In a year of uncertainty, many around the world found a constant in the form of yoga. The popularity of yoga skyrocketed during initial worldwide lockdowns and it’s now estimated that 300 million people practice globally, while the yoga industry at large is worth more than $84b (£62m).
With most of us stuck inside, practicing yoga – whether through YouTube, Instagram or Zoom – has become an easy way for people to stay fit, healthy and sane. Not only is yoga lauded for its physical health benefits, helping our bodies stay strong, flexible and free from injury, but there’s also evidence for its positive effects on mental health too, such as treating depression and anxiety. But while yoga is now one of the most popular forms of fitness, a problem persists in the yoga industry in that it largely caters to a single audience: namely, one that is conventionally ‘fit’, white and affluent. As a result, marginalised communities – ones that yoga has the most potential to help – remain unable to access its plethora of benefits. In the context of the current pandemic, this issue is more pressing than ever.
“Yoga is alienating without a doubt, to people of colour, queer people and people with disabilities,” says Jessica Redman, a London-based fitness instructor and founder of Work That, an online personal training business. Like many others, Redman, who practices yoga with her clients, found fitness at a time when her mental health was suffering and soon decided to use her new-found passion to help others. After experiencing homophobic remarks and “repeated microaggressions” in her local gym, Redman, who identifies as lesbian, decided to set up GRL Gym in Hackney, east London with two friends, which encourages and promotes inclusivity and diversity.
However, after putting out adverts for yoga teachers, Redman was perplexed to find that the only responses she received were from “white, cis women”. Although Redman was going out of her way to promote diversity in her marketing, she realised “there was a deeper issue here”. GRL Gym, based in the gentrified area of Hackney Wick, charges £60 per month for membership, which Redman emphasises is a necessity due to rent prices. In these instances, local communities, many of whom are from marginalised backgrounds and don’t have the economic means to attend classes, are in turn unable to participate in and learn about yoga. It’s this “economic disadvantage”, Redman suggests, that then prevents people from such communities going on to become teachers.
The result of this structural inequality is a yoga industry that is white-washed and alarmingly lacking in diversity, the effects of which are far-reaching and deeply damaging. Puravi Joshi, a yoga teacher also based in London, was recently the victim of racist remarks after enquiring about teaching classes in a popular London studio. “Before I became a yoga teacher, I was a banker in the City for eight years,” Joshi says. “But I’ve found the colour of my skin to be a bigger problem in the yoga world more than I ever did in finance. It’s ironic really because, fundamentally, yoga focuses on goodness and being kind but that’s not what’s reflected in the industry.
“This studio’s Head of Yoga, a white woman, emailed me back and said: ‘We don’t chant, and we don’t use Sanskrit in our yoga classes because we don’t want people to feel alienated.’ But I hadn’t even said that I did those things. She just assumed I did because I’m Indian.” Joshi then discovered that this same teacher had been using Sanskrit to promote herself in the media: “It was hurtful because not only were they being racist, but they were stealing from my culture too.” To make matters worse, the only apology that the studio offered was an Instagram post, not acknowledging the incident directly, but simply “promising to do better”.
Naturally, social media has become a place for the global yoga community to connect and grow. Platforms like Instagram have played a key role in yoga’s surge in popularity over the past few years, but it’s not without its flaws. When searching yoga-related hashtags on the app, the vast majority of results display thin, white women in expensive activewear and highly contorted postures. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Donna Noble, a UK-based black yoga teacher and the founder of CurveSomeYoga, a body-positive yoga platform that aims to make yoga more inclusive and diverse. “It allows us to reach people and share our practice, but it isn’t changing fast enough. We need to educate people about diversity and cultural appropriation.”
Noble, who previously worked in law, became ill with Bell’s palsy in 2005 due to stress at work, but she found that it was yoga, rather than “the medical stuff”, that helped her heal. “I knew I had a calling to reach those not seen in mainstream yoga. People have come to my class before, seen that I’m black and done a complete U-turn. Often, I’m the only person of colour in a class, but it just means I need to keep being visible.”
While platforms like Instagram are responsible for helping promote unrealistic, alienating standards, teachers like Noble are choosing to use it to help educate the community so that yoga can reach and benefit as many people as possible. Patsy Isles, a black yoga teacher based in Bedfordshire and the founder of Ife Yoga, recently set up an organisation called The Black Yoga and Wellbeing Collective to do just that. “We’re bringing together black yoga teachers,” she says. “To offer each other support and opportunities, but also for the wider community. If people need or want a yoga class run by a black yoga teacher, we’ll be able to provide that.”
Redman, on the other hand, proposes the idea of providing scholarships to people from marginalised backgrounds to complete yoga teacher training courses in the first place. “You get scholarships in STEM and tech, so we should have them in yoga and fitness too. It’s a simple way of diversifying the expertise.” Noble agrees: “We don’t want white saviours. Train someone up from the community who can go back to that community and serve them in a way that is authentic and genuine.”
One thing that everyone agrees on is the need to see changes in how yoga is marketed. Redman explains: “The vast majority of marketing for health and fitness isn’t healthy. It promotes a certain type of body image around whiteness, thinness, able bodies and people who somehow don’t sweat when they work out.” Redman says she tries to combat this by “posting pictures and videos when I’m super sweaty” and “sharing videos of my clients who are so varied in terms of size, shape, skin colour and gender”.
Isles also emphasises this need for realistic representation. “For me, finding places to practice has generally meant that I’m the only black person in a class. Studios need to reflect the people who might come through their door in their marketing and management. If I don’t see myself represented, why would I feel welcome?”
Written by Robyn Schaffer