How to Fix Yoga’s Representation Deficit

I started yoga seven or eight years ago while on a tour break. Since then, I’ve been off…

I started yoga seven or eight years ago while on a tour break. Since then, I’ve been off and on, focusing on mental and physical aspects, even completing teacher training. As yoga gains popularity and we’re told that it is spreading among and embraced by more people from all walks of life, one thing remains evident:

It sure doesn’t look like it.

In the face of assertions about yoga’s exemplary universality and reach, the actual universality and reach still seem to look like slender women who fit a certain, narrow mold. Looking at yoga-as-business, this makes sense: know your target audience, go for the common denominator, and you’ll be viable. But it seems to land squarely at odds with yoga-as-practice.

I’m a black male. My yoga wear consists partially of exercise gear I’ve owned and taken care of for a few years. My yoga pants are pajama pants from Target that I proudly altered with the help of a sewing machine. My shirts are graphic T-shirts—ridiculous shirts, nerdy shirts, shirts from tours. The public faces of yoga don’t look like me. Some of my yoga friends are pierced, inked, butch, swishy, curvy, rigid, bulging, sagging, brown, yellow, pasty, arthritic, or silver-haired. The public faces of yoga don’t look like them.

Changing this representation deficit is not an overnight prospect, but it is an overdue one. A shift will not happen without looking around and within ourselves and taking deliberate action. Here are some steps we can take toward change:

  • Pay a visit to a yoga studio or class other than your regular one(s). Not only will you experience different teachers and teaching styles, but the clientele composition might be different.
  • A karma yoga project or practice is an excellent way to expose yourself to different groups or to be that different face yourself.
  • If you’re someone who doesn’t fit the image of the “norm,” build up your network. Attend classes and workshops together if schedules allow. Be seen, be present, be counted.
  • If you’re responsible for representation of yoga in media, work on making conscious choices in public relations and advertising.
  • If your outreach program isn’t yielding fruit, seek input about what you could be doing differently. People who are part of the community you’re trying to reach are of special value in such efforts.
  • Listen to other people’s stories. Ask questions. Remember: it’s not about you.

If we keep saying that yoga truly is for all bodies, then it’s up to all of us—but especially the de facto gatekeepers and ambassadors of the industry—to put that into practice and broaden the representation of the public faces of yoga.