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 blogs, magazine 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.
Position (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.
It 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.
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.