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Yoga’s Diversity Backlash: A Conversation On Including Others (Meaning Everyone) And Creating New Norms

in YD News
image via rainierbeachyoga.com

image via rainierbeachyoga.com

You’d think more diversity in yoga would bring us together, not tear us further apart. But what is inclusivity and accessibility to some is being seen as separation and alienation, even racism, to others. When a yoga studio in Seattle set out to create a safe space for people of color, they had no idea they would soon be wrapped up in a controversial backlash.

Laura Humpf, owner of Seattle’s Rainier Beach Yoga, recently posted an apology on the studio’s website. She was apologizing to people who were offended by the announcement that her studio would be holding once a month POC (people of color) Yoga classes. Just the announcement. The classes hadn’t even started at Humpf’s studio before the the harassment and death threats began, thanks to an angry listener who’d alerted conservative radio host Dori Monson who then went on rant. Complaints of exclusion and, yes, racism ensued.

“The fact is, this yoga class is every bit as racist as a bunch of white people who say they don’t want to be around somebody of color. That’s why I wouldn’t want to attend either one of those classes … The fact is, they are both racist,” Monson said.

To say this is frustrating is a gross understatement. It’s also a misunderstanding.

POC Yoga Co-founder Teresa Wang explained the request was made that white people not attend the class, which was started by five queer people of color and has already been running for five years, but it’s not a demand, or meant to be seen as exclusionary. In fact, it’s a space for people who might not feel comfortable in a (typically white-majority) yoga class feel included, she says.

“POC Yoga strongly believes that our group should have a space in our communities that is safe for people of color,” Wang told Seattle Globalist. “Yes, the people in our group have asked that our white friends and allies respectfully not attend to allow people of color this space. We asked; we did not demand it, and we never turned anyone away,” she said.

The email blast announcing the class described POC Yoga as accessible to people of color and all sexualities, ages, body sizes, abilities, genders, and levels with yoga. It specifically mentioned “lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and trans-friendly/affirming,” as well as people who self-identify as “African American/black/of the African Diaspora, Asian, South Asian, West Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, First Nations/Alaskan Native/Native American/Indigenous, Chican/Latin, or Multiracial/Mixed-Race.” There was a note included about “white friends, allies and partners” who are “respectfully asked not to attend.”

Humpf (who, for context, is a white, cisgender female) wrote in her apology: “My intention in offering my space to POC Yoga was to offer a widely inclusive healing space where all people could receive the benefits of yoga. I never intended to exclude anyone based on race or ethnicity. I have several classes on my schedule that are open to everyone, and my intention in bringing this class to Rainier Beach Yoga was to encourage more inclusivity within our diverse community in Seattle.”

Because of the backlash and threats, all classes at Rainier Beach Yoga have been put on hold. (Update: according to their website, regular classes resumed October 20th, with police present for safety.)

While the controversy may be hard for some people to understand (on either side of the discussion) we know as yoga practitioners that having a safe space is essential to a practice that, for many, is a personal tool for self-care and stress-relief, and also has the inherent potential to make us feel incredibly vulnerable. Exclusion on any level doesn’t feel right, but being in a “separate” group-specific space doesn’t necessarily mean it’s intended to lock everyone else out.

For a better understanding of why these classes serve the community rather than sever it, we turned to a few experts and gathered their responses on the subject. We hope you’ll read them all in consideration of your own.

Chelsea Jackson Roberts is a yoga teacher and founder of Chelsea Loves Yoga, a website designed to “create a digital yoga space where practitioners, specifically POC could see their reflection and be inspired by the lived experiences of others.” She reminds us that, when thinking about the oneness of yoga, we may not always be thinking of others.

“People of Color have been threatened for gathering in spaces since this country was built, so this really isn’t anything new,” Jackson says. “Yoga classes similar to the one offered in Seattle are a necessary response because it provides a space to not be othered, especially within a space dedicated to healing. These spaces are not a threat to “oneness”, these spaces interrupt the ways in which yoga teachings grounded in oneness have been used to empower some while silencing others.”

Chanelle John teaches POC yoga classes and is a Yoga and Body Image Coalition team leader. Her experience of teaching POC classes has been much more positive, but her words echo the call for us to look at the bigger picture.
“The idea of reverse racism incorrectly places the oppressed and the oppressor on the same level. What differentiates these two groups is power and access. POC aren’t oppressing white people by holding POC only classes. If a white person were to show up and be turned away, they could easily find another class to attend where they’d be comfortably in the majority. For people of color that is not the case. The yoga industry has created a system that excludes people of color in many ways–classes are expensive, gear is expensive, and studios are rarely in neighborhoods of color. POC yoga classes and those like it weren’t created out of hate and discrimination. They were created out of necessity, and will continue to be necessary until yoga is accessible and welcoming to all.”
Teo Drake a spiritual activist, yoga and martial arts teacher explained that in his own experience being in a Queer and Trans specific space is “immensely healing,” and that having the option has had a profound affect.
“There are times that those identity specific spaces allow for me to lean in and shed my armor with an ease I cannot access in more normative cisgender spaces. That may not be true for all queer/ trans folks. Having the option, however, is life saving.”
Dianne Bondy, writer, yoga teacher and creator of Yoga For All, invites us to turn the metaphorical mirror on ourselves, addressing reasons why people of color are scarce in most yoga classes.
“As a fat black woman of color, I am often the only brown face in a very traditionally white space in North America. In Western yoga culture and media, people of color and people who are considered different are not seen or represented on the yoga mat.”
“Inclusive spaces for marginalized people who may feel left out are very hard to find in dominant white culture. Creating a specialized class is creating a brave space. White cisgendered heterosexual folks can’t possibly know what it feels like to be black, gay, queer, or trans in a culture where that is other or not accepted or celebrated. People don’t want to feel like they are being judged, or that we need to be the educators of what diversity and inclusion are in a yoga space. Most of us just want to experience yoga without being stared at, ignored, or stereotyped. A specialized class may help us do that.
“Here is where the hypocrisy lies, we don’t seem to have a problem with specialized prenatal classes, classes for seniors, larger bodies, children, or classes for men. POC are telling you they don’t feel comfortable, that’s why they are not coming to yoga. Can we just consider that?”

Melanie Klein, Professor of Sociology and Gender/Women’s Studies, co-editor of Yoga and Body Image and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition weighs in on being the change.

“The backlash against the Rainier Beach Yoga’s People of Color yoga class is an opportunity for those that oppose it to examine their own taken-for-granted white-skin privilege and the ways in which they have either idly or actively contributed to a climate in which a class like this is necessary in the first place. This is an opportunity to for the yoga community to engage in the necessary conversations and actions required to create social change. Raising consciousness and living consciously is part of the practice of yoga. Now is the time to practice and listen! Opening our minds and hearts through active listening is an integral component of being an ally.
“Asking why a People of Color yoga class is necessary and claiming it promotes difference and segregation is no different than heterosexual men who ask why Gender/Women’s Studies courses exist. It’s because there is a need, a need for safe, inclusive and genuinely welcoming spaces. While I have practiced yoga in co-ed spaces for nearly 20 years, I have also practiced in women-only spaces for the last ten years. That space devoid of the male gaze has been critical for the growth of my practice, my connection to other women in sacred community and my development of self. Until mainstream yoga classes are authentic in their inclusion of every body, alternative spaces are necessary for groups that have been traditionally marginalized. This is an opportunity for the yoga community to take stock of the current climate and begin working toward a more genuinely inclusive reality.”
It’s a lot to take in, and it’s a lot to think about, especially if you’re so used to your own perspective. If we’re supportive of yoga for everybody, can we be supportive of safe spaces for everybody until we all feel safe together?
There is hope, but we have to work for it. As Chanelle John put it:
“So many white yoga practitioners are also fed up with the homogenous, competitive, and exclusive classes the yoga industry has created. Collectively, I hope we conscious yogis can make yoga classes so welcoming that these identity specific classes may not even be necessary. In the meantime, we must challenge the idea that safe spaces are a threat or a problem. The only thing it threatens is the status quo. And if having a space free of oppression is against the norm, then we need to fight for new norms.”
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16 comments… add one
  • pal

    i had hoped to read arguments about meeting needs and what is needed, the whysits the safe space is created, because without this noise makers can say their charge of discrimination is legitimate, as it’s just about numerating our (mostly made-up) categories. yoga is for peace (not that you’ll read that on anyblog jeez!), and feeling spied on or transgressed is definition of unpeace. yoga for fatties, for poc, for men, parents, ptsd, the heck of it etc are there not so much for safe space but so the unique issues can be better addressed. yet here these collections of the suffering seems to forget all are suffering.

  • Muse

    The people who created this fake rage apparently could not handle simply being asked to excuse themselves for just one hour a week. One hour! That’s it. People of color must endure this same feeling of not belonging for 24 hours each day. It was just for one hour each week that the majority of yogis were asked not to attend so that people of color could simply do their practice without being in a minority — worrying if they would have a real partner in partner pose, if the person on the next mat would welcome them, or even if they would be called by their own name instead of by the same name of some other black student. One hour out of 168 in a week is not much of an ask for the feeling of belonging

  • Makai

    I get the value of having specialty classes/groups for different ethnicities in realms where accessibility or navigating the system can be directly affected by your background, e.g. PoC in Sciences, Women in Science & Engineering (I was in both such clubs in undergrad). Same reason it makes sense to have prenatal/senior/kids’ yoga — because your accessibility to the practice is directly affected by your physical state.

    Those experts that yearn for an inclusive space would have few tangible suggestions for how a PoC could feel less “othered” in a yoga class, aside from a specialized course just for PoC.

    My point is that the “social problem” does not lend itself to an inclusive solution (a solution where PoC and whites practice together). It seems the only “solution” is to have an enclave for PoC to practice and thus reinforce their sense of otherness, of outsider-ness, and minority-ness, in a setting when their sense of self should be loosening, not intensifying. I do agree that non-skinny, non-white bodies should be more represented in yoga media and outreach, but separating by race/sex/etc in the essential practicing component defeats the purpose of yoga. Yoga is about ending self-definition & self-identity. We should challenge ourselves to confront our perceived “otherness” and let go of any mental discomfort that arises, just for those 60 minutes on the mat. I can feel as oppressed as I want (to identify as) elsewhere.

    The way I see it, most people in class are focused on themselves anyway, as they should be. They’re not looking at me because I’m curvy and brown.

    Don’t forget, yoga was brought to the west by men of color, who are almost completely absent in my classes.

    • inanna

      yawn. another great example of why i am increasingly ashamed to call myself a yoga teacher.

      yoga is many things to many people. as teachers we have a right to teach what it is that we think yoga is – our overarching experience of it, and our current tangent. yoga scholarship shows unequivocally that yoga never has been an “it is THIS” kinda practice – it is fluid, culturally- and environmentally-determined, as much as it is a practice that transcends such barriers.

      for what it’s worth, my personal practice is about “ending self-definition and self-identity” (clunky, but i’ll take it). but that is because i am in the lucky position of having a relatively stable self-identity in the first place and am rewarded by our culture for that accident of birth. i have no idea what kind of internal work might be required to make peace with my identity if everything around me was telling me in subtle, insidious ways that that identity was inherently wrong, flawed and not as good as that of others. i have no idea of the rage, humiliation, anxiety and fear that i might need to flow through me as part of the process of freeing myself from the cultural oppression of being black, or fat, or trans: i have no idea how long that might take, what form it might take, or how it might show up in my bodymind. because i am white, straight, cisgendered (and bendy), part of my internal work is to deconstruct the narratives of self that i am running unconsciously and that culture hands me. that is a privileged place. not to say it’s easy work: it’s very tough. but to be accessing the kinds of internal space and experiences that that requires is only made possible in the first place by being the lucky recipient of a particular size and shape etc. even if i was socially (etc) disadvantaged by identifying with one or more oppressed groups, i still wouldn’t presume i could speak for one, or other, or all of them.

      empathy fail, makai. lack of empathy = authoritarianism = not yoga.

  • Melitta

    I really feel for the people of this yoga studio, and the people who run it, who have to go through this nonsense. Death threats? Over the offering of a yoga class?

  • Northern Harrier

    Great article – I am proud of this website for continually taking on the tough stuff in yoga.

    I have been thinking alot about why the need for these spaces and the need in general for the #blacklivesmatter to exists is so hard to understand for so many white people. I took classes in college and grad school (not my major, just something that interested me on the side) and went through a painstaking, sometimes devastating process of learning to see my racial and economic privilege which has translated in recent years to my sexual orientation privilege. I remember a week in particular being trapped inside during a major ice storm with Bell Hooks that rocked me to the core. It took time to bust through my shame and reaction to see what is.

    So I think being able understand this stuff and not just react is an educational privilege. It seems to be the time that those of who had the chance to learn this stuff or learned it through living otherness every day of their lives, to catch some others up on it who didn’t have the chance for this education and to tell everyone else we don’t care if you don’t understand because we are done catering to your self-delusion.

    I can’t relate to yogic interpretation that takes us to the non-political. I tried that for a few years in a yoga school that promoted being non-political as a higher state of practice and it seemed to be more of a cult of positivity/neutralness than anything useful for the world.

    Rock On POC Yoga.

  • Yoga_owl

    I’m a black cis female who lives and works in the UK. I guess in this the context of your article that means I have an atypical yoga body. I can’t deny that yoga definitely brings to mind a particular image so I get the arguments about creating a safe place for people of colour but at the same time I really don’t think we need special classes as for POC or men.

    Perhaps instead a “buddy” system where there’s always one or two “other persons” in the sea of white, cis female bodies might work? Could that be enough to draw in a more diverse crowd and have them stay comfortable in the environment so much so that eventually they won’t care if they are the only one. Could that eventually draw in more atypical yoga bodies and aid better integration.

    Nobody really talks about the lack of diversity in classes in the UK just the exorbitant prices. I just don’t think it’s the big a worry for the average black person who wants to practice yoga in the UK, or in London anyway. Sure other women of colour that I have spoke to have said they don’t think they have a yoga body to go to a class but they were referring to their shape rather than their colour. Not being white has never been the reason why they have not gone, it’s the fear of not being flexible enough or that they think it sounds boring or that’s it’s too loaded with religious associations. You know the same things everyonelse says puts them off yoga! Yoga classes can be found all over London (in dedicated studios, gyms, local halls) at various prices so while it’s expensive it’s not inaccessible to the non white or non rich, gyms are pretty multi cultural and cater for a multitude of income brackets. Men in the other hand seem to find the mostly female clientele intimidating.
    In a lot of yoga classes I’ve been to I have been the only black person in the room and it honestly has never occurred to me to care. I am now seeing more and more POC and men at my yoga studio everyday so it’s definitely slowly becoming a less white, less female pursuit. Particularly hot yoga which always draws in an amazingly diverse spectrum of people. I think this is because hot yoga has less spiritual associations, it’s more of a workout and because you feel amazing after these classes.

  • RSM

    “thanks to an angry listener who’d alerted conservative radio host Dori Monson who then went on rant. Complaints of exclusion and, yes, racism ensued.”

    I think this is all manufactured outrage. The people calling in the complaints and threats have probably never been to this studio, probably never have done yoga, and quite possibly, don’t live anywhere near this place. Talk radio hosts don’t care about anything other than getting making a scene, and what better way than to scream reverse racism? Witness the folks upset about Star Wars having a black leading actor…

    My point is, this seems to me not to be a reflection on the yoga community, rather it shows how a loud personality can rally the lowest common denominator and try to derail another person’s life for the sake of their own ego.

  • John

    One of the great things about yoga being a business is that, if there is a market for this it will happen regardless of opposition.

  • k4k

    This article saddens me so much (and yes I am a thin, white bendy female). I am guessing but I am fairly certain that my yoga class would be completely welcoming to people of any body type, skin color, gender identity etc. But of course it always requires the courage of those who feel marginalized in our society to find out by crossing that invisible (and hopefully nonexistent?) barrier. The financial issues could be solved by having a price scale that takes into account ones economic situation for individuals in the same yoga class. If it is necessary to have POC separate from the “mainstream” classes, I would hope they might try to come together once a month or so to break down any barriers, perceived or imagined. Ultimately that has to be our goal.

    Another way to promote more heterogeneous classes is to train more yoga teachers from groups that feel marginalized. One of my teachers is a POC, yet she teaches a typical group of mostly bendy white females. Nevertheless, I suspect other POC would feel comfortable in her class.

  • K

    Obviously death threats are crazy. Asking people of a particular group NOT to attend goes too far. Do they think the class will be overwhelmed with white people? If so, perhaps there is more they can do to create a space that is genuinely more welcoming to people of color, so the transformation from less diverse to more diverse will happen organically. This is actually the idea behind “affirmative action” in general, to do MORE to be inclusive, not just to tell some people not to come.

    What about people in mixed race relationships who want to practice with a significant other? What about sexual minorities who are white? It’s also not the “job” of this class to work on changing white people’s attitudes, but plenty of white people have never been a minority – and perhaps being one in this class would give perspective.

    Here are things some people / organizations do to be more inclusive:
    – hold a class in a neighborhood where fewer yoga options exist (yes, often these are in neighborhoods where the primary residents are people of color)
    – employ teachers of diverse backgrounds
    – ensure teachers and desk staff have normal customer service skills like in other customer service environments (I’ve been pretty surprised at some studios and with some teachers working the front desk – “being yogic” sometimes is seen as a reason to be short or rude)
    – offer and/or promoting classes through non-profits that work to address social justice issues
    – make classes available on a sliding scale or donation basis because people of color do often face economic barriers due to years of discrimination.

    Most of these are less compatible with the typical model of running a yoga studio. Telling “others” not to come is a quicker way to appear to be more inclusive, without actually doing the work of it.

  • WSF

    While accepting that this was a misunderstanding, the fact is that the “conservative” talk show host is correct. When one group asks another group not to come, someone is being excluded. Can you imagine what a “liberal” talk show host would do with the same yoga studio announcing that it had created a whites only class because some of his/her students didn’t feel it was a safe place because there was a person of color or a trans person?

    I agree with a prior post that said: ” this seems to me not to be a reflection on the yoga community, rather it shows how a loud personality can rally the lowest common denominator and try to derail another person’s life for the sake of their own ego.” Like yogis they can come in all shapes, sexes and colors though.

  • Ana

    This article is kind of really sad, I am not white and I think yoga IS NOT about any colour at all! I would feel offended if there was special classes for different races in my country. I think they have a real acceptance problem and all those POC, black yoga whatever hashtags or new terms seem so ridiculous for me, what’s next? brownyoga? indianyoga? it simply sounds ridiculous. At some point people really forgot about what yoga really is and is not about the coolest leggings at all.

    A great example of how people is more concerned about what other people think of them instead of working a on being better persons.

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