Inclusivity & Yoga - Part 2

Accessibility, Culture and Assumptions

 

Close your eyes and imagine a community where many yoga practitioners live. What do you see?

Now try on car horns honking, mototaxis colliding, stray dogs battling, roosters crowing at every hour, and a friendly neighborhood vendor yelling “TAMALEEEEEES!” through the streets each morning and night.

...Not what you had in mind? 

When I first moved to Peru back in 2015, I was living and volunteering in Huaycán, a densely populated developing suburb in the Ate-Vitarte district of Lima. As a secondary placement to my role of Women’s Empowerment Program Manager, I was asked to teach weekly yoga classes and workshops to women in Huaycán. I was pretty nervous to get started. It was my first time teaching yoga in Spanish, and I couldn’t picture myself in a room full of Peruvians. I didn’t know their culture. I didn’t know how they would react, if they would think my accent was annoying, or if they would think the yoga was weird and quickly get bored. My prior teaching experience at this point was limited to a studio right across the street from one of the largest universities in the US. I was used to teaching upper middle class, skinny college girls. Now I would be in a class of predominantly middle aged women, who had never practiced yoga before, in a community where most of its members live in extreme poverty.

I laugh now when I remember how nervous and apprehensive I was, because in reality, I couldn’t have been stepping into a warmer or more welcoming community. I was amazed at how open and receptive the women were to yoga. These women, working full-time, taking care of their children, cooking, cleaning, and most often all without the help of a second parent, needed some yoga in their lives. Just having a few moments to breathe and focus on themselves was a gift to them, and it was pretty awesome to witness that. There was none of the usual awkwardness that people typically feel their first time in a yoga class. These women were not afraid to breathe deeply and to be heard. Sure, sometimes they felt a little silly in new postures, but they just laughed it off. There was no sense of competition or pressure to have a certain body type or wear brand name yoga clothes. Even after class, we would stay and talk about herbal remedies, alternative healing, superfoods and breathing techniques. It was something like chatting with a bunch of crunchy millennials in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, if that coffee shop was a dusty community space and the millennials were middle aged Peruvian women.

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So why had these women, who were not only in need of yoga but also super receptive to it, never practiced before until now?

 

        1. Yoga is essentially inaccessible for communities such as Huaycán

The closest yoga studio to Huaycán is about an hour away by bus, without traffic. In rush hour it can take two hours or more. A drop-in class at most studios costs 40 soles – about $12.50 USD. Peruvian minimum wage is 4 soles/hour, so you can imagine the apprehension one might feel paying for a single, hour-long class that costs them 10 hours of work. Not to mention the yoga mat (roughly $15 if you get the cheapest one you can find), the yoga clothes (which aren’t sold in Huaycán or most other developing areas outside of Lima), the water bottle, the cost of transportation to and from the studio, and the hours lost in commute.

 

        2. We’re making assumptions about the type of people that want or need yoga

We get these images in our head of what a yogi looks like, what a spiritual person looks like, what a yoga community looks like, but that’s all they are...images. Before you give credit to the stereotypes in your head, learn about the community and culture that you’re stepping into. If I would have considered many things about Peruvian culture – the agreement that food is medicine, how non-taboo it is to talk about weight and body image, Peru’s connection to Pachamama (mother earth) and its sacred energy -  I wouldn’t have been nervous about bringing yoga to this community. Better yet, I would have known how to adapt my teaching and language to resonate even more deeply with my students.

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In an effort to make yoga more accessible to developing communities outside of Lima, Unlocked is hosting a live music and sound healing fundraiser on Friday, May 25th with Lima Yoga. We will collect yoga mats, blocks, and other props to donate to The Light and Leadership Initiative, and accept donations to pay the salary of a yoga teacher to provide free weekly classes to women, children, and teenagers in Huaycán.

What’s going on in your community to make yoga more inclusive and accessible to all? Let’s share our ideas, inspire each other, and give a voice to underrepresented communities in the yoga world.

Love,

Shelby