(MORE) Reasons Why Your Yoga Class is so White–What the Atlantic Missed

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When I saw this article in the Atlantic last month, I practically jumped for joy. I couldn’t help but think,”Yes! Finally!” I have dedicated a significant amount of my intellectual energy studying the intersections of race, class, and culture. As an avid yogi for the past 6 years, my beloved yoga practice did not escape my racial critique. Seeing an article about diversity and yoga in a mainstream publication like the Atlantic was a huge step in bringing these difficult issues to light.

While I am excited that this dialogue is happening, there needs to be more nuance in these discussions. Some of the most trite reasons for the lack of diversity in yoga still ring true. For example…

  • Yoga can be expensive as hell. $15 for a class, $90 for fancy yoga pants, and yoga mats can cost anywhere from $20 to $100. Is this costly gear necessary to practice yoga? No. But let’s not pretend the stigma of not having the “right” (re:popular and pricey) yoga gear isn’t a potential deterrent to people of color (POC).
  • Yoga studios are typically concentrated in areas of wealth. Wealthy neighborhoods are not accessible, convenient, or comfortable for many POC to be in. Now that there are yoga studios popping up on seemingly every corner there is a lot of room for growth in the area of diversity. But this growth will not occur without hard conversations and hard work.

Other “reasons” are problematic myths that need to be debunked. In the article Robin Rollan, the founder of the popular tumblr Black Yogis says the following: “When people talk about money as a deterrent [for black people to do yoga], I’m like, yes and no,” Rollan said. “People find money to buy thousand-dollar bags and shoes, and weaves, those cost hundreds of dollars to upkeep. But African Americans don’t have a great track record when it comes to preventative health. Wellness is not really valued.” I love the blog Black Yogis and I have nothing but respect for everyone out here trying to engage in this discussion. At the same time, I think the idea that black people as a community don’t care about or prioritize wellness plays into some racially problematic logic. We cannot take conversations about black wellness out of their social context. The Boston Public Health Commission’s Center for Health Equity and Social Justice breaks it down like this:

“Social factors such as housing, education, income and employment greatly influence the health and quality of life in neighborhoods and communities.  These social factors, generally referred to as the social determinants of health, determine whether or not individuals have parks and playgrounds to exercise, supermarkets to buy fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, job opportunities to support their families, and other resources that allow them to be healthy.  While it is definitely important for us to encourage people to make healthy choices, we must remember that people can only make healthy choices if they have healthy options.”

Plus,  the “black people spend too much money on weave and expensive bags” argument can easily fall into shaming, judgmental, victim-blaming territory. The solution to yoga’s diversity crisis isn’t for POC to change their lifestyles and spending habits to include yoga. It’s the responsibility of the yoga establishment to break down the barriers that keep yoga out of reach for so many populations.

And what can they do to break down those barriers? This will be an ongoing discussion over here at Whole Soul Health, but check back soon for Part II where I will discuss important strategies for bridging the racial and class divide in the yoga community. What do you think about diversity in yoga? If you’re a POC, what have your experiences been like at yoga studios where you live? Post your thoughts in the comments, or head over to the Whole Soul Health facebook community to join in the conversation.

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