I have been a yoga student and teacher for well over ten years, but I have been a white girl from Jersey my whole life. My identity as a yoga teacher is only one part of my total experience and evolution, although it is now my professional identity, and one with which I feel both a deep connection and a dynamic tension.
In this “yoga” identity, I often feel like an uneasy outsider, sort of Groucho Marxish in his famous statement, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The reason I feel this way, when I do, is because I see my yoga practice, and the practice I share, as a grand opportunity to explore myself, my own biases, and the ways in which my thinking, my responding, my reacting, my up-bringing, affect people around me – in ways that are uplifting, but also in ways that can be hurtful. I become frustrated when I see others, deeply involved in yoga, not taking this same opportunity. We have the chance to really start to heal wounds and create lasting social change, and I don’t always see that happening. This is when I feel disconnected, or disillusioned, with other yoga practitioners, especially those in a position to steward and ignite these changes.
My own practice of yoga was an accidental meeting of a physical discipline that was the “prefect workout,” and my soul’s deep, and inborn desire to feel, seek and cultivate true kinship with people on the margins. In yoga, I found a place for my soul to thrive, and also a medium by which I could meet, connect with and reach out to people I might not normally get to be with. This experience has given me much to think about, but perhaps most of all, an opportunity to really face head on the ways in which we continue to hurt each other and divide ourselves, through race, class, size, ability, gender, just to name a few. The hurt continues because of many complex, but manageable, obstacles.
I recently shared some yoga with a group of folks who were part of the social service system. I asked them, when you think of “yoga” and who does it, who do you picture? The answer was the same I’ve heard a thousand times and the answer you guessed: white people, rich people, skinny people. One woman pantomimed her response by pursing her lips, looking down her nose and bobbing her head in the universal charade for “hoity toity”. I got it.
This is the perception that many people, especially those who feel excluded from yoga, have about it. But yoga is not a practice cornered by the white straight non-disabled upper middle class, even if it is most often co-opted by them in our culture.
By “them,” what I mean is, “us.” I am a white woman who feels comfortable in most yoga classes, at least on the levels of class and race. I may not want to hang out with a lot of the people I see and meet who practice yoga, but it would not be because I felt socially, culturally, racially or economically inferior to, or oppressed by them at an institutional level.
There is a much deeper issue here. It is the issue of diversity in yoga, yes, but it is at a much more profound and transformative level, the issue of us using our yoga, our practice, to have challenging conversations about exclusion.
If blaming, attacking, patronizing, minimizing, defending, posturing and intolerance worked, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation at all. It’s not working. But we are committed to a practice that also offers us guidelines of how to treat one another, how to hang in there, and how to let go.
This is a site for that conversation. Over the past more than a decade, I have taught yoga to literally thousands of people from, and in, very diverse circumstances. This site is not about me. It is about the simple and consistent observation I have made within that time about the issue of diversity in yoga, a spiritual practice evolved from a place where everyone was of color. A practice that doesn’t care about color, or size, or ability, or class, or gender – in fact, a practice that essentially denies the physical body and circumstance as being anything more than illusion.
This is the observation, in two parts.
Part 1: When people within the yoga community are asked about diversity and inclusion, or seek to promote it, it is almost always within the context of “outreach” and “underserved populations,” and very rarely about the simple integration of mainstream yoga classes, including yoga teachers of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. At the larger organizational levels, the issue of diversity, if touched on at all, is relegated to a response of, “Check out this organization that is doing outreach, or serving underserved populations.” I have been knocking on this door for literally years with the same response.
While it is all good to focus on outreach and service as a means of acknowledging a desire to share yoga with more people who might benefit from it, it is also very problematic ~
▪ what level of cultural competency do the folks who are reaching out to these “underserved” people have?
▪ why aren’t we actually talking about increasing diversity within the existing yoga communities? Yes, in the yoga studios and yoga teacher trainings! Do we really need to go to the margins to find, for example, middle and high income people of color who may want to participate in yoga, but feel excluded or uncomfortable?
▪ why aren’t we working harder to get a more diverse cohort being the yoga teachers in the first place?
▪ why aren’t we using our position as spiritual guides and mentors-or our dedication to our practice at any level – to address a huge source of suffering in our own culture – racism, homophobia, fear of people with disabilities, and on and on, when one might argue that people coming from a truly “yogic” perspective should be the very ones starting and hanging in for these conversations.
What if the conversation wasn’t even “Why aren’t we seeing more diverse engagement within the yoga community?” but “Why aren’t we using our practice to open our hearts and minds and change the way we think and act to address all types of exclusion and oppression – regardless of where or how it is happening?”
Part 2: People cannot talk about this stuff! What I have observed, repeatedly, is that ”non-target” or “agent” groups are too afraid of the cognitive dissonance that comes with “I am a good person” and “I am racist” (for example), so one of those two statements has to go underground. You know which one, because you are smart. ”Target” groups can’t talk about it because there is so much anger, hurt and blame that it very often comes out as aggressive and attacking, which only shuts down the conversation and reinforces the idea of “other,” and increases distance, disconnection, alienation and confirmation on both sides.
Then it all starts over, and we stand in the same place we started. Is that really the best we can do?
This is crazy. We can (and must!) talk about this stuff. So finally, one day on a walk, it hit me: D.I.Y. Do it yourself. Start the conversation. D.I.Y. Diversity in Yoga.
Be punk rock. What I mean by that is: do it another way. What we are doing now, by and large, is not working. Step outside the box. Be courageous, be expansive, open your mind, all of us! Let’s share experiences, open the conversation, and start to make real change, from the bottom up. We can make this happen.