Diversity in Yoga
Close your eyes and picture someone doing yoga. What do they look like? What are they doing? Where are they? If you’re like most, the person you pictured was likely a fit, white female wearing expensive yoga clothes doing a complicated pose. That is probably less true for you if you have a lot of experience doing yoga, but for those who are new to the practice, and especially those who have never practiced, that describes almost perfectly what they saw.
That really bums me out. And it’s even more of a bummer because that stereotype reflects an unfortunate reality in North America. It’s certainly the case here in Oklahoma. It’s pretty safe to say that most yoga students in my area are white, able-bodied, fit, middle-class women between the ages of 20 and 60. Sprinkle in a handful of dudes with man-buns and the odd person of color and that’s pretty much it.
You could blame the demographics of my area except you really can’t. There are well over half a million people in the Tulsa metropolitan area. Only slightly more than fifty percent are white. Most are working class. A sizable number are overweight. The average Tulsan is definitely not who you pictured as the typical yoga student. I don’t blame you, because the average Tulsan isn’t practicing yoga. But why not?
I have a few ideas about that.
First of all, yoga, as it’s taught in the west, is expensive. It’s not just the cost of class, but also childcare, supplies, and clothes. It adds up. Yoga classes are also time consuming. You have to figure at least an hour for the actual class, plus driving time, dropping kids off at a babysitter, etc. It can easily snowball to two hours or more per class. That’s a big chunk of the day when you’re a single mom whose kids need dinner and have homework. Frankly, it's a big chunk of the day for anyone! The way we market, teach, and practice yoga in the west is incredibly exclusive. It is a product of and for people who have spare time and spare money.
Also, have you checked the pages of your typical yoga clothing catalog? Skinny, young, white women. Have you seen the pictures used in the marketing materials for most studios? Skinny, young, white women. Have you seen who's featured on the Today Show yoga segments? Skinny, young, white women. Don't get me wrong, skinny white women have just as much right to practice yoga and grace the covers of magazines as anyone. They are beautiful additions to any community of yoga practitioners, but if images of that body type are the predominate ones that we see, is there any wonder people of color feel excluded? Is it any wonder men think yoga is a woman's fitness program? Is it any wonder larger bodied people think yoga isn't for them?
All of that is to say nothing about the actual content of the class and how exclusive that can be. Power yoga classes set to loud pop music with little to no personalized instruction pretty much scream, “Hey fit girls, come show off your new lulus! We’ve got a great workout for you! Everyone else, join at your own risk…” It’s incredibly intimidating! If you couldn't move your body well (and would therefore have much to gain from practicing yoga), how would you feel if you were interested in yoga but could only find that sort of class? Every single person has the ability to practice yoga, but you would never know that by perusing your average studio schedule.
So, then, what to do?
We need to bring yoga home. Literally and figuratively.
We have to start teaching yoga as a personal practice (which it is) instead of group fitness activity (which it isn’t). We have to empower people to practice yoga without the need of intimidating, impersonal, expensive, time-consuming classes. If it were up to me, more yoga would be practiced at home to the sound of the breath. Yoga classes would more often be designed to teach you how to practice on your own. You could visit your teacher when you were able, then you’d be back to your mat at home for your daily sadhana. Your practice would be tailored to your specific needs. You’d know that you could practice for fifteen minutes or sixty minutes depending on what was available that day. You could understand how to use your body to minimize the need for expensive props. The practice would be demystified, simplified, and accessible. There is too much confusion and elitism in western yoga. It is meant to be a simple spiritual practice available to anyone who can breathe. Fast paced guided classes at trendy studios are a lot of fun, and I would miss them if they were gone, but if that's all we offer, I fear that we are excluding a whole helluva lot of people.
If you're a yoga studio owner or teacher, I also think it's crucial that we work to truly be inclusive of the needs of people different than us. Have we considered another point of view when structuring our classes, making schedules, or hiring teachers? We also ought to be mindful of the images we use to advertise our classes. A desire for a truly diverse student base should be reflected in our marketing. Just the simple act of creating an environment more inclusive of different ages, genders, and races could do a lot. People notice when they aren't represented.
I know this is only a small part of the solution. There are incredibly complex societal and cultural reasons why economically disadvantaged people, minorities, differently-abled people, etc. are much less likely to take a yoga class. But I think as yoga ambassadors we can do a better job than we’re doing now, even within our complicated world, to create a more diverse student base. I want to reach more people because I truly think yoga has the power to change lives. It transforms our stiff, unhealthy bodies into the strong, capable bodies they have the power to be. Yoga can change the way we relate to the world, helping us behave more peacefully and compassionately. Healthier communities benefit everyone. I believe with all my heart that if more people were given the opportunity to learn about yoga, the world would be a better place.
I want to make a change.