An overlooked, frequently misunderstood, and underestimated aspect of yoga is community. Community is regularly cited as something yoga offers, but all too often I find that a deeper understanding of what community actually is – and all the gifts that come with it – is lacking.
Community means more than being a member of a specific (physical or virtual) space, it is built on shared values, mutual respect, and a responsibility to each other. Not everybody needs to agree on everything, but communities are spaces for both listening and being heard.
Once the initial 200-hr Yoga Teacher Training program proved itself to be financially resilient I was able to fulfil my ambition of offering full and partial training scholarships to folk who identify as LGBTQIA+, and/or Black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) folk and/or people of colour (POC). The support of my community has meant that as these teacher trainings transition to their new form at Nourish I can keep offering scholarships.
I recently wrote about why inclusion and justice in pregnancy yoga are so profoundly needed, and the two scholarships available for the upcoming online Pregnancy & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Trainings. This blog post is a deeper dive into why these scholarships exist, why Nourish is committed to them, what they mean in the context of the Nourish yoga community and yoga at large.
Yoga as a Community Based Practice
Communities don’t just happen: they are built. In the yoga space, this can be done by creating social engagement and spaces for conversation both within and out of the yoga class. As a yoga teacher, former CEO of a yoga charity (Yoga Quota), and most recently the founder of Nourish Yoga Training, creating and nurturing community has and will remain central to all my endeavours. Nourish’s commitment to community is tied into everything we offer, including our social justice work, and holding ourselves to high standards of inclusivity and accessibility.
Questioning the inclusivity and accessibility of the organisations, spaces and communities we belong to is necessary and valuable work. It is not enough to simply state that ‘everybody is welcome’ in your community. Instead, it is vital to question what prohibits people from participating in or accessing a space, and if you are truly committed to community, what can be done to actively expand and breakdown the barriers within it. After all, feminism’s glass ceiling isn’t shattered by people merely acknowledging it and offering platitudes, it has to be actively pushed back against.
This blog cannot do justice to the magnitude and complexity of the exclusionary dynamics at play in the yoga and wellness space but it is one offering to the conversation. Questions and actions are a central theme of this blog as a way to recognise this complexity, but also to encourage reflection. If you are committed to yoga as a practice of Svādhyāya (reflection and self-study) please take some time to deepen your knowledge, ask your own questions, and acknowledge difficult feelings if they arise. From reflection, we can move into action.
This blog is also about communities within communities, and finding ways to support groups and individuals who are traditionally marginalised, and who may experience discomfort and/or discrimination in the yoga space.
Yoga’s Inclusivity Problems
Yoga, more often than not, likes to think itself immune to racism, sexism, ableism, financial elitism, and all forms of discrimination. It’s not. If 2020 has taught us anything, I hope it is that the people, practices and places who claim to be exempt from these things are not – and are often the ones perpetuating these broken narratives.
A good way to start thinking about inclusivity, is questioning whether you have ever felt something is blocking you from a yoga class? Is it financial, or based on a perceived difference or limitation of your body or identity? Now move beyond yourself, what are the barriers preventing people with a different positionality or privilege than your own?
As an organisation, Nourish has a greater responsibility when it comes to answering these questions. These questions and reflections inform all of the offerings from Nourish Yoga Training, and our scholarships are one way of offering a clear, tangible and actionable answer.
Financial Inclusion and Exclusion in Yoga
What is the price of wellness? $4.5 trillion according to the latest statistics from the Global Wellness Institute, the peak body in researching the economy of wellness. Within the wellness industry, yoga is at the intersection of many financial honey pots, from yoga classes and retreats to studio spaces, clothing and equipment, and even reaching into complementary and alternative medicine spheres.
Yes, in many ways yoga, in its truest sense, cannot be bought. It is built on union defying boundaries, it is transformative, radical and healing. But what are we told we need to purchase and consume in order to get there?
Yoga is financially lucrative for the major stakeholders willing to capitalise on it. However, I cannot stress enough that yoga teachers are usually at the bottom of this financial food chain, unless they have an established brand.
Reclamation Ventures, founded by wellness entrepreneur Nicole Cardoza, is a US venture fund that invests in individuals and organisations who make wellness accessible and inclusive. In many ways, Reclamation Ventures is an antidote and complement to the research of the Global Wellness Institute, and their 2020 impact report redresses some current imbalances in the wellness world. The key, overlapping, areas of wellness on which the report offers insight and resources are:
- Redefining the instructor
- Online inclusive spaces
- The public space (parks etc) as the next studio
- Wellness across the gender spectrum
- The wellness consumer gets older
- Impact and profit in alignment
- Reclaiming Black women wellness
Nourish’s scholarships intersect on many of these areas, but from a financial standpoint (‘impact and profit in alignment’) scholarships are a way of successfully participating in the capitalist structures we are all tied into, whilst circumnavigating them. Scholarships are a way of redistributing wealth within Nourish’s own financial ecosystem, where full-paying students and the yoga teaching faculty invest in the aspects of the yoga community we want to see thrive. By investing in existing and aspiring yoga teachers at the margins of society at large and the yoga world, it is Nourish’s way of offering a small stepping stone in how we wish to see the yoga landscape evolve.
LGBTQIA+ Inclusion and Exclusion in Yoga
‘It hit during savasana — THIS was what yoga was all about. It was about feeling connected to my body and to my community.’
This line from Lindsey Danis’s article on yoga as healing in the LGBTQIA+ community stood out for me because this is something they experienced in an LGBTQIA+ community class after practising yoga for ten years. This feeling is something many people who practise can relate to, but without discriminatory factors, they often experience it in a shorter timeframe.
The awareness the LGBTQIA+ community have made and continue to make within the yoga world about challenging and redefining what yoga as an embodied practice means is vital. The yoga space (like the rest of the world)––in regards to language, behaviour, changing facilities, and clothing––is one that has been designed to be inherently comfortable, safe, and welcoming for those who fall well within the cultural binary gender norms. Tristan Katz, who works in and beyond the yoga space, has compiled resources on their website and Instagram raising LGBTQIA+ awareness for yoga teachers.
The yoga world profoundly needs more LGBTQIA+ teachers who can create the necessarily held spaces for their community, and if they chose to do so to educate and broaden the understanding of the rest of the yoga world.
BAME and POC Inclusion and Exclusion in Yoga
No space within the white gaze is immune from racism. Nicole Cardoza (the founder of Reclamation Ventures) has written about her experiences of racism from Yoga Journal, a powerful titan in forming the image of yoga (this is not an isolated event, many yoga teachers of colour have shared their racist experiences with Yoga Journal). Elsewhere, yoga innovator Dianne Bondy writes about the homogeneity of the yoga space and the racism she has experienced as a yoga teacher.
There is a further dynamic at play in the yoga community when it comes to race, and that is cultural appropriation. What is important to recognise and own, is that if you practise yoga in this day and age, unless yoga is a part of your cultural heritage, you are culturally appropriating yoga.
Susanna Barktaki is a well of wisdom when it comes to yoga specific cultural appropriation, and how to shift your participation in the yoga community from appropriation towards appreciation. Actively addressing power imbalances and how we cause harm in our yoga practice, business, and/or teaching is at the heart of this.
You can still practise, teach, enjoy, share and celebrate yoga. However, I deeply encourage you to include reflections on how you appropriate yoga and actions to challenge this as a part of your yoga practice. As an initial jumping-off point, educate yourself on the origins of yoga: the Yoga is Dead podcast by Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh weaves together the history of yoga and its contemporary state with warmth, humour and a razor-sharp critical lens, and the Wellcome Collection has a great series on the history of yoga. Simran Uppal’s seminar on decolonising yoga, which is part of our Teaching Inclusive Yoga training is fantastic (personal bias aside…).
Nourish’s scholarship program is part of our anti-racism work as we make space and opportunities for more teachers of colour, and is one of the ways we advocate for appreciation over appropriation.
The Intersection of Scholarship and Community
I hope you can see now how these scholarships operate on multiple levels; they are a way of making Nourish’s community more diverse and inclusive, are intended to support LGBTQIA+, BAME, and POC in uplifting and establishing their own yoga communities, and are one way we can actively contribute to help to facilitate the much-needed change in the yoga community at large.
I also hope you can recognise that although I addressed financial, LGBTQIA+, BAME and POC inclusion in separate sections, these are often intersectional issues.
The cultural change we wish to see in yoga will above all be a community effort–and as always we want your input. What are your favourite resources and reflections on inclusivity in yoga? What would you like to see more of in the yoga world and from Nourish?