Is Yoga Actually for Everyone?
I’ve been seeing a resurgence of the promotion, “yoga for everyone” and I honestly have to question many of the practices, promotion, and yoga culture fueling the content.
Yoga asana, as taught in the west, is undergoing a huge revolution on many levels. There have been multiple instances of sexual assault and violence in the yoga community, and teaching authority (and abuse) are very much being reevaluated. This reassessment is necessary, but I’ve also seen the rise and fall of certain yoga gurus, such as Bikram Choudhry and John Friend, questioning idols such as BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and I’ve known people who loved the practices those men began, despite the dubious actions of the founders. Can we still practice Bikram yoga when we know what this man has done, both financially and morally? Can we still practice ashtanga yoga when physical adjustments have been injurious and sexually violating? Even if we don’t have all the answers, we have to acknowledge the data about these things.
Yoga is also undergoing a re-evaluation on cultural appropriation, best teaching practices, and ways to make yoga relevant to the current western society, while also being more aware of the environment in which postural yoga evolved from. This means an awareness that yoga movements evolved in the 20th century, when India was under British colonial rule, and militaristic patriarchal reprimandment were normal. Yoga poses are not sacred movements that are hundreds or thousands of years old, and they aren’t imbued with magic inherently. When we watch videos of physical adjustments from previous decades, we can see outrageous adjustments, from slapping or beating someone up, to adjustments that were creepy and entirely unnecessary. Some of those practices live on today, unfortunately, and we need to be cognizant as teachers and students of that. For more on this, read Yoga Body by Mark Singleton and check out Matthew Remski’s writing.
In regards to cultural appropriation, racism, assault, and inclusion many more articulate and thoughtful teachers and scholars than I have been studying and writing about this in the last decade or so. (Check out writing by Amara Miller, Matthew Remski, and the voices of Karen Rain, Ann Tapsell West, and articles by Saira Rao , Brown Girl Magazine ,a series on cultural appropriation by James Russell, and an article on whiteness and privilege in the mindfulness space. In fact the reading list is too long to even share here!) Yoga in the West tends to feature young, thin, affluent white women doing extreme poses, often scantily clad and sometimes in beautiful tropical locations. Many companies advertise their products using that image, whether it’s to sell more magazines, clothing, food, a diet, socks, or some random yoga related jewelry, essential oil, or trinket. The idea is that yoga will solve all your problems, bring you wealth, health, thinness, and bliss, or something like that. You can also see this in Yoga Journal, which is littered with ads of thin women doing extreme poses to sell yogurt, cleanses, socks, and more. In addition, marginalized people have long been underrepresented in yoga land, and you can see Yoga Journal’s double cover feature on Jessamyn Stanley as proof of that.
Lastly, the whole field of yoga is experiencing a shift and questioning of the movements themselves- whether all movements are safe, whether yoga asana are sacred movements to be upheld, what the “goal” of a yoga practice is, whether extreme yoga movements serve students or whether they lead to injury, and how much yoga one should actually be doing. There are also fantastic teachers opening up the dialogue about ableism in the teaching space, and how to actually make yoga accessible to all people, regardless of size, ability, or restrictions. (Check out Jivana Heyman and his work on accessible yoga in Canada.)
There are so many amazing scholars, philosophers, and teachers evaluating these practices, and I’ve really questioned my own yoga practice and teaching in the last few years. Let’s step back though first.
Whether you’re a student or a teacher, get educated about the issues going on in yoga-land right now. That doesn’t mean you need to stop doing yoga, but it just means you should be informed, as should any teachers you work with.
Look at the marketing materials for the studios or classes you like. Are there people of all ages, races, sizes and genders teaching and attending class, and are they represented in marketing materials?
Look at the language that your teacher is using- are they promoting a certain physique (AKA. do ab work for bikini season? Do yoga to shred calories, get chiseled, or complete a cleanse?), are they promoting a pose that cures everything, or are they promoting magical thinking?
Is your teacher or studio part of a multilevel marketing scheme selling some food supplements or essential oils? I know some people love their essential oils, but when it shows up in classes and studios as a cure all, I have to question what’s going on, especially when products are $30-50.
Look at the retail of the studio- what sizes of clothing do you see, and how expensive are they? Retail often supplements studio income, but clothing is often only for women, specifically sizes 0-10.
Look at who is actually attending classes at the studios you practice or teach at. I sub and teach at a few different places, and at one place, I see young, fit people in crop tops and expensive clothes (warming up in handstands and arm balances, no less), and at another, I see a more diverse population. The marketing, owners, and ethos of the studio and teachers have a big impact on who may feel welcome in a studio space, and who will feel marginalized or out of place.
Do your teachers give options for different students? Do they use props? Are they aware of injuries or restrictions in the space, and if so, how do they handle them? Do they use empowering language for students?
Does the studio venerate a teacher or lineage without regard to past abuses or issues?
Are your teachers willing to answer questions, or say “I don’t know” when presented with a question about the body, philosophy, or something else?
Lastly, be really clear about what you love about yoga. I felt embodied and empowered after my first classes 12 years ago, even though I was initially really afraid to go, feeling that I was too heavy and inflexible to do yoga. I loved the sense of relaxation and ease that I felt after savasana, and I saw teachers who helped me through wrist and back injuries. I also worked with teachers who made me feel terrible about my abilities, and I’ve seen things that make me cringe in terms of adjustments and language. There are wonderful teachers out there questioning the yoga practice, bringing in wonderful critical thinking skills, and looking to learn and improve their own teaching, and it’s just a matter of finding them, whether that’s in person or online.