Living as a minority in Minnesota my entire life, I can say I am well-versed in realizing what spaces are “for you” and what spaces are “not”, especially when people use the air quotes when describing said spaces. I became aware early on of the unfairness of spaces deemed exclusively for white people, given that I was living in the 21st century. Yoga, although founded and largely attributed to people that are not white, became a very white, upper class way to spend one’s time. As a younger adult, I asked several of my friends about this (all minorities, by the way) and they concurred. Yoga was a “white thing” and I shouldn’t even bother getting into it.
I note the obvious differences in the human family.
When I took my first yoga class, I knew that I felt out of place. I had read up about yoga and its ability to make you feel connected to the people around you. I eagerly went to my first class, excited to try something new. I should have prepared myself for the fallout.
My first yoga class looked a great deal like this:
I was the only minority in class. My instructor was young, blonde, thin and female. I expected nothing less but was truly disappointed in the way the people in the class looked at me, as if I didn’t, couldn’t belong there. I went through all the postures and breathing exercises, searching for a sense of connection. When class was over, it seemed everyone was talking to each other, but no one was talking to me or even acknowledging my presence. I slunk out of the room, trying to understand how my body felt and how alone I felt. Where was that feeling everyone was talking about, that bliss business? Where were my fellow students of color? Was this going to get any better? I couldn’t find any answers right away. So, I let it go for a few years, knowing that I wanted no part in something that alienated people based on skin tone and perceived class status.
A few years went by, though, and yoga and I collided again. I found a studio that seemed to think all people deserved to have access to yoga, no matter our differences. Despite there not being a lot of people of color in my class, I stayed, determined to see if I could find a place there. It took some time, but I eventually became a part of the studio’s community. It took some effort on my part, but the more I practiced and stayed engaged, the more I grew.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
Still, even as I was finding my way onto the yoga path, as it were, lots of my other friends of color were not. There were still under the belief that yoga was not and could not be for them. I explained to them how my studio was different and how some studios and community education classes even offered people of color focused classes. There were ways to feel like yoga was accessible, although the knowledge was slow to spread. It seemed this was all new information to them and what a shame that was. An entire world available to people if they only knew about its existence.
I took it upon myself to do what I could to reach out to the communities of color I knew to share some experiences I had with yoga. I posted fliers. I gave mini talks at events. I eventually became a certified yoga instructor and began doing outreach to meet and connect with other instructors of color across the city. I do what I can, but it still feels like it’s not enough most days.
The only way I see the ideology behind yoga shifting from what it is shown to be in the media and what it could be is through engagement. Without engagement, there is no potential for growth or change. I encourage people of color to put aside the notion that yoga is for a specific group of people and try out some studios. Take a look at the instructor section of websites to see if an instructor of color is there. It may make people more comfortable walking into a class. Also, use your social networks! There are a ton of local, community events or workshops that may include a yoga instructor specifically of color. Events also sometimes take place at a nontraditional setting to bring more people together to introduce yoga in an easier setting. Finally, even though it sounds out there, feel free to take a risk and show up at a studio. Yoga is for everyone, no matter what you look like. Who knows, you may end up enjoying yoga more than originally thought. I know I did.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
Excerpted words from Human Family by Maya Angelou.