Yoga for Everyone?

When I started teaching, “yoga is for everyone!” was a mantra I assumed was true. The fact that my “everyone” happened to be middle to upper-middle class white people, mostly women, was just circumstantial. It just reflected the neighborhood I taught in. Surely, anyone who walked in the door would be welcome. 

Of course, we know that is not really the case. Ask any person of color, a larger bodied person, anyone non-gender conforming, etc. if they have had an uncomfortable or awful experience in a yoga studio, and you will hear a story of feeling not welcome, being subjected to racism, micro-aggressions, or out-right hostility. 

Yoga is a $16 Billion[1] industry. The most aggressively marketed yoga image is that of the young, fit, attractive, white women. Yet, 36.7 Million Americans, or 25% of U.S. adults, practiced Yoga in 2016. How did a practice, that was originally designed for men, become such a “chick” thing? 

There are many theories. Here are some of my thoughts:

Whenever the less dominant group attaches to something, it will immediately be denigrated by the dominant group. This is especially true when that thing is healthy or empowering for the less dominant group. The history of hip hop[2] is a perfect example. 

Yoga is about power. The root word is often mistranslated as "union," but that is incorrect. It actually means "to yoke/bind." Yoking and binding something is distinctly different from uniting it. I yoke or bind things in order to create focused, controlled effort. Yoga practices are designed to yoke the body and mind; to reign them in. By controlling the body and mind, one is able to use them like a plow. I till the soil of experience, thus planting the seeds of enlightenment. The practice makes one's experience fertile for transformation. When one is very successful, one gains power over their own experience. We can decide what to react to, what not to react to, what to engage in and even, if successful enough, manifest supernatural powers. 

I believe that when someone practices yoga, they feel better, healthier, etc., and they also feel more powerful. People regularly talk about how the practice helps them control their reactions to things. They will talk about how it helps them get over toxic relationships. When I tell a student that they can stand “this tall” or take up “this much room” they are initially shocked. It is often startling to them to realize that they are bigger, taller, more substantial than they thought. Then, then they are delighted! Delighted to take up space, to stand tall. That is power. We don't talk about yoga in those terms because, women in particular, are not allowed to say, "I do this because it makes me feel powerful." That is not socially acceptable. 

The United States is a patriarchal society. Anything that is feminine is worth less in the patriarchy. Because the first people that "got" yoga the United States were primarily women, the obvious response from the patriarch is to belittle it. Making yoga "chick stuff" lessens its exposure to a wider range of people. It lessens its potential to upset the apple cart.

Second, the best way to denigrate anything in the United States is to hyper-sexualize and commodify it. This is a standard market-based/economic strategy for control. One of the most hyper-sexualized commodities marketed in the United States is the myth of the Young-Fit-Pretty-Affluent-White-Women. Thus, the creation of the mass marketed “perfect” yogi is: she must be must be young, thin, fit, wear something revealing and do something extraordinary (preferably on a beach). Narrowing the scope of the practice like this worked. Not only did it grow the market substantially, but it also ensured that the population, scope and reach of the practice remained small. It created a closed loop of control and commerce. For years yoga was primarily the practice of upper middle class white women; a group who already has the market share of female power in the United States. 

Thirdly, as the earnings went up, the prices also started to rise. I paid $1100 for my 200-hour training. It was a large investment for me, but doable. I had to save and budget, but I could make it work. Over the course of my first five years of teaching, I watched the cost of trainings go from “investment, but doable,” to “expensive and unattainable.” The market became flooded with a very specific demographic of yoga teacher; one who either thre caution to the wind and leveraged the farm to attend the training, or, one who could afford to spend a lot of money and never recoup their investment. 

This development forced many people out of yoga. Not only financially, but culturally as well. As the costs skyrocketed, the pool of viable teachers became increasingly narrow. The “welcoming” aspect of yoga decreased. As yoga progressed into a pastime for a specific demographic, it ceased to be for everyone else. Sadly, that is often how that works. 

This frustrated me. Being able to study yoga changed the course of my life. It made me a better person. I would never have been able to make that transition if I had to pay what the market was demanding. Classism was my impetus for starting Three Sisters Yoga. I wanted to break the rules and offer what I had access to; an affordable, skills-based training.  

My second impetus happened as a result of the first. When I started TSY, our trainings were filled with the “stereotypical” yoga student. Then something shifted. Without really trying, we started getting a more diverse student base. A recent study through Rutgers University[3] found that when an organization makes accommodations for one under-advantaged group, it can make other disadvantaged people feel safer and more welcome. 

I think this is what happened at TSY. We set a tone that acknowledged the inherent bias in the current yoga market. This opened us up to further explore serious social issues because, as the demographic in my classes started to change, the stories started to come out. We started to hear first-hand what it was like to study yoga if you weren’t the “norm.” I was deeply uncomfortable when confronted with this information. But, more than that, I was heartbroken. I love my students. I do not want them to suffer. 

What I learned was that I what it means for me to practice, to be a white woman in this country, is not shared. For me personally, the logical step was to start educating myself about what it means to be a minority in the United States. Racism, bigotry and sectarianism is rampant in this country. The only way out is listen to and believe people’s stories when they tell us what it is like to be them. As the privileged group, I need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I must control the impulse to deflect and say, “that does not happen!” Controlling this impulse is a yoga practice. It is a yoking of mind. Sutra 2.1 says, “Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.”[4] Accepting “pain as help for purification” has been interpreted in many ways. What it essentially means is that, in doing this work, we accept that we are going to be uncomfortable a lot of the time. 

And we do it anyway. 

This has been the second greatest gift yoga has given me. It has taught me yet again, the power of allowing oneself to be messy, uncomfortable and flawed. While I am by no means a poster child of being “woke” or even an “accomplished yogi,” I am deeply committed to doing better. TSY is a manifestation of that work. We are a welcoming and diverse community. And I am very proud of that. 





[4] Satchidananda, S. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda (Kindle Locations 1434-1435). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.”

Thinking like a Tween

I am going out on a limb here, but stick with me. I often hear people say that we should be more “childlike.” The reason being that children are pure of heart. If we connect to our inner child, we too will become pure of heart. This has always irritated me. Yes, children are blissfully, wonderfully, naïve. They are pure of heart. They often speak little pearls of wisdom. When they are happy and full of wonder, it is a joy. This is true. 

Children are also needy. They need. They need adults to guide them. They need a world that protects and provides for them. They are dependent on outside forces to create the conditions for their bliss. And this is why this analogy annoys me. The work of coming into consciousness isn’t about living in a blissfully unaware state that depends upon the world to take care of us. Consciousness demands action. Consciousness demands that we become aware of ourselves in the world. It is accepting that, should we desire transcendence, we have to do the work of transcending our “self.” 

That is why, I think we should all try to be more like middle schoolers. 

Middle school is a liminal age. It is a great ball of hormonal fire hurtling towards adolescence at a snail’s pace. It is slow and awkward and often painful being a tween. They are awakening to adulthood, yet still comfortably nestled in the safety net of childhood. Tweendom is the bridge between Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come. They are more aware of themselves, but they are still so goofy. As they struggle to come understand life’s limitations, they are open to possibilities. They struggle with being sentient, with self-identity, and yet they are still very playful. They have amazing insight and are not afraid; but, they are also extremely self-conscious and totally afraid. 

Tweens are, in many ways, the embodiment of present mindedness. They are becoming more aware of themselves, they are interested in the possibilities of an awakened life, but they still want to be tucked in at night. They still believe in fantasy, but are also weirdly practical. Funny, goofy, stinky, emotionally all over the place; middle schoolers are basically every one of our internal lives living outside our bodies. The other day my middle schooler turned to me and said, “being alive is so hard!”

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

And this is not to say that little kids aren’t their own emotional wrecking balls, they are. But, toddlers have little to no control over their emotional lives. They are basically the Id in small shoes, daring you to try and make them feel better. A tween’s awareness, however, is dawning. They are trying to get comfortable with their burgeoning consciousness. They struggle every day with how to accept that they are small, insignificant, different; yet, they remain confident that a fantastic journey is just around the corner.

That is why I recommend that we be more like a tween. Don’t give up the thrill of make believe, hang on to the beauty of imagination, but channel it through the angst. Our angst is our longing. Longing is our consciousness’s urge to connect to something greater than ourselves. It’s the twitchy, itchy nerve that is only satisfied when we are truly connected to the beautiful. Our separateness creates the longing for connection. Longing, when directed and focused, draws us into the experience of beauty, into Pure Consciousness, Jiva, God. This experience teaches us how to be a good friend, a good neighbor, a good, global citizen. It moves us beyond the self and into the Self. 

I know this may be way out there, but I stand by it. Tweens for the win! What about you? Do you remember what it was like to be a tween? Do you have a tween in your life now? If you had the chance to do it all again, would you? 

Your Big Toe

by Jen Whinnen

My older son recently spent a day touring his brother’s art based school to see if he liked it better that his current school. He’s never been that into the arts but his interests have changed this year so we asked him to check it out just to be sure. Throughout his day at art school he was surly, sullen and bossy. He was mean to his brother and blatantly rude to the teachers. Half way through the day he texted his dad, asking to go home. When we tried to talk to him about it his only response was that he hated it, that it wasn’t what he wanted.

We’ve moved a lot in the last six years and he’s been to several different schools. Each time he’s moved to a new school he’s approached it with gusto and optimism. He had the faith of a child; he was going to be accepted and liked because this is a well ordered universe and that’s how things work. But, he’s older now. He’s entering into the world of  “tween-dom” and the resilience of “just wait until they see how slick I am at Minecraft!” is waning. He’s becoming self consciousness. The idea of starting all over again was too stressful. It was clear that no matter how great the school may be for him, we needed to respect his wishes.

This is an important distinction, one that is often hard as a parent to make. Parents are supposed to make decisions for their children. We are supposed to figure out what is best for them, tell them what to do. However, as they mature, we also have to take into consideration their burgeoning sense of self. We have to allow them to make their own decisions and respect that they may actually know their own minds.

As a teacher however, I do not have to toe this line. As a teacher I have to do the opposite. I must accept that my students are fully in charge of their own experience. And believe it or not, this is often hard to do. In fact, one of the most common thoughts my student teachers begin their training with is “I am going to teach the yoga that transformed me so that others will be transformed the way I have been.” On the surface this sounds like a lovely, well intentioned idea. However, it is terribly misguided. A belief rooted in the assumption that everyone wants what we want, or conversely, if they don’t want what we want they are wrong, is a recipe for conflict and disappointment. 

Like a specialized school designed to address the talents of specific children, yoga isn’t meant to convert or change others. It is meant to clear the lens to whatever degree that lens wants to be cleaned. Yoga will absolutely allow one to expand one’s consciousness beyond the mundane experience of being in a body, but yoga’s validity is not hinging upon that happening to every student of yoga. 

The teacher’s role is not to save. It is to facilitate. The teacher provides guideposts and opportunity, but the experience, whatever it is, depends entirely upon the student. Understanding, transformation, if it takes place at all, arises from one’s own effort and will. 

B.K.S. Iyengar once said “How can you know god if you don’t even know your big toe?” What a great question this is! How can we know anything about anything when we don’t even know our own minds? To presuppose that you know what someone’s motivations are, is to grant yourself an omniscience you do not have. We teach our children to share and tell them not to bite because they literally do not know any better. But when it comes to the motivations of adults, we have no real way of knowing what’s going on. Any time we step into the arena of deciding the emotionality of “why” someone is doing something, it’s a distraction. We’ve stepped out of the arena of our knowing our own big toe. 

So, how can you know god when you can’t even keep yourself focused on knowing your own big toe? How can you say what is good or right for someone else? 

You can’t.

When we sit as judge and jury on anyone, even if we are literally being called to serve on a jury of our peers, we don’t actually get to define their experience. We can cast a judgment on someone’s life, prescribe a punishment for a crime, we can look at the physical body and make suggestions based on what we see, but the internal life of that person will always be in their hands. What they choose to do with their punishment, what they do with our instructions, where they go in their mind, is up to them.

“Why would someone do that!?” Oh how I regularly find myself asking this question! And each time I do I take myself away from the work of finding right action. 

If you are called to teach, do it. You don’t need a reason to do any more than you need a justification for learning or loving.  That pendulum swings both ways – you can’t know what motivates others and they don’t get to dictate what motivates you. 

Work to understand your big toe.

That my friends, is a full time job.