diversity training: do yoga teachers & YTT programs need it?


Inclusion and accessibility have become hot topics in the online yoga world. But is talking about it really enough? And what are some concrete ways to make traditional yoga spaces more inclusive and accessible? In this guest post, blogger Earth Energy Reader explains why diversity training for yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs might be the missing piece.

For several years I worked as a spiritual caregiver at a Level V hospital trauma unit in Washington, DC primarily dealing with African-American patients who were involved either with urban violence, poverty, drug addiction or dealing with HIV. Before that, I was busy teaching prominent Turkish politicians English as a second language in Istanbul and Ankara. As a Canadian of Bengali-Muslim heritage, growing up in small-town Quebec, speaking 5 languages, having Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic friends of the family and being exposed to those traditions from the get-go, to say that I am used to cultural and ethnic diversity would be an understatement. Culture shock and cultural adjustment are a daily necessity.

In the past year, I have steadily been watching various discussions online about the lack of inclusion in the yoga world (assuming of course, that those excluded communities want yoga in the first place instead of being told that’s what they “need”). It’s a far cry from that fall evening back in 2002 when I first stepped into a Bikram yoga studio and found myself as the only person of color in a roomful of pony-tailed golden boys with wash-board abs and a host of tall, lithe Caucasian trophy wives discussing their Filipino nannies in the change room. While I applaud all these initiatives and discussions and think these issues of inclusion, diversity and accessibility are now being talked about more than ever online and off, I still think there is a long, long way to go. 


From the Ground Up

Within the North American context, it has been a forgone conclusion for several years now that mainstream yoga is classist and exclusive in nature and caters to the affluent. While there are smaller initiatives happening at the grassroots level about making yoga more accessible to visible, sexual and cultural minorities, this general exclusion is falling in line with other worldwide trends in health and wellness where, increasingly, health has become a socio-economic status indicator. While blogsmagazine articles, YouTube videos and even Hollywood films have either bemoaned the situation, satirized it or skewered it, the fact remains that many yoga studios are not attracting minority groups, not welcoming them and very often, turning these groups off completely from the beginning.

During the course of my professional experiences as well as some of the classes I took in cross-cultural management for my undergraduate degree, I had to undertake something called diversity training. In essence, it’s about learning how to deal with people who are different from you in ethnicity, color, socio-economic background and culture without disrespecting them, their heritage, background etc, while being mindful of the differences in order to bring out everyone’s best for the sake of improving overall teamwork and outcomes.

Diversity training  is training provided with the stated purpose of problem solving (educating all parties around a discrimination or harassment issue) and treating diversity as an opportunity and promoting the ability of members (often students, employees or volunteers) from a great variety of backgrounds to cooperate productively and make as great a contribution as possible to organizational goals. – From diversitytraininglive.com

In all honesty, I think more studios, instructors and training program need to start including this as well, if all this talk of inclusion and plurality is to amount to anything.

Diversity Training in a Yoga Context

Some dialogue has taken place online and these discussions are important and need to be ongoing. However, much of that discussion seems to fall on two main assertions:
i) Yes, initiatives like ‘”Queer yoga” and “Brown girl yoga” are great ideas. More please.
ii) We should not have separate yoga classes to cater to these groups because it exacerbates the differences and divide. There is no white or black or LGBT. We are all human.

diversity-yoga6Position (ii) is not a valid argument for a whole host of reasons. The main one being that it is written from a position of privilege and it negates and ignores the feelings and experiences which minorities may have undergone. Yet again, is indirectly and paternalistically “telling” minorities what kinds of spaces they can or can’t have access to. Even if that’s not the intent, that is often how it is read and felt like from the point of view of a person belonging to a minority group. Unless you’re part of a minority group having to deal with a majority culture with their norms, their customs, their thinking and their way of doing things and having to navigate through it every single day, you won’t feel it or understand it.

Diversity training mostly involves viewing and hearing someone else’s experience with new eyes and ears with the hope that this might lead to a more understanding and transformative outlook afterwards.

Within the context of the yoga community, it might look like:

  • Studios hiring qualified, minority instructors and creating that space where minorities may feel more welcome or comfortable
  • Instructors getting out there and offering yoga to these groups or community centers more often
  • Someone who normally practices at a pricey studio branching out and trying out a class at one of these spaces

It also looks like more dialogue. Between studio owners and instructors. Between instructors. Between instructors and practitioners. Between communities. Any discussion of race, privilege and entitlement can quickly become explosive if it’s not anchored in maturity, compassion and honesty. Misunderstandings and stereotypes abound. Someone always ends up getting pissed off. People don’t like to think of themselves as racist or bigoted and they certainly don’t like it being pointed out to them, even if it is done unconsciously.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

Diversity training is a two-way dialogue. It is equally about both parties wanting to exchange and be transformed  from each other. It’s not only about yoga instructors and yoga teacher trainings deciding to be more inclusive.

yoga-diversity5It is also a chance for minorities to understand what yoga can offer them given that there are so many myths, disinformation and misunderstandings about yoga in general in many communities. For instance, many Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan will not do yoga (or ban it altogether as in the case of Malaysia) because it is perceived to be a Hindu form of worship when it doesn’t have to be. Some African-American and Canadian-Caribbean communities won’t do yoga because it is perceived to be a “white” exercise due to the location of the studios, the rates and the instructors either not offering or not knowing the adjustments needed for black body-types. Some of my LGBT friends won’t go because they feel many studios and instructors cater primarily to heterosexual singles scoping out for a partner and therefore feel disconnected.

Mathew Remski makes a fantastic point in that yoga these days is more about identity and a lifestyle choice as opposed to service and real action (e.g. soup kitchens, family counselling, free acupuncture clinics like NYC’s Riverside Church). Service means getting your hands dirty on a regular basis usually with people who you normally don’t hang out with. It’s uncomfortable. That’s the point. There’s really nothing to stop yoga from reaching more people of all types. However, it can only do so if those outreach and accommodating initiatives are in place and if those initiatives are genuinely offered from the people within the yoga community.

Links and Resources
Earth Energy Reader, aka Irasna Rising, is a clinical member of the American Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. A graduate of McGill and Emory University, she has created outreach programs for philanthropic organizations and works in public health management. She has been practicing yoga in some form or other for over 11 years. She has considered yoga teacher training but has yet to come across a real Japanese Ham Sandwich. 

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  1. i love this post- it is so relevant in all areas of service. This exact dialogue is also extremely present in the health sectors where I’m working right now (in Canada).

    In the health sector- this discussion, from my perspective of working on including a minority language in the health services, happens with much less hurt feelings and outbursts than in the yoga-sphere. Now, it may be because of the online factor- however I do wonder if yogis inherently see themselves as ‘loving and caring’ and are almost predisposed to be more shocked and hurt when discrepancies or narrow views-behaviours are pointed out?

    It’s like the ‘yoga-ness’ of rose coloured glasses is getting in the way of a calm, removed and honest discussion sometimes.

    That said- it’s just my observation of a small window into the online discussion 🙂

    thank you for sharing this Earth Energy Reader (and Roseanne for sharing on her space).

  2. Thank you!! Being a brown girl, I would love to expand this!! Ready to get my hands dirty!!

  3. Thank you Roseanne for hosting me!

    EcoYogini, I think many services and organizations would benefit from diversity training. Mainstream yoga culture, I think, is creative enough and big enough to do something about it.

  4. Great post. I love the concrete suggestions. I’d add that another way for non-teachers to get involved is to support yoga service organizations in other capacities than teaching. Most really need it!

    For example, I teach with in the Cook County Jail with a nonprofit called Yoga for Recovery. We only got 501c3 status because a woman who is not a yoga teacher (but a committed practitioner) got her husband’s high-powered law firm to take it on pro bono. She is also an important liaison with the staff at the jail. Many non-teachers have important professional and/or organizational support skills that yoga teachers don’t have, and most yoga service organizations could really use them.

  5. Thanks to both of you for this great piece! I completely agree that diversity training is necessary for yoga teachers. I’m leading a 200hr training this year and am planning to include it.

    • Awesome Anna!
      I had totally forgotten about the inclusion of different body types but without a doubt, it’s also an equally important piece to add to the discussion.

  6. I love this discussion, I love seeing it happen increasingly often, and I’d really love to see us all start doing something about it.

    I’m coming to this conversation as a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman with an athletic build. I have friends who identify in a variety of different ways, and I mention this merely because conversations that all of us have about privilege have helped shape my views and who I am as a person and a teacher.

    I feel that my yoga teacher training was quite comprehensive for a 200 hour in some ways, and yet it was very much a monoculture. Three of the fifteen in a group of all women were non-white, nearly all were a thin-or-athletic build (meaning there were two people in the class who brought up their experience about what it’s like to practice with large breasts, and the rest of us couldn’t really relate), and there wasn’t any queer representation that I’m aware of. I love what we learned, but especially being in New York City, I do think we could have benefited from conversations about diversity and working with populations with different backgrounds and abilities.

    Naturally, there are a lot of specialized trainings out there, and certainly, if we have the interest we can and will seek them out. That being said, it’s important to begin the conversation in a 200-hour training. It’s critical for us to think outside of wealthy, mostly white studios.

    I come from a background of working for non-profits; I spent six years in New York specifically focused on volunteer programs with a broad range of populations in need. Prior to that, I volunteered with other organizations that worked with low-income citizens. I’m passionate about service, and I want that to be part of what I do and who I am as a teacher. I often wonder how I – with the caveats that I listed in the first paragraph – might be able to better serve groups of which I’m not a member. Certainly, I can aim to better understand their backgrounds and their needs, but I know that I can never fully comprehend because I come to that conversation with my privilege as a white cis female. I want to know more, and I think that diversity training is a good way to start knowing how to better have those discussions.

    Matthew Remski’s essay – linked in this post – brought me to tears. We claim yoga as union, as inclusive, as community, but we’re not really sure how to get there. In my own experience moving to new cities and learning to integrate as a teacher, I’ve found little support. I’ve only practiced at one studio where it felt like there was truly community, and I was on the outside because at the same time, it was a bit too dogmatic for me. I’m often left wondering where I fit, how I can better serve, and how to use my role as a teacher to begin this shift and have these conversations with other teachers, to have this be a movement.

    I also come up against the issue of how to serve populations in need when sometimes, it is a struggle to support myself as a teacher. When we often get paid so little that we can barely afford to pay for classes at many studios, how do we keep our own practice going and build community? How do we make the space to serve others when some days we’re not sure how we are going to get by ourselves?

    I love the thoughts put forth in this post about ideas to begin, today. And I’m excited to see this conversation continue, and to continue my own thoughts and movement to align my values with who I am and what I teach.

    • “I often wonder how I – with the caveats that I listed in the first paragraph – might be able to better serve groups of which I’m not a member.”

      Kat, I think realizing that there is an issue here of privilege and exclusion is an important first step. Some people don’t even see that there is a problem. Like I had mentioned diversity training can be a transformative experience, it really depends on how deeply you want to go. Some people flee very quickly from the discomfort which those discussions bring up, whether it’s around race, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc. The transformation happens when you decide to embrace that discomfort instead of run away from it. Out of that transformation, possibilities usually show up.

  7. I have been a student of Bikram nearly two years. We have a new owner to the studio here and she is great. We have visiting teachers and that’s the problem sometimes. I am a mixed race black latina with light olive skin and natural hair. i love yoga, but I kept noticing and also a new student to the studio that we were being called out and corrected like 10 times during the class.

    Statistically the odds are against this as I am often the only brown/black person in the class. I am also a teacher and if you constantly correct a student and barely others the student will let you know they are not feeling it and that you are wearing out their names! I left the owner a note on facebook that the visiting teacher must have called me out like 10 times for correction. It is like being profiled in yoga class IMHO. The owner spoke to me and said she will talk to her. I said she ain’t the only one and told her of another white male instructor who was getting over the top with his corrections of black female students.

    Is this lack of sensitivity? How can you call out the one black person in the class for errors and nearly none of the other white students in the class?



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