Inclusivity and Yoga Part 3

Your Language Matters

Like we discussed in Part 1 of this series, the media does a pretty good job of instilling a picture of an ideal yogi in our heads. It excludes most everyone that is not a thin white woman, and sets a ridiculous standard that suggests that if we don’t feel comfortable in tiny, tight clothing, we aren’t really apt to be yogis. Just to mention, last year my mom bought me a couple yoga sports bras for Christmas. I’m a 122-pound woman with A cup breasts, so one would think that a size small would work. Yeah, no. The sports bras were so tight that I thought my rib cage was going to collapse and I ended up re-gifting them to my 12- year-old cousin. Something seems a bit off here.

But this is the standard that we have in our heads, whether we agree with it or not. In addition to weight and skin color, we carry assumptions on gender, ability level, and body image into our yoga practices and teaching. With these assumptions, we exclude potential yoga practitioners and alienate those in our classes that don’t feel like they fit the mold. And sometimes, even subconsciously, these assumptions make their way into our language and can be hurtful or damaging to many groups of people.   

As yoga teachers, it’s our responsibility to examine our own relationships with body image, our assumptions surrounding gender, and the standards that we place on ourselves and our students. From there we ask ourselves how our tendencies and ideologies are shaping the way we communicate or fail to communicate to our students. As practitioners, we need to kindly speak up when we feel like our yoga teacher or community is being exclusive, and offer suggestions on how to create an environment that is inclusive to all.

I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting that yoga teachers are being intentionally exclusive or offensive in their classes. On the contrary, I truly think that most teachers have the best intentions and are simply unaware of the negative impact that some of their language or assumptions may have. After examining my own tendencies as a teacher and my experiences as a student, I offer a few tips that might help to attract a more diverse group of practitioners, and keep them feeling safe and accepted for who they are, regardless of size, gender, or ability level.


1.     Be conscious of the way you talk about the body

I’m definitely guilty of this one. I like to be playful and let my sarcastic personality show through in my teaching, so I sometimes find myself saying things like “workin’ on that tight summer booty!” when doing exercises in my classes. Now, this isn’t an inherently evil thing to say. Maybe some students will relate to it and laugh, and maybe some won’t even be paying attention. The problem is, I don’t know what kind of relationship each of my students has with his or her body. For all I know, one of my students could be struggling with an eating disorder, and me, sarcastically or otherwise, making the yoga about the shape of their body could be a trigger that could completely pull them out of a healthy practice and into negative thoughts, insecurity and darkness. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can never talk about the body while practicing physical postures. Obviously, yoga has a lot to do with our physical body and we shouldn’t ignore that aspect out of fear of offending someone. However, there are healthy ways to bring attention to the body. The comment I mentioned above could be reworded into something like, “Notice the fire you’re creating in your glutes and core; envision your strength building as you move.” This turns a potentially offensive statement into an empowering statement, and allows students to focus on the body without thinking about trying to alter it.


2.      Avoid binary language when talking about gender

We often hear yoga teachers say things like, “as women we tend to have more open hips, while men generally have tighter hips.” There are a couple issues with this statement. One – unless you personally know everyone you are teaching, talking in terms of only two genders may exclude someone in your room. It’s like saying, “blonde people tend to have stronger shoulders and brown-haired people have weaker shoulders,” while the redheads in your room think, “well what about me?” The other issue is that this statement is a very generalized assumption, and if it does not prove to be true to the group you are mentioning, your students might feel like something is wrong with them. For example, you say, “women have more open hips and men have tighter hips,” while a woman in the room is struggling with a pose because of her super tights hips, looks at the person next to her, and sees a man in a deep, effortless hip stretch. Then that woman might think, “wow I guess I really suck because the student next to me has more open hips than me, and he’s a guy.” If you really feel compelled to mention anything about gender in your class, try your best to make it a statement that is empowering to all genders and free of assumptions and binaries.


3.     Notice the way you explain postures

Once again, I will admit that this is one I’m still working on. We tend to teach the most challenging variation of a posture first, and then offer modifications. We say things like, “If that’s too challenging, you can modify the pose by dropping a knee or using a block,” or, “The full expression of this pose is...” Chances are, if you’re a yoga teacher, you probably have a strong physical practice, and you might be projecting your expectations onto your students. Rather than starting with the most difficult variation of a pose and then working down, try teaching the other way around. For example, teach downward facing dog with hands on blocks and bent knees. Then, for students that aren’t feeling full activation in the pose, suggest they remove the blocks. If they still want more, suggest they slowly straighten their knees and drop their heels. Avoid phrases like, “the full pose” or “the full expression,” suggesting that other variations are somehow incomplete or inadequate. As we know, yoga is much much more than just a physical posture, so even though your body might be doing something that appears more challenging, this in no way means that your “expression” is any more or less full than the person next to you that is practicing a different variation.

I don’t want to attack yoga teachers or make anyone feel like they need to walk on eggshells in order to not offend someone in their class. Yoga teaching carries its complexities just like any other form of education, and it’s something that takes practice, time and experience in order to grow. The more comfortable we are discussing the dynamics of our experiences as teachers and students, the better we are able to grow together and unite all of our strengths. If you have any further suggestions, comments, I very much encourage you to share. Thanks for reading.