the problem with diversity in yoga

the problem with diversity in yoga

Lately I’ve been feeling a little disillusioned and skeptical about the ideals of diversity and inclusivity within yoga communities.

Not that I don’t think these are worthy ideals. As we have seen with the recent attacks on yoga for people of colour classes in Seattle, there is a need within yoga communities (and beyond) for spaces that are safe and enable access for people who don’t feel welcome in studio classes. We can’t deny that yoga has a diversity problem. Like many others, I have a vision for yoga spaces that are safe, just and representative of the communities they affect.

But I’m increasingly concerned that focusing on diversity and inclusivity may, in fact, simply be replicating oppressive structures. I also think that yoga studio owners, teachers and community organizers with privileges (whether white, male, ability) might need to unpack the terms “diversity” and “inclusivity,” and examine their usage.

I’ve had two recent experiences that lead to a shift in my viewpoint. When I lived in Montreal, I co-founded an organization devoted to “building” yoga community; then, since moving to Victoria, BC, I had a jarring encounter with a local teacher.

Let’s start with the community yoga organization. While we were doing generally good work, we had a tendency to overuse the word diversity, possibly even rendering it meaningless. As one of five white middle class women earnestly envisioning an “inclusive and diverse” yoga community, I may have been complicit in blocking any capacity for “diverse” groups to feel included.

Our homogenous grouping determined to “create” community had huge blind spots which may have hindered the full spectrum of practitioners from stepping up and owning their space. When we were called out on this, we simply ignored them and, in retrospect, overlooked opportunities to build a stronger community.

Since landing on the west coast, I haven’t been as interested actively campaigning for a yoga community that is what I think is inclusive and diverse. After I stepped away from these ideals, I’ve questioned my intention about engaging in this work in the first place.

The yoga scene I’ve found in my new hometown, so far, is pervasively white, privileged, and aspiring to a glossy sheen that even I don’t feel comfortable in it. Since I’m new to town, I’m assured that it’s not my place to attempt to “convince” a community that I am technically not a part of to be more inclusive. It is what it is. While I don’t find it that inspiring, I may actually do more harm than good if I swoop in and try to fix things.

Anyway, while I’ve been focused on my own practice and generally laying low, I did end up connecting with a local teacher who told me that he wanted to open a space that is “focused on real yoga for real people, including people of colour, queer, trans, metal heads…whoever might not feel welcome at the existing studios.”

This sounded sort of promising. I checked out one of his classes, where he talked about his mission statement for diversity and how he was looking for a community space to teach in. Somebody suggested the immigrant and refugee centre – lots of diversity there! I enjoyed the practice and appreciated this teacher’s grand vision for inclusivity. But I also found myself feeling a little uneasy.

Then this person posted a confused and problematic statement about white privilege and racial identities on Facebook. When I called him out on it, he responded with defensiveness, fragility and a request to not come to his yoga classes. In his world, everyone is included – except those who question or voice concern about his views.

I felt concerned that this person was about to go out into the community and offer yoga classes in politicized spaces. I feared that despite his good intentions, he may cause harm by trying to define and create inclusive spaces without being open to any kind of dialogue about privilege and identity.

What I’ve learned from these experiences is that we still have a lot of work to do. After plenty of reflection and conversations, I’ve come up with a list of things to consider before running a one-person campaign for inclusivity at your local yoga studio.

Follow conversations about diversity & inclusivity in other contexts

The mainstream yoga world has only recently realized that yoga spaces exclude people who aren’t white, thin and affluent. But the diversity conversation has been ongoing in other communities (particularly academia and the corporate sector) for decades. I find it interesting to look to other sectors, such as the tech world, for how they are tackling these questions, and then applying that within the context of yoga. We have much to learn from beyond the yoga silo.

Seek out positive examples in the yoga world

Yet, we have much to learn from each other. There are plenty of examples of people who are doing good work within the yoga world. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is actively creating media that represents (and celebrates) yoga practitioners of different body types, races and gender. The Yoga Service Council provides concrete strategies for reaching traditionally marginalized communities and promoting yoga as a tool for healing. Off the Mat, Into the World is continuously educating itself and incorporating new ideas to train its network of skilled and sensitive yoga activists.

Examine & acknowledge your privilege

When I first started teaching yoga in a community mission in Montreal, I didn’t know anything about privilege. I had a basic understanding of the systemic reasons a community mission may be necessary for low-income members of a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. But I didn’t know how to understand my own privileges (of race, socioeconomic background, ability, etc) – once I learned the framework and language, I became a more empathetic and conscious teacher. I wish I had learned this earlier; this is a key first piece of work before engaging with any community.

Collaborate with the communities you wish to serve

Think about what you have to offer and who you want to serve, then remember that there are most likely organizations that have already starting building bridges with those communities. Build your own relationships with these organizations and find an established entry point. Rather than approaching organizations with your class idea, first volunteer in another aspect of the work and get to know the community – this will enrich your yoga classes and extend your reach.

Be prepared for pushback

This can be uncomfortable. Despite your good intentions, people may call you out or point out gaps in your reasoning. Listen to this feedback and try to take it as “constructive criticism.” Nobody is immune to critique, and if you’re willing to give it, you need to be willing to take it.

Admit mistakes & practice humility

Once you’ve received pushback, try to handle it with grace. Be humble, admit when you’ve made a mistake or misunderstood something. Everything is an opportunity for learning. In order to embody progressiveness, to fully be progressive, we have to be willing to progress and change our ways of thinking about things (and ourselves).

Don’t take it personally

This is the most important thing. Whatever comes your way (positive as well as negative), take it to heart, but don’t take it personally. It’s not a slight on you or your upbringing, your parents, your education, your hometown. You are a good person trying to do good in the world – and reflecting on your actions will make even more goodness possible.

These are things I’ve learned over the past couple of years of studying my own privilege, reflecting on social justice, and applying it to my yoga practice. This is not to minimize people who are working towards creating yoga communities that welcome everyone or “promote” exclusivity. Rather, this is about working towards communities that are just, embody equality and reflect the full spectrum of life.

Featured image by Young Living Essential Oils via YogaBasics.com

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  1. Its a clean nice readable article . Thank you for sharing

  2. This was a refreshing article. I appreciate the willingness to be inclusive while still seeking to understand you own limitations in actually making that happen.

  3. yes ,,,,, i am totally agree with you …. i am also yoga teacher ,,,,,,,,,

  4. Very nicely written article drawing from personal experience. I certainly perceive yoga spaces in London and the UK as being white and affluent. Meditation and Buddhism are often seen this way as well, and I, an African-American 50-something Buddhist woman inn London who is not in any way slim, have put in a lot of work to counter this. But it is an ongoing problem and, as you have pointed out, we will make mistakes on this journey. Well done for working with this in the ways that you can.

  5. I understand what you are concerning. But I think that we should think possitively towards Yoga’s benefits brings to people, excluding other problems.

  6. Extraordinary employment, sounds like you are a long ways in front of the time. You have given a profound knowledge to your perusers here. I will allude my companions to peruse your work. Keep it up and a debt of gratitude is in order for sharing.