02 August 2012

Yoga and the exclusion of people of color

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.

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

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?


Brooke Blaize said...

I have big iissues with the yoga world myself. You covered most of them here. I have also found that some of the non-ethnic instructors are impatient with my lil disability (a pin in my hip that limits my flexibility). I stopped trying to find places and started doing simple poses at home. Yoga joints are obviously not for my fat, black, crippled self. Ugh that sucks.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your voice and it helps me understand what it must be like to walk into a typical yoga studio. I was actually looking for images of people of color doing yoga and found very few (I am working on a cartoon with yoga) and thus was led to your article. I have been doing it for around ten years and as you know, the benefits are many, but I look around and see mostly women like myself (I am white middle aged) and this has always bothered me. I am fortunate to live near a studio which has free weekly classes as well as low cost classes and it does a lot of outreach in the community (free classes for women from Somalia dealing with PTSD etc.). I used to see many more people of color in my classes, I am not sure why this is diminishing - and the white women (less men too) quotient is going up. It's a question I need to keep asking, and do something about it. Yoga is for everyone and anyone, regardless of age, income, race, ability, preference,size and so on and it saddens me it is not more accessible to all. Thanks again for your writing!

roro said...

i appreciate your honesty, anonymous...my experience in attending a class predominately occupied by white women has mostly been negative...the exception comes when the instructor makes it very clear that folks leave their egos (and maybe their funky attitudes) at the door, that yoga is not about showing out, etc. these are the classes i enjoy most because i feel very welcome and even validated when instructors are willing to meet folks where they are...if women of color feel awkward or embarrassed about their body image, that will keep them away from the studios as well, particularly if they don't see women like themselves getting into the downward dog. but i do hope that the studio can find a way to bring more poc (people of color) back because it is for everybody. i wish there was a studio like the one you attend in my neighborhood. i would be there religiously :) thanks for your comment. good luck with your cartoon, would love to see it.

Irasna Rising said...

Hey, Irasna here!
Thanks for also adding your voice to this issue of exclusion and diversity. I think the more of us who speak up, the more likely studios will hear us or realize that they will lose us. I also think it's important to go out and create our own spaces. Kula Yoga studio in Toronto is doing Brown Girl Yoga and there are initiatives happening in Vancouver as well.

roro said...

Irasna Rising!
I am pleased to hear that Toronto and Vancouver are providing safe yoga spaces for Brown Girls and women! I recently came across a yoga class here in Oakland that taught by two black women, Jean Marie and Katrina, at Anasa Yoga...these are all steps in the right direction as I see it. Thanks so much for your comment...I also believe that we may have a dear friend in common who lives in Toronto, Faith Nolan...my she-ro :)

Madeline said...

Thank you for writing this! For years I've been driving myself crazy wondering why, despite every class I have gone to, I feel a disconnect from yoga. I hate being the only person of color enjoying such a beautiful practice. It wasn't until I met my former teacher, Keith Borden that I started to really become angry over the lack of diversity in yoga. The messages every teacher has spouted about inclusion and togetherness left me enraged because I felt completely under respresented in yoga. You're included and part of the group if you're white and live in Rockridge, right? How does no one see the hypocrisy? I also find it even more upsetting that programs where yoga reaches out to "at-risk" youth more often than not consists of the stereotypical thin, white yoga teacher wanting to help poor black or hispanic youth access yoga. I strongly feel like we need more teachers of color to pass these messages and healing benefits of yoga on to communities that need it. The ideal "yogi" needs to change from being about outside appearances to inner maturity.This all starts with making yoga more available and diversified in all areas--students, teachers and studios! Love this!

roro said...

Madeline...thank you! I believe that you get it, girl! Yes, we desperately need more yoga teachers of color for they are few and far between(although sometimes the problem is that the yogis of color often hold classes with predominately white students and can be complicit in the mainstream way of practicing, doing very little to outreach to folks of color---a problem)...I think one thing we can do is to inquire about this lack and to point out the hypocrisy when we are in situations where we are outnumbered and left feeling like we don't belong in these spaces! We do belong, damnit! Yoga is for everybody and every BODY!

Jessy said...

I agree with you so much. My sister and I were talking about wanting to start a POC community yoga group, like somewhere by the lake or something. That way there is more visibility, anyone can join in, and there will be a spirit of real inclusion and openness. We live in Oakland too!

Have you been to Barefoot Movement btw? I haven't yet but I kinda want to. Their teachers seem to be more diverse than most studios, there are a few classes taught bilingually, and their teacher training actually requires working with "special populations" (not that the mere fact of being non-white makes us special...) that would ideally check, if not question, privilege.

We've got a long way to go...

Thanks again for writing this. You give me inspiration to go for writing my own cultural critique blog :)

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your post. I'm a white female who's become obsessed with yoga over the past year and browsing Pinterest I was noticing only white women and an occasional white man in the pictures.

I find it especially surprising that there are so few pictures of Indian yogis practicing.

As a humanist, I find it disappointing that so few yogis of color are represented on the web. Beig a woman in the male dominated field of computers I've had my small taste of knowing what it like to not see people like you in the spaces you want to be in. In my experience it makes it much harder to feel confident in my own abilities, and from your post it sounds that you feel similarly.

I feel lucky that my class has people of many different backgrounds and body types. I think it might be worthwhile to photograph my class in practice one day and share the images on the web for others to see as well.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope you find an inclusive yoga studio where you feel comfortable practicing. Namaste

Anonymous said...

all I can say is a huge THANK YOU!

There is a serious need to decolonize yoga, and don't I know it. I'm a black woman in my early 30s and I recently signed up to be a live-in volunteer/boarder at a yoga retreat in Hawaii for three months — I am only one week in, I am asking myself "what the hell did I sign up for?!" In a community of volunteers and guests numbering max 260 people, there are no more than 10 POC and I am the darkest one here.

Needless to say, I am feeling simultaneously over-visible and invisible by most of the reasons you mentioned in your article.

And don't even get me started on the cultural appropriation that runs rampant....

Reading your article has made me think that maybe I should become a damn yoga teacher myself! I hadn't seriously thought of doing that before, and yet I know firsthand the need for our community to have more POC yoga teachers who can create a truly inclusive, decolonized, culturally respectful spaces to stretch our minds, bodies and souls.

Thank you for your writing!

Give my love to the the bay area,

Anonymous said...

you don't consider white an ethnicity? that's like not considering heterosexual a sexual orientation. (go watch Jackson Katz' Ted Talk)
Otherwise I appreciate and agree with your post. I am not skinny (can't imagine how it is to not be white), I am glad I found a rather un-yoga yoga studio with a clear "leave your attitude at home" message.

Shayla V. said...

My teacher Bryan Kest provides donation based classes and constantly emphasizes doing your own practice and focusing on your breathing and not comparing yourself to anyone because we are all so different. One person maybe more flexible in a pose because their arms or legs are short/long etc. I live in the Bay Area too. The only donation based class I've heard of is Rusty Wells Bhakti yoga in sf. Bryan offers classes online at poweryoga.com

We should do a yoga meet up with black instructors.

roro said...


if you and your sister start a poc yoga group, i'd like to participate! the lake is a great place to have them (off the concrete, though, cause it can be hard on the body if your mat's not thick enough).
haven't been to the barefoot movement classes. have you gone yet? sounds like they may be conscious about the invisibility of poc from yoga studios and what white privilege assumes...
do write your critique!


thank you for your comment. i'm aware that yoga for the people in berkeley is donation based, unless that's changed...although they seem to stay pretty busy.

one reader suggested that we create our own yoga classes, including lake merritt in oakland where there can be more visibility. i like this idea.

Anonymous said...

I am a white, gay, male yoga teacher (but none of that has to do with my soul's journey) and I wonder about this issue a lot. I do not teach at any popular, affluent yoga studio- I do teach at donation-based yoga studios, a meditation center, classes for seniors and some health clubs (gyms) in the SF Bay Area and Oakland. I would love to see more people of color in my classes because I truly believe yoga is for everyone! Everyone has the right to take care of their body, calm their mind, and nourish their soul. One of the places I teach at in downtown Oakland opened earlier this year and I have seen very few black students in class. When I first began teaching at the studio, I had a couple women of color attending class weekly, but after a month, they stopped coming. This might speak to my teaching style, if I was giving them too many adjustments or not enough adjustments, maybe it wasn't the kind of spiritual connection they sought, or maybe it just wasn't time for them to pursue a yoga practice. We see all body types, many diverse ethnicities and people of all ages at this DT Oakland location, but not many people of color.
Honestly, I am sorry to read about your negative experiences with yoga, but it shouldn't limit your view on YOGA. It is such a huge idea, a whole way of life (that changed my life completely) compacted into one small word. Yoga means to UNITE. And I think even though you might have felt excluded from an instructor or a community in a class, the process of uniting begins within first. The practice is for you, by you, and for no one else BUT YOU. So yes, fuck the rest. Because those rich white bitches probably were judging you thinking, "She's only here for the free week/month of classes and we will never see her again." People can be assholes, people can be negative and really self-centered, but they will never know the true joy of Yoga if they only see it on the surface as a workout or a trend to follow and tell people over a glass of wine, "Oh yeah, I do the yoga." Guffaw. Those kinds of people bug the shit out of me too, my friend.

Anonymous said...

(i have a very long response, so i had to break it up)

You and I are fighting for the same thing. Although it may be difficult to see at times, we have both experienced adversity. Yes I am white, yes I am a male, but growing up as a gay kid who danced and spent a lot of time with girls was very challenging. I was picked on by many peers including blacks, mexicans and asians - other "minorities" that didn't see we are ALL here to experience pain and challenges, and to grow into something we would have never dreamed of otherwise.
To see yourself as going without, or to see yourself as an outsider automatically pins you as such. It is what's within that counts, and the other bright souls can see that. So ham, hansaha - you are me, i am you, we are one. God is within all of us. One side must stop and practice compassion and commit to compassion for the other side to acknowledge your patience and agree. I know it seems like a long wait, and you wanna say FUCK THAT, but one side has to stop before both do. Then we may find peace.
I really like the idea of Brown Girl Yoga and yoga for colored individuals, but you continue to segregate yourself by singling out yourselves and making me feel like I can't participate! I would like to come join a class to see how it is, but the students might feel like i'm intruding and they can't fully enjoy the class with me there. So there are no classes that are named "White Girl Yoga", but the students in the white-dominated studios do feel different when they notice a person of color practicing with them. It goes both way, but we must pursue a healthier future.

Anonymous said...

STRONG BLACK WOMEN: KEEP GOING TO YOGA! Who gives a shit who is there or who stares at you? I have so many confident black friends who are women and do yoga in Long Beach, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. They are beautiful from within and it shines through! Let is be contagious! Keep looking at studios, trying different teachers and find what you connect with. Because if you have only tried yoga for a week or a month, you haven't really tried.
It took me years to build up the courage to hold a lover's hand in public. As a gay man, you get stared at, I've even seen some parents cover the eyes of their child or redirect their child's attention away from a gay couple. Let people be fearful, but they will eventually have to get over it and they will grow too. PERSEVERE through it with a smile! Because in the end, you will know you've made a positive impact and carved the way for other diverse individuals to practice their happiness as well.
With abundant amounts of love and light, I thank you so much for bringing this conversation to the attention of so many who need it.
May we all find a more optiMYSTIC future together.


Unknown said...

hey roro,
just a note to say that i totally agree!! yoga in the west has developed into a seriously classist, racist and sexist enterprise. it's a real shame but it's not surprising, given the commercial-studio model and a whole host of other problems in our societies.
i teach with a collective in berlin and we have just started a little initiative to gather feedback about where and how we could be more inclusive/accessible. you can read more here:
anyway i just wanted to say thanks for your insight! i linked to your blog post :)

Denise said...

I volunteer my time as a children's Yoga Teacher, and as yet have received pay for only a handful of classes I've taught to kids, so I suppose I have a whole other experience to share.

I hope and pray that no one ever has cause to say those kind of things of me EVER...I'd feel so disheartened.

You are very right to say that Yoga has become inaccessible to those of us who do not have a huge income, I myself do not go to regular classes as it is too expensive. The teacher training course I am taking was in fact a scholarship program (I found a studio willing to allow barter and have paid the rest of my tuition in volunteer hours and art sales by the grace of God alone!!)

I am glad you wrote this article, and even if I can only relate to the financial aspect, it is much appreciated!

However I truly do hope to see less 'white' vs 'black' comments in the future, I do not identify myself as a white person, nor do I feel it is fair for others to label me as such. I am more than a skin color, and feel so sad to hear people still talking with so much division in language.

Truly if we wish for change, it begins with respecting one another as we are, HUMANS...or should I say spirits having a human experience. I just wish for people to experience Yoga as it was intended: to heal, to unify, to liberate! So glad you will continue to practice on your own!! (that is how I do it, as I cannot afford regular sessions either)In fact that is how the original Yogi's did it, so truly you are quite authentic in your approach :D

Many blessings

Anonymous said...

great article...where I live is 98% white and most of can't afford the yoga pass either. Just too damn expensive. We do yoga at home, read old school yoga books pre-1980

Western yoga today is strictly business, making money off you no matter your demographic, age, weight, race, sex. I know 2 studio owners and they're two-bit hustlers who spew shakra and dharma nonsense on everyone while lining their pockets. Capitalism, and a lot of rich white people buy into it. Power Yoga = $$$$$$$.

Thankfully I know how to read & stretch my body according to ancient yogis. The new stuff today, sadly, at the moment is skinny white chicks pitting themselves against each other for limberness superiority. Most of the avid guys who attend practice on a regular are weird as hell too. Yoga today has been temporarily ruined by white folk; just weird interpretation of an ancient practice something that is dying..or has already died.

What remains is people trying to feel better, flush toxins, relieve stress. No one, anywhere should have to pay $1,500 a year for that....Better to send that money to blue collar Indians who make $4/day on manual labor and NEVER get to practice YOGA.

Being a white guy who loves reggae, I'll never actually become a Rastafarian, but I know where & who to buy my Rasta LPs from..same thing should be happening with Yoga. India needs to put whitey on notice and revoke the use of the word, because it's not Yoga anymore.

Katharine said...

Thank you so much for writing this post.

I completed an RYT 200 hour teacher training program with Yoga to the People last year and while Yoga to the People has a great mantra/motto (http://yogatothepeople.com/about-us/mantra/ - this power is for everyone, no correct clothes, no proper payment)...and donation based classes, they don't yet have an Oakland studio (Berkeley & SF currently, as well as NYC etc.), and it's true that most of the people in their classes are skinny and white.

For the record, I'm a white woman who teaches yoga in my free time, and I believe yoga is for every body. I am very interested in learning how to be a better teacher - which I think you point out means giving adjustments when the teacher sees a student who could use one, among other things. Besides free/donation based classes, what else can yoga teachers to do to create a more welcoming environment for every body?

Anyway, some good news: YogaLove is a new yoga studio in West Oakland on Market Street that is open now and has an opening party on Sunday, April 12:
I haven't been to any of their classes yet (they just opened) but it looks really great. All kinds of styles too (vinyasa, hatha, relaxation, and more).

GLIDE Yoga is also not well known but they provide free community classes near Powell BART in SF, in a relaxation-oriented 90 minute class. It's not on the main GLIDE website yet but there is a Facebook page and classes are Tuesdays and Thursday nights at 6 pm, and Saturday mornings at 10:30 am. More info:

Lastly, I know a bunch of yoga teachers who would be interested in teaching free/by donation classes if they knew where to go/what spaces were available. Feel free to drop me a line at my contact form at http://katharinebierceyoga.com/contact/ which goes to my email inbox.