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.”
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