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06 August 2007

the color of yoga



I'm throwing the question out there: why is western yoga so overwhelmingly white?

In my six years of teaching (and longer as a student) I've been to numerous yoga workshops, trainings, and conferences, and I can't help but notice the dearth of people of color at these events.

This topic is one of my yoga rants, together with ageism in yoga marketing in this country, but you don't see these topics discussed in Yoga Journal -- and that also bugs me.

As for black yogis, I know of Rolf Gates, Alice Walker, Becky Love, a Chicago yoga teacher, and Ty Powers. There is also the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers whose mission is "to serve the African Diaspora by spreading the teachings of the ancient art and science of yoga." As for black yoga students, I can count on one hand how many I've had. One of the places I teach is a community college with many African-American and Hispanic students, but in my four years there, the majority of my students are white.

Even when I go into Chicago to my teacher's studio to take his classes, a studio that is in a hip, diverse area, the majority of students are white.

I teach karma yoga at a domestic violence shelter to the Hispanic Women's Support Group. These women love the time they have for themselves. They love having the opportunity to meditate in a quiet place, an opportunity they usually don't have at home with kids and with men who don't support them emotionally.

Once a newspaper reporter interviewed me and some of the shelter's students about yoga for battered women, and one woman said she would love to see more yoga offered in their community, but she felt that many Hispanics might not be receptive to it, mainly because of their religions (Baptist, Catholic, and Jehovah's Witness in my area.) One woman stopped coming to my class because her minister - a Jehovah's Witness -- told her that yoga was evil and she would go to hell if she kept doing yoga. The group leader told me this and she said that the woman felt badly about it because she loved the way yoga made her feel, but she felt she had to listen to her minister over and above what she felt inside her.

I know that the cost of attending yoga classes can be prohibitive for people in lower-income areas. When one has to pay the rent, buy food, pay the utility bills, and buy clothes for the kids, yoga classes are a luxury even when offered at less expensive venues such as park districts or community centers. Are people of color in higher income brackets doing yoga or going on meditation retreats? It seems to me that people in lower-income areas -- black, brown, or white -- should have the same access to alternative healing modalities such as yoga, acupuncture, massage, reiki, and meditation that my white upper middle class students have. Local area yoga teachers and other healers could offer these modalities through seva service.

But as for the yoga business itself in the west, and the population of yoga teachers in the United States, how culturally diverse is it...really? Again, what about the way yoga is marketed in the west, how "colorful" are the ads in yoga magazines? Is yoga marketed predominately to the white community? If that's the game plan of advertisers, why? Is it solely about economics and demographics?

Or is yoga just a white thang?

It all makes me go...hmmmmmmm.......

10 comments:

AZ said...

Ah, yes, the young, well-off, white yoga community. One of my dear friends and I have had this conversation a few times. I wish I had an answer or solution. I believe part of it is cost, as you mentioned. At $15 a pop, most lower income people can't afford to go to a yoga class in one of the trendy studios. However, that doesn't account for the well-off people of color who also don't show up to yoga studios. Personally, I find most of the trendy studios off-putting. I don't see people like me at the trendy studios. I'm older, married, have three young children, don't have any tattoos or piercings, and I drive an old minivan with a "Babies on Board" sticker on it. Since I don't relate to most people at the trendy studios, I rarely go. My twins are only 6 months old and they are another reason why I currently rarely go. On the bright side, it pushed me to develop my home practice and to choose workshops wisely. My point is that people of color won't show up at yoga studios until they see people like themselves there. And that's a catch-22 because you have to get them there in order for them to see themselves there. I also think there's an element of prejudice involved. They don't want to come because its too white. They wouldn't feel comfortable. But turn it around and ask yourself if you'd go to, for instance, an all black yoga class and feel comfortable. Whites and blacks (and other peoples of color) for the most part can't even comfortably live in the same communities together so why expect them to do yoga together? We also all have very different cultural experiences and I believe that also plays a part in the segregation of yoga. Many people of color have religious beliefs that preclude the addition of yoga to their lives, as you also mentioned. Do you know if Becky Love's students are mostly white? I met her years ago at a Midwest Yoga Conference and I think she's phenomenal. But, I've never been to one of her classes.
Arizona

Linda (Sama) said...

All good points, AZ, thanks for reading...

but I'm not just asking about people going to a yoga class, I'm wondering about the whole enchilada -- who yoga is marketed to, etc.

I would not feel uncomfortable in an all black yoga class -- honestly. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, was married to a Mexican, lived in South Texas about 5 miles from Mexico, so really doesn't bother me if I am in the minority! I think where I live is "too white"!

"Whites and blacks (and other peoples of color) for the most part can't even comfortably live in the same communities together so why expect them to do yoga together?"

Ironic, then, isn't it? considering what the root word of yoga is?

Rebecca said...

Lots of interesting thoughts come to mind with this post. I also crave more diversity in yoga. Whether it's male or female, color or white, young or old, rich or poor. To me, yoga is a bridge that helps me connect to myself and to all people.

Linda (Sama) said...

thanks for reading, rebecca!

yup, just wanted to say "talk amongst yourselves".

yogini said...

Personally I think American yoga reflects American culture--so there's ageism and body-type discrimation as well as racism. And the more popular yoga becomes, the more mainstream, the more it takes on the qualities of the "mainstream" as it is represented by the media: white, upper-middle class, young, hip, thin

AZ said...

I wouldn't feel uncomfortable being the minority in a class either, but most people are. Yoga is definitely marketed to the young and white, but that's because that is who goes to yoga classes. In order to change the marketing, you have to change the demographic. And that begins in the studios.

Danura said...

Hi Linda,
in Brunei, Yoga would appeal more to the chinese than the malay. Brunei like Malaysia is a (small) Malay, Islamic country.
I am half chinese (born to a chinese mom) and half malay. i dont speak chinese, Malay language im terrible at!

In my classes, I would say that 98% of them are chinese. I'm still trying to crack this mystery. i dont think the malay women in Brunei are that ignorant. And Islam encourages its followers to take up whats beneficial for the health. Infact, there are so many similarities found between Islam and Yoga.

I also notice that in other Yoga studios here, there would be more chinese than malays. Perhaps i would need to make an official survey some day and do a research on this!

and thank you for your comment on my post!
in light.
danura

bohemianabstractions said...

Excellent post! I have noticed a lack of color in yoga marketing as well. But, I'm a rebel so I never let that stop me from checking it out.

I haven't gone to an official class in a long time, I've been doing it on my own until I find a class that I like. When I did go to classes, I always noticed that I was the only "colorful" one there (smile)! Didn't bother me at all...I think that I added a little zest to those classes!

As a side-note, I also noticed the same lack of color when I took belly dancing classes.

I think that the way yoga has been marketed has convinced a lot of blacks that it's not for them. Since the tendency to be "sheeple" runs rampant in this country, they accept what the marketing shows them and don't look any deeper. There are also ministers that will tell you that yoga is evil, and that scares a lot of minorities away.

Peace sis!

The Dude said...

Here's my take:
Yoga is seen as a young, hip, stylish activity and the price keeps a lot of people away, as does the "strangeness" of it. So a lot of what you get in the US is affluent white yuppies.

Marwan said...

hello, great post. you forgot to mention forest whitaker (kundalini yoga), russel simmons and yours truly. PLease, check out my blog on the matter if you will. you and your readers may find it enlightening, hopefully pleasant to read...

http://marwansjourney.blogspot.com/2010/11/bikram-became-bowser.html