Social Justice & the Yoga World: the First Unwelcoming Behavior of Yogis. {Part 1 of 3}


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A decade ago, I came across a blog that made me laugh out loud called Stuff White People Like.

Among the things white people like:

1. Religions their parents don’t belong to
2. Nonprofit organizations
3. Having two last names
4. 80s night
5. Kitchen gadgets
6. Oscar parties
7. The Onion

After reading explanations, laughing myself silly, and exclaiming far too many times, “Whoa! We do like that!” I came to number 15: Yoga. At first, I was able to laugh on a purely superficial level, but after the initial guffaw I became a bit defensive, saying, “Hey there, Mr. Blog Man! Yoga is for everyone, not just white people.” Humph! Then I read on:

“Yoga is also an expensive activity. It gives white people the chance to showcase their $80 pants. The cost of four yoga classes is equal to the amount of money it would take to pay for uniforms and travel costs of an AAU Basketball team in the inner city. Lastly, like other stuff that white people like, yoga feels exotic and foreign (ties into post number two about eastern religions) and deep down in some way, white people feel that participation makes up for years of colonial rule in India.”

That stuck with me for years. It was said in a trendy blog-turned-book, but there’s an element of truth that makes me, a white woman and yoga instructor, squirm.

I wondered, “Why aren’t there more people of color in my yoga classes?” Heck, my black friends never went to yoga classes, even though the majority of them were into healthy living and had physical lifestyles. (Cue Stuff White People Like number 14: Having black friends.) The problem is that I kept asking the question, but I never took the step of examining the answer.

Over the years, I continued to practice yoga and also became more interested and involved in social justice issues. That nagging question came up again. Now, I wanted an answer, and one harsh reality I found was this: The American yoga world is not welcoming.

This three-part miniseries explores (only) three areas of unwelcoming behaviors and simple ideas individuals and studios can take to send a different message and initiate change:

Unwelcoming Behavior 1: what we wear.

Years ago, while in a yoga class, I realized that the total retail value of my mat, mat towel, clothing, and the class itself was over $300. Reminded of the Stuff White People Like post, I instantly felt ashamed. Sadly, my time on the mat that day is not uncommon. We have created a yoga culture that strangely resembles my time as a middle school girl: you have to have the right clothes and brands if you want to fit in. We created an environment in which most of the yoga students are white and are spending a lot of money. There’s a look to our yoga world which has created an “in crowd” and, by default, clarity about those who don’t belong.

“But I love those clothes! They’re better!” We argue. I stand firm in my assertion that the most expensive brands are not better. As an instructor, I have a discount on a lot of those brands, have bought them, and have worn them all. I can unequivocally say that the clothes are not better. What they do do better is make us feel part of the “in crowd”—just like in middle school.

“But my friend of color wears brand X!” That’s all well and good, but your friend wearing brand X doesn’t change the environment that has been overwhelmingly created by (and for) people who are white, upper middle class, and a size zero to six. It doesn’t change the invisible wall that is a deterrent for people who don’t fit into the trendified yoga world we created and who feel some version of “if that’s yoga, I don’t fit in” when noticing our community.

Imagine all of this from the outside. How would it feel, looking in, if you’re a person of color and all you see are white people wearing the same trendy ensembles? Or if you’re of a lower socioeconomic standing and can’t afford those clothes? Or if your size is sold by the trendy companies, but the cuts don’t fit the shape of most women of your particular ethnicity? It would feel like you don’t belong before you even attempt to.

If we’re serious about being welcoming, we need to ditch our adolescent philosophy and understand that our practice isn’t about a label, it’s about our bodies.

As an instructor, I have now committed to not wearing explicitly expensive clothing while teaching or practicing in public, and I recently went through my clothes and sold most of my items of a particular brand, giving me a nice little boost to my wallet! I am taking steps to practice my values (actions) instead of just performing them (words). But is there more I can do? Is there more to be aware of and areas in which we can make change for progress?

Absolutely. That is is what this miniseries is about. In part two of Social Justice & the Yoga World I discuss the Unwelcoming Behavior number two: what we idolize, and in part three I explore Unwelcoming Behavior number three: what we steal.

Simple ideas to practice, not perform, social justice values as yogis:

>> Wear a plain cotton logo tank from your favorite studio. They’re cheap, and they support local businesses.
>> Use a beach towel in a heated class instead of a YogiToes towel. A sweat-soaker is a sweat-soaker!
>> Budgeted money for  yoga wear? Buy secondhand. Your money will go further, and it benefits the environment.
>> Shop your values by buying brands that support varying socioeconomic classes, shapes, and ethnicities.
>> Buy and wear clothing and yoga accessories that don’t explicitly show a label.
>> Support brands owned by people of color. (Check out Glamourina.)

Simple ideas to practice, not perform, social justice values as studio owners:

>> Don’t carry lines of clothing that only those of a certain socioeconomic class can afford.
>> Focus your merchandise sales on basic, affordable, cotton logo-wear. (Bonus: advertising for your studio). 
>> Ask people of color what their preferred brands are.
>> Enforce a dress code with your employees that reflects social justice values and welcomes all.



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Corti Cooper Jan 11, 2019 1:38pm

Right on, Sister!

Anokhi SHAH Jan 8, 2019 10:34pm

As a colored, heavier lady, I especially appreciate this post. I so often feel insecure and out of place in yoga studios and half the battle in getting to class is fighting my shame of not looking or dressing or being as “good” at the poses. I still love yoga bc I rarely leave the class feeling the way I did coming in — thank you for recognizing and vocalizing this issue.

    Erin Austin Jan 11, 2019 8:22am

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. What you articulated is something I’ve heard echoed from my friends of color for a long time, and I’m doing my best to be an ally and vocal about it in the yoga community. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, I’ve heard from multiple white women that this is the exact same reason they, too, feel unwelcome in studios, particularly when they are not a size 2 or young(ish). I certainly know that there are more social justice issues in the yoga community that the three main ones I outline in parts one, two, and three of my article, but I had to start somewhere, and I’m glad to see what I wrote has been shared and discussed. Thank you again for your reply, and I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy practicing yoga–me too 🙂

Gairpanshields Jan 7, 2019 1:55pm

Wow. I’ve never spent much money on my yoga clothes or mat. The places I’ve gone have been very low key with the attire but to spare everyone’s feelings perhaps I’ll just stay at home. Yikes. Didn’t realize that in trying to make myself a better person I was being such an awful jerk. Why bother trying to improve myself if even that is offensive?

    richards_ja Jan 7, 2019 3:19pm

    It is easy to feel defensive when asked to question our role in the spaces we inhibit. As a woman of color, I appreciate that the author is bringing to light equity issues within a healthy practice that does alienate me (even if it is done unintentionally). Of course you get to do you, but often white people “doing them” eliminates (and often criminalizes) space for those who don’t fit the white, hetero-normative binary. You may have missed the point of this article if you feel like you are the victim here.

      Gairpanshields Jan 7, 2019 4:09pm

      I don’t feel so much defensive as very hurt. I’m Caucasian but poor. I’ve had a life of extreme abuse. I have no family or friends. Depression has consumed my life due to the extreme abuse. I finally worked up the courage to try yoga as a means of healing & growing. I was embarrassed at first that I don’t look like a yoga model, it IS hard to afford a class so I don’t get to many but it felt good to be in a collective & it felt healing. Now I feel like a bad person for doing yoga simply because I’m white even though none of the issues attributed to me as a white person in the article are true.

        richards_ja Jan 7, 2019 4:20pm

        It sounds like you can relate to the struggles/alienation people of color feel ALL THE TIME. This article wasn’t written to make you feel bad, it was written to highlight that these spaces can be elitist. Yes, you can also relate to that, but this article was written to focus on people of color and their consistent, often voice-less alienation. You get to walk into a space and, even though you may feel some kind of way on the inside, are given preferential treatment and automatic privilege. The same is not true for people of color. That is the focus of this article.

        Erin Austin Jan 7, 2019 4:33pm

        Thank you for your feedback….but actually, it sounds like to me that you’re doing exactly what those of us yogis who are white SHOULD be doing! I have taught yoga in three states–I’ve taught in spas, health clubs, and several independent yoga studios, so I can assure you that the culture of having the right (read: trendy/expensive) clothes to fit in is extremely prevalent. If that is not the case where you practice, consider yourself very lucky! Maybe even say something to the owners about learning that the space they created is not typical, in a good way. By not being a part of the culture I write about, you are practicing yoga in a way that creates a welcoming environment for others by not even realizing it, and that is so important. I think that’s wonderful! Keep it up!

          Gairpanshields Jan 8, 2019 11:10am

          I live in a part of the world that is truly culturally diverse. There is not a “white majority” in my community. When I walk into a store/gym/school/yoga studio it is very likely not to have a white (or any majority). Regardless, continuing to assert that I have privilege of any sort (without knowing the dynamic of my community) & knowing nothing about my background & struggles is hurtful. It downplays the suffering I have experienced & continue to experience in an abusuve marriage, it downplays my disease, my disability & my very short life expectancy. I even look strange because if my disease which I also have to find strength to overcome whenever I leave my house. So to hear the general “oh mad white people, ruining something that isn’t yours & not being inclusive” about the one thing I managed to try to do as a lifeline for myself is like a last straw in my depression. We should be careful what we say & how we generalize. Even white people can be very hurt.

charlotte carlin Jan 7, 2019 1:33pm

Not to mention this clothes thing doesn’t blend well with the practice of yamas and niyamas…

Kachina Mooney Jan 7, 2019 8:17am

Yes, yes, YES! A thousand times yes! Every white woman yogi should share this article FAR and WIDE. The responsibility of this is on our shoulders.

emjeff.janisch Jan 2, 2019 4:05pm

Very intriguing article! Can’t wait to read parts 2 and 3.

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Erin Austin

Erin Austin is a high school teacher, yoga instructor, world traveler, and lover of all things rock n’ roll. She lives in Fort Collins, CO, with her family.