Radical Diversity: Setting a Yoga Standard for Equality

As yoga has exploded it has fallen victim to the racial inequality of larger society. How can we stand together and stand firm in insisting on diversity?

It can be challenging to acknowledge that the yoga community lacks diversity.

That still, after 60-odd years since yoga was brought to the U.S., yoga practitioners are disproportionately white—as are teachers, and as are the people who work in, and represent, what has now become an industry.

It’s challenging because it is hard to hear that yoga, which provides us with deep healing and joy—yoga which has at its core union and oneness—may have become another expression of society’s racial prejudice.

California-based author, yoga teacher, and teacher-trainer, Rolf Gates says it is inevitable that in the rapid growth of the nation’s yoga practitioners—now at 36.7 million Americans, according to a recent study—yoga in the U.S. would come to reflect the strengths and challenges of the larger society. “Where yoga has been challenged is that it is highly entrepreneurial—which is wonderful for spreading yoga—but it does not filter out the dominant culture. For us to raise the bar beyond the dominant culture we have to start taking specific steps that say we are defining ourselves as a separate culture. One that stands for equality.”

We have to have the challenging conversations around diversity—not from a place of highlighting what people are doing wrong or right—but rather to reinforce together what our codes, and our precepts as yogis, are.

He points to Buddhism and 12-step programs as cultures that have not been diluted by larger society—predominantly because they have defined precepts or codes that everyone agrees to adhere to. If we as a yoga community wish to ensure equality, then we have to have the challenging conversations around diversity—not from a place of highlighting what people are doing wrong or right—but rather to reinforce together what our codes, and our precepts as yogis, are, says Rolf.

Because if we want the teachings of yoga to remain pure—the teachings of ahimsa, of satya, of asteya—then within that we have to make certain that our industry is doing its utmost to ensure that in the Westernization of yoga, every culture knows that yoga belongs to them. Everyone feels included. And every culture benefits from yoga—should they wish to practice.

Creating a Safe Space

One step we can take together is to discuss how our classes can feel more inclusive. “It is not easy for anyone to take the step to go to yoga on their own. Now imagine the courage it takes when you are the only brown person in the room, and you don’t feel the teacher is talking your language or working with your body,” says Crystal McCreary, both a teacher and a yoga instructor in New York. “We know from observing children as they learn that human beings need to feel safe in order to learn something new. If you are not the racial or cultural majority you may not feel safe learning yoga.”

It is a sentiment voiced by many people of color—that being the minority in a yoga class can be discouraging. So how do we create a safe space for all students, and indeed all human beings in the world? By becoming culturally literate.

David Jason Williams is a DJ and Hip Hop yoga teacher in New York City. He came to yoga when he was introduced by a friend to a Bikram class on the Lower East Side. “It wasn’t the style of yoga that kept me going there. Rather it was the teacher, Tricia Donegan. She was someone who wasn’t from my cultural background, but she very much understood it. She was a radical woman covered in tattoos, who embraced the black community, and the LGBT community.”

That a student’s culture and background can dictate their needs as much as their individual physique has yet to be fully integrated within the curriculum of yoga teacher training. Whether it’s using pop culture references that do not resonate, being adjusted too aggressively (or not at all), or a lack of eye contact, students of color often report that it’s not that they feel racism towards them in yoga classes, it’s simply that they feel their needs are being ignored—that they do not matter.

In the same way education is being reformed, we have to view yoga teaching as also a place for change.

We can’t take this personally as teachers or else we are likely to feel defensive, rather than open to listening. As Rolf says of the thousands of students he has taught: “Yoga teachers and students have hearts of gold. They have a generosity of spirit, and they’re doing their best to help others.” Rather, we can use this information as an opportunity to become culturally literate ourselves.

Crystal says that in the same way education is being reformed, we have to view yoga teaching as also a place for change.

“It’s OK not to know someone else’s point of view or culture,” she says, “but when we commit to acknowledging our differences and being curious about them instead of just ignoring those differences, then we can begin to build relationships, and help people feel safer.” Essentially it’s about taking responsibility to be yoga in action—to embody the spirit of union and human connection she says—where we commit to “a greater understanding and empathy for all human beings.”

How can we expect to truly educate any of our students without this? She asks.

Supporting Diversity Within Teaching

If we are committed to greater diversity in our yoga classes, then making sure our teaching community is represented by people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities has to be a priority.

Jana Long is the executive director and co-founder of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (established in 2009). She says that in her 40 years of practicing yoga there are now “exponentially more teachers and practitioners of color.” But there is still a long way to go. Her organization seeks to provide a platform for black yoga teachers to network with each other and provide support. This year the group is holding its inaugural conference at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. “It’s not about isolating ourselves as a community. It’s the opposite. Rather we want to build alliances outside of our community, and work with groups that share our common integrity,” she says.

That a student’s culture and background can dictate their needs as much as their individual physique has yet to be fully embraced within the curriculum of yoga teacher training.

But to her it seems that not every studio shares that integrity. Crystal says she has felt a reticence by some studios to hire her based on the color of her skin. Again, it’s not from malice, she points out. “It’s that you can sense that some studios are thinking—is this person going to draw in a crowd? Are they going to make money for the studio?”

If we’re going to adhere to putting yoga’s ethics of equality before profits, these are perspectives and questions that need to be changed. The economics of yoga need to be discussed as a community because it is vital to make room for good yoga teachers of color who can inspire students to follow in their footsteps.

Rolf was one of Crystal’s teachers and it changed her life. “He was the first teacher I ever had who really ‘saw’ me in class, and who also made an effort to nurture my personal needs through yoga. After six years of practice at that point, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s also African American. I’m not sure I would be a teacher today, currently teaching many other African Americans, if it were not for him,” she says.

“I see people who want to teach yoga only to serve the elderly, minority groups, children, or the economically-challenged. I see diversity happening, and we won’t be turning backwards.” – Rolf Gates

Jana takes it one step further and says that if we want to see greater diversity in yoga, then we have to see a change at the very top—that the large teacher training institutes could make a more conscious effort to employ teacher-trainers of color, “rather than just have black people sit on their boards, and participate in workshops and retreats.”

Taking Yoga to Communities

But even if we have greater diversity among teachers and teacher training programs, there remains the fact that if we really want to ensure everyone can access yoga, then it’s going to take more than simply hanging up a shingle and waiting for students to come. We have to bring yoga to communities, make it accessible, affordable, and more convenient.

The relationship between race and socioeconomic status in the U.S. is complex at best. And according to Jana: “In poor communities there are no yoga studios. And the people there are not going to travel to white communities and walk into a yoga studio never having been before. So, we have to ask—how do we bring the self-healing and self-empowerment of yoga to those people?” By meeting them where they are. By offering it in churches, or community centers and homes. “It’s happening,” she says. “There is a lot of Seva going on, and I think it’s working.”

Vanya Francis, who runs her own studio, Cherished Life, in Atlanta agrees that there seems to be a sea of change in reaching communities that otherwise would not have considered yoga. “Women in particular are getting hip to the fact that they need to take care of themselves before they can take care of their family.” She says it has helped that we are seeing more images of people of different ethnicities and body-types practicing yoga.

What we don’t want is exploitation, and that’s something we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about when we’re having these discussions around promoting diversity.

We may also have to get creative as a community to make sure we are attracting those who might benefit from yoga. David encourages “creating stepping stones” to help those unfamiliar with yoga move towards it. He uses Hip Hop to engage children in yoga in his community, and says that it would be a positive measure if studios did greater outreach, and offered community classes and social events.

But any outreach has to be from the heart, says Jana, because there can be a feeling that “sometimes the efforts around embracing diversity by studios and organizations is really about getting some green dollars out of black and brown hands, rather than based on a heartfelt connection.” What we don’t want is exploitation, and that’s something we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about when we’re having these discussions around promoting diversity, she says.

Indeed, engaging in discussion around diversity is yoga in action, says David. “When we acknowledge the differences, and that there is suffering, we are essentially practicing being present and mindful.”

We have to bring yoga to communities, make it accessible, affordable, and more convenient.

Rolf says he is optimistic that the yoga community is heading in the direction of setting its own path that can go against the inequalities mired within larger society, and—given the popularity of yoga—even become the influencing culture. “I’m not concerned about where we are. I have compassion, but I’m not concerned,” he says. “I see people who want to teach yoga only to serve the elderly, minority groups, children, or the economically-challenged. I see diversity happening, and we won’t be turning backwards. I see the youth that are coming up the ranks and their commitment to equality. We just need to put our focus on communicating our values together and standing by them.”

Who’s in?

HelenaveryHS

Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on Wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.