November 9, 2013

Making Room for Diversity in the Yoga Community. ~ Amy Swart

My love affair with yoga began in a tiny no-frills studio in a dense neighborhood of Boston.

People of all shapes, sizes, class, ethnicities, ages, gender and sexual preference would trudge up the narrow corridor and enter the vibrant and homey studio run by a lesbian woman who radiated tenacity and grace.

In snow, sleet or sunshine, crowds would trickle in, wipe their shoes on the doormat and gather to practice in community. Teachers, too, were cut from the same multifaceted tapestry as their students. There was a realness to the space that, to me, translated as, “Come as you are or be fake, but if you’re being fake, our gritty Bostonian frankness may intimidate you.”

At first, I felt pretty self-conscious. As I ventured out of my cozy circle of predominantly early twenties white female liberal arts majors, the multiple perspectives and openness challenged me. The community, unbound by homogeneity, lacked the competitive aspect I felt in other studios that had a more uniform culture.

The studio invited me to question myself—not only in my yoga practice, but also in how I wanted to show up in life beyond my yoga mat. With so many people varying in levels of flexibility, culture, size, age, race, hairstyle, body art, even outfits—all these ways of being that graced the hardwood floors—I felt a freedom in their differences to be myself, quirks and all.

I felt challenged to move more authentically on my mat but also in relation to others: I was able to show up in a real way, to seek out my true nature and live it.

What part of that experience was responsible for leading me on what some may call a spiritual path?

My age and life circumstance were certainly a part, but I also believe the exposure to so much diversity was a significant catalyst for growth. Fast forward seven years and I am teaching yoga and practicing psychotherapy on the other side of the country in San Francisco.

I teach in a studio where hundreds climb up and down that narrow corridor to the studio weekly. The studio is larger, less colorful, but the community still holds that sense of welcoming diversity and comfort. We offer weekly donation-based classes, elevator access for those with disabilities and our studio owner is a black woman with a nurturing energy that could make anyone feel at home in her presence.

Still, much remains unrepresented, not just in our studio, but in our nation’s yoga community as a whole. There are people from various ages, races, cultures, sizes and genders that comprise the studio’s community, but like most studios in the United States, the range is not so wide.

Without the in-your-face diversity, I find it harder to grow in the deep way I had in Boston, sparked by having to find my place and question myself amidst the myriad ways of being.

It is often stated in yogic philosophy that we hold the universe inside of us. How can we absorb such a profound sensation when sharing space with only a small fraction of the population that comprises our world in daily life?

As yoga instructor Mary Paffard states, “We seek oneness without realizing it doesn’t accommodate the underlying need for nature itself to thrive in diversity.”

The more we welcome diversity, the more we align ourselves with nature itself. The more we align with nature, the more we can practice and live our yoga.

The parallels to excelling as both a yoga teacher and as a clinician are so intertwined that I often share what I’ve learned from psychotherapy in my yoga classes and vice versa with my patients. The most recent workshop was in a five day training in cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding for psychotherapists and facilitators.

I learned something valuable that was just as important for me to hear as a clinician as it was a yoga instructor: It is my job to notice how race, sexual preference, weight, gender, cultural identification, age and economic status impact the people with whom I work.

If I want to be of service, I cannot run away from differences or fear the isolation and guilt of being part of the privileged majority of mostly fit white middle class women that represent the American yoga community. Instead of ignoring this, I can face it, acknowledge it, perhaps with discomfort and conflict, but conflict happens because we care about what we are trying to understand.

Conflict, paradoxically, can bring us closer to knowing ourselves and each other—especially when using Non Violent Communication skills—and make room for people of all walks of life to feel seen and accepted.

Despite the reiterations in classes that yoga literally means union and that we are one, we are not yet all one. If we proclaim ourselves to be without doing the work to actually make this dream a reality, we are reinforcing the prejudice.

Doing work can be as simple as shifting to an attitude of embracing diversity.

Think of the contrast in hearing union: instead of being united in our sameness, we can be united our uniqueness and our awareness, acceptance and respect for one another in our own differences. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

Being a mindful yogi does not necessitate silence and moving past our differences to see what we have in common because it seems polite or more positive. Being a mindful yogi means being able to speak our truth, to embrace and advocate for diversity, to experience a re-union of polarities, opposites, contradictions and embrace the free flow of nature.

If you are reading this and you teach yoga, you are making a positive impact on people’s lives and have the ability to deepen this impact if you want to.

I encourage you to act on the following (if you have not done so already):

1. Notice if you find yourself paying equal attention to each person in your class, whether you have three or 30 students.

Do you tend to gravitate towards those who are most like you? Make it a practice to not reinforce the septic meme that surmises a shallow definition of yoga as union, as bonding over what we have in common and deliberately glaze over the differences to avoid discomfort. Instead, welcome each element of diversity like a guest, smile towards the person who you don’t feel connected to initially. Welcome in the difference and seek to understand.

Strive to make diversity the norm, not the exception. As Rumi illustrates in The Guest House, “Be grateful for whatever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Each chance you have to connect with someone different from you is an invitation to break out of your comfort bubble and expand into a greater sense of what it means to be human. As Virginia Wolf says, “We are all different. What divides us is the value we place on those differences.”

Let us stop the subliminal messages of seeing difference as negative and instead, see them as simply human.

2. Whenever you teach a class, see yourself as an ambassador.

Be the ambassador that embodies or at least welcomes the diversity and inclusiveness of the myriad cultures, shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities that make up your local community as well as the melting pot of our global yoga community.

Do you only wear Lululemon or do you switch it up with that comfy tee you bought at the thrift shop or those off-color yoga pants that are not super trendy but you feel good in? Do you remember to show modifications, use props for those who aren’t so bendy or explain poses and techniques in English for those who don’t know their Sanskrit names?

Aim to demystify yoga to those who are new and reach out to your students; don’t have them come to you. Is your class designed for people just like you and those who aren’t as flexible or new to yoga?

Is the music on your playlist homogenous to your own social culture or does it lend itself to other social cultures that are being represented in the room, as well? As a yoga teacher, make it your intention to not accidentally exclude others, but rather give them a place to feel free to explore the gift of breathing, stretching and learning to find a safe sense of home in their bodies without judgment.

3. Recognize that the business of yoga’s trend toward monoculture is happening in businesses everywhere.

In her book, Soil Not Oil, activist and author Vandana Shiva says, “Humanity has eaten more than 80,000 edible plants through its evolution. More than 3,000 have been used consistently. However, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of the world’s food.”

We are living in an age of convenience. We are drawn to what is familiar, easy to access and then capitalizing on its efficiency. In effect, we are losing the variety and spice of life. If we each help out by celebrating diversity in our small part of this vast web of life, we can help shift our nation’s self-imposed paradigm.

As Alice Walker wrote, “Anything we love can be saved.”

Whether you want to teach donation-based classes for people with disabilities, teach in prisons or hospitals, aim to support mom-and-pop shops over corporate entities, get to know someone from a different background than yours or continue to ask yourself what diversity means to you, you can combat the monoculture trend. We are living in a time where communication is easier than ever.

Reach out. Expand your community and demographic of people with whom you feel comfortable and see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. As Gandhi said in reference to diversity, “Pumpkins are good, but if you only have pumpkins, pumpkins and more pumpkins in your garden, then it is not so good!”

Strike up a conversation with someone of a different culture, race, religion, sexual preference, age group and imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Notice any assumptions you made of that person and challenge them.

Don’t be afraid of feeling isolated, judged or uncomfortable. Instead, step up your yoga and sit with what does make you uncomfortable. The more we sit with the discomfort, the more we can endure and ultimately, embrace. The more we embrace discomfort, the more we can free ourselves from the prejudice of age, race, class, weight and religious affiliation that saturates daily life and help to repair the wounds of discrimination in our yoga community and beyond.

As yoga teachers in the United States, it rests on us to awaken to the whole of the community and take responsibility for whom we serve. Begin with whatever prejudice arises in you and make that your work.

Start from within.

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In this case, perhaps it works in the reverse: When the teacher is ready, the students will appear.

Strive to embrace diversity, Mother Nature’s guideline, and see where it takes you. Lee Mun Wah, the cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding trainer said, “We never finish a conversation.

The goal is not to finish a conversation; the goal is to continue the conversation.”

I could keep writing but instead I will stop and trust to leave it to you, dear reader, to continue the conversation.

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Assistant Editor: Steph Richard

{Photo: Carlos Wittenstein via Pixoto}

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