January 4, 2019

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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