Yoga and the exclusion of people of color

By Rochelle Robinson

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I recently read an interesting and very relevant article entitled “Why I Left Yoga (And Why I think A Helluva Of A Lot Of People Are Getting Duped)” by Irasna Rising (curious name, by the way). Worth the read, especially if you are a person of color who loves the practice and benefits of yoga, but find almost without fail, very few yoga studios that aren’t predominately white and elitist. Like the author of the attached piece, I don’t want to be so emphatic that there is no room for those instances where this isn’t the case, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more of the latter. She indicates as much with the images chosen to highlight her point, asking the reader to try and locate a body that isn’t caucasian. Yes, when I initiated my own google image search, I found it difficult to spot yoga images (of women) that weren’t non-ethnic ( I don’t consider white an ethnicity). Image after image consisted of white women and men occupying yoga spaces. There were very few images of people of color, and when shown, they were singular images, as with the majority of images displayed, and even fewer images of yogis from India.

Problematic, hell yeah it is. When I did a more specific google image search for black women and yoga, there were a number of non-yoga specific images, but also images of white women were presented on this page as if it’s just not possible for you to inquire about yoga, especially in the U.S., without white folks showing up. They gentrifying every damn where. Infiltrating our cyber spaces. We can’t get a mothafuckin’ page. Just one page! Ain’t that a bitch. Lawd hab mercy.

The Why I Left Yoga article touched upon a number of things that I’ve also experienced going to different yoga studios. She points to how trendy the practice has become. I’d written an article about yoga for another website, where I mentioned that in the Bay Area alone, the yoga market is saturated and finding a studio in Oakland where a minority is a minority (disproportionately so) is not impossible. Finding a yoga studio where white women aren’t the dominant participants is rare. And, as mentioned in Ms. Rising’s piece, yoga’s become a cult. I’ve entered these spaces and my first reaction is to run away as quickly as I can, but then I convince myself that I have just as much right to be there than all of the white, affluent, and indifferent women who flex their bodies in ways that only serve to intimidate anyone who may have to frequently modify their yoga poses. “Fuck them” is usually my attitude and then I proceed to do what my body allows me to do and forget about how perfect the white girl next to me is at doing what I cannot. I feel just as good when I leave as they do if not better.

But, generally, I’m tired of going to studio after studio where I cannot find a more pliable, more welcoming and more people of color presence. Where the hell are our low-income, working-class folk? Rising states that [yoga in the U.S.] “is extremely classist. It lacks plurality and inclusiveness. I do not see many people of blue-collar backgrounds who can afford these classes on a regular basis—and many of them are precisely the ones who could probably benefit the most from yoga.” Definitely more so than “the affluent and bored—or those who are obsessed with the body beautiful. . . .” Yeah, honey, yoga can cost an arm and a leg, and not just the ones used in a tree pose. It’s fuckin’ ridiculous the amount of money these places want you to cough up for an hour of bends and twists. “Most of the studios in my city charge around twelve hundred dollars for an unlimited yearly membership. That’s serious coin” Ms. Rising quips. It’s certainly more than my black ass can afford. I’m telling you.

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but I found one (http://blackyogis.tumblr.com/page/12)

When I talk to other black women or women of color, I hear pretty much the same: they don’t think that yoga is accessible to them because white folk who usually own and operate these studios don’t consider our needs, many facilities don’t have non-white instructors–although there are some exceptions where studios hire women or men of color, this does not guarantee, nor is it intended to bring in other ethnic groups. The majority, if not all of the studios around “the town” also lack sensitivity to the well endowed female bodies. Neither does the images you see reflect women who are larger than a size 2.

So, this group of women is usually excluded because yoga has become a mainstream practice for the super thin and super fit, two qualities usually not attributed to the fuller-figured sistas. And this doesn’t mean that those of us who are thin and fit find it more easily to assimilate into this culture. As indicated by Rising, you may occasionally find a woman of color, but it’s clear that they’re tokenized. I have certainly found it at times difficult to find affinity with the one other person of color in the room. Hmmmmmm. Wonder why that is. It’s like, “Sorry, sista, but we’ve reached our ethnic quota for the day. You won’t get any love from me.” For real…some of us get down like that. Don’t act like you don’t know.

Yeah, uh-huh. And even more fucked up than all of this, is when you go to a class, find a comfortable spot, get into a zone, do your damnest to block out the yoga-divas brigade, try to adjust your body accordingly, the instructor, who you KNOW is going around helping folks, totally ignores you when they find you struggling. That shit happened to me. I’d received a groupon for free yoga classes at Flying Yoga from a friend, who, because of her size didn’t feel like she fit in—see what I’m saying? At one of the Sunday evening classes, this instructor was talking us through a pose, walking around the room and assisting others, but I may as well have been invisible. As much as I wanted to shout “hey, don’t you see me struggling, can I get a little help, please?” I decided instead that I wouldn’t be going back to that bitch’s class. Yep, that shit pissed me the fuck off. I tried a few of the many classes offered there and found two that suited me because the instructors believed that yoga is for EVERY/BODY, and that showing off is not what it’s all about, nor was it expected that everyone would be at the same level of yoga fitness and flexibility. Right on. Thank you, Shakthi Ganeshan and Ziv Porat. Unfortunately, when that groupon expired, I couldn’t afford the $14/class. Yoga’s become a luxury. Even some of the newer condos, like the one at 100 Grand Avenue, have a studio on the bottom floor. Gentrification with amenities. Get the fuck out! No, literally, get the fuck out, poor people!

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But let me tell you, this sista is going to keep doing her thang. I love the way I feel after a good yoga workout. Rejuvenated. Refreshed. Realigned. Re-ignited to fight, write, live, love. Be. Me. No yoga studio or instructor is gonna change that! Ya heard?

C’mon sistas, let’s develop our own spaces for our bodies to stretch beyond limits and imagination. Let’s flex our power, our spirits and our minds. Who’s game?

Originally posted at Writing From Within. Reposted with permission.

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