Is yoga for people of color an oxymoron?

Via Nadine McNeil
on May 22, 2011
get elephant's newsletter
Creating space for dialogue and understanding

“I’m tired of going into yoga studios in New York city and being the only person of color,”

…lamented this exquisitely petite and radiant woman whom I met while attending Maya Breuer’s workshop entitled An Ancient Art for New Communities, where she courageously addressed the scarcity of people of color in yoga classes across the United States, at the recent Yoga Journal Conference held in New York from 12 to 16 May 2011.

The group gathered was a small, intimate one comprised mainly of women, with the exception of one [white] male, a studio owner in an area where the demographic population boasts a large number of persons labeled as African-American. His intent and purpose for being at this workshop was to learn how he may be able to increase his enrollment numbers and ultimately his profit margin.

Another young university student came to find out about how she may be able to impart the teachings and wisdom of yoga to ethnic minorities on her college campus.

As I compassionately listened to the experiences and views shared by others, I became increasingly confronted, conflicted and confused.

Yoga was first introduced to me while living in Holland at the turn of the century; i.e., as we entered the new millennium. When I later moved to Indonesia, I was blessed to have been exposed to some of the most incredible and renowned teachers and retreat centers in the world.  As my practice deepened, it took me to India where I breathed, lived and studied yoga for several months, as well as to Thailand on several occasions to attend various workshops.

Jamaican by birth, African in ancestry and Universal in outlook, demographically, I was starkly different to the general yoga population in which I immersed myself and my practice. I celebrated the fact that for the first time, I’d found communities where in spite of being different we cultivated and harnessed Oneness.

Swami* Sivananda, the teachings that are the foundation of my yogic lifestyle, had commissioned his ardent disciple  Swami Vishnudevananda, affectionately called the Flying Swami, to spread the teachings of yoga to the West. His quest in fulfilling this destiny led to the establishment of the Sivananda Ashram and headquarters in Val Morin, Quebec, Canada.

*Sanskrit word for master.

In addition to Swami Sivananda, there is a whole lineage of gurus from India who have empowered their followers so that they may take yoga to the West and spread its wisdom among humanity there.

The fact that millions of Americans and others living in the Northern Hemisphere (or the West) are now practicing and/or teaching yoga is a testament to the fulfillment of this destiny.  Further, given that the reported origins of yoga are born in regions comprised of populations that are essentially of color, the potential for segregation of yoga in the West is for me, disturbing.  Why would we want to perpetuate this when we have been given a gift and an opportunity to truly heal as spiritual beings?

In an exchange with Maya at the start of her workshop, we spoke about the healing qualities of yoga and her commitment to sharing these aspects with the Diaspora who are afflicted with dis-eases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, etc and where there continues to be a disproportionately larger number of black males in prison with the subsequent result being a larger number of single black females being the sole bread winners and household heads.  From this vantage point, I whole-heartedly share her views. In fact this is largely what has sparked my own commitment to taking yoga into disenfranchised communities across the world, with a special focus on Africa and the Caribbean.

As authentic yogis we continue to witness and experience the profound impact of yoga in our lives and ultimately how this transforms the lives of our communities.

Irrespective of your demographic background, for any human being who is interested in living from a place of conscious awareness, incorporating some aspect of yoga in your life can only serve to enhance your overall sense of being.

Many of us, who share an African heritage and are choosing to step onto the mat, literally and proverbially, may encounter resistance from those whom we hold dear. For example, every person of color attending Maya’s workshop had at some stage of their practice been accused of devil worshiping. As painful as hearing this preposterous notion is for us, whenever this occurs rather than confront, our sole karmic purpose is to educate, heal and lead by example, keeping in mind that it is natural to fear that of which we have no comprehension.

Non-religious in nature, yoga teaches us about devotion.  When we understand this sacred aspect of it, yoga can only serve to deepen any religious path that one embarks upon, transcending how we worship.

Speaking recently with New York studio owner Isaac Pena who is of Hispanic descent, Sankalpah, a Sanskrit term which translates as [săn-kăl-pə] n. intention, aim, purpose, will, resolve, imagination, a solemn vow, determination, is the apt name for this studio.

Teachers and students set intentions at Sankalpah

An unpretentious space with wooden floors and the yoga sutras painted in red on the walls tucked away on Fifth Ave between 28th and 29th Street in Manhattan, Isaac’s only preference is that students are at least clad!  Besides this, the doors of Sankalpah embrace all that enter through them and celebrates differences in height, weight, skin color, spiritual beliefs, choice of yoga outfits, whatever!  Sankalpah and its teachers are committed to being a stand for its students in each moment and with every breath as we bear witness to our intentions made at the outset of our practice.

When I shared my concern about this issue of race within a yoga context with a  friend whom I’ve known for over twenty years – we went to high school together in Jamaica – she succinctly explained that if I still lived in New York, perhaps I may have a greater understanding of and appreciation for this fellow yogini’s frustration.

Rather than succumb to disempowerment, I’ve chosen to channel my energies into rising above and transcending the issue of race such that diversity is celebrated in the manner that the God of our own understanding has intended.

On the final day of the YJ Conference, I attended another workshop, this time organized by the founder of Africa Yoga Project, Paige Elenson. Her featured guest was former Sudan child soldier cum yoga for Africa advocate, visionary and messenger, Emmanuel Jal.  Riveted by every word and sentiment he echoed, I looked around the room and with few exceptions, the audience was primarily of Caucasian extraction.

Given their demographic dominance in the aid worker/humanitarian world, I was not remotely surprised.  In an instant, I got a glimpse of what this woman felt whenever she entered yoga studios in New York; I liken it to my feeling of being an exception rather than the norm of ‘foreign’ humanitarian living and working in Africa.  Despite this difference, I remain committed to being of service to humanity’s rainbow of color.  I immediately shared this revelation with another woman who had also attended Maya’s workshop and invited her to commit along with me to us giving back to the Diaspora.

Philanthropy and reciprocity is generally not a natural part of the Diaspora’s psyche for a myriad of reasons that would require another discourse.  This largely stems from it not being cultivated within the race; i.e., remnants of post traumatic slavery syndrome.  While we may commit to our conventional religious practices many of us do not extend this generosity of spirit to communities in dire straits in lesser developing countries; the bulk of which Africa is comprised.

My repeated experience of descendants from the Diaspora is that most do not identify with Africa as being an intrinsic part of their core existence, and therefore do not feel any need or reason to serve it. We do however relate to our immediate surroundings and its plight. And herein lies the dis-connect. As our levels of conscious awareness grow perhaps we will begin to understand and realize that the healing that we seek begins within us and at our source which is unquestionably Africa.

The universality and oneness of yoga is all encompassing and does not discriminate at any level. In those instances where we may encounter feelings and incidents of separateness we are being given a golden opportunity to educate, to inform and ultimately to deepen our practices as every level. This is our growth essence.

As we transform and evolve we are being of true service to ourselves, our communities and the world at large.

Yoga is an invitation for us to open up to possibilities that we thought unimaginable.

For those of us who feel that we’d be more comfortable being surrounded by demographics that align with ours, take your yoga into your communities and invite members of those communities to join you wherever you practice.

To date, I have not heard of a yogi being turned away from a studio because the label affixed to them was not in line with the vast majority of others present there.

Let’s continue to show up on our mats, heal and open our hearts and pour our yoga out into the world so that we indeed contribute to creating the peace that we are all seeking.

In the absence of borders, boundaries and demarcations, there is peace.

Om Shanti!


About Nadine McNeil

Yogini. Humanitarian. Spirited. Compassionate. Storyteller. All of these words conjure up aspects that make Nadine McNeil the person she aspires to be: an evolutionary catalyst committed to global transformation. Now fully devoted to expanding the reach of yoga through what she refers to as the “democratization of yoga,” she designs and delivers workshops to a wide cross-section of communities who ordinarily may not be exposed to nor reap its benefits.To join her mailing list and to learn more about her work and receive special offers, please click here.


14 Responses to “Is yoga for people of color an oxymoron?”

  1. tanya lee markul says:

    Another great blog Nadine. 'Yoga is an invitation for us to open up to possibilities that we thought unimaginable.' – so beautiful. Thank you. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

  2. ChinaRoyale says:

    Show up on your own mat…allow other people to show up on theirs or not. The only person that you need to save/heal is ultimately you first all else will fall into place. I too have had an acquaintance categorically tell me that , "yoga is evil and that there is only one saviour and he is the lord jesus christ who died for us on the cross." Racism and spiritual egoism what evil curses to beset humankind. I don't think that my rottweiler thinks he is any different than his shi tzu brother or vice versa they both know that they are canines and both do downward dog and plank and corpse pose being their favourite.

    So as BoB M suggests, can we free ourselves from our own mental slavery.
    Nadine Thanks again for continuing to writing these words to make us stop and think for even a second and contributing and spreading the "songs/words of FREEDOM."

  3. Ramesh Ramloll says:

    On my end, still dealing with the fact that there is no men in my class …. am the only dark skinned man in a class of mostly white women. However, I never thought that race was an issue … I get teased a few times but I join in the fun because I know it's not serious. Personally I think that these issues can be brushed off easily … they are just the results of conditioning and the perpetrators of discrimination are not mean just blind. So they need compassion.

  4. AlanH says:

    Honestly, I think the best way to address this would be to invite a friend of color to a studio. Most people of any race who were not raised in a family or culture where yoga was common, were probably invited by someone at one time.

    We also could support yoga at the community colleges, which tend to have larger minority populations. At my college, unfortunately, yoga, like most everything that is clearly linked to making money, is under attack. But our college yoga center is very diverse. And those students will hopefully go onto become lifelong yoginis.

  5. Eurasian Canadian says:

    As a visible minority born of Canadian immigrants, I feel most comfortable in a mostly Caucasian group with a few other visible minorities; this seems to be the norm in my environment.
    I’m glad to say that while my yoga communities vary with from studio to studio, I often practice within a group that has a healthy mix of ethnicity, colour, age, language, sex, size, and ability.

    This variance can be a helpful environment to one’s personal practice, the energy in the room does reflect that of the others in the room with you.
    It can also make for a lot of noisy pre-post practice chatter.
    One thing for sure; and earnest and focused practice is something I appreciate a lot, regardless of the mixed specifics of the group.

  6. Joe Sparks says:

    To fully eliminate racism,we must heal three forms of damage. The first form is the damage done to individuals targeted by racism–the hurts from being treated as inferior,denied basic material needs, denied a fair share of resources, demeaned, attacked, threatened with destruction, and much more. This damage is done to individuals through their contact with society's institutions and by the actions of other individuals.
    The second form is the damage to memebers of targeted groups that occurs from having "internalized" racism. Racist attitudes can be so overpowering that they are absorbed by people targeted by racism. Racism shapes the way targeted people think and feel about themselves. in ways that are similar to the mistreatment they have received from the oppressor group. People end up mistreating themselves and each other. This is call " internalized" racism.
    The third form of damage is the corruption of the minds and spirits of those conditioned by society to act as the agents of racism(i.e.,white people). No one is born an agent of racism. Anyone with a racist attitude has first been misteated and misinformed. He or she has been conditioned to play that role. Racism damages everyone. It is in no one's real human interest.

  7. AMO says:

    This is a good question to be asking, because with awareness we can begin to pull wide open doors that may appear unwelcoming to someone standing on the outside.
    You keep using the word "diaspora" – which I most often hear in relation to the tribes of Israel – though it certainly applies to people of African origin as well, which included all the people on the planet. The birthplace of humanity is in South Africa, where all human life on Earth originated. We can all trace our roots to Africa, though a majority of the people on the planet either don't know or won't accept that, largely because their holy books tell them other stories.

    I keep a light on for all people in my classes, with classes for beginners, with images of big people, brown people, men, old people, all of them. I hope they'll come, because really, they are the light that will bring others like them into the room…

  8. Ashley says:

    Another great article! I always look forward to reading your articles!!

  9. Celtic Maharani says:

    "segregation"? "disempowerment"? These are guilt-laden words. Who's supposed to feel guity here? Yoga is NOT segregated. If "people of color" as you call them, do not want to attend yoga classes in the West, who can force them? Doors are not closed to anybody. You are making an issue where there is none.

  10. Celtic Maharani says:

    One should ask why poor and working class people are not attending yoga classes. Why? Because they are too darned expensive, that's why. In the West yoga is a capitalistic "industry" primarily created by and for upper middle class yuppie types.

  11. nthemoment says:

    Good read. As a woman of color who practices Eastern medicine it is sometimes a battle.
    I often try to send the messages that ancient peoples across the globe had many similar practices and it is not an “other” thing. However, as I’m no die hard fan of yoga as the only form of “transcendent” practice I try to get people to connect with movement based activities that resonate with them from a cultural and spiritual aspects.

  12. Alec says:

    Start with kids. I teach a class to high school kids, five days a week for an hour with fifteen to twenty five students every day. Only one is white. In my pie in the sky vision my students can go be ambassadors for their communities when they become adults. Maybe even become teachers or studio owners. If we are all truly one, it harms us deeply to be missing entire communities from the benefits of yoga. I benefit tremendously from my practice, but my world is even better when others benefit too. So, go into communities of color and poverty, and find the kids. They'll show up to class.

  13. Tiffany says:

    This is such a thoughtful blog post…thank you so much for sharing. I am an african american currently living in Ghana. I have long avoided yoga because of its difficulty for someone of my size, and I suspect subconsciously because in the U.S it’s mostly geared toward middle class white women. Even in Accra (capital city of Ghana) the yoga studios are mostly geared towards expats. The average Ghanaian can’t afford the classes. I agree that yoga should be more universally accessible to those who wish to practice it, and those of us in the diaspora could certainly use such a healing practice in our lives. Thank you again for your insight.