This is the fourth part of this four-part blog series. If you want to start at the beginning, read the articles entitled 'Social justice and the yoga practitioner' in reverse order.
Moving skilfully in the modern world
With mental training, through yoga, therapy, and life experience, we have the ability traverse the plane of the monkey mind, of our whirlpools of disturbance that lead us to be inactive, or reactionary and unkind (manomaya kosha) – I say this from experience. If we do not, we remain in a perpetual dualism between pleasure and pain, good and evil, continuing to add to our stock of samskaras and our tainted (‘coloured’) view of the world and never gain liberation (moksha).
Through surrendering to a higher power (ishvara pranidhana), dedication and the practice of meditation (Dhyana) we can cultivate a more sattvic (pro-active) mind, waking up a tamastic mind and putting out the flames of a rajastic one. In doing so, we can begin to act skilfully, free from attachment to the outcomes, and let go of what no longer serves us. This requires that we take heed of the signs, from when we catch ourselves being defensive or shying away from an experience, to bigger signs ‘from above’ like protests and environmental disasters.
Suffering will continue to arise throughout the life course of a mortal human, and it is through these episodes that we gain the skills we need to be pro-active rather than reactive – we may not be the victim of the suffering, but through the suffering of others we can work towards our collective liberation. This is often why we refer to elders as being wise – given their length of time on earth they have had to confront more suffering throughout their lives.
Creating inclusive places
So where do we go from here? If we know that we are in the midst of the most challenging of the Yugas then we can probably guarantee that the volume will continue to be turned up for quite some time. However, as yoga practitioners, we can play our part in expanding the reach of yoga so that more people have the tools to equip them with the challenging times ahead.
As yoga largely attracts white, middle-class women our work needs to be in knocking down our own Ivory Tower. According to black yoga teacher and studio manager Sharon Cryus, black people have experiences of not being given the same amount of space on the floor as a white person; not being treated with the same amount of fervour; never being assisted (Yoga Alliance, 2020). The microaggressions BIPOC experience in the outside world is yet to eradicated in yoga spaces. In the Yoga is Dead podcast there was even a whole episode entitled ‘White Women Killed Yoga’, with two Indian-American hosts recounting their experiences of being othered in yoga spaces, including having their name incorrectly pronounced (numerous times) by white women (Yoga is Dead, 2019).
As our supremacy has been decontextualized we may get defensive, or we may shy away from the topic all together, however this would go against ahimsa and santosha – the first precepts of yoga. Instead, we need to continue to sit with these feelings, educate ourselves, engage in conversations and act. We need to take criticism, thank those that have offered it, and make the changes we can, no matter how small, to make yoga a more inclusive practice.
From my own experiences, as a science communicator that engages diverse audiences, along with tips gathered through my various readings in preparation for this essay, I leave you dear readers with some top tips on how to make your practices and the places in which you teach more exclusive. The list isn’t exhaustive but should be a starting point from which you can reflect on your own work and make the necessary steps to diversify yoga, allowing it to continue its evolution and relevance for the world today. Do what you can, take small steps, and make it sustainable.
Marginalised communities often suffer economically (the system is rigged against them). Thus it is important to bear this in mind when charging for your classes and workshops. Can you offer free or discounted places? Consider a sliding scale. The Yoga Alliance recently offered a teacher trainer course on a pay what you can basis and 1000 people signed up
If you are a studio owner, is your staff portfolio diverse? If so, why not? Survey your clients and reach out to others that may be doing this well already. Consider the reasons why people may not want to work at your study (where are you advertising, who are in your adverts – are they all white, slim and female?). Groups need to be shown that places are for them through visible role models – for instance, if you have a BIPOC member of staff, then let people know about it
If you sell or offer products, are they functional for all bodies (everything from hair ties to yoga clothing), and culturally appropriate? For example, Muslim women may not feel able to join classes if they don’t have clothing suitable for their religious beliefs
Can you offer some of your time to work with marginalised groups? Are there similar networks to Bristol Yoga Roots in your area? If not, could you set one up? Reach out to an organisation that represents these communities (never go to them directly) and see if you can be of service. Perhaps you could create a partnership.
Can you give space to more diverse audiences?
o Create a safe space for ‘othered’ groups to safely practice together – until a time exists where they feel safe to be part of the mainstream
o Offer cheaper room hire rates for these groups (e.g. queer, black, disabled, etc)
o Reach out to these groups and invite them in
o Reach out to these groups and offer your services in their spaces
This is a new one for a lot of us! And we’re still finding our feet. But what do we do about the people without access to the internet, or a computer? Are your classes mobile compatible? Could recording classes be better for some people? We lose the human connection but we can increase our reach if carefully thought through. If you’re a studio, could you partner with a charity to offer refurbished laptops to those in need? In surprised me to realise that for many teachers in developing countries, if they don’t have access to WiFi they may not be able to eat!
Create a community of diverse practitioners and find ways to remove competition à make yoga a public good by campaigning for it to be part of the curriculum, to be socially prescribed. Take away the financial barriers.
o Explore cultural bias in your work or in your studio space. Offer workshops to educate practitioners on these issues and come up with action plans to address them. Maya Breuer says: “There needs to be a re-education of yoga teachers so they can be aware of what has become the norm in terms of assisting, treating, welcoming others into their space”. Every person, no matter their background, needs to be greeted with the same hospitality, given the same respect.
o Explore the different origins of yoga to showcase the practices diverse roots – to show from its outset the practice has been inclusive.
o Check out the Yoga Alliances standards that focuses on equity and accountability. There resources page has some text that you can incorporate in your teacher training; and they advise you can bring in an expert to teach issues around racism if you don’t feel equipped.
Be direct about what you want to say so as not to appease white fragility. Be vulnerable, acknowledge shortcomings, that you are not perfect, and say it how it is. ‘Everyone welcome’ is too abstract…try: ‘we want to be inclusive regardless of race, sexuality, socio-economic status’. Use an intersectional lens so as not to silence anyone’s struggle.
This isn't an exhaustive list but it is a starting point! Take time to reflect on your practice and your work within the wider community. You may only need to make a minor change to what you are doing, but be humble in whatever change it is you need to make. We're all learning as we go, so go easy on yourself.