And the men? And the ones with natural hair, softer waists, who retired decades ago and the differently abled yogis? I’m not just talking about in traditional studios, but in “yoga photos,” too. Have you taken a look at stock photos for yoga recently? Probably not unless you’re in a certain field, but trust me when I say they all look the same.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking—especially if you’ve seen my photos. I know because I’ve been told the same thing to my face. “What does this white, very average yoga-looking woman have to say about ‘diversity’ in yoga?” (Besides the fact that I have very mixed feeling about the term “diverse”?).
When I first started my practice, I certainly didn’t think I belonged in the average Portland yoga studio. Many times, I still don’t. As a “whitewashed” Native American/Cherokee woman, my own journey of feeling half in one world and half in another, while never really belonging or being accepted in either, definitely trickled over into my yoga practice. In fact, my first priority when founding Get it Ohm! was to offer karmic classes to the Native American community. But that’s an entirely different story.
Then there was the issue of weight. When I first started yoga practice, I was at my heaviest. I gained over 100 pounds during my freshman year of college and hovered around 250 at just under five-foot-seven. I did not belong with those svelte, stretchy, seemingly white girls in those bamboo-floored studios. And some of them, by way of very deliberately ignoring me, made sure I knew it.
Starting your yoga practice is very scary, especially in a group setting. Or at least it can be. There are clear markers of what makes a stereotypical yoga studio, and for those of us who didn’t come from that kind of background and grooming, all these signs feel like they’re telling us to get out. I had the wrong clothes, the wrong yoga mat, and didn’t know how long to let my complimentary tea steep before removing the bag. My thighs touched, a lot, and it seemed like nobody else’s did. I wanted to run out of there and it took every bit of willpower (okay, and knowing how embarrassed I’d be) to stay.
And I was one of the stubborn ones. What about the ones who aren’t stubborn enough to go and stay? Those are the ones we’re losing. And we’re missing out on their lack of presence just as much as they are.
What’s a Yogi to You?
If you think about the clichéd yogi, you’ll probably find them in most traditional yoga studios. Let’s face it—the crowd is pretty homogeneous. To make things worse, everyone starts to dress the same, too. Yes, this is because you figure out which clothes and mats are the most comfortable and (surprise!) thanks to word of mouth, the majority agree on certain brands. That might make for a comfortable practice, but it certainly doesn’t help with the idea that a “real yogi” looks a certain way.
Unfortunately, it’s largely up to each individual person to brave what can be a petrifying challenge and show up to a yoga class where they feel out of place and unwelcome. Given the nature of many yoga classes, which encourage silence and “me time” for light stretching and meditation before a class, there’s no real avenue for a newcomer to reach out and seek help, encouragement, or even a kind smile (or vice versa).
So what can we do as yogis, as teachers, or as someone who works the front desk of a yoga studio? It’s going to take conscious efforts to ensure every single person feels like they belong. If you see someone you don’t recognize, and especially someone who looks uncomfortable, show some kindness. Introduce yourself. Smile—with authenticity. Be an ambassador of “your” studio whether you own it, work there, teach there, or simply practice there regularly.
Remember that we were all beginners once. We’ve all been the new student before, whether in yoga or maybe it was that time in seventh grade when you wound up at a new school and didn’t know where to set down your tray in the cafeteria. That awkward adolescent still lives in all of us regardless of how we appear on the outside.
It’s all our job, as yogis, to open the doors of yoga to every new practitioner. Yoga is steeped in the practice of karma, so challenge yourself to do some good the next time you head to class. Your kindness might be the sole difference between helping a new student return—or decide that yoga just isn’t for them, for good.