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 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 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 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.” 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.
 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.”