the label as oppose to LGTBQ. Queer is derogatory, and to me excludes people who don’t have a pain body with that word. Bullies called me that and wrote that all over my binders.

    I also notice that most yoga studio do not have a safe space sticker or a LGTBQ flag up, which is upsetting to me because really this is a big sign for showing this a is a safe space and any homophobia won’t be tolerated.

    To me also, it all does seem to be a money making thing. Studios want people to come through their door and come to the studio and pay. I remember when I was teenager, yoga was offered at my church at pay what you can rate and it was always diverse. Obviously to only those who went to church or felt comfortable to practice yoga in a church’s basement. So to me a big solution to this is not to get more people in a studio but to outreach and take yoga to places that really our more accessible. As not only do they have to pay the discounted rate, but have the cost of travel on public transit as well have to have their own, or rent a mat.

    With regards to the physical disabilities, of course it makes sense to have a class for round bodies, for blind people, for people with major limitations. As a teacher cannot take the time to stop the class and to help them out while still teaching a class.

    But to me to seperate a yoga class based on identities makes me feel like we’re going backwards. To seperate a physical yoga class based on physical limitations and disability makes total sense.

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