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Inclusive Diversity: Making Yoga More Accessible In 2016

in Featured, YD News
Image via Yoga and Body Image Coalition | photo credit: Melanie Klein

Image via Yoga and Body Image Coalition | photo credit: Melanie Klein

It’s our annual YogaDork’s State of the Yoga Union. We’ve asked a few select leaders and thinkers to share their reflections, predictions and perspectives on the year of yoga that was, 2015, the year of yoga that will be in 2016, and the state of the (yoga) union.

by Susanna Barkataki

We are at a time, as Sri Aurobindo foreshadowed, where “the practice of Yoga brings us face to face with the extraordinary complexity of our own being.”

We are in the heart of a big sea change in Western yoga. Change is rarely smooth. And this moment is no different. Where we are now in yoga, and perhaps also in ourselves, is more divided than we’ve been. Some of us are noticing things we’ve never noticed before. Such as the lack of diversity in our yoga classes. Many of us are finally being heard on things we’ve been saying a long time, such as, “we need more diversity in our yoga classes.”

2015 was the year yoga in the west got rocked. The sign went up, brakes squealed noisily on wanton cultural appropriation in yoga.

We’ve heard heated debates over yoga’s roots and over whether it is religious or secular. We’ve publicly begun a celebration of yoga in varied sizes, forms and abilities as well as embraced more possibilities for yoga and social change. We’ve seen, in a disturbing line that continues, one of the biggest names in Western Yoga, Bikram Choudhury, accused of misusing his position, sexual assault and rape. We saw a safe space POC yoga class in Seattle get shut down through disturbing threats and mob mentality. We saw many people ask and create safe spaces in response. We saw huge, complex controversy over the University of Ottawa yoga class shutdown connected to claims of cultural appropriation — as well as a huge backlash against this claim.

Where we are now is awakening to the perspectives and stories that haven’t been told. We are also in an exciting time. Through the breakdown comes breakthrough. 

Many movements to bring more unity in yoga emerged. The movement of embracing yoga for all bodies exploded across Instagram and the web. The work of folks like the Yoga and Body Image Coalition proliferated, as the call resonated, and more people started to feel comfortable practicing, despite stereotype threats that may keep them out of a yoga space.

We saw the movement of folks to share yoga and service and yoga and social justice spring up far and wide. The goal of making yoga accessible caught on. In today’s culture, the cost to practice is very expensive and that is a real barrier for many communities, especially for working class communities of color. These areas financial barriers and there is a perception of belonging or exclusion in that kind of yoga space that makes it exclusive. There are many organizations working to change this, and many forms of community yoga. The Yoga Service Council is one who is doing all they can to share yoga to as many communities as possible, making it accessible.

There’s a movement of safe space in yoga studios, where more and more teachers are seeking to be trauma-informed. More and more spaces are acknowledging the need for specific classes for different community groups.

We are also witnessing a movement of massive visibility and leadership of people of color in yoga today. If you visited a studio class in most cities, or did an internet search, you wouldn’t know it. But this is about to change. Powerful leaders of color are speaking up about their practice, sharing their words, ideas, teachings with the world.

Yoga is learning to dance with the rough waves and not so graceful changes. So, at this time of sea-change, as yogis, we need to ask ourselves: where do we as a yoga community, need to go?

At its roots, yoga has always been syncretic and inclusive. Yoga’s culture is changing and we are a crucial part of that. So how do we move forward? None of us are neutral on this flowing vinyasa of history.

As teachers, and leaders of our classes or a yoga movement, we need to operate on the level of full transparency. How we behave in our personal life matters. What we say at the beginning of class, matters.

In the west, we live a consumer culture. If we engage with yoga only in this way, to see what we can get, take, have, or make money from, we are appropriating it just like the colonial powers did in centuries before this one. Instead of land, its just cultural objects, ideas and practices.

The practice of yoga itself never belonged to any religion, though it may have emerged alongside a few. It isn’t a practice anyone can lay claim to. And, at the same time, it is really important to honor and appreciate where a practice comes from.

If, at the beginning of class, say, we engage with heart and humility, share a bit about who we are, why we do what we do, how we learned yoga we share our reverence for the practice. With an attitude of inquiry, cultural responsiveness, where we are still learning, still growing, we go a long way towards undermining the appropriative. By living as much according to the ethical codes and sharing all limbs of practice we deepen the cultural understanding of yoga as well as our own journeys.

We yogis are part of the awakening in our culture to mind, body and spiritual integration. To deeper understandings of wellness. To a culture that asks questions about what is actually important, relevant. To people understanding their unity with one another.

We are called to take our practice far beyond our mats, home to family, friends, expanding to community, business practices and beyond.

We will see and encourage, more diversity of voices, more practitioners from all walks of life; all shapes, shades, genders, colors and ages. Householder yogis who practice in sincerity and depth, integration and syncretism.

We need to look for who isn’t at the table, in the studio, on the cover the magazine and ask for more collaborators and more voices. This gets us unique perspectives in yoga and allows people to speak to the issue in a way not spoke to for larger community.

The practice of yoga in the west would ideally evolve and change to acknowledge yoga’s roots, where it came from, and practice the fullness it has to offer. It has so much to include. Practicing all 8 limbs as much as possible, as practicing, studying, and teaching those could take a lifetime! It could include diet, lifestyle, meditation, mindfulness these and other practices. Teachers could live the morals more fully. And share them, in non-dogmatic ways, so even in a studio or gym class, people would come to understand the far reaching benefits, and learn that yoga is not necessarily just something done for fitness or for physical health. Yoga is something that is for the well being of all: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual growth and well-being.

Taking this inclusive exploration of the “extraordinary complexity of our being” we can, perhaps, come closer to the unity that yoga offers us both as individuals and as society.


Susanna Barkataki, M.Ed. E-RYT 500, is a writer, speaker and educator working at the intersection of self-care, yoga, Ayurveda, socially informed entrepreneurship, and healing. She is a viral Wellness and Yoga Blogger, regular columnist for Huffington Post Healthy Living, and has been featured in Elephant Journal and Everyday Feminism magazine. She’s honored to be a member of the core community of mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh as well as serve on the board of the Yoga Service Council making yoga and mindfulness equally accessible to all. Find out more about Susanna at www.susannabarkataki.com


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19 comments… add one
  • dave

    “There’s a movement of safe space in yoga studios, where more and more teachers are seeking to be trauma-informed.”
    Can the author or anyone explain the quote above further and / or give more information, thank you.

  • S.

    Am I just nuts, or is this author who is on a mission to decolonize yoga also registered with Yoga Alliance? My reality needs a good savasana.

  • k4k

    I am not really knowledgeable about the situation the author is discussing but it seems to me that the lack of diversity in yoga mirrors the lack of diversity in may other professional and recreational fields in the West. I can say, for example, that in my own academic institution and in my profession, there is a lack of diversity. No matter how much we invite POC etc. to become part of our profession, the fact is that we are not making as much progress as we should be. I believe what changes the environment is when people who feel disenfranchised see people like themselves in leadership positions. Then they think, I can do this too! So my recommendation for changing the face of yoga is to begin giving scholarships or some sort of incentive to POC and other groups to take yoga teacher training. I think the more diverse the teachers are, the more likely it is that yoga classes will become diverse. Those of us who are students and are white, bendy, thin or whatever can be welcoming, but what more we can do? What we can do is push for those who are not from that standard group to take positions of leadership and welcome the opportunity to take their classes with hopefully a more diverse population.

    • Harmony

      I am pleased to know that I am not the only one that is also trying to figure out a way for more diverse people to become certified yoga teachers. I’m also aboriginal from a reserve but living in ottawa (where they ban yoga due to culturally appropriation but celebrate world yoga day over aboriginal day on unceded Algonquin territory) and agree more diverse people are not only practicing yoga but speaking out. However, I’m also from a reserve and know many indigenous people do practice yoga but more would benefit from yoga if it was accessibleto them. Especially, with the ongoing suicide crisis and generational trauma from residential schools. Although, I am pleased to see how so many yoga studios offer free yoga to FortMac and raise funds for Syrian refugees but be appreciative if the yoga community could offer yoga scholarship to First Nation people just so they can become self sufficient and heal their community that are suffering on their homeland from settler oppression. Maybe if someday soon enough Indigenous people were interested in becoming yoga teachers than The Federal Government would actually see the purpose in funding interested aboriginal students to become certified in yoga as an alternative to post-secondary.

  • “Yoga is something that is for the well being of all: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual growth and well-being.”
    I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. In that same breath, yoga is obviously not just for a select few. Because of what it gives us, yoga is for everyone. Inclusiveness for all.

    Are you a lover of yoga? What is it that you look for in your yoga products? What would you want in them that may be missing? Kindly share your input at http://www.yogaproductsurvey.com

  • Matt

    If we’re talking cultural appropriation, maybe Christians and Muslims should go back to Thor and Baal and stop telling the Jews they’re doing it wrong. But that would be ridiculous, unlike shaming white people for finding yoga and other eastern practices/philosophies beneficial. After all, it’s not like we’re all the same species, right?

  • I’m from India, the land which is famous for it’s “Yoga” culture. I must say that doing Yoga is something which shouldn’t be accepted as a mission or routine, it needs to be accepted as an extension to your daily life.

  • jane

    There’s another area where yoga could use more “diversity” and it’s in politics. I am a libertarian/fiscal conservative who teaches yoga and has no interesting in shoving my political views down the throats of students. I, in fact, just voted for Trump in the primaries because the GOP establishment hates his guts. I am in the closet about it. I am truly sick and tired of yoga teachers – especially teacher trainers – assuming that everyone who loves yoga also loves Obama, Bernie Sanders or socialism. Sorry, we’re actually more diverse than that.

    We listen to your stupid cracks about Trump and conservatives and keep our mouths shut because we don’t want to cause a scene, but seriously…stop with the assumptions! By the way, I am all for yoga reaching more people, but I was one of those non-PC folks who thought that banning white people from a “POC” yoga class was racist and awful. That the author doesn’t even understand why people were offended by white people being excluded just goes to show how insular the thinking can be. Please back off from turning yoga into some sort of constant navel-gazing protest group. It’s counterproductive in the long run.

    I am interested in yoga, not being forced to be a “Social Justice Warrior.”

    • pal

      the right is all about social justice warrioring, but to their own ends. supporting someone because someone else hates them- this is the precussion of sorrow. what i get from what you are saying is that you’d like to share your politics, but not have them challenged; this is less politics than empty ideology, the same stagnant thinking that resides with the worst sjws (the yelly, unable to listen but to themselves sort).

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  • R

    Wasn’t yoga created by people of “color”?

  • GYSN

    Yoga was created to get your head out of being an color, an identity, or anything individual. A union with the complete. This is the exact opposite way.

    All fine and PC with the neoliberal agenda, but nothing to do with yoga in any sense of what the word means in the spiritual teachings.

    Of course, most already know that, but anything that sells is what goes nowadays. And yoga asana practice is getting into the laggard cultural adopters now, so more people are coming to classes, which is great in the long run. But let’s not kid, this is gym practice with a bit of awareness mixed in for good measure.

  • Qurban

    I can’t say I’ve researched this extensively but I do not think it is correct to say that historical yoga was inclusive – I suspect it wasn’t with the caste of someone determining if they were even worthy to be looked at and the status of women in India has so far to go before it is called inclusive it’s tragic – that it has improved is painful to even consider. What I wonder is if POC even want yoga – no matter how good it is for us it is a self indulgent thing to do really. Fighting to make space for diversity in yoga is possibly another white way of saying “I know what’s good for you”. Being obnoxious without realizing it and in spite of our good intentions.

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