Is Yoga a “White Exercise Class”?

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#Whitepeopledoingyoga

Image: From the exhibition #whitepeopledoingyoga Artist Chiraag Bhakta

Glancing into a typical US yoga studio window, you would think Yoga equals a “white exercise class,” as Skill in Action author Michelle C Johnson has termed it. Now is the moment, more than ever, that yoga is called to take the opportunity to interrogate, and further interrupt and change, this reality. 

Let’s break it down. Yoga studios have become de facto “white” spaces and many assume that yoga is a practice for white people. When access to yoga is not available to the full diversity of people that live in the community, then the dominant group coalesces and creates a white space. Yoga becomes a witting or unwitting accomplice to white supremacy. That’s a hard truth to take in. 

“Everyone is welcome here” does not feel that way if no one in that space looks like you. How do we shift that? First, by supporting the training and hiring of yoga teachers of color. Second, by getting the word out about yoga practice opportunities through a variety of networks in social media and other media. Third, by creating by-donation, low-cost, or “first class is free” programs. Yogis can support these efforts by taking classes at Studios that are making efforts to diversify, and by supporting organizations dedicated to yoga and social justice, such as the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, Yoga Service Council, and the Prison Yoga Project. Yoga teachers especially can engage in  self-study (Svadyaya) practice around how anti-racism and social justice intersect with yoga and the business of yoga, the so-called “yoga industry” (as if yoga produced widgets).

Second point: yoga is not merely “exercise.” It is a meditation practice based on Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, which includes ethics and right action, poses and breathing, inward focus and stillness, compassionate awareness, and clarity and wisdom. Of course yoga, like exercise, is good for your body, but yoga is diluted by trying to make it some kind of cardio or gymnastics exercise.

Finally, the community of people who practice yoga together can be just simply a random group of people who have similar schedules and come for a “class.” Or the yoga class could become a potent community for mutual aid and action. Yoga has within the practice the tools for liberation, inclusion, mind-body awareness, trauma healing, social transformation, and revealing the inner light of wisdom. We as yogis must not give in to the scarcity mind of resources for the few, but rather work together to bring authentic yoga – all of it – to all.