Diversity has been a hot topic in yoga as of late. Diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility. Three biggies that help form the foundation for the increasingly ubiquitous and benevolent mantra “yoga is for everybody.” But, good intentions aside, are yoga teachers saying the wrong things to make students feel otherwise?
Short answer: yep, probably. But they might know it.
Sometimes the necessary work to unpack the reasons why there’s even a call for more awareness around these concepts isn’t being done by the teachers who preach them. But, this may not be all their fault. Or, at least not knowingly.
What we’ve learned from experiences and situations within yoga, as well as the surrounding culture (and, really, society as a whole), is that what we say, the actions we take, and the impressions we make have the potential to produce the opposite effect of what we intend them to. Or, in some cases we’re unaware that we’re saying anything potentially offensive at all. Example: subtle sexism, subtle racism, subtle ageism, etc.
The good news is, this is yoga we’re talking about. Yoga on many levels IS awareness and consciousness. The rest of the good news is that there are more ways to identify and be more conscious of what we say and how it affects others, which is especially relevant for yoga teachers in a class setting where students often bring their emotions, histories and vulnerabilities with them to the mat.
What better group of people for self-reflection on words, actions and intentions than a gaggle of yoga teachers?
We recently caught up with the Erica Barth, co-owner of Harlem Yoga Studio in NYC. Snuggled on the third floor of a walk-up in the heart of 125th Street, HYS is one of the few yoga studios in the richly cultured and eclectically ethnic neighborhood. According to their mission, they aim to provide yoga that’s “accessible and affordable to every body in Harlem.” But, while saying that is nice, it doesn’t hold as much weight unless there’s something to back it up.
For their part, HYS has already done a good job in reaching out to the Harlem community with events and partnerships with local charities and organizations, as well as offer a variety of classes including those by-donation, for bigger bodies, and en español. But a few weeks ago, they took it a step further and decided to hold a special diversity training workshop for their staff and yoga teachers.
The 3.5 hour training was led by Leslie Booker and Mimi Budnick, yoga teachers, social activists and members of Third Root, a social justice-focused community health center dedicated to accessibility and challenging “systematic health disparities, hierarchies within different modalities of healthcare.”
We asked HYS co-owner Erica about the training and why she and co-founder Laurel Katz-Bohen decided it was important to have this type of workshop for their teachers. Here’s what she told us:
Why did you decided to host diversity training for your teachers?
Over a year ago Laurel and I attended an Undoing Racism training (offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) and we found it incredibly profound, useful, and practical in terms of how we can see and understand racism and white privilege, and what we can do to remain mindful, aware, and working towards changing these patterns within our own communities. Last year I attended an Off the Mat Into the World Leadership Training (with Seane Corn, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling) where we talked about the idea of diversity more specifically in relation to our position as yoga teachers (and, in my case, a studio owner).
It became even more clear to me that in the yoga classroom, where people are often (at least for an hour or so), making themselves vulnerable, and trusting the teacher and the studio to create and maintain a safe space for them, it is particularly important that diversity is proactively addressed, so that unconscious forms of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc. are not perpetuated. When I learned that some of the co-facilitators at the training offered specific training around yoga and diversity I knew immediately that it was something we wanted to provide to all of our teachers.
Why do you think it’s important?
We have always wanted Harlem Yoga Studio to be a place where EVERY-body feels welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation/identification, body type, etc. This is at the heart of our mission, and while it is not always 100% possible to ensure that we are accessible to every person who may want to practice yoga, that is certainly our intention and our goal. We really wanted to ensure that all of our teachers could take some time to begin a conversation about diversity; how our various roles based on race, sexuality, economic background, etc. impacts both how we are perceived, and how we behave (consciously and unconsciously).
These conversations can be somewhat uncomfortable to have, and if there is a not specific space created for them in an intentional way, then it is not made clear that these things are important, and the likelihood is that we will continue to avoid having them.
What are some of the things we might say or do in class that aren’t intended to offend but might do so anyway?
I don’t think any Yoga teacher sets out to offend or traumatize their students, but especially in a group class, a teacher could say something intended to be directional, that can really alienate or hurt someone. For example without knowing how a student identifies sexually they may say something like, “if you are a man and your hips are tight, sit up on a block,” rather than just, “if you are feeling tight in your hips , you may want to sit up on a block.”
Although HYS is in Harlem, a diverse and changing neighborhood, we’d bet every yoga studio, no matter where they’re located, would be of better service to their community by having some sort of diversity education or training. It may not solve every issue, but it’s a start.
If you’re interested in learning more about the program mentioned above, here’s a list of Third Root Diversity Training facilitators.
If you know of other trainings like this in your area please share info and links below in the comments so others may learn more.
images via Harlem Yoga Studio facebook