Yoga is for everyone. So let's clean up our act.
With all that's currently happening in the U.S. and spilling over into Canada, I couldn't help but reflect on the state of our southern neighbour, and how they got there, and also realizing that, although it may not be as apparent, racism happens in Canada as well. As fate would have it, I also recently completed a training in "Yoga for Every Body and Trauma-Informed Yoga". Timing is everything. In this training, we discussed how to make yoga accessible to everyone: every race, gender, age, body type, physical ability, etc... and the question of privilege came up, more specifically, white privilege.
It seems white people cringe at this term: what does it mean? I didn't bestow it on myself. Should I feel guilt or shame? White privilege is real, and if you're Caucasian, you probably reap the benefits of it. But should you spend your time feeling guilty and shameful about it? No. It's not a very productive way to spend your time. What we could do is use our privilege for good. We can use it to help those who suffer racism or any kind of "ism" really, whether it be sexism, ageism, racism. How can I use the advantages bestowed upon me by a completely unjust society to bring about justice for those who are most affected by systemic and institutionalized "isms"?
I need not look any further than my own professional "backyard", the yoga community, to see that change needs to happen here. We may have made some tentative first steps towards inclusivity and accessibility but we still have a long way to go. The dominant media narrative in the yoga world, whether it be traditional or social media is this: yoga is for young, lean, fit, flexible white girls in tight, pretty clothes. That leaves out a hell of a lot of people. And if I'm not mistaken, isn't yoga for everyone? Unfortunately, the yoga world is nowhere near representative of diversity (in race, age, sexual orientation and body type) or inclusivity (able-bodied, limited mobility, injured, disabled).
Another "ism" that has crept its way into the yoga world is ageism. Some studios I've attended don't seem to hire older, more experienced teachers. You're hard-pressed to find anyone on the teaching staff over 40. I'm not saying young teachers aren't good teachers but ideally, a mix of different ages, levels of experience and walks of life are what make up a great teaching team. That indicates to potential students that there is a recognition, on the part of the studio, of the diversity of their clientele, and that, yes indeed, yoga is for everyone. I'm a 45-year-old white female in fairly decent shape and I've felt like a fish out of water in some classes where the median age, including that of the teacher, was about 25, where some kind of popular music was blasting from the speakers so loudly, the teacher had to wear a wireless microphone to be heard over her own music, where the teacher's language and approach made me feel like I was at the gym, and not one OM was heard. These classes were clearly tailored to a younger generation, with no thought of how they might be received by older folks, and only served to discourage me from returning.
It's pretty difficult to quiet your mind when you feel like you're at a night club on spandex theme night, and encouraged to move in a way that is competitive and ego-based. We, the yoga community, seem to be suffering from collective amnesia regarding the other seven limbs of yoga. Western yoga is so focused on Asana, and maybe some Pranayama, here and there, with very little to no attention on the Yamas and Niyamas, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (the other six limbs of yoga). It is this complete system of eight different limbs that, if pursued in earnest by the yogini or yogi, will allow them to become their best selves, and in turn, offer that best self to the world, to work towards a more just society, one that acknowledges the injustice of white privilege and doesn't simply use words to convey a desire for a better world but engages in action to help bring about that better world.
The yoga community needs to look at itself and recognize its role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes that have kept so many away from this beautiful practice. I've heard on countless occasions, much to my dismay, people tell me they didn't want to try yoga because they weren't flexible enough, they didn't feel like they were nearly "in shape" enough. Where did they get these ideas? You guessed it: media. They don't see their gender, age group, size or race reflected in any of the images that portray what a yoga practitioner might look like, and they don't see realistic, accessible ways of moving reflected in yoga media. We need to examine our intent when posting or publishing such exclusionary images and consider the impact they are having on the vast majority of people who would love to try yoga but are being told, by the yoga community itself, that it's not for them. This will require asking difficult questions of ourselves and figuring out how we can do better. It will require getting out of "popularity contest" mode, which social media is so skilled at engendering, and focusing on how we can reach out to the largest number of people with the message that yoga is for all.
Yoga is not exclusively a workout for young, skinny white girls so let's start erasing that messaging from our media. Let's start highlighting people of all shapes, colours, ages and physical ability on social media and magazine covers instead of these fancy acrobatics that make yoga look even more inaccessible. Let's encourage diversity and inclusivity in our classes, teaching staff, language and promotion. Let's bring yoga back into yoga classes so that we have all its tools at our disposal. Let's acknowledge its ancient roots and origins, that it is a gift bestowed upon the world from India; let's focus on the eight limbs instead of hobbling along on only two of them. Let's bring back the elements that aren't so "Instagramable" like chanting, mudras and meditation. We're missing out on the riches of this beautiful practice and way of being in the world when we cherry pick the elements of yoga that fit into a corporate, media-hyped, bastardized version of an ancient spiritual tradition that is barred from no one.
In this time of unrest and uncertainty, I'm pausing to reflect on the ways I may have contributed to a lack of inclusivity and accessibility or a lack of acknowledgement of my white privilege. I'm examining my conditioning and snap judgements and how I can unravel them. I'm continuing to study yoga in depth, and developing an even further awe of the many elements that make up this spiritual path. And I'm pondering how I can, as a yoga teacher, bring yoga back to yoga, and contribute to making the world a safe and just place for all.