How Can We Make Yoga More Inclusive? On Privilege, Intersectionality, Community, and more.

I recently opened a tough conversation about social justice in relation to the yoga community on my Instagram that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time, but always feared would receive a negative reaction.

The fact is, social justice is a tricky topic, and it’s hard to discuss without leaving someone feeling as though they’re the bad guy and leaving someone else feeling as though they’re the outsider. It’s also hard to bring up anything related to social justice without getting a few eye-rolls and backhanded comments about being overly sensitive or a special snowflake.

But ever since I joined UCSC as a member of the Social Justice and Community College, I’ve become increasingly passionate about studying things like privilege, intersectionality, and ways to create more inclusive communities, and I knew I wanted to bring this discussion to the community I’ve found here on my blog and social media. So this past week, I made a brief Instagram story (a video that disappears after 24 hours that your followers can view) discussing some bullet-point thoughts on yoga and ways it could be made more inclusive.

In the video, I gave what was basically a crash course on some of the ways the yoga community could challenge itself to improve and grow, since I was working in 30-second increments and really trying to test the waters on speaking more in depth about the issues I brought up. Would my community be open to thinking critically about these ideas? Would they feel insulted or looked down upon? Would they think it was a silly and pointless thing to discuss?

To be honest, for a few minutes after I sent the story out, I was feeling pretty anxious that what felt so important to me to discuss would either receive backlash or be completely ignored by my community.

But boy, did I underestimate you all.

I started receiving messages from people who I both did and didn’t know sharing their personal reflections on social justice in relation to the yoga community and their unique experiences in relation to it. Each person had their own ideas and thoughts, but the universal message was clear:

Thank you for openly talking about this.

I received a message from a dear friend of mine from Just Be that read:

“I really hope you make everything you’ve said in this story into a blog post. Coming from (an upper-class town in California) and growing up in that yoga world, once I left and went to college and expanded my mind, I found it hard to connect with folks consistently and meaningfully when talking about privilege and whiteness in yoga. It’s the biggest blind spot. Your visibility and how much you mean to people is so powerful and you can make such a huge difference. Never stop talking about this stuff. Soak it all up at UCSC and offer it all as gifts to everyone at home/everywhere else in your life. Keep it up girl.”

This hit me hard. Despite my innate desire to humble myself constantly, I have to recognize that I have a platform, and it’s up to me to utilize that platform to generate the change I wish to see. Not talking about tough issues out of fear of backlash or dismissal only feeds into the exact issues I’m trying to combat, and serves no one. And to be honest, I reject the idea that having conversations about social justice is being “overly-sensitive,” because let me ask you this:

Will any harm truly come from being “too kind?”

Really, what is the worst thing that could come from this community seeking to engage in more thoughtful and meaningful connections with a larger and more diverse population, while at the same time striving to become more sensitive to the difficulties and unique experiences they may carry?

That’s why I’m opening up the dialogue now. Because frankly, the yoga community (and specifically, the online yoga community) has become increasingly divergent from the historical and philosophical roots of yoga. And parts of this divergence are natural, positive things that come with time and growth in all communities, but other parts could be seen as factors that limit people’s access to yoga and its benefits. And it’s those parts that people are reluctant to openly address: especially when many of us within the community have made yoga our “job.”

This was voiced in a message I received privately on Instagram:

“Everything you just said is the one thing that frustrates me about the (online) yoga community sometimes! I even find myself getting into the mindset of “omg I need to be prettier, and wear nicer yoga clothes and spend more money to go nice places with an expensive photographer” to build my career so I can only imagine how intimidating this image of yoga would be to people who haven’t yet learned about what yoga truly is! I definitely spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make this business lucrative for me but also make sure I stay true to what yoga is to me. And that is that it is for and can benefit everyone. No judgment, no prerequisites and no financial boundaries. It’s definitely something I am trying to balance at the start of my career. Thanks for sharing Maris!”

I completely understood what this person was experiencing. When your “career” is in yoga (whether you’re a yoga teacher, yoga studio owner/manager, yoga blogger, etc.), there’s a certain pressure to act, dress, and behave a certain way. There’s countless “Instagram yogis” that exist- many of whom seem to have an endless wardrobe and expensive pressed-juice budget, an on-call professional photographer, and the ability to travel whenever and wherever they’d like.

Of course, what we see online isn’t the whole story. Many of these “Insta-famous” yoga teachers and icons receive free clothing and food through sponsorships, collaborate with photographers working for free to expand their portfolios, and have their travel accommodations covered when teaching or leading certain events. But there’s no denying that they send a certain message to the world about what it means to be a modern yogi: it requires wealth to “do it right.”

To those who don’t have a large enough income to even pay for access to further education or healthcare, it can be very intimidating to try and enter a community that appears to be so deeply intertwined with wealth. More than that, it can feel pointless and outside of your realm. What will a teacher wearing 100 dollar yoga pants and sipping organic juice be able to tell me about life? How am I supposed to relate to a community so different from myself and my life experiences?

This conversation, of course, is aided by a a discussion on the language of privilege (or as I prefer to call it, agency, as it has less of a negative connotation).

But what even is privilege?

This is a big question that many scholars, researchers, and activists have spent their entire careers crafting powerful and effective responses to, but I’ll do my best to explain it. To be clear: privilege in and of itself is not a negative thing, but it is something we need to be aware of. Privilege something we all carry in different forms and to different extremes. Some of us carry privilege in our gender or race, some in how attractive we are based on societal standards, some of us carry it financially.

Privilege is also based on history and longstanding patterns. We consider white privilege to be a “thing” because for the vast majority of history, white people enjoyed far greater opportunities and wealth than other peoples. It’s not because one group is inherently “better,” it’s because one group has been in a position of accessing opportunity (privilege) far longer than others, and because of that has certain advantages.

Privilege also doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard just because you have it. Though we consider men to have greater privilege than women, there are still very many hardworking men in our society who have put significant effort into achieving things in life. However, if we are to take two individuals- a man and a woman- who are both CEOs of a company, we can say that the woman likely had to work harder just to get to the same position as the man. Think of it as a race with different starting lines: one is a bit closer to the finish line (the privileged person would start here) and the other is a bit further away. Both can give the race their all, but it’s more difficult for the person without the advantage of privilege to get to the same point as the person with privilege.

It’s also important to point out that privilege isn’t just black-and-white (literally and figuratively). You aren’t either privileged or not privileged, you can experience different levels of each depending on your unique identity and life situation. We call this intersectionality. Take, for example, a white, poor woman. This woman does have the privilege of being white, but she doesn’t experience privilege from her gender identity or financial situation. Taking into account the nuances of our individuality is important whenever discussing issues of social justice.

It’s my hope that this intersectionality can help us all find a common ground to open a dialogue within the yoga community that is inclusive, supportive, and engaging. No matter how different we may be, we all know what it feels like to be excluded or unwelcome, and now we have a chance to help minimize that for someone else and offer them the incredible benefits yoga has to offer.

So let’s dive right in.

Perhaps the best place to start is to ask the question: what could limit someone from finding yoga, and how could that disservice them?

Financially, yoga (in this context, how it is presented and experienced in a modern society, not the philosophical or traditional definition) can be inaccessible to a person without expendable income. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to invite people to my classes at different studios around the Bay Area, but had them share they couldn’t afford the $20-30 drop-in fee for the class. It’s uncomfortable and difficult to want to share your practice with someone, while knowing they “can’t afford” to do so in the community you so love and has served you so well.

Many studios pride themselves on offering incredible classes and services in a carefully created atmosphere and environment, and charge class fees based upon this. The fact of the matter is, studio owners need to make a living, while at the same time supporting their teachers and other staff, which means yoga classes will always generally cost a certain amount. But if a person is turned off by the sticker price of what they see as the easiest way to start practicing yoga, it can turn them off of yoga altogether. 

Because while there are online classes for free and some discount packages at studios, it can still feel discouraging to new students on a tight budget to feel as though they just aren’t good enough to walk into a studio and share that experience with the other students. And what this can lead to is entirely homogenous studio population of the kinds of people who can afford what is oftentimes a fairly pricy class package.

In a world with so many unique manifestations of the human spirit in the forms of different cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, and identities, why would we want all of our students to be the same?

This isn’t to imply that those practicing yoga in these largely homogenous studios aren’t good enough or they aren’t valued for their presence (because they are already remarkable and incredible human beings), but shouldn’t we try to invite more people into our communities, instead of inadvertently creating a club not everyone can join?

Going further, it’s important to notice when and if our teachers are becoming homogenous. Teacher training is expensive (and again, this is for real-world reasons and not some malicious intent to make yoga an elitist activity, but it’s still a fact), and that in and off itself means we’re less likely to have a more diverse population of teachers present. We’re less likely, for example, to see people of color or people who identify as transgender as yoga teachers.

And if we want to expand the diversity of our students, don’t we also want to increase the presence of teachers who can speak to their unique experiences on a personal and relatable level?

But once again, yoga studios are businesses, and that’s okay. But it does hinder a studio’s ability to expand their accessibility to students with less privilege. So what are some possible solutions we can explore? Although I don’t have the answer (this is an ongoing and fluid conversation, not a lecture), I do have some ideas:

  1. Exchanging part-time work for classes or teacher training access, such as washing towels or working front desk. Many studios I teach at already offer this, and it’s an incredible opportunity for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to be members of the studio.
  2. Creating teacher training scholarships for underprivileged yogis to increase the diversity of our teaching population and support their passion.
  3. Holding donation-based and free classes whenever possible. Can we make seva a greater priority?
  4. Create and support more studios not located in predominately white neighborhoods.

These are not the only options, nor I am making them out to be the best ones, but they are starting points, especially for those involved in running and organizing yoga studios. But there’s also a personal onus that falls on individuals within the community. How can we as individuals make yoga seem less elitist and more welcoming?

For starters, I think we need to be more vocal about what is yoga, and about what is fun stuff layered on top of it. Stuff like pretty mala beads and expensive yoga clothes and pricey yoga retreats. These things are certainly fun (and all things I am lucky enough to enjoy), but they are not the yoga. The yoga is the breath, the movement, the connection, and the self-study. None of those require you to be wearing the priciest outfit or be in the most photogenic setting.

The thing about social media is that we are more inclined to share the “pretty” and “fun” stuff. We post our highlight reels- the retreats and the new jewelry and the fancy meals. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that the more emphasis we place on these “extras” that have become affiliated with the modern yoga lifestyle, the more we are contributing to the misconception that yoga (true yoga) is a practice only for the elite. So for teachers and practitioners like myself who have a social media presence we need to be more transparent about when we get these privileges through sponsorships and affiliations, and we need to emphasize the fact that being wealthy is not a prerequisite to exploring yoga’s offerings.

As teachers and students, we also need to start thinking critically about the yoga communities and events we’re participating in. We need to push ourselves to ask, are we creating a space that inspires diversity? Are we making an effort to not only surround ourselves with people who share the same ideas and experiences as us? Are we listening to and helping to draw attention to voices of people of color, queer people, and less-wealthy people in the yoga community?

Perhaps above all, I want to see more diversity in the leaders of the yoga world. While I believe whole-heartedly that all of these leaders gained their positions as leaders on their own merits and of their own talents, there’s no denying that there is an implicit whiteness in the modern yoga community. According to a 2012 Yoga Journal study, about one in every 15 Americans practices yoga, and more than four-fifths of them are white. And if you pull up the teaching rosters of most major yoga festivals, the teachers are typically white, attractive people.

Again- being white is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But can we not do better? Can we not find teachers of more diverse backgrounds who can contribute unique and powerful lessons to our community?

A fabulous example is Jessamyn– a yoga leader who has strong voice as a woman of color and body positivity activist. Jessamyn is inspiring people of all shapes, sizes, and colors to experience yoga and explore its teachings. She’s providing representation in the yoga world that didn’t previously exist. She’s allowing people who previously looked at the largely white and upper-class yoga “representatives” and thought, None of them look like me, maybe yoga isn’t for me, to question that idea.

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Source: @mynameisjessamyn

How many more leaders are out there waiting to discover their path? How many inspirational teachers are we missing out on because they can’t afford the time off of work to participate in a teacher training? How many incredible yogis have written off yoga because they thought they weren’t the right demographic?

Finally- I think we need to be more vocal about recognizing our intersectionality and privileges where it applies. I’m not separate from this. I’m lucky enough that my family had the financial resources to support me attending in-studio yoga classes as a teen. I’m lucky enough that I was able to use my time outside of school to participate in a teacher training program instead of working to put food on the table for my family. I’m lucky enough that if I want, I can spend money on things like cute yoga clothes or yoga festivals and not have to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to pay my tuition. I need to acknowledge that while I may be a woman and come from a family with members who are first and second generation Chicanxs, I still have privileges that afforded me opportunities many others do not.

Ultimately, this article is not me telling you what to do or how to think.

This is just an invitation to think critically about things we may have accepted or unconsciously ignored in our lives. It’s an invitation to ask yourself questions you may have otherwise avoided, or to open a dialogue with someone about these issues. Time and time again I hear people tell me that yoga has changed their life- ultimately, our goal should be to allow as many people as possible to share this experience.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ari says:

    YAY you did it 🙂 you wrote a blog on it! beautiful writing. love seeing how everything you’re learning at UCSC you include here in digestible pieces. that’s really hard to do (as a Fem Studies graduate from there, i would know!)
    kudos, love. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      Hahaha, getting your approval is the best! Love you, and much thanks. ❤

      Like

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