the whiteness of yoga: time to change the question?

I’ve read more than a few articles lately on how blindingly white modern American yoga still is and the cultural appropriation of it. In fact, I asked about the color of yoga back in 2007 when this blog was at its hottest. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Why Your Yoga Class is So White” is the latest from the Atlantic Monthly:

“The magazine images may seem like stereotypes, but they’re grounded in reality: About one in every 15 Americans practices yoga, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal study, and more than four-fifths of them are white.

“‘Racism is so implicit that you never even notice that it’s a white girl on the cover every single time,” added Amy Champ, a PhD from the University of California, Davis, who wrote her dissertation on American yoga. “But when you begin to ask yourself, ‘What does yoga have to do with my community?’, then you begin to question all these inequities.'”

The key goals of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) as stated on their website are:

“…to revise the perception that yoga is an exclusive practice; to intervene in a largely segregated yoga environment; to ensure that yoga remains a resource for all bodies, all races, all classes and identities.”

[Emphasis supplied in both.]

“Columbusing” is a term used to describe what white people do when they “discover” something that has existed forever.  We can reflect on that as Western culture “discovers” mindfulness like it “discovered” yoga about 15 years ago. 

Before I definitively learned that I was Native American (after intuiting it all my life), seeing white people wear Native American headdress always bothered me tremendously.  Don’t ask my why it did, it just did, it looked wrong and felt wrong to me.  I’ve been told that’s my tribal blood memory.

The issue of the Color of Yoga in Modern America is always a dicey one.  My good friend and San Diego yoga teacher, Oreste Prada, deliciously turns the question around in his guest post where he asks, in essence, “why do white people care so much about whether people of color do Yoga?”  Spinning it around again, “why are white people in the U.S. so drawn to yoga practice?”  Do white people need Yoga more than other races do?  Excellent and provocative questions so here is what Oreste has to say….talk amongst yourselves.


 

“Over the last few years there has been much discussion online about the demographics of yoga classes particularly on the notable absence (or suspiciously low representation) of ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Latino, which comprise just over 12% and 16%, respectively, of the U.S. population.  Typically these discussions raise observations that quickly are treated as causal:

1. Yoga Journal (arguably the most popular yoga related magazine in the U.S.) shows mostly (some would say only) White women on their cover.

2. Yoga studios are located mainly in White neighborhoods.

3. Yoga classes are prohibitively priced for low income communities.

This leap from observation to causation is, of course, a dangerous one without looking deeper and dispassionately into income and race demographics, regional variations, and cultural differences between ethnic groups in the U.S.  It also tends to fall all too comfortably into inaccurate ethnocentric projections.

The underlying assumption is that, all things being equal, Blacks and Latinos would be drawn to yoga classes just as much as their White counterparts if only:

1. Media representations of yoga practitioners would show Blacks and Latinos.

2. Yoga studios were located in “ethnic” neighborhoods.

3. Yoga classes were cheaper so that Blacks and Latinos could afford them.

This assumption is just that, an assumption, and it misses an obvious question. 

Rather than ask why Black and Latinos don’t attend yoga class, is it not interesting to turn the question on its head and ask why are White people in the U.S. so drawn to yoga practice?

My friend Linda, who so often throws interesting and controversial topics at us often relayed from a different than typical perspective, recently posted on her Facebook wall an article on precisely this idea of the “Whiteness” of yoga in the U.S. and what many groups are doing about it.  It struck me that the author, all of the folks interviewed, and all of the commentators on the article, were taking this idea for granted that yoga was something everyone would (or should?) be drawn to and that the lack of representation of ethnic minorities came down to something that magazines, studio owners, yoga teachers, or the very White yoga community at large were doing wrong.

No one seemed to see the inherent ethnocentrism present in that assumption.  My comment to her post and now this subsequent guest post was born.

To be sure, this is not to discount the observations noted above.  They are, after all, observations of a reality that has presented itself.  I make just as many generalizations with my perspective (among them treating White Americans as a monolithic group which they most certainly are not.)  What I propose is that the reasons for this reality may not be what we assume them to be and that taking a step back and trying to better understand differences in culture and race are more meaningful ways to understand the reality. 

I think it is worth pondering the question of whether something within Yoga practice (as it exists in modern time) makes White Americans uniquely attracted to it.

It isn’t unreasonable that it would be.

1.  Yoga practice is individualistic.  Yoga practice is ultimately concerned with the Self.  Although we can argue that this Self is shared, we approach it through our own experience within our own bodies.  Yoga is not (with some exceptions) a group experience and it certainly isn’t a team effort.  It begins and ends with individual experience.

This might be very attractive to individually-minded White American culture.  But can we expect it to be attractive to cultures that place greater emphasis on family and community?  Looking at India, the birthplace of Yoga, which is very family focused, we see that most folks don’t actually practice Yoga.  Those that do are almost exclusively sadhus (who leave their families for spiritual pursuits) or folks involved in religious groups.  The householder yogi is a fairly modern concept as far as we know and he/she remains a minority in Yoga’s home country.  Within India itself the majority of practitioners (in non-religious) Yoga schools are Westerners and it has been the case for almost a decade now that there are many more practitioners of Yoga (asana) within the U.S. than within India (India has an overall population 4x the size of the U.S.).

2. Yoga offers spirituality without dogma.  Many yoga practitioners today come to the practice seeking a spiritual component in their lives.  Many are agnostic or have weak religious ties (both of which are much more common in White communities in the U.S. than in any of the ethnic communities).  Yoga can provide a much needed sacred experience for these folks.  The strong religious influence within Black and Latino cultures raises the possibility that the spiritual component of Yoga is not as attractive since those needs are already being met.  This idea is more compelling than the income argument given that Asian Americans (the only minority in the U.S. who earn a higher income then White Americans) typically have strong family and religious ties but also don’t rally to yoga studios.

3. Yoga classes offer a support system without community-mindedness.  Yoga teachers often talk about “group energy,” this ethereal quality that is formed out of the collection of students and teachers in the room, maintained by those same people and which benefits everyone.  Studios in general and classes in particular can be places where individuals feel the support of others and in the best cases have teachers who are invested in their growth and the realization of their potential.  For an individually minded culture this can be very attractive because you can pursue your own goals and growth with the indirect support of others, and by your presence and your energy you are helping others achieve theirs, all the while maintaining your space.  The best example of this juxtaposition of shared versus personal space is the yoga mat which has become a strong representation of an individual’s sacred space.  I have yet to attend a teacher training where the question of whether or not it is appropriate to step on someone’s mat doesn’t come up.  [Oreste, love ya, babe, but keep your stinky feet off my mat…I put my face on my mat!]

4. Yoga in the West is generally associated with the New Age movement.  The New Age movement with its non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and its emphasis on health and harmony has at its best been very attractive to Americans who resist and reject dogmatic religions but who seek a deeper sense of purpose and order to the Universe, especially if it offers a way to participate in it.  At worst, the New Age movement is viewed by (non-fundamentalist) White Americans as strange but innocuous.  For many it offers a vehicle to venture from yoga into other practices that might be interesting or even helpful for promoting health.  

This is not the attitude of the typically deeply religious Black and Latino communities that view the New Age movement with suspicion at least and contempt at worst.  New Age tenets and practices are disturbingly close to the ideas their churches warn against.  Individuals in these communities who practice yoga often face constant warnings by friends and family and can even experience alienation from their religious communities.  [my note:  I found this true when I was teaching Mexican women at a domestic violence shelter where the Jehovah’s Witness minister of one woman told her not to return to my class.]

Given the ease with which yoga practice fits into the needs of many White Americans perhaps Yoga in the U.S. is actually focused on the folks who would benefit the most from it.  

If this is the case, why are we concerned about representation and whether yoga practice makes it to other communities?  Is it a form of ethnocentrism to assume that something that White Americans have found useful for personal and spiritual growth is necessarily beneficial to everyone?  Or that others are not already experiencing the fruits talked about in Yoga through other means?

I’m not playing devil’s advocate here.  I was born outside of the U.S. and until I was 19 years old lived in a community that was almost exclusively Latino.  In that time I met many people who exhibited abilities not unlike the siddhis talked about in the Yoga Sutras and other yoga texts.  In the 15 years I’ve been a yoga practitioner and teacher, where I’ve been surrounded mostly by White Americans, I’ve met less people who exhibit those abilities.

So it is worthwhile to ponder whether ethnic minorities not participating in Yoga is a problem at all.  The assumption that these communities need yoga practice seems to be at least as ethnocentric (so as not to use the overused term “racist”) as the idea that they are being excluded from the yoga community.

One additional note: I’ve made sweeping generalizations throughout but I want to draw special attention to one which Linda raised and which I think may begin to instruct how we can go back to using yoga to serve people as opposed to drawing more people to it.  

I have assumed that all Latino and Black individuals receive unconditional support within their communities.  This is not true for many marginalized groups: anyone who has encountered physical or sexual abuse, gay/lesbian and trans individuals, and even second generation immigrants (who often straddle conflicting identities) have many times been rejected by deeply religious and traditional communities.  For folks who have been alienated, humiliated, and experienced rejection by family and/or community, the tools and practice of yoga can be a Godsend for the very reasons that I’ve mentioned above.  It’s emphasis on individual work and worth can grow self-esteem, its dogma and judgment free spirituality can be a more tender surrogate for the religion that rejected them, and its sacred space with the support of teachers and fellow students can begin to rebuild a sense of social acceptance.

The way these groups would be brought to yoga, however, would likely differ significantly from what we normally consider when we imagine expanding the yoga community so it is more ethnically inclusive.  Representation on Yoga Journal’s cover, studios in ethnic neighborhoods and lower cost classes don’t serve these communities directly.”

6 thoughts on “the whiteness of yoga: time to change the question?

  1. Hmmmm….I like where the Author took this “Why are white people, predomonantly wealthy white women, attracted to Yoga?” I venture to say it is because that is the group it was, is, and will continue to be sold to. When Yoga was initialy brought to America, it was brought as a commodity to be sold to “wealthy, white women”. Everything about how Yoga is Marketed is geared towards that specific group because that is where the $$$$ is.

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  2. Wow…this is a great post. I am a black American and I came to yoga on my search for happiness. a lot of this hits the nail on the head – black families do tend to be more religious and I agree many black and latino communities may be skeptical of the teachings of yoga because they perceive them to not be in line with their values and consider them to be even spiritually dangerous. for me, I did not find happiness in religion or material things. I even found the new age spirituality through yoga, which many people do, and fell into the illusion of always ‘floating” and “love and light”. Yoga is my true path and it has destroyed me many times and put me back together again(does that make sense?) One of my favorite quotes is from whoever said ” everything has cracks in it, that’s how the light gets in”. I think yoga doesn’t just equal happiness and bliss, it’s hard and you have to show up everyday, especially when you feel like shit. But, that’s where the transformation happens and you break and crack and you face the shit and then that’s where the light gets in 🙂 THAT’S what I live for and that’s why I love yoga. as an African American I really do wish more minorities would come to the practice and it is such a shame the way yoga is represented, it really doesn’t encourage these groups, but I think this post does a really good job of exploring that topic.

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    1. thanks, Grace! I will send your comment to my friend who wrote this piece…. thank you SO MUCH for reading this Krazy Old Yogini’s blog! 🙂

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