Equity in Yoga – Inclusion & Diversity

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we review factors that impact equity and diversity in yoga classes.

Objective

Understand the factors that impact equity and diversity in yoga and become familiar with specific ways to mindfully and proactively address these factors.

Description

Describe factors that impact equity and diversity in yoga classes. Consider the feeling of being out-of-place and how the nervous system responds to such feelings. Set goals for creating a safe space and describe small things that can make a big difference. Describe considerations that may be particularly relevant when teaching women of color. Cite specific ways a teacher can build a diverse and inclusive community. Give an example of “tokenism” when creating and launching programs.

Context & Perspective

Many people of color and/or working-class people I know assume… that yoga studios will inevitably be inhospitable to them. Oftentimes this assumption comes from experience, but the way yoga is promoted can be so alienating to some people that they won’t even set foot in a studio. That is the perception that mainstream yoga must combat. – Chanelle John

Pop culture has inundated the world with images of:

  • White women
  • Young and thin
  • “High-class” and rich
  • Demonstrating yoga poses that are inaccessible to the vast majority of people

Consider viewing this through the lens of a woman of color:

We barely have representation in mainstream publications. There are a lot of women of color who do not care to practice yoga because they feel it is not really for them. Before I started practicing and became a yoga teacher, I felt the same way. – Kenya Marsh CYT-500

There is a Division

  • Yoga is for people with bodies of every shape, color and ability, but the public image has created a polarity between those who feel they belong and those who feel yoga isn’t for them.
  • This division causes harm: there are many people walking around our world burdened with stress, frustration and pain, with no idea where to turn.
  • In addition to the image barrier, potential students may not live within an easy commute of a yoga studio. Or classes may be expensive. Or classes with a teacher or community that make the student feel comfortable may not be offered at times she can attend due to work or family responsibilities.

We can acknowledge this divide and seek to counter it by reaching out to invite, welcome, and include all.

To Not Feel Included

The Feelings of Being Out-of-Place

Take a moment to think about a setting where you have felt uncomfortable, out-of-place or unseen.

  • Perhaps you’ve felt uneasy at work, in particular parts of your city, in certain social environments or with some family members or neighbors.
  • Recall one of those situations where you’ve had a feeling — whether distinct or subtle — that you didn’t fit in, or that it’s not safe there.

Everyone experiences this now and again. And some people experience it much of the time.

When you recall an uncomfortable experience, perhaps you can tap into what you were feeling and how you were reacting:

  • You may have had a sense of never fully relaxing… of feeling a need to be on alert to protect yourself from attack, whether verbal jabs or something you can’t identify.
  • Or perhaps you realize that when you’re with some people, you feel overlooked. You may want to shrink or disappear. Or perhaps you find yourself trying to find ways to engage or impress those around you, to get them to acknowledge you and make you feel more accepted and included.

Nervous System Effects

The very real and powerful feelings of being out-of-place, unwelcome, unseen, dismissed, disrespected or unsafe will naturally activate the sympathetic nervous system. That means you’ll experience a cascade of physiological symptoms designed to keep you safe. Those same symptoms will prevent you from letting your guard down and relaxing.

What Causes It?

The particular factors that cause various students to feel safe or unsafe, included or excluded, will be different based on their perspectives and personal experience with social injustice, trauma, yoga, authority, and so much more.

A few examples of what could be true for some people include the following scenarios:

  • If I am the student, maybe I’m uncomfortable because people in the room don’t look like me in terms of race or gender identification.
  • Maybe I’ve experienced racism or gender-based violence, and the teacher uses triggering language or displays a lack of sensitivity.
  • Maybe there’s a subtle assumption among the majority in the room that all students have a certain lifestyle or political view that’s different from mine.

Welcome Your Students

Whether a class has three students or 40, each person is having an individual experience and wants to be seen and treated with care. Whether you welcome each student individually or as a class, consider your eye contact, body language and sincerity. How welcome students feel will contribute to how safe, open and relaxed they are.

WHEN WE FEEL WELCOMED, WE SHOW UP MORE

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to show up somewhere and feel welcome—really, really welcome. Imagine that moment when you truly sense how delighted someone is that you’ve arrived. When we feel welcomed, we show up more… We are learning to welcome our breath into our body. We are learning to welcome our mind onto our breath. We are learning to create a safe space for ourselves, so we can show up more. – Jillian Pransky

Creating a Safe Space: Fundamentals

As a yoga teacher, you have the ability to shift consciousness and raise spirits. – Dianne Bondy

If your objective as a teacher is to serve your students and to see them return again and again, then how they feel when in your class is key. Creating a safe space allows students to let their guard down and relax their nervous system.

The goal is for students to feel:

  1. They are fully accepted: not judged by appearance, experience or behavior.
  2. They have freedom of choice. They are guided to practice safely but are in charge of themselves.

It’s possible to do little things that make a big difference in how individual students feel in your class. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Take responsibility for setting the stage for each student to feel welcome, safe,included and relaxed.
  2. Acknowledge your own challenges and limitations in order to authentically modelnon-judgement and acceptance.
  3. Be open and seek perspectives outside your experience. Remember that what you wantor need to feel safe and included isn’t necessarily the same as what your students will need.
  4. Be transparent about what you don’t know and humble in accepting advice.

See Also

SEEK POSITIVE EXAMPLES IN THE YOGA WORLD

We have much to learn from each other. There are plenty of examples of people who are doing good work within the yoga world. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is actively creating media that represents (and celebrates) yoga practitioners of different body types, races and gender. The Yoga Service Council provides concrete strategies for reaching traditionally marginalized communities and promoting yoga as a tool for healing. Off the Mat, Into the World is continuously educating itself and incorporating new ideas to train its network of skilled and sensitive yoga activists. – Roseanne Harvey

Going Deeper

DEVELOPING A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHER CULTURES

The good news is, this is yoga we’re talking about. Yoga on many levels IS awareness and consciousness. The rest of the good news is that there are more ways to identify and be more conscious of what we say and how it affects others, which is especially relevant for yoga teachers in a class setting where students often bring their emotions, histories and vulnerabilities with them to the mat. – Yoga Dork

If you haven’t learned how to teach to a diverse community, you can learn! If you haven’t reached out to invite diverse populations, you can do it!

Learning about and acknowledging unintentional biases and habits is the place to start.

  • By the very definition of diversity, you haven’t walked in the shoes of others and will thus need to learn how you may be affecting others who are different from you.
  • Increasing our consciousness in this way is inextricably linked with yogic principles of awakening. As with all other learning about ourselves and how we relate to the world, this knowledge brings power and inspiration.
  • Inclusivity trainings and workshops are ideal ways to go deeper. After even one afternoon workshop, you’ll feel more knowledgeable, comfortable and inspired. By learning in such an environment, your eyes will open to unconscious bias and you’ll feel empowered to offer welcoming and inclusive support to your neighbors and students.

WHY EVERY TEACHER NEEDS INCLUSIVITY TRAINING

Something truly special is currently happening in yoga. We, as teachers and practitioners, are so fortunate to be witness to the ongoing growth, expansion, and diversification of our community— via age, race, body size, ability, gender, socioeconomic background, and more. But if, as a teacher, you feel unsure how to teach in a way that includes and resonates with everyone at once, you’re not alone. If, as a student, you feel isolated in class because you don’t see yourself reflected in your studio, you’re not alone either!” – Chelsea Jackson Roberts PhD

More Considerations for Teaching Women of Color

Women of color have, historically, taken care of others while placing themselves last. Though we have made gains in education and employment, our careers have now been added to our caretaking lists. We are still putting ourselves last. – Maya Breuer

Teaching to a diverse group is, by definition, a group with cultural differences — some of which you may not fully understand. These considerations may be particularly relevant when teaching women of color:

  1. Strive to serve your students in a way that will allow them to fully relax and let go of their responsibilities and any struggles or worries. Provide a sacred space where students can experience the ease and peace that yoga enables.
  2. Remember the bottom line of Teacher-Student Relationships: stay focused on the student’s experience (as opposed to yours). See more: Teacher-Student Relationships & Ethics.
  3. Be mindful of your tone and avoid hierarchical language which may be interpreted as demeaning or dismissive. Instead, use a light tone and invitational language. See more: Inclusive & Accepting Word Choice.
  4. Stay away from language that perpetuates stereotypes. See more: 7 Ways to Embrace Diversity and Yoga.
  5. Sanskrit and other yoga terminology can be perceived as exclusionary. If you typically use a lot of “yoga-speak” consider using less and translating while teaching. See more: Clarify Yoga Terminology.
  6. Allow students to determine the degree of interaction between you. That is, be attentive to each and every student but do not be invasive. Remember the first point above.
  7. Don’t take it personally if students do not provide feedback in a way you expected.

Inspiring Comfort & Relaxation

Routine & Change in Terms of Relaxation

  • If you find particular techniques and classroom practices are effective with your students, you may wish to avoid “changing things up” simply for the sake of change.
  • Even if something you teach has begun to feel boring or uninspiring to you, students may find it a comforting routine and a reliable way to achieve particular results.
  • On the other hand, new practices and changes to routines may increase focus and concentration while inspiring growth and increasing interest.

What You Can Do

How might you walk the line between routine and change in a way that maximizes comfort, focus and growth?

Observe students closely, particularly after you try new things. You may wish to occasionally solicit feedback from students.

One way to think about this topic is to keep “the container” consistent while interchanging “the content.”

  • If we think of the class structure as the “container” this might include consistent routines such as the opening and closing rituals. Keeping such consistency can entrain students to “drop in” once they begin the opening chant, for instance.
  • The class sequence would be an example of class “content” that changes according to your objective.

See Also

Mindful Pacing

There are many aspects of a yoga class that can invite students to relax. One is the notable difference in pace from the “outside world.” Even in the case of a strong physical practice, the pacing is mindful and designed to balance energy.

  • Effective energy management and sequencing include responding to the energy of students and building to a peak before slowing down.
  • Many students will arrive “in their head” or stressed, and it will take some time for them to be able to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system and slow down.
  • You may wish to stay particularly mindful of your class pacing and voice to stay focused on helping students to slow down in an effective manner.

See Also

Building Community

The world is changing rapidly and it is amazing to see. According to the American Census Bureau, “by the end of this decade no single racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority of children” … and in about 30 years no single group of people will represent a majority of the country as a whole.

Dianne Bondy

Have you been engaged in self-reflection and growth, and now you want to do more? Here are some excellent ways to get started building a diverse and inclusive community.

  1. Seek out colleagues from diverse backgrounds during planning and execution of programs.
  2. Avoid “tokenism” which can include reaching out last-minute to someone for their buy-in as opposed to including them from the beginning.
  3. Create initiatives to reach out to diverse populations.
  4. In blogs, social media, promotions and all marketing materials, provide a diverse image.
  5. Train and hire more yoga teachers of color.

SOCIAL FACTORS LIMIT CHOICES

Social factors, generally referred to as the social determinants of health, determine whether or not individuals have parks and playgrounds to exercise, supermarkets to buy fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, job opportunities to support their families, and other resources that allow them to be healthy. While it is definitely important for us to encourage people to make healthy choices, we must remember that people can only make healthy choices if they have healthy options. – Boston

Public Health Commission

BE PRACTICAL & INCLUSIVE

Each community is different, and when you invite your neighbors to join you on the mat, it’s important to make your invitation relevant. Promoting expensive yoga retreats doesn’t make sense if much of your community lives paycheck to paycheck. Understand the pressing needs of your community, and approach your yoga teaching from that angle. – The Yoga Diversity Dilemma