September 23, 2012

Yoga Studios: Everyone’s Welcome? ~ Andrea MacDonald

The Western yoga world is an unsafe and unwelcoming place for many people.

The first time I walked into a yoga studio I was terrified. I had just had three panic attacks in two days and spent my lunch break at work that day crying in the bathroom. My anxiety had become so bad, I confessed to my mom what was going on and she suggested I go to a yoga class. I can honestly say (like many people who practice yoga) that class changed my life.

That night, for the first time in months, I fell asleep within minutes and slept through the whole night. When I woke up it felt like more of my body was sunk into the mattress than usual—my body was letting go and relaxing in a way I wasn’t at all used to, something I desperately needed. 

Since then, I’ve practiced yoga fairly regularly for almost six years. I’m now a yoga teacher and my friends make fun of me for wearing tights and yoga pants all the time, but I honestly just don’t feel comfortable in anything else. I need to be able to move in my clothes and jeans just don’t do it for me!

But here’s the thing: even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the Western yoga world is an unsafe and unwelcoming place for many people.

In many ways I am the target demographic for yoga studios. I’m white, from a middle class background, thin, able-bodied and cisgendered (I identify and am perceived as the gender I was assigned at birth).

When you speak to people who work at yoga studios you will commonly hear them say things like, “Everyone is welcome here.” While I believe that many studios hold the intention to be a welcoming, healing place for everyone, the reality is that yoga studios set some exclusive and damaging standards for who belongs and who doesn’t.

For example check out the websites from Semperviva and YYoga in Vancouver. Take a second to look at the people; they are all thin and pretty much all of them are white or fair-skinned. Based on their clothing (and the prices they pay at these studios) you could guess most of them are financially comfortable. None of them appear to be trans and many of the photographs show people who are unusually flexible.

What do you think these photos teach potential students and community members about who belongs in the yoga world? Can you see why many people would feel unwelcome? When you fit this mold it’s easy to feel like our spaces are welcoming…because they are welcoming to you.

These photos are just the tip of the iceberg to this problem. Here are some steps yoga studios could take to move closer to truly opening their doors to everyone:

Offer by-donation classes.

Lots of people can’t afford a $20 drop in or a $100 10-class pass (I know I can’t). If you want people to practice, give them opportunities to do so that they can afford. Consider asking new teachers who would love a chance to practice their new skills.

Make your studio an LGBTQ safe space.

It’s one thing to say your studio is safe for queer, trans or just generally non-gender normative or non-hetero normative people; you can easily do this with a sticker or a tag line on your pamphlets. But like I said before, what you say is not as important as what you do. For example, do you assume your students’ genders or ask for and respect their preferred pronouns? Does your studio have gender-segregated bathrooms? Why? Some people don’t fit into one bathroom or another and feel safer and more welcome when they don’t have to choose.

Display multi-language posters/teachers.

This one is pretty straightforward. If all your marketing and classes are in English then only people who speak English will come! Non-english speaking teachers and classes allow immigrants (legal or otherwise), ESL students and people who speak other languages to practice yoga and build a community that they might not otherwise be able to do in English.

Celebrate fat bodies.

There are lots of healthy, happy fat people who kick butt at yoga and many fat people who are terrified of studios because they think they don’t belong. Make sure your teachers know how to offer adjustments and alternatives for fat bodies. Consider offering fat classes and avoid making  judgmental comments about weight or eating habits. You have no idea about someone’s health based on their weight and you’re not going to make them more physically active or healthy by shaming them.

Offer meditation classes.

Have you noticed that many yoga studios don’t offer classes in meditation? In the West, asana have been transformed into an en-vogue fitness trend rather than a supportive stepping stone towards sitting, breathing and seeking union with your spirit, your sangha and the world around you. Not only does this shift contribute to the consumer-capitalist cultural appropriation of yoga, it also demands that yoga practitioners be able to do physical asana. Think about how many more people would come to yoga studios if they offered affordable meditation classes that could literally be welcome to everyone.

Make your studio accessible to people with non-normative physical abilities.

Photo: [Fishman, LM and Saltonstall, sciatica.org]Can people in wheelchairs or who use walking aids make it into your studio? If not, could you do a simple renovation to fix this? More importantly, do you offer classes that can be taken by people who don’t have a normal range of movement? Think about offering classes in meditation or chair yoga and make sure to include accessibility info (eg: stairs/elevators, size of doorways) in your advertising. At the same time, don’t assume that someone with a non-normative body can’t do asana. Talk to them before or after class, listen to what they know about their bodies, help them feel comfortable asking questions and offer them creative but non-patronizing adjustments if needed.

Offer trauma-sensitive classes. 

If you practice yoga you know that your body holds onto lots of stuff: stress, tension, bad memories, samskara, you name it. Lots of people don’t want to do yoga because being in their body simply doesn’t feel safe. On top of that, yoga studios can feel unsafe for people because they are filled with potential triggers (eg: aggressive teaching instructions, vulnerable feeling poses, teachers touching them without asking, ropes hanging from the wall—trust me, the list goes on). Do your best to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and offer classes that respect your student’s boundaries and help them feel safe, rather than scared and re-traumatized.

Don’t set up in a gentrified neighborhood.

I live in Vancouver so I understand that finding a space to teach can be expensive. This can translate into high prices for students, so please don’t set up in a neighbourhood filled with people you don’t intend to teach to simply because the rent is low.

While we may feel that we are working to revitalize a neighborhood, our presence often works in tandem with opportunistic and vicious property development companies to displace low-income people and racialized communities from the places they call home. I understand that many studios do intend to teach the people whose communities they intruded on, but I’ve rarely seen this succeed when classes are filled with people wearing lululemon and prices are unaffordable to residents.

Offer YTT scholarships.

If your studio gives teacher trainings, find ways to offer scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. Prioritize people who have greater barriers to overcome than others. Teacher trainings are expensive; by offering scholarships you will encourage a more diverse group of teachers and their future student bodies to blossom and feel welcome.

This is a long list. Many of the things I wrote about here are vastly more complicated than a couple of sentences could do justice. I plan to write about many of these issues in more detail. If you have any other ideas about increasing accessibility feel free to send them my way, or better yet, take steps to implement them in your studios.

The only way we can make more people feel welcome is if we think critically about our behaviour, our privilege and the kind of spaces we want to create. Kula Yoga in Toronto is an example of a studio taking concrete steps towards increasing accessibility.

Actions speak louder than words people, so please, open your doors, your hearts and your studios. Everyone is welcome, right?


Andrea MacDonald is a yoga teacher and general trouble maker from Vancouver, BC. You can check out her classes, musings and rants at www.moonlitmoth.wordpress.org.

“I hope we have grown up to become much more disobedient, because life on this world of ours may well be terminated because of too many acts of obedience.” ~ John Jordan




Editor: Jennifer Townsend


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