Off the Mat Yoga Popular Trending

How to Chip Away at Racism in the Yoga Community

I was recently alerted to this Instagram post by Racheal of Yoga Racheal, and I had many thoughts and feelings and ideas. But first, I want to say that I am not black. Racism in the yoga community (and everywhere else) affects all POC, but it affects BPOC in ways that I haven’t experienced and cannot fully speak to. I also want to note that I live in the United States and I don’t have an in-depth understanding of how these dynamics might be different in yoga communities in other countries.

The next thing I’d ask anyone reading this to do is to read Racheal’s post and the comments. I’ll wait.

over the years I’ve talked about the anxiety of being in most wellness spaces. not just because they’re mostly all white and or hellla privlaged, but because of the blatant racism and overflow of micro aggressions towards POC .. which is why they’re mainly all white. if you are a leader in wellness DO BETTER!!! – – I was at @sonicyoga in Manhattan when an employee had the nerve to ask if my class was only for black people. not only did she ask that, she asked twice. once to me, and once to one of my students in the class (who is White) 🤦🏾‍♀️ – While at @yogaheightsDC the woman at the front desk had the nerve to ask me how to get black people in her studio all while she has 82638 white teachers LOL — then continued to explain how black teachers aren’t as qualified for her to hire. – While standing in the @aloyoga store in Santa Monica holding my vomit in my mouth looking at all the beautiful diversity that doesn’t exist & I hear a ‘very popular’ skinny non-melanated yoga teacher LEEGGGIIIITTTTT say that she’s glad larger bodies don’t come to her class .. because “they’re damn near impossible to teach.” I died. – I went to @wanderlust last year and was asked a few times if I was interested in teaching “trap yoga” before anyone asked if I was even a teacher .. 🤔😐 – – if you’re a POC or in a non privileged body (thanks for teaching about this @nolatrees) PLEASE share your experience below. IF YOU ARE NOT A POC or IN A PRIVILEGED BODY put down your thumbs and use your eyes to read. If you for some reason cannot read this morning, then grab someone to read it aloud to you. if after all that you (still) don’t understand or feel attacked, then you are the problem. step one to fixing it – shut up and listen .. – – *ps. this is part 1 of many* please share you stories below ..

A post shared by rac(HEAL) 🦋🌱 plantMa (@yogaracheal) on

Now, I want to address some of the ways that white folks reading this might be feeling, so that we can get through those feelings and on to the actionable stuff:

  • Disappointed: Yep. It is sad. It is disappointing. If this is you, I invite you to feel those feelings and then examine what you can do to address racism in yoga in your world.
  • Bummed: OK, you visited a yoga blog because you wanted to read about chakras or how to hold your farts in during class and other, well, light stuff (we do that too!), and you’re bummed that we’re getting into a heavy topic. If this is you, I invite you to examine what you need right now but not to skip this conversation.
  • Defensive or incredulous: Maybe you feel like you’ve never seen these things happen and that your corner of the yoga world doesn’t have these problems. Maybe you even feel like addressing these microaggressions is making a mountain out of a molehill. If this is you, I invite you to keep listening and really try to let that guard down and understand how pervasive and harmful this behavior is.
  • Uncomfortable: Talking about racism is uncomfortable. I’m gonna bet most of the folks reading this have some level of self-awareness and put in work to be good people. Realizing that we’ve done that work and still sometimes fail to address racism or check our own privilege doesn’t feel good, and really, it shouldn’t. If this is you, I invite you to push through that discomfort and get used to these conversations, because we need to be having more of them. I also invite you not to feel personally attacked when someone addresses racism. “Calling someone racist” isn’t an insult that people lob at each other to hurt feelings. Pointing out racism in everyday behavior is an invitation to do better and often a bode of confidence that you want to and can do better.

So, how can we do better?

In one of the most culturally-appropriated forms of exercise and wellness (that only became a symbol of well-off white folks very recently), this is a big question, and I’m not going to be able to end racism in the yoga world in this post (sorry!).

But I do have a background in social justice work and passion for both dismantling racism and making the benefits of yoga more accessible to more folks. And I do have some ideas I’d like to share. In writing this, I found that some of these ideas also address economic and other types of privilege, and that’s because racism exists in conjunction with other types of oppression. The positive side of that is that by working to be anti-racist in yoga, we are also working to make the practice more accessible to just about everyone! Here we go:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. Being “colorblind” and pretending racism doesn’t exist is the exact opposite of helpful, and this is one of the flavors of racism I hear and see in the yoga world the most. For folks who experience the reality of racism every day, being told that “it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, brown, purple, or green” is a denial of their experiences. We won’t get anywhere if we don’t start here.
  2. Offer donation-based or PWYC classes. I know that most studio owners and yoga teachers are struggling to make ends meet, so the idea of making less money probably feels like a non-starter. But privilege is economic, and the cost of yoga is a barrier for many folks. Offering even a few classes where that money barrier is broken down makes room for the people who feel unwelcome in at least one regard, and if this is a goal you have, you can find ways to make more money elsewhere. You might also find that your business grows as you make it more accessible.
  3. Open up studio space for POC-only classes (or teacher trainings). If you are white in the United States, your skin color is seen as the default. Most spaces don’t have to be specifically welcoming to you because they are welcoming to you by default. This isn’t true for POC, so creating classes and spaces that are specifically welcoming is an important part of being anti-racist.
  4. Host classes in diverse and accessible neighborhoods. It’s likely that the yoga studios in your city are clustered in less diverse areas, and I’m not asking you to totally relocate. But think about ways to vary the location up — yoga in the park during nice weather, yoga at schools, community centers, or anywhere you can think of that shortens the distance from home or work or school to class.
  5. Hire more POC teachers. The more you see people like you hanging around a place, the more comfortable you’ll feel hanging out there too. If you’re a studio owner that would like to hire or train more POC teachers but you never get applications from them, don’t just throw up your hands. Figure out how to recruit a more diverse teaching team in your community, and it will pay off.
  6. Don’t speak for people, but do use your privilege to support others. If you are a white person, practice speaking up from your own perspective when you hear other white people make racist comments or when you see other white people do things that are inadvertently exclusive or inaccessible to huge groups of people. It’s safer for you to do this and is usually better-received. At the same time, it’s important to understand that anti-racism should center the folks who are most affected by racism, so leave plenty of room for those folks to be leaders.
  7. Educate yourselves. Read about it. Keep reading about it. Watch videos about it. Follow folks who talk about it. Talk to folks about it, but respect others’ boundaries. Don’t expect POC to explain racism to you. Google is your friend!

None of these ideas are brand new or earth-shattering, and there are many, many other things to add to this list. My hope is that at least some folks reading this find at least one new way to make their yoga community more accessible and welcoming, because that’s what yoga really is about. This goes for practitioners, teachers, studio owners, apparel brands — basically everyone. If you find inspiration from this article to do just one small thing today, this week, or even this year, I’m pretty satisfied.

OK, I want to hear from you! How have you seen racism show up in your yoga community, or experienced it as a non-white person? What are you doing or what ideas do you have to fight it?

Feature image via Flickr user angela7

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    AmberLynn

    September 22, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    I just did a great online training through AIM U and Yoga Journal with Chelsea Jackson Roberts that I believe should be part of all Teacher Training Programs. It was Inclusivity Training and went beyond the stereotypical how to include those with disabilities, the elderly, those who are pregnant or suffering chronic conditions. It also trained instructors to look at their own power and privilege in yoga….to think about all of the ways our students may be “different” from us and how to make them feel welcomed in our classes. Think about not just race, but gender and sexuality orientation. Think about uncomfortable situations that happen unintentionally toward our trauma sufferers in yoga. There are many ways in which we all need to speak up in the yoga community and say all are welcome.

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      September 22, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      That sounds AMAZING! You are so right that YTT programs do cover some marginalized groups (mine talked about injuries, elderly folks, pregnant folks, and anxiety and depression, but we went through that all pretty quickly in the special populations sliver of the 200 hours) but usually leave out others. The way a lot of yoga teachers talk about gender and sexuality is often not so inclusive either, and that’s another thing that’s often on my mind and will even keep me away from certain teachers at times. I’m going to look up that program!

  2. Avatar

    Lucy

    September 23, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you for posting this article. As a mixed poc and aspiring yoga teacher, I am glad to hear that the conversations surrounding yoga and racism are growing. I began my practice in Kundalini yoga and always felt welcome and accepted in this community. However, the minute I moved to suburbia and began to take power yoga at a studio nearby, I experienced great discomfort as I have had a practitioner give me tips on how to eat vegan while on food stamps. (I am not on food stamps and even if I was, I never asked for their guidance). I am in actuality a professor of history at a nearby college. Often I also get asked at the studio in rather loud English if I speak English. If you are a POC , this type of racism isn’t really anything new. The fact that it’s in a space like a yoga studio isn’t surprising either. Working class folks generally (my family included) are suspicious of westernized yoga. They feel that it excludes rather than includes through its pricey memberships, clothing, and etc. I really call for all of my fellow poc yogis to arm themselves with teaching certifications and begin to teach and challenge these institutions. I know I certainly am. I plan on teaching yoga classes in Spanish and in community centers once I am done with my certification. It’s about finding your community. I am grateful to have seen the dark side of yoga so I can appreciate the yoga communities who are not this way. Sat nam!

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      September 23, 2017 at 4:25 pm

      Hey Lucy! I think that’s a great call-to-action. The YTT I did had a relatively accessible cost and schedule and offered scholarships, and it was one of the more diverse yoga communities I’ve been a part of — those things totally correlate, and I hope more teacher training programs figure that out so that it’s easier for marginalized yogis to get those certifications.

      And ugh, the unsolicited advice-giving in yoga studios really gets to me too, and definitely intersects with race and class (and with age and gender and size and ability as well). I’m also mixed ethnicity, but usually white-passing, so I don’t experience racism in the same way, but I have definitely seen it happen openly and casually with other folks in those ways you’ve experienced. We do a lot of work in yoga to let go of judgment and assumptions about our own selves, but most of us have a lot of room to grow in letting go of our assumptions about others.

  3. Kaitlin

    Kaitlin

    September 24, 2017 at 8:42 am

    I have heard through the grapevine that Yoga Alliance is adding a whole new module to their training on Yoga as Service. Part of this, I believe, will be getting yoga into communities that do not have access, money or location, to yoga. Teaching in an urban high school to students of color, the need is so real. Thank you Alex for writing this and I hope we can continue this conversation at Bad Yogi!

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      September 24, 2017 at 2:18 pm

      Interesting! I’ll be excited to check that out when it happens. I love the work you are doing!

  4. Avatar

    watching

    November 3, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    I mean … do YOU have black indigenous and people of colour writing for your blog? Maybe make some changes instead of performing allyship…

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      November 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      Yes, I wrote this article and I am a mixed race person. There are also other writers for this site and members of our team who are people of color. Regardless of any of that though, this article isn’t performative allyship. I would love to hear your ideas for making the yoga community less racist or what you’re already doing to work on this.

  5. Avatar

    Tina Strawn

    October 25, 2018 at 4:13 am

    Grateful to find this article and i think that it was written from a very mindful and action oriented perspective. Thank you for your courage in speaking up about racism in yoga and sharing ways to affect change. This work of dismantling racism, particularly in yoga spaces, is so necessary particularly because yoga is seen as this pure bubble of bliss where no negative energy can or should penetrate it, so confronting racism in yoga spaces is not yet a thing. But I believe that the work you are doing, and Dr Chelsea Jackson Roberts as referenced above, and many other anti racism yoga change agents, are starting to spread and be received, and that is our work, both on and off our mats. Loved this blog and would like to include it in some curriculum I’m writing. I’ll be in touch 😉

Leave a Reply