Last month, the Atlantic published an online article called “Why Your Yoga Class Is So White.” Not surprisingly, the article generated a lot of discussion, and probably a good number of clicks. It’s a gripping headline, of course, and the author makes an interesting point just by asking the “question” – that is, most people understand the yoga-studios-are-largely-white phenomenon to which she broadly refers. But the article only answers its title question in the most cursory way, since it forgets a few key aspects of yoga’s past and present. Amazingly, it leaves out the fact that yoga wasn’t white to begin with. The article also forgets that yoga is practiced in many forms today in America. And that it’s steadily evolving away from the current iconic practitioner: The affluent skinny white woman.
Framing yoga as a fundamentally white practice that hasn’t diversified yet is, well, misleading. Yoga wasn’t “white” for most of its history, and its appearance as such in the U.S. is fairly recent, and probably fleeting. It evolved in India and Asia, and only came over to this country just over a century ago, mainly as a system of philosophical inquiry, and mental and spiritual practice.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute points out that yoga is quite old, and started mainly as a philosophy, and spiritual/mental practice. “The yogic view of life reached the West a long time ago,” Tigunait says. “However, in the academic sense, yoga came to the West during the British Rule of India, and in the United States, the interest began when Institutions like Harvard began publishing the texts on yogic thoughts. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda came to the US, but he mainly spoke about the nondualistic idea of consciousness which connects all living beings as one living organism. It is only after Swami Vivekananda, a host of practicing yogis including Swami Rama Tirtha, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Rama, Iyengar, and many others, introduced the theories and practices that we know as yoga today. By definition, yoga is all-inclusive, and beyond all man-made ‘isms’ including racism.”
Yoga changed quite significantly in the 20th century, as different elements got more attention than others. The mental and physical aspects of yoga diverged, and the physical practice (asana) received more interest from the affluent white contingency. Certainly women were a big part of yoga’s inception into the U.S. and the changes it’s seen, particularly, as the workout craze hit in the 1980s. But this, too, is a relatively recent development, in the last few decades – and it will probably shift again.
“Out of this vast range of yogic wisdom, knowledge, experience, somehow asana got separated from rest of body,” adds Tigunait. “People think this is yoga. But even so, yoga became popular!”
And today, the image of the thin, white attractive woman has become the new mascot of yoga. It’s certainly what we see in Reebok and lululemon ads for ‘yoga gear,’ and on the cover of some of the more popular yoga magazines.
“Americans have a very short historical memory,” says Carol Horton, PhD, author of Yoga PhD and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga. “Most don’t know about a lot about the history of yoga, except vaguely that it came from India. When you say ‘yoga,’ many people just flash on this image of a white, thin beautiful woman in some pretzel-like pose. But now there’s a backlash. People feel oppressed by the image, it’s become so ubiquitous.”
The goal of many yogis and scholars, like Melanie Klein, M.A., associate professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College, is to get yoga away from the pop-workout image and back to what it once was – or at least to a fuller version of itself (more on this later). “This trend of selling spirituality,” says Klein, “encouraging spiritual consumption of newly minted ‘yoga’ products and the cult of celebrity that helps sell yoga mats, DVDs and ‘yoga clothes’ has utilized the advertising tactics found in much of the one-dimensional imagery of pop culture. This is a long way from the yoga traditions in the east.”
But it’s changing, if slowly. “Perhaps asana was the easiest way into this country,” says Zubin Shroff, director of Piedmont Yoga, and author of Conversations with Modern Yogis. “But people are starting to become very interested in meditation now.” The white-workout phase probably had to exist to get yoga “in” over here, but it’s probably just that – a phase.
So framing yoga as an as-yet undiversified white practice? It doesn’t make much sense. “Look at Whole Foods stores, for example,” says Tigunait. “You may see more Caucasians than people from other ethnic groups, but it does not mean that the store is racist.” The same is true for yoga.
The encouraging reality is that yoga in the U.S. is already beginning “find itself” again. It’s being practiced in many more places than you’d know from looking at the surface, and there are many more “types” of people doing yoga now in the country than ever before. It has a long way to go, but it’s moving.
Shroff says that when he interviewed people across the country about their yoga practices for his book, he saw the degree to which yoga had spread out. “Traveling around the country, talking to people,” says Shroff, “yoga is practiced in all sorts of places that aren’t studios. The culture of yoga studios is just one thing. Yes, most yoga studios are mostly white, but not the practice.” Yoga, he says, is being practiced in community centers, churches, parks, and homes – and not everyone practicing in these places is white.
“The yoga studio is just one very commercial expression in the practice of yoga,” adds Shroff. “I run a yoga studio, so I’m not saying it has no place – but it’s just an expression. There’s a lot of media attention as expressed by the yoga studio…. Now we’re looking just at this one small expression, and that’s not the full story.”
Chelsea Jackson, PhD, has experienced the shift firsthand. “I have seen the evolution – I was definitely the only black person in class when I began practicing in studios in 2001; however, I’ve experienced more diversity over the last 10 years. I think social media has a lot to do with making a wider range of yoga practitioners more visible. A lot of times, though, people aren’t even aware of black people doing yoga – community-based organizations or ones that offer yoga in the park. Just because we don’t see it… or, just because these communities are not recognized in mainstream yoga publications and advertisements doesn’t mean that we are not practicing yoga.”
Still, it’s a shock when there’s a minority on the cover of a yoga magazine, says Jackson. “Every time I’d see a black woman on the cover of Yoga Journal…I was very aware of their presence because it was such an anomaly to see someone other than a white woman. I would literally receive phone calls from other Black yogis who were just as excited. Moments like these stand out because it was extremely encouraging to see my image reflected as someone who engaged in this practice.”
Some yogis and scholars, like Klein, have begun pushing back on some of the big companies that push the skinny white female version of yogi. “Many yogis, including myself,” says Klein, “have been calling yoga companies, publications and leaders to address the inequities present in the yoga culture as it exists today in the west. There’s been a much-needed call to action and a desire to live our practice as a ‘conscious’ community. And this requires conversations that examine issues such as cultural appropriation, size-ism, racism, ageism, classism.”
And as far as the cover model controversy goes, Shroff says, dumping on it is one thing, but equally important is reminding people of the fact that it’s already spread out. “Being critical of this is important, but we should also speak more about the wide types of practices that are happening.”
Eventually, many believe, things will change. So it’s a good thing that the discussion is coming to a head – it should. “I see the discussion as inevitable,” adds Horton, who is also involved in the movement to consciously shift yoga’s representation by the big companies, as well as to bring yoga to underserved communities in Chicago and nationwide. “And I see the acrimony as inevitable. It’s a sign of larger positive shift.”
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the equation of yoga with asana – arguably part of yoga’s PR problem in the first place – seems to be fading. Many have observed a movement toward a more comprehensive view of yoga, somewhat more in line with yoga as it once was. Yoga started as a practice more about the mind than the body, and in which elements like breathing, attention training, concentration, contemplation, mindfulness, and meditation were at the forefront.
Tigunait points out that while American yogis have polished and perfected asana, it only takes us so far. “Here in the US, our passion for quality and perfection has led asana-based yoga to a high degree of refinement,” he says. “It has set the bar quite high, and we must appreciate it. But asana-based yoga has its limitations. It represents just a thin slice of the totality of yogic wisdom and practices. In the upcoming years, it is not the physical dimension of yoga, but the subtler counterpart of it that will play an important role in serving our society in a much more rewarding manner than what yoga as asana is able to promise today.”
But Shroff adds that there needs to be a more global discussion of the practice, rather than the somewhat isolationist version that’s here today. “There’s an interesting dialogue to be had with those practicing yoga around the world,” he says. “I think we all would benefit from an open exchange with teachers and students in India – we need to do so with mutual respect, but equally with critical thinking, not being swayed by the whole guru thing. It’s an exciting time with yoga being practiced in more and more cultures; look what is happening in China and Japan! But as this is such a time of change I think we need to approach this with a lot of respect – and responsibility.”