(Photo credit: Sariane Leigh’s photographer)
I recently became a volunteer at a wellness retreat that offers a lot of yoga classes, and we recently held a weeklong intensive for a very well known Vinyasa Yoga teacher training. There were over 130 people (almost all women) in the training, and only one black woman enrolled — we traded smiling glances a few times across the dining room, but since I’m a lowly serf and couldn’t eat in the guests’ dining area, I never got a chance to ask her if she felt the same way I did being the token black chick in YogaLand.
Even though yoga was originated by People of Color (hello, India), it is continually shocking to see how much yoga’s presence and practice in the U.S. is dominated by super-thin, super-fit, and often super-rich white folks. The experience of so often being the only POC in the room has also made me look for who else isn’t in the room: larger-bodied folks, other POC from different backgrounds, queer and trans folks, low-income and/or blue-collar folks. And getting through the door ain’t always easy either — classes are usually expensive and unless you’re dressed like a Lululemon ad, you’re likely to feel (and be treated) like you don’t belong. Sorry, but I can’t afford to drop $182 plus shipping for one damn yoga outfit to gain your approval. Why on earth would anyone do this?
Unfortunately, my experience isn’t unique. Writing From Within blog author Roro in Oakland has experienced the same thing right in the middle of the West Coast’s black mecca. In her article Yoga and the Exclusion of People of Color, she points out yet another challenge for POC in joining the typical yoga class: “…you go to a class, find a comfortable spot, get into a zone, do your damnest to block out the yoga-divas brigade, try to adjust your body accordingly, [then] the instructor, who you KNOW is going around helping folks, totally ignores you when they find you struggling.” Being the token POC in any setting often means being both hyper-visible and completely invisible.
In her post, she references another highly-relevant exploration of the topic, “Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think A Helluva Lot Of People Are Being Duped)” by Irasna Rising. Rising touches on a lot of the other problematic aspects of the current yoga trend such as cultural appropriation mashed up with classism. If you’re a black/POC woman who wants to keep doing yoga and you’re looking for a more empowering angle, check out Sariane Leigh’s post about the bell hooks approach to yoga. (She’s the yoga teacher and health activist pictured above.) And I really dig Qui Dorian’s call for queer, trans and brown people to Occupy Yoga Studios.
I took my first yoga class at a gym when I was still in college and I fell asleep during it — granted, this was immediately after completing a super intense kickboxing class and I was pretty wiped out. A few years later, I started taking yoga classes with an amazingly loving and warm instructor who created the most welcoming yoga studio I have ever been in. Since then, I’ve been doing yoga off and on for 14 years. The majority of yoga studios I’ve been in since then have been let-downs in comparison, ranging from boring and uninspired to outright chilly and condescending. Then there was that one time the teacher made animal noises to accompany the poses, mimicking the sound of dolphins, cows, dogs, and eagles. WTF?
So why do I care? Why bother with yoga at all?
I’ve enjoyed doing yoga in the past for the way it makes my body feel: healthier, stronger, more flexible and more resistant to injury. I’ve also been a fan for the way it makes my mind feel: clearer, more relaxed, more at peace and connected. I wish there was a way to show up to a yoga class without feeling like it’s a damn political act.
Seeing the unending gentrification spiral of yoga makes me fired up to spread the word about folks like Yoga to the People, Samarya Center, Street Yoga, and anybody else working to decolonize, integrate, and de-bullshit-ify yoga in America. I think the creed of Yoga for the People is a decent start:
There will be no proper clothes
There will be no proper payment
There will be no right answers
No glorified teachers
No ego No script No pedestals
No ‘you’re not good enough or rich enough’
This yoga is for everyone
This sweating and breathing and becoming
This knowing glowing feeling
Is for the big small weak and strong
Able and crazy
Brothers sisters grandmothers
The mighty and the meek
Bones that creak
Those who seek
This power is for everyone
Yoga to the People
All bodies rise
Where do you think we should go from here?