Yoga Studios: Open to everyone?

The first time I walked into a yoga studio I was terrified. I had just had three panic attacks in 2 days and spent my lunch break at work that day crying in the bathroom. My anxiety had become so bad I confessed to my mom what was going on and she suggested I go to a yoga class. I can honestly say (like many people who practice yoga) that that class changed my life. That night, for the first time in months, I fell asleep within minutes and slept through the whole night. When I woke up I felt like more of my body was sunk into the mattress than usual. I was letting go and relaxing in a way I wasn’t at all used to but I desperately needed.

Since then I’ve practiced yoga fairly regularly for almost 6 years. I’m now a yoga teacher and my friends make fun of me for wearing tights and yoga pants all the time, but I honestly just don’t feel comfortable in anything else. I need to be able to move in my clothes and jeans just don’t do it for me. But here’s the thing, even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the western yoga world is an un-safe and un-welcoming place for many people.

In many ways, I am the target demographic for yoga studios. I’m white, from a middle class back ground, thin, able-bodied and cis-gendered (that means I identify and am perceived as the gender I was assigned at birth). When you speak to people who work at yoga studios you will commonly hear them say things like “everyone is welcome here”. Many studios hold the intention to be welcoming, healing places for everyone, the reality is that yoga studios set some exclusive and damaging standards for who belongs and who doesn’t.

For example check out the websites from Semperviva and YYoga in Vancouver. Take a look at the people on their sites. They are all thin. Pretty much all of them are white or fair skinned. Based on their clothing and the prices they pay at these studios, you could guess most of them are financially comfortable. None of them appear to be trans* and many of the photographs show people who are unusually flexible. What do you think these photos teach people about who belongs in the yoga world? Can you see why many people would feel unwelcome? When you fit this mold it’s easy to feel like our spaces are welcoming: because they are welcoming, to you.

These photos are just the tip of the iceberg to this problem, but instead of listing more examples here are some steps yoga studios could take to move closer to truly “opening their doors to everyone”:

Offer by-donation classes
Lots of people can’t afford a $20 drop in or a $100 ten class pass (I know I can’t). If you want people to practice, give them opportunities to do so that they can afford. Consider asking new teachers to offer the classes. They’d probably love a chance to practice their new skills.

Make your studio an LGBTQ safe space
It’s one thing to say your studio is safe for queer, trans* or just generally non-gendernormative or non-heternormative people. You can easily do this with a sticker or a tag line on your pamphlets. But like I said before, what you say is not as important as what you do. For example do you assume your students’ genders or do you ask for and respect their preferred pronouns? Does your studio have gender-segregated bathrooms? Some people would feel safer and more welcome if they didn’t have to choose.

Multi-language posters/teachers
This one is pretty straight-forward. If all your marketing and classes are in English then only people who speak English will come. Non-english speaking teachers and classes allow immigrants (legal or otherwise), ESL students and people who speak other languages to practice yoga and build a community that they might not otherwise be able to do in English.

Celebrate fat bodies and body diversity
There are lots of healthy, happy fat people who kick butt at yoga and many fat people who are terrified of studios because they think they don’t belong. Make sure your teachers know how to offer adjustments and alternatives for fat bodies. Consider offering fat classes and avoid making judgmental comments about people’s weight or eating habits. You have no idea about the quality of someone’s health based on their weight and you’re not going to make them more physically active or healthy by shaming them.

Offer meditation classes
In the west, asana (all the poses you do in a yoga class) have been transformed into an en-vogue fitness trend, rather than a stepping stone towards meditation. Not only does this shift contribute to the consumer-capitalist cultural appropriation of yoga, it also demands that yoga practitioners be able to do physical asanas. Think about how many more people would come to yoga studios if they offered affordable meditation classes that could literally be useful to everyone.

Make your studio accessible to people with non-normative physical abilities
Can people in wheel chairs or who use walking aids make it into your studio? If not, could you do a simple renovation to fix this? More importantly, do you offer classes that can be taken by people who don’t have a “normal” range of movement. Think about offering classes in meditation or chair yoga and make sure to include accessibility info in your advertising (eg: do students need to go up stairs to enter your space? What are the size of your doorways?). It’s important though, not to assume that because someone has a non-normative body they can’t do asana. Talk to them before or after class and listen to what they know about their bodies. Try to make them feel comfortable asking questions and offer creative, non-patronizing adjustments if needed.

Offer trauma sensistive classes
If you practice yoga you know that your body holds stress, tension, bad memories, samskaras, you name it. Lots of people don’t want to do yoga because being in their body simply doesn’t feel safe. On top of that yoga studios can feel unsafe for people because they are filled with potential triggers (eg: aggressive teaching instructions, vulnerable poses, teachers touching them without asking, ropes hanging from the wall.. trust me, the list goes on). Do your best to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and offer classes that respect your student’s boundaries. You can help them feel safe, rather than scared and re-traumatized.

Don’t set up in a gentrified neighbourhood
I live in Vancouver so I understand that finding a space to teach can be expensive and that this can translate into high prices for students, but please don’t set up in a neighbourhood filled with people you don’t intend to teach to simply because the rent is low. We may feel that we are working to ”revitalize” a neighbourhood, but often our presence works in tandem with opportunistic and vicious property development companies to displace low-income people and racialized communities from the places they call home. I understand that many studios do intend to teach to the people whose communities they intruded on, but I’ve rarely seen this succeed when classes are filled with people wearing lululemon and class prices are unaffordable to residents.

Offer YTT scholarships
If your studio gives teacher trainings find ways to offer scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. Prioritize people who have greater barriers to overcome than others. Teacher trainings are expensive. By offering scholarships you will encourage a more diverse group of teachers and their future student bodies to blossom and feel welcome.

This is a long list. Many of the things I wrote about here are vastly more complicated than a couple of sentences could explain. I plan to write about many of these issues in more detail in the coming weeks, so check back if you’re interested or want more info. If you have any other ideas about increasing accessibility feel free to send them my way, or better yet, take steps to implement them in your studios. The only way we can make more people feel welcome is if we think critically about our behaviour, our privlege and the kind of spaces we want to create.

Actions speak louder than words people, so please, open your doors, your hearts and your studios. Everyone is welcome, right?

 

Kula Yoga in Toronto is an example of a studio taking concrete steps towards increasing accessibility.

21 thoughts on “Yoga Studios: Open to everyone?

  1. great piece… agree whole heartedly. I think Trauma Sensitive yoga should be an option in TT programs. It’s incredibly valuable and demonstrates how yoga can heal, and the importance of the language you use, sensitivity when adjusting, the space you create for your students, even in the instance of general classes not just trauma specific.

    • Yes, I think dealing with trauma should be taught to Yoga teachers. I have PTSD and I just practise yoga at home now, so I can cry out all the trauma that the asanas release without having to feel embarrassed or explain anything. I’ve found yoga invaluable in my recovery, but I’ve found yoga classes less than comfortable and one yoga style – ironically titled “Restorative Yoga” actively triggered my PTSD every time I went. The yoga teacher took a prurient and unhelpful interest in my condition (even though she claimed to have a special interest in PTSD) and when I finally decided not to go any more she refused to give even a partial refund on the course that I booked!

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  6. There’s such a fine line though, we should be trying to include everyone in every class, instead of creating other classes for ‘the people who aren’t comfortable’. You have lots of great ideas for doing this, I just didn’t really like the idea of ‘fat classes’ etc… a lot of ‘fat’ people wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a ‘fat’ class either, so they are still left out! totally agree with you though, we need to do more to make yoga easier to access for everyone. It really is so much more to do with meditation than the actual poses, and SO little to do with fashion, what kind of mat you have and how thin you are.

  7. I really feel this piece…so much so I want to open my own studio. Being Mexican and living in a “brown” neighborhood, I see a HUGE need for this. For all of it. Yoga needs to start including more of us POC.

  8. Can you say more about how you would go about asking people their self-identified genders? This is a serious question. Trans individuals are in the vast minority, so in your recommendation to ask that of students would mean asking a lot of cis- people a question they’re not expecting, used to, or in general know how to respond. Or even worse, it may put them on the defensive. On the flip side, I could look for students who appear to be trans and ask them, but what if for some people it’s just how they look or a style choice…it could be perceived as, “Hey, you look queer somehow…” when really it’s a woman with a really boyish haircut, or a man with gynocomastia. I always ask students their names and there’s been two times where the name returned is classically the alternate gender from their outward appearance so I just went with the pronouns appropriate to the name without making any bigger deal about it. In my experience (a gay man) it’s sometimes nice to be places where my sexuality is not a part of the activity and also doesn’t come up either and I can imagine a trans individual not appreciating feeling like their teacher is taking extra measures to accomodate them. Just providing different points of view and not arguing, but I’d be curious for more details on how you have found effective ways of doing this in your teaching.

  9. Thank you for addressing the intersection of anti-oppression conversations and yoga. I think about these dynamics often and am excited to see your work and other projects that create space for the many, many folks left out of the popularized yoga world. When privilege is blind, everyone loses. I hope more and more teachers, studios, and conferences can actively engage in these conversations, so that the very real and essential benefits of yoga can be accessed by all.

  10. Hi, I’m still interested in a discussion of mechanisms to implement what you write about in this article. To continue to raise the level of discussion I think it would be good if you can say some things about how you go about making your class more inviting to people with non-conforming sexual/gender identities (e.g. techniques, good phrases, anecdotes of what has or hasn’t worked for you, pitfalls). Since most yoga teacher training programs don’t even edge close to these topics, what would you tell new teachers to raise their awareness AND empower them to effectively make the changes you’re calling for here?

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  18. hey andrea
    i just commented on one of your other blogs, too… :)
    but this might be a useful tip for other teachers who are reading this. my collective has just started a little accessibility/inclusivity review process, whereby we have done a callout for 5 volunteers from the community to come and take some free classes and then give us feedback. we’re trying to get a wide range of folks, and people we don’t already know–so they’ll be honest about where we are falling short :)
    you can read more here http://www.englishyogaberlin.com/wanted-community-feedback-yogis/
    anyway, it’s really easy to do and i think more studios should do it…
    take care
    meg

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