January 29, 2014

How to Act when You See a Minority in Yoga Class.

You may have read the piece about a woman’s thoughts upon seeing “a young, fairly heavy black woman” in her regular yoga class.

While I would like to think that the author had some sort of good intentions when she penned this, I have to admit that the piece left me groaning a lot.

Apparently, I am not alone in that. The essay has attracted nearly 2000 comments since it was first published yesterday and nearly all them are critical.

As a minority woman who happens to be both a yoga practitioner and an instructor, I could not help but reflect on my own experiences. Most of the time when I am in the studio, either as a teacher or a student, I am usually the only person of color present. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me. Growing up in the South, it was the norm rather than the exception that I was usually the only minority at my school, workplace, etc. Even the university that I attended as an undergraduate was predominately white and less than 10% of the student body was minority. (Out of that group, Asians were less than 1% when I attended.)

While I do not claim that being Asian is the same as being Black, Hispanic, or any other minority group, I do know what it is like to be “the only one in the room”.

I also know what it is like for people to assume things about me the way that the author of the piece assumed about the unnamed black woman which may or may not be true.

For example, I happen to be only half-Asian and was raised by my (white) mother. Sadly, I have no knowledge of what it is like to grow up in an Asian household or even a bilingual one. Still, even when I point that out along with the fact that my father’s family was Hong Kong Chinese and in many ways more British than the British, it doesn’t stop people from asking me all sorts of questions about all sorts of Chinese things I know nothing about. (A silly one had to do with kombucha which I had never even heard of until three years ago. My father hadn’t either. Nonetheless, I was asked what I knew about it since this person insisted that everyone in China drank it.)

It isn’t like I resent it when people ask questions. I have no problems if people ask what I am. Growing up in rural Eastern North Carolina, I had a lot of people ask, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” It never bothered me. These were people who were genuinely curious. There was no malice present. If they sometimes called me “Oriental”, it didn’t bother me either.

Oddly enough, it’s people like the author of the xoJane piece who bother me. Before she edited her biography (I would assume in response to the comments her piece attracted), it implied that she was well-educated and well-traveled. She also lives in Brooklyn which is a far cry from the town of 500 people where I spent my early life. Sometimes it is the people who are the most pc and think themselves the most enlightened that harbor the most stereotypes and prejudices without even realizing it.

Caron writes:

“Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined. . . I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same.

Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. 

Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?”

Frankly, when I read the description of the anonymous woman’s physical struggles, I am reminded of my first time taking a fast-paced yoga class. Like her, I took child’s pose a few times to catch my breath and had to skip some poses and sequences altogether.

This is actually pretty typical of most students regardless of size, color, gender.

(While I have no way of knowing if this woman was beginner or not, I would imagine that that she probably had not not taken a lot of vinaysa classes prior to this one.)

Furthermore, it seems like a leap in logic to assume that the woman was resenting anyone—much less the author—or even thinking of race during that class.

If anything, Caron seems to be doing a lot projecting  and making assumptions she probably would not have if this woman was white.

My advice to the author or anyone wishing to know what to do should they see anyone new in a yoga class—whether they be black, green, skinny or heavy—is to say, “Hi.” Ask how they are. If you want to engage in a conversation with them, then do so the way you would anyone else.

More importantly, remember people are individuals and more than their appearance.

Lastly, to that unnamed black woman, enjoy your yoga journey. Yoga can be modified for all bodies and is truly for everyone.

Plus, as a woman of color myself, I can and do think of race but I can honestly say that yoga is one place where I never thought of it.

Generally speaking, most yoga instructors and practitioners are not dwelling on the race of anyone present much less think they are projecting hostility on the person next to them in downward facing dog.



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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Carlos Wittenstein via Pixoto

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