The Feminism and Mindfulness Series
Yoga saturates U.S. culture. Yoga studios are as pervasive as Starbucks franchises and often as commercial. For those who understand the roots of yoga, the question of yoga’s connection to social justice is an obvious one.
But here in the U.S., when people bring social justice awareness into yoga realms, we are often dubbed “social justice warriors” (as though this is a bad thing. I, for one, would proudly reclaim that title). Yoga, this perspective claims, should be a place away from all the “real world” issues. Can’t we just all get along and find nirvana?
Here’s the thing. There is no space away from the “real world” issues. The oppressive conditions that shape U.S. culture inevitably find their way into yoga studios. The very form yoga has so often taken in the West is practically a poster child for inequality. There are far too many components to this issue to address in one blog post, so I will focus on one aspect here.
It is risky, if not impossible, to do the deep self-study of yoga in oppressive spaces.
While a yoga practice can indeed be a healing respite from our day-to-day lives, the deep self-reflection that it invites requires a level of vulnerability. That kind of openness is not likely to happen if a person feels marginalized in a yoga studio.
Scenario: a person walks into a yoga class and notices that ze is the only person of color, trans and/or queer, person with a dis/ability, or fuller figured person in the space. Ze already feels at risk, but sets up the mat anyway. The other students are talking about their new $100 prana pants and the yoga retreat to Bali they will attend, while ze has barely afforded the $15 drop-in class fee. Class starts, and the yoga teacher starts talking about how women’s bodies do this and men’s bodies do that, which assumes a gender binary, assumes that all men and women’s bodies are the same, and erases ze’s gender identity. The music played is a pop version of a sacred mantra for ze, which is as offensive as the mispronounced Sanskrit words the white teacher keeps saying. With each microagression (really, macroaggressions) ze’s willingess and ability to be open shrinks. What might have been a deep self-reflection becomes a protected attempt at survival, as ze contemplates rolling up the mat and leaving rather than feel overwhelmed by vulnerability in such an unsafe space.
These macroagressions, and many others like them, regularly occur in many yoga spaces. I myself am guilty of some of them and am constantly unlearning the conditioning not just of the larger society but also of U.S. yoga culture itself. I have also been marginalized in yoga spaces. In other words, we may be both the marginalized and the perpetrator (sometimes unknowingly but nevertheless with responsibility).
This scenario, of course, assumes that a person even feels welcome enough to come to the space at all. Many of the yoga studios I have been to have drawn the same type of student: predominantly white, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, thin, and able-bodied. There are always reasons why people who do not fit that norm do not come to studios: they have received the message loud and clear that they are not welcome there.
In order to change that, some yoga organizations have created classes geared specifically for groups who have been excluded from that norm. Queer and Trans Yoga, People of Color Yoga, Accessible Yoga, Yoga for Round Bodies, Yoga for All, and so on, are classes and programs that exist so that people who experience oppression both inside and outside the yoga studio can find some degree of safety. Even these efforts have garnered backlash. This backlash reflects the very oppressive entitlement that the classes were designed to help counter.
Whether we teach these sorts of classes or more general classes, we can work to create more inclusive spaces.
1. We can educate ourselves about groups different from our own.
2. We can reflect on our own privileges and how we bring them into yoga spaces (both teachers and students). We can then intentionally work to dismantle those privileges.
3. We can be more intentional about our language (don’t assume gender pronouns, don’t make assumptions about what different bodies can and cannot do).
4. We can reflect on issues of cultural appropriation.
5. We can make yoga more economically accessible.
6. We can learn how to make yoga practices accessible to a range of bodies and abilities, rather than assuming a “norm.”
There are many more (and each of these points is worth a blog post in itself). But these are a start. Organizations such as The Yoga and Body Image Coalition (full disclosure: I am on the Leadership team of the YBIC), Off the Mat, Into the World, the Yoga Service Council, and other organizations, are doing this work, as are sites such as Decolonizing Yoga and the documentary series, Yoga and Diversity.
Noticing who’s present and who is absent is always an important start. And it is never accidental. When a class draws predominantly one kind of person (racially, culturally, economically, and so on), it is usually because other groups have gotten the message that the practice isn’t for them. To change that requires intentional work of unlearning power and privilege. It requires transforming the culture of the spaces themselves.
Yoga can be a deeply transformative, liberating, and healing medium. It is a practice that that can help us unlearn oppressive social conditioning, begin to relate to ourselves and others with compassion and deep humanity, and create a more socially just world. But in order for it to reach that potential, we need to transform some elements of the typical yoga spaces in the West.