Inclusivity & Yoga - Part 1
How inclusive is your yoga community, really?
Let’s try something. Search “yoga” in Google Images. I’ll do the same.
In the first 100 images that popped up on my computer screen, I counted only two black women (the rest were all white women and only two men, both white as well). I counted only two full figured women. The full figured women, interestingly, were also the black women.
If you’re part of a yoga community, you’ve probably heard teachers or fellow yogis preach that “yoga is for everyone.” But taking a look around your studio, how many times have you actually seen that yoga is for everyone?
Ironically, these questions are only directed at people who have an understanding of yoga, people who are already practicing yoga, or people who have had yoga marketed to them, which is a pretty slim (no pun intended) demographic.
What I mean is,
If you’re already practicing yoga, it’s likely that yoga has been specifically marketed to you. Something somewhere about yoga made you feel like you could relate, that you would feel comfortable at a yoga studio, and that you would fit in to whatever yoga community you ended up joining (even if for only one class). Maybe it was the music you heard in a promotional video, maybe it was the one of the millions of Instagram pages with a slender white girl wearing a skin tight “one size fits all” sports bra, or maybe it was the fundraising event titled “Poses & Mimosas” in your local yoga community (yes, I’m speaking critically about my own business here).
If you’re not already practicing yoga, maybe it’s because it’s just not your thing. But maybe it’s because nobody in your community is talking about it, and it’s almost never been marketed to you.
Let’s take a look at who’s actually practicing yoga.
While there’s some great articles online, almost every article I found on US yoga statistics completely overlooks race as a category worth measuring. They tell us that women outnumber men 3 to 1, that 68% of yoga practitioners make at least $75,000 a year, that 71% of regular yoga class attendees have at least one college degree, and that folks over 65 are largely underrepresented in the yoga community. One article titled “60 Interesting Findings about Yoga in America in 2016” which contains statistics as trivial as “70% of yoga practitioners report purchasing yoga clothing in the last 6 months,” still does not contain a single statistic on race. No mention of it. Not one.
Don’t you think this is weird?
It’s almost like yoga is so white, that we assume only white people will be reading the articles on yoga statistics. It’s almost like yoga is so white, that we only market to white people. Since we market heavily to white people over any minority, the vast majority of people who feel comfortable trying yoga are white. And since the vast majority of people who practice yoga are white, we see no need to market elsewhere. Seems like a tricky cycle to me.
This is an expansive topic, and I realize that African Americans are not the only ones generally excluded from the yoga world. It’s also important to note that yoga was not created for or by westerners or white people to begin with, but this is an entire separate discussion in and of itself. In the consecutive blog posts in this series, I will touch on how to make yoga more inclusive to other minority and underrepresented groups. For now, let’s focus on the African American community.
Before I started researching for this blog, to be perfectly honest and also slightly embarrassed, I assumed that the main reason for non-white people’s disinterest in yoga was a matter of insufficient finances. But when I actually started looking into it, I found that marketing might play the biggest role. In an article from The Atlantic titled, “Why Your Yoga Class Is So White,” African American blogger Rollan explains, “When people talk about money as a deterrent, I’m like, yes and no...People find money to buy thousand-dollar bags and shoes, and weaves, those cost hundreds of dollars to upkeep...That upscale white woman is the image of yoga...I think a lot of us see yoga as something that’s not for us, because of the lack of imagery [of people of color in yoga]. It is changing, but the image of a white, affluent, thin person is still very entrenched.”
When I asked my friend Onetress (O-nee-tres) why she thinks more people of color don’t practice yoga, she had a similar response:
“From my experience, yoga was never marketed toward us. Not until very recently had anyone said, hey black girl, you wanna do yoga because the benefits are these... Like, the music is probably not right, the people will look at me funny, someone might judge my ability, what do I wear...”
So if I want to make my brand more inclusive, and market to a community that I’m not necessarily a part of, what do I do?
“When you’re marketing this to those communities, people are still going to see you as a skinny, white girl trying to sell them something that’s not for them. Some will go for it, many will be skeptical still.”
So how do I keep from being cheesy, inauthentic, or offensive?
“First, and most importantly, involve members or people who have strong ties to that community. You can’t just walk into someone’s house and eat at their table if no one has vouched for you.”
And then how do I draw interest from that community?
“After that, find a way to stand out to that community. Like you guys have the Poses and Mimosas thing, which is cool, but very likely catering to a high number of white women... You can do a similar event with minor changes that will draw in another group...change up the music a little bit...”
All in all,
“The answer is to always involve the communities you want to reach... be willing to listen and take guidance.”
I can’t emphasize this last piece of advice enough. Throughout several years working with community development organizations in the US and Peru, I have learned over and over again the importance of involving the target community and asking what they need, what they want, and how they want it done. If you want to create lasting change, the members of the community that you are trying to change have to be on board. I often hear people who work with community development organizations, non-profits, or minority communities say, “We are not trying to change anything,” out of fear that they will be criticized for imposing their beliefs on a group of which they are not a member. I disagree with this. Trying to change a community is not inherently bad. If you weren’t trying to change things, your organization/job/project wouldn’t exist. What I think they are trying to say is, “We are listening to the community. We are learning from them. We respect their culture, traditions and beliefs, and we recognize that we are not the same, but that we are equal. We are accepting their guidance and leadership. Together, we are bringing change to their community.” (more on this in Part 2 of this blog series!)
While many brands still struggle to make their yoga business inclusive to African American and other minority communities, there also exist several organizations that are doing an amazing job of listening to a community, involving its members, and responding accordingly. Africa Yoga Project, for instance, is a great example of an organization involving its target community to actually form and change the organization itself. Other yoga communities have responded to African American culture and interest by offering Trap Yoga, a yoga style welcoming to all, but targeted toward African American culture and experience. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1bbhLnB3YQ) We’re moving in the right direction, people!
I want to conclude by saying that this is a topic that I have only recently began to research and reflect upon critically. I realize that I myself am guilty of having promoted yoga to a certain demographic more than others, based on my own ignorance and assumptions about yoga in relation to racial and socioeconomic status. I only wish to open up a discussion on these topics, and hold a space for more voices to be heard, and more variety in those voices. I see yoga as a tool of empowerment and healing for all, and I’m sure that most yoga practitioners or business owners will agree.
Think of all the benefits that yoga yields - strength, harmony, flexibility, coping skills, creativity, cathartic release, stillness, peace, contentment...the list goes on and on. Don’t we want these things for everyone? Isn’t it our duty as yogis to raise our awareness on the exclusivity of our spiritual practice, disrupt the slim white female yoga norm, and make yoga equally available to everyone in the world, regardless of color, age, weight, gender, or social status? I challenge all you readers to examine your own yoga community and I encourage you to be the drivers of change at your local studio. Talk with your studio owners, suggest ways to make the studio more inclusive, with different music, variety in community events, diversity in class styles or new partnerships with other organizations. If you have feedback on anything you’ve just read, or advice for how to move together toward making more yoga more inclusive, please don’t hesitate to share. Thank you for reading.