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Is Yoga For Everybody?
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST JESSICA LESLEY
I feel it is a bit of a touchy subject that deserves to be discussed.
I mean yoga as it is represented, yoga as it is offered in the yoga community and in the world at large, yoga as it is practiced: I am looking at the roles of income, neighborhood, race, religion, and size.
We tend to accept the notion that *Yoga Is For Everyone* but looking through a catalog for yoga apparel or showing up to certain studios it is easy to see how some become disenchanted with yoga. Of course there is always an exception and your studio may be be socially/economically/and ethnically diverse (that is awesome!) I have classes I attend at studios that very much fit this description.
I don’t have to go too far outside the safety of peace, unity and love to see that it’s a bubble, and be smacked with the reality that this is indeed the exception – not the rule.
Not invited to the party
There are many social and economic conflicts that maintain the perceived exclusiveness surrounding yoga. I read an article a few months ago that helped me see that I am not alone in feeling that classes could use a little more diversity. In Namaste: Yoga in the Black Community, Audra E. Lord sheds light on the topic of discrimination in the asana room:
Often times, the interest in joining a yoga class is there, but the means are not. Many people are simply unaware that there are donation-based and inexpensive classes. And even when the means and opportunities are available, some still feel like they don’t belong there.
I felt relieved to see someone express this at last – I have never been able to find the words for it myself.
As an instructor, I was really struck as well by Lord’s ability to articulate this experience:
Yoga instructors of color were either mistaken for someone else (like the receptionist), or students were surprised to learn that they were teaching the classes. One teacher, who was certified over 10 years ago, had a student enter the class, see her, then leave.
A picture is worth a thousand (totally illegal) words
Another interesting take on the exclusivity of yoga: Exclusion and American Yoga written by Christie Barcelos, who describes herself as, “a doctoral student in Public Health at the University of Massachusetts who rarely sees anyone who looks like her in yoga class.”
Barcelos includes a photo timeline of the covers of a popular yoga magazine. She notes the journal “covers include a story on yoga for people who aren’t necessarily young, thin, and able-bodied, but show a photograph women who are.”
The visual made me honestly assess how this practice (and how it is being marketed in the US) can leave many feeling left out. I tell the yogi-curious that you don’t need fancy clothes or an expensive mat to take a class – but one look around the room gives a different message.
Something I have dealt with in my own yoga practice is the uncomfortable moment when my friends and family ask about taking a class. In my heart I feel that everyone can benefit from yoga. A far more exclusionary reality sets in when I show up to take a class.
I am tired of acting as though this is not true – I don’t know how to look people in the eye anymore and tell them yoga is for everyone.
There is an elephant in the room, and it ain’t Ganesh.
Have you ever flipped through a catalog for yoga apparel? Of course you have – the pages are splashed with young, contortionist, wearing pretty (expensive) lycra. You can say that it is a business move and that they need to use these images to make money, but the reality is that it has now seeped into the asana classroom.
I have responded to several job listings that stated the following: “Please submit your resume and a HEADSHOT”
So my hundreds of hours of training, numerous certificates, teaching experience, and personal / professional references are not enough? Now I have to be photogenic, too?
Have you had this happen to you? I’m not sure if a headshot is just an LA requirement, but even in Southern California, it’s pretty disturbing. Our community should want to know if this request for a photograph is a not-so-subtle way of finding out something else, something it’s against the law to ask or use as a reason to refuse someone a job.
Is yoga practice passively exclusive?
Maybe yoga would benefit everybody if everybody actually had access to yoga.
Beyond the way yoga is marketed to a narrow segment of the population who are made to feel comfortable by the images Christie Barcelos showed in her public health research, and more than we might like to admit in our spirit of inclusiveness, accessibility is limited.
For the most part some form of truly disposable income is needed to take classes. It’s not only the amount a class costs: you have to do the math to understand the reality of the problem.
Think of the cost of a class in terms of the percentage of the amount people have left over after taking care of necessities which that amount represents. For some people a $15 or even $12 class represents a much larger percentage of their disposable income than a $20 class does for those who can afford high-end yoga classes.
I know there are a ton of donation studios popping up but location is still a factor – usually these donation studios are in the same neighborhood as the flat rate places.
The uncomfortable reality of access is even donation classes rarely reach into this disparity of income, because the studios usually are not actually in the neighborhoods where people cannot afford a yoga class.
And what if there are no yoga studios in my neighborhood? Is that really a lack of interest among people in my community or preconceived feelings of exclusion? What are the factors that play into the dearth of studios?
Where there’s no investment there’s only exploitation
Our neighborhoods are set up differently, and offer very different diversions and services. Based on average income, one may have access to farmers’ markets with locally grown organic food, juice bars, and a plethora of yoga studios. Often only a short drive away, another neighborhood with a significantly lower average income may have a plethora of fast food chains, liquor stores, and check cashing stores.
My upbringing in the suburbs contrasted with going to see my family in LA has never allowed me to turn a blind eye to how a zip code can greatly impact our lives and things we get to experience. From seeing the difference in the schools (Schools in my neighborhood had new books, small class sizes – a short trip down the freeway other students had to share old books, sometimes sit on the floor and endure hot LA summers with broken AC) to just noticing the types of business that lined the streets.
Too often I think we simply assume that the people in these neighborhoods just are not interested in coffee shops/book stores/ Whole Foods but the reality is that if we dig a little deeper we see that these disparities in the types of business that set up shop in your neighborhood have a huge impact on quality of life.
Health disparities in low income neighborhoods (higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure etc.) and the number of fast food chains in my opinion are directly related. Recently there have been laws put into place to limit the number of new fast food establishments in low income areas – they had to pass a law to stop it!
Really I just want my attempt to put these complexities into words to be a way to open the discussion. I know it may offend some or just make them feel uncomfortable and that is why I want to be honest about my own guilt. I’m not in the same struggle that so many of my own friends are in – do I downplay my own comforts of my current lifestyle?
Teaching where I can’t afford to take a class
Simply watching the evening news will remind us of the high unemployment rates, even without the news someone you know is probably un/under employed (it may even be you). Now that I am actually teaching this has become even more apparent to me, most of the places I teach at I can’t even afford a monthly membership. There are more people in the same boat with me but because they are not teachers they do not get the discounted rates or sometimes free memberships that I do.
For some time I have been trying to pinpoint what it is that I find so unsettling about teaching at places I can’t afford. This feeling of being un-settled came up recently when I was advised of a job opening. I have spent the past year aggressively seeking out opportunities to add more classes to my schedule.
This particular job however did not conjure up the usual feelings of excitement. See, this job was at a country club –
Country clubs can be exclusive organizations. In small towns, membership in the country club is often not as exclusive or expensive as in larger cities where there is competition for a limited number of memberships. In addition to the fees, some clubs have additional requirements to join. For example, membership can be limited to those who reside in a particular housing community.
Historically, many country clubs refused to admit members of minority racial groups, such as Black people, Asian Americans, and non-white Hispanic Americans, as well as members with specific faiths, such as Jewish or Catholic individuals. In many jurisdictions, such discriminatory requirements are now prohibited, but in others, such policies are still legal or are subject to specific circumstances. In some cases, lawsuits have forced clubs to drop discriminatory policies.
This is not meant to offend anyone who is a member of a country club. This history of discrimination and exclusivity is a painful truth. Much has changed and most country clubs have abandoned the discriminatory practices of the past, but there was still something blocking me from even going in to interview/audition for this position.
Earning a living and effecting change too
I know first-hand just how transformational the practice of yoga can be and I just don’t see why only some of us should be able to experience this transformation.
There is work to be done and as an ambassador of this practice I feel I am supposed to go out and help people – all people. Maybe it is my own guilt, the fact that I teach in places where many of my friends cannot even attend classes unless I can get them a comp pass.
I’m not saying these issues are easy to resolve, but I believe we have to be able to discuss them with a more informed perspective on real life needs and respect for people’s dignity, and with concern for the true accessibility of yoga.
When I take the 20-30 min drive to visit my own family I am reminded of the privilege that I am surrounded by daily. In fact I am almost certain that it is my own guilt, why am I not in the women’s shelters, the inner-city schools, the community centers? To be quite honest it is because they don’t pay as well and I need to support myself. This is where I become torn.
You would think the yoga community would not allow itself to be shown as hypocritical by such petty issues like sexism, ageism, and racism – I say petty not because these issues are not real – but petty because in the grand scheme of things they do not serve us.
Super sweet and super smart, Jessica is quadruple certified in yoga and in fitness! Trained in anatomy, asana and positive practice, she’s experienced in supporting her students as they get present to their challenges with compassion and courage. When you visit her website jessicalesley.com be sure to read her surprising and powerful personal journey. Watch for Jessica’s adventures in teaching column monthly in The Magazine of Yoga!
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.