Yoga: How White People can Respect what was Never Theirs to Begin With.

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People might tell you that yoga is “one size fits all,” but the slew of advertising, the margin of white yoga teachers at most studios, and the plain cultural appropriation of yoga clearly presents a different picture.

If you were to pick up a magazine like Yoga Journal or you wanted to shop for yoga clothing for your practice, or wanted to take a class in your local community—it is likely that the only representation you will see are the faces of slender white people.

How comfortable is someone expected to feel about practicing with others if every class or every ounce of representation of yoga is made to look like a practice that is purely for white women?

Even when you type the word “yoga” into Google, the only images or faces you are likely to see are of all white people.

This includes huge social media platforms like Instagram.

Many yoga practitioners flock to Instagram to purchase their yoga clothing and accessories. It is not uncommon to only see thin white women doing advanced yoga poses on most feeds belonging to these companies who claim to represent the yoga community—while only including the occasional token person of color.

This is evidenced below.

Alo Yoga
Buddha Pants
Flexi Lexi Fitness
Liquido Active
Yoga Paws
Confused Girl LA
Werk Shop

When Shelby, an African American private yoga instructor was asked by ​Prana​, a yoga clothing company, to purchase their clothing using a “special discount,” she replied by saying: “I’d be happy to, once you all start featuring me and other women of color on your page.”

On a post from her Instagram feed, she tells Prana that they can come back to her “when they start realizing yoga isn’t just a rich white women’s sport. Until then, stay out of my inbox.”

We have come to associate yoga with slender, white, upper-class women.

Moreover, we are preventing other studios from being able to provide places for women and men of color to feel comfortable in their practice.

This was shown in October of 2015, when Laura Humpf, who owned an 8 Limbs studio in Seattle, Washington, made the space available for five queer people of color. She then decided to provide a class once a week for “lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and trans-friendly/affirming,” and “identified people of color,” while asking that “white people, allies, and friends, respectfully not come to this class.”

It was soon after word got out that the staff of the studio, including the students of the POC yoga, received threats of violence and no longer felt safe coming to the studio.

The studio even temporarily closed and the owner went into hiding.

There were outcries pouring in from white Americans who claimed POC yoga was racist to white people.

As history has shown us, people will claim “reverse racism” even though the notion in itself doesn’t exist—at least not for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).

“Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists, since we don’t benefit from such a system.” ~ “Dear White People,” 2014

When almost every class you go to is led by a white woman, and every student you see in class is white, it can be intimidating to want to show up for a practice that doesn’t value people of color.

Especially when we hear stories like Jackie’s, an Afro-Latina and yoga teacher residing in Englewood, New Jersey:

“I started going there [as a student] from the beginning when they first opened. I told them that I was a teacher, and that if they needed teachers, I was available. Of course they gave me the ‘yeah, we’ll let you know,’ but they never even gave me the chance. I kept going there for two years, solely because there weren’t any hot yoga spots near my house. I took classes in the morning, at midday, and at night—never once seeing a teacher of color. They were all white.”

When Jackie approached a hot yoga studio in New Jersey with questions about lack of​ ​inclusivity​, she was immediately banned from the studio.

When an opportunity arises to provide ​inclusion​ in the yoga community, priority should be given to allow POC a comfortable space to practice yoga.

Something similar happened to Andrea, a yoga instructor who created a “Healing Yoga Retreat for Women of Color.” The retreat lasted 10 days and guests enjoyed yoga, meditation, and vegan food.

This was all on the premise that there would be no white people at the retreat.

The event received backlash on Twitter when one ​Twitter account user​ told their followers that “Segregation is back! White People should sue,” and ​another account​ wrote: “They should leave us permanently and never have to put up with us again.”

Another woman of color, Indian meditation master and yogi Savitri, experienced racism when she attended a Seattle ​North West Yoga Conference​ in February of this year.

She went to accept an award on behalf of her husband and was kicked out of the conference about five minutes into her speech, for supposedly going over the time allotted for her to speak while she was lecturing about female empowerment.

All other luminaries had been allotted 10 minutes. You can find that video ​here.​

Backlash broke out on their ​Instagram feed​ as well as on their ​Facebook account​ shortly after the incident.

Savitri was the only Indian woman there at the conference. She and her friend were kicked out, and her booths were removed. In response to the outrage, some sponsors of this year’s Northwest Yoga Conference even pulled their sponsorships, effectively abandoning the conference all together.

These are examples of a yoga community that is supposed to preach ahimsa—the principle of nonviolence toward all living things.

White Americans are whitewashing a culture that isn’t inclusive to people of color, and yet it is one that was brought to Western civilization from India, by Swami Vivekananda.

The question remains, why do white people feel that they can do as they please with yoga?

What exactly is the purpose of yoga?

First let’s define yoga’s original intent. The Bhagavad Gita, a widely known classical text on yoga, provides various definitions.

>> Yoga is equanimity of mind in success and failure.
>> Yoga is discretion in work.
>> Yoga is the remover of misery and destroyer of pain.
>> Yoga is the supreme secret of life.

>> Yoga is serenity.
>> Yoga is the giver of infinite happiness.

Patañjali, the author of the classical yoga text, The Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as, “complete control over patterns or modifications of the mind.”

In all honesty, can we say that this is what is experienced or observed in yoga studios?

It makes one wonder what is taught in yoga certifications these days. How much of the rich and authentic history of yoga is actually taught? Do yoga teachers leave their certifications knowing the origins, history, and purpose of yoga?

It seems that the answer is no.

I am not Indian by race nor am I a yoga teacher; however, I do consider myself a student of yoga.

I appreciate what yoga brings to my life as a black woman, but I am also concerned about how it’s appropriated by white yoga teachers.

There is a difference between appreciation and appropriation.

The words used to describe appreciation are acknowledgment, recognition, awareness, and understanding. Appropriation is the act of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

Recently, I spoke with an Indian woman, and friend of mine, about her concerns regarding the appropriation of yoga by white people. She said:

“The postures do not offend me, it is the blatant disrespect and erasure of its origins. Yoga is one of the six philosophies of Hinduism. I have rarely, if ever heard any white yoga teacher acknowledge yoga’s relation to the Hindu faith. It is as if they are afraid to mention Hinduism as if it’s a dirty word. By no means am I saying that no one should practice yoga—however, they should acknowledge and give respect to my culture for its creation.”

The answer to the question of why white people appropriate yoga is that they know they can without consequence.

White people are the dominant race, and even the most “woke white person” benefits from the privilege of taking from another culture.

Embedded within white history is dictatorship, destruction, and pillage.

Therefore, it happens involuntarily because, upon birth, a white person is born with privilege.

So, how can white people begin to dismantle appropriation and learn to appreciate and respect what is not theirs in the first place?

First, acknowledging and admitting that you, as a white person, have appropriated other cultures.

Appropriating culture for your own benefit is innate and so you must begin the deep work within yourself through study, research, and the unraveling of your white supremacist beliefs.

As yoga teachers, many talk about light and love—yet when they are confronted about their own white privilege, many seem to lose the focus that was intended to draw others into the practice in the first place.

A lot of white yoga teachers become alarmed when they are called out as racists, or guilty of appropriation. You are what you created therefore, it is up to you to dismantle it.

Although racism exists in various degrees, it is still racism, no matter how it appears.

There are plenty of other ways yoga teachers and students can do to help dismantle racism.

  1. Provide space for people of color ​free of charge. If you own a studio, try offering up space and time in the studio for a POC yoga class.
  2. Develop genuine relationships with yoga teachers who are POC. Invite them as guest teachers, speakers, or panelists, and pay them what they deserve for their labor.
  3. Offer free or donation-based yoga classes at your studio or space (or the park!) to help make yoga accessible to all.
  4. Support, and follow groups like ​Black Girl Yoga​,​ Sisters Of Yoga​, ​Yoga Noir​, and give voluntarily to their organizations.
  5. Attend lectures and workshops on racism, like those facilitated by ​Rachel Cargle​ and ​Catrice Jackson​. Change starts from within.

Appropriation and racism cannot be eliminated in one day, one week, even in a year or decade.

It is a lifelong continuum of transformation to live in the purpose of yoga, which is one of purity and freedom of spirit.

~

author: Mabel Butler and Sonja R. Price

Image: Sisters Of Yoga/Instagram

Image: Renee Choi

Editor: Naomi Boshari

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M. Butler and S. Price

Mabel Butler is a devoted yoga teacher and practitioner. As a health care professional of more than 15 years, she has had the pleasure of meeting many people and learning a lot about their travels. Her curiosity continues to guide her research, as she dives into various topics and shares her findings on social media. You can connect with her on Instagram.

Sonja R. Price lives in New York where she is a comprehensively certified Classical Pilates instructor, writer, speaker, and a former social worker. She is the founder of Commando Fitness Collective and the Black Girl Pilates community on Instagram and Facebook. 

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kpid5 Nov 29, 2018 3:51pm

Wow. This article struck a nerve in me.

Yoga, like all things can be and has been taken to extremes…goat yoga, classical music yoga, nude yoga…the list goes on. If we study The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we learn a lot of things, but here are two things that relate to this article: the practice of yoga is for people of all walks of life (religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, races…) and that includes white women and black women and all the women and all the men. AND we learn that absolutely any technique for meditation should be used to achieve a calm mind. So we can’t judge one another on how we achieve peacefulness.

Additionally, self study is a process, one where we learn how to feel absolutely empathetic and compassionate for our fellow humans over time, and during the process we make mistakes over and over again.

This article sounds very bitter but it’s missing the point of yoga in its effort to make a point about the current yoga culture in this country. I absolutely agree that some studios and retailers take certain things too far. Retailers are trying to sell us an image, but Yoga is not about buying into a lifestyle, it’s about stripping away all that is inauthentic and then learning how to be ourselves again.

There are plenty of warm and inviting yoga studios out there who are glad to have students from all walks of life, but we have to be open and patient in order to find them.

Li Adenuga Nov 12, 2018 7:42pm

Very powerful, insightful article. Thank you!

Marc Bergeron Oct 28, 2018 4:46am

you're an idiot.

Marc Bergeron Oct 21, 2018 2:43am

Flamboyantly, disgustingly racist. Shame on you, Elephant Journal.

Ed Lamba Oct 15, 2018 12:49pm

I've stopped reading Elephant too now because of their publishing of a horrendous article like this.

Joy Bonham Oct 14, 2018 5:24pm

Oh my Gawd. It’s BS like this that makes me NOT want to support the left anymore. Next we’ll hear that white people are no longer able to go out into the sun because if their skin turns brown, they are appropriating some one else’s skin color. Unliked and no longer following Elephant Journal. I refused to be put in a itty bitty box of shoulds by you

Joy Bonham Oct 14, 2018 5:22pm

Actually there is some truth to the statement. Black people can be BIGOTS. Racism is bigotry mixed with power. Since most black people are not in a position of power, they are not often able to be racists, just run of the mill bigots.

Joanne Peace Oct 14, 2018 10:32am

This article is offensive and I'm shocked that Elephant has allowed it to be published. You want to practice yoga, you find a class and you attend. None of the yoga instructors i know are racist, some of them are poc themselves, their classes have a mixture of sexes, ages, sexual orientation, abilities. Yoga as a lifestyle for all. Some people use yoga as a form of exercise, other's are curious about yoga on a deeper level and incorporate yoga philosophy into their everyday actions on and off the mat. Who is anyone to judge? The fact is, we are supposed to care less about what others are doing and lead the way by example. This article is clearly written by an angry person who isn't showing a good example of inclusion. We are all people at the end of the day. One race. I'm sure there are no signs up saying 'white people only' at any class I've ever attended! Imagine turning up and there being a 'POC' only class?!

Valerie Elizabeth Samantha Kessler Oct 13, 2018 9:27pm

I have a huge problem with the term "white people" Want to shut me down immediately ... strip me of my autonomy, individuality, humanness , identity!!! How dare you, you don't know me at all! You know nothing about the specifics about my life, the injustices I have experienced, the pain, the descrimination the abuse, trauma! I won't go into it here because this is your story, but reading this has enraged me. Want to start a dialouge ,how about starting with a less inflamatory title to your article, how about being a nice, kind human being! How about being a power of example, how about telling me how it makes you feel instead of denigrating an entire race ... point a finger three always point back! Do not project your perception onto me and don't speak for anyone other than yourself! I do not respond to people or conversations when they begin with accusations, founded or unfounded ... As a human being I don't identify with a / my race. Do all black individuals identify first as black and not take into consideraton any other idendtifying character traits ... perhaps that is what is at issue here.

Simon Taylor Oct 10, 2018 9:01pm

Total nonsense article....

Lauren Condron Oct 8, 2018 1:15am

Carol Ward 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻 Thank you for your perspective as a woman of color.

Carol Ward Oct 8, 2018 12:50am

I completely agree, how does exclusion create inclusion? As a POC that loves yoga and has even experienced the stares and glares in class (I live in Alabama). I would not want or expect a studio to have colored only classes, as a matter of fact, I’d be totally pissed if they did. If sudio owners care to create space for others or promote inclusion, simply remind people to mind their mats. My favorite yoga instuctor is a white male that happens to be gay. He will address any elephant in the room with gentle reminders. This is yoga people it’s okay to smile, laugh or fart. I can’t speak for everyone but I personally don’t want any extra shxt, basic human decency works just fine for me.

Marilyn Regan Oct 5, 2018 5:39pm

No...I don't care whose in the class with me or if the owner of the studio is a POC. I go to a studio with transgender and homeless people. They are all welcome and everyone in the class is very welcoming to them.

Marilyn Regan Oct 5, 2018 5:36pm

Let's also not forget that yoga used to be an all-male occupation. Woman were not allowed to be yogis. So if you look at the yoga business in light of the #metoo movement, then woman have appropriated it from men, but yet we must now divide it by race. How sad.

Marilyn Regan Oct 5, 2018 5:32pm

Ed Lamba Agree.

Ed Lamba Oct 4, 2018 9:22pm

very good points!

Ed Lamba Oct 4, 2018 9:20pm

well said.

Ed Lamba Oct 4, 2018 9:19pm

Annie Greenleaf I don't think she has missed the point. Speaking for myself I am well aware that people have to live with racism every day (I am half Indian). However I don't understand how this translates into white people feeling they should not be able to practice and enjoy yoga, and make special privilidges for people of colour to practice it? Yoga is not a right. This is sefl-entitled, hate-fuelling nonsense.

Annie Greenleaf Oct 4, 2018 4:08pm

Love this!

Annie Greenleaf Oct 4, 2018 4:05pm

Thank you Mabel and Sonja for this very powerful piece! I was at a writing retreat last week in New Mexico and the term social appropriation came to light. It was brought forth by a woman who wrote an article about the Goddess Kali a couple of years back and while she received mostly accolades for her piece (the article went viral) she did receive backlash from Indian Americans who were not comfortable with the voice of Kali being spoken by a white woman. This term is new to me and you have planted yet another seed into my consciousness, a seed in need of greater understanding. With THANKFULNESS ~

Annie Greenleaf Oct 4, 2018 3:54pm

And you have missed the points of the piece entirely. When you are ready to hear that white people need to step back and listen then and only then can real healing be had for those of color who live with racism every day. Your defensive response is the revealer that you are not ready to hear these things, but your response also reveals that a seed has been planted into your consciousness. Where there is discomfort we need to pay attention.

Gemma Gale Oct 4, 2018 3:06pm

The whole world is filled with unrealistic advertising. If you feel uncomfortable attending a yoga class due to the fact that there's white people that's your problem. I'm sure none of the white people would even think twice about you being there. Yoga segregation sounds just as crazy as this article!!!

Ama Mi Oct 4, 2018 2:54pm

So much nonsense. Solution to this confusion is individualism. This group-think crap is just a way to get away with not taking responsibility for oneself. In this free country you are FREE to do, be, strive for, ANYTHING. You wanna be a doctor? Go for it! You wanna be a hobo? Go for it. You wanna walk around NY City in a Superman cape? Feel free. As long as you don’t cause physical harm, your free to express yourself however you wish. For some to start claiming this nonsense is a threat to our liberty and should be called out for the fascism it is.

Marilyn Regan Oct 3, 2018 6:15pm

Appropriate: "to take something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission." If someone has gone through a YTT program, then they have permission to teach regardless of color, sexual or gender orientation. Why aren't people of color opening studios? Are white women, or men, stopping them? I ask that in all sincerity. I did trainings with two women of color who owned studios and they are doing fabulously. I do agree that the majority of women featured on the cover of Yoga Journal are thin, white and young. Consider this, yoga also means to yoke or join and having segregated classes for blacks, only is counter to the yogic philosophy. In terms of teaching yoga, I have found age discrimination as well.

Lauren Condron Oct 3, 2018 5:19pm

I found this article super confusing. White people need to make space for POC for free for yoga, but make sure they pay POC teachers a living wage? How is that sustainable for those who make their living from yoga studios? Also- white people are appropriating yoga when they do not honor the Hindu roots- aren’t all practitioners appropriating regardless of color if they are not Hindu or do not acknowledge that origin? I just found this article odd. Yoga isn’t a right. It’s a lifestyle choice, a hobby to some, athleticism to others, and deeply spiritual in its roots. But it’s not owed to anyone, like education or the right to a living wage. It just felt odd to me- I’m not sure what the author really wants here. No one owes you free access to hobbies you want to feel more comfortable doing. Sure it would be nice but not having an all POC class or teacher doesn’t make a facility racist. This was grasping at straws. I think POC are fighting huge obstacles, and I think white people need to rise to their roll in that. Buttttt this felt like a stretch to me. (Pun intended).

Kristy Laverty Oct 3, 2018 5:05pm

Great read. I am currently taking my teacher training. I will come back to this to remind myself of the work I need to do. I appreciate the ideas you have put out on how to do better and be more inclusive.