Community Based Yoga …Or.. What yoga can learn from Community Acupuncture

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Community Yoga Vancouver

Right now Community Yoga Vancouver is fundraising for our our very own by-donation studio. You can contribute to our campaign and help make our dream a reality here.

Many of us exit space and time entirely during that first savasana. These experiences uniquely prepare us for empathy. Somewhere we realize: everyone has access to this spaciousness, this relaxation, this non-reactivity. But it is an empathy we haven’t the means to share if we’re not behaving like a culture. Ten minutes of camaraderie in the changeroom after a sweaty class will not organize a soup kitchen.

Matthew Remski in 21st Century Yoga

When I was at my yoga teacher training two summers ago I over heard a conversation between two people in my training. They were discussing acupuncture and how helpful they had found it. I have had chronic muscle tension in my neck and shoulders for most of my adult life, so over hearing this made me wonder if acupuncture might help me. Thing is, acupuncture is expensive, usually running around $80 for a treatment – not something I could ever afford, especially not for more than one treatment.

When I came home from my training I passed by an acupuncture clinic near my house. There was a sign out front that read “Poke Community Acupuncture” and “sliding scale $20 to $40”.  I thought to myself, “I can afford to at least try this”. So, I did. Poke is set up with about 8 chairs in the back room and the acupuncturist treats patients one after the other, leaving them to sleep together in the treatment room. Because they treat a patient every 10 minutes Poke can charge much less for each treatment. With a communal treatment room everyone shares in the healing energy of the space, rather than being isolated in separate treatment rooms.

Sitting in the chair, watching the needles poke my skin one by one in a circle across my limbs, I instantly felt relaxed and sleepy. It was similar to how I feel in savasana at the end of my asana practice. I was told I could sleep for my first treatment, but I stayed awake just noticing how it made me feel. About half way through the treatment it felt like a marble rolled out of my shoulder, down my arm and out my middle finger. This was the first time I ever felt that kind of release in my shoulder. I was hooked.

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Poke Community Acupuncture in Vancouver

I started volunteering at Poke at the front desk and got free treatments in exchange. I love volunteering at Poke. The space is quiet, calm and beautiful – even while being next to a busy street corner. Poke was my first exposure to a healing space that was truly grounded in a sense of community.  We receive our treatments together. We can see each other sleeping. We pool our money and we hold space for ourselves AND the community to rest, relax and heal. When I couldn’t afford $20 for a treatment I was told to keep coming and pay what I could afford. I wasn’t turned away from Poke when I most needed it. I felt like I truly belonged and was valued. There was something brilliant and radical about this.

At some point in my time at Poke I wondered to myself – why had I never felt this way in a yoga studio?

As I started to teach I realized that the model I was seeing in yoga studios really wasn’t serving as many people as it could – especially when I compared it to Poke, where the patients range so drastically in age, race, mobility, sexuality and social status. This diversity is something I have often felt is missing in yoga studios and as a teacher I wondered – how can we make yoga studios more like community acupuncture? What would a yoga studio look like if its goal was to build community, rather than profit?

The more I thought about and researched this idea the more I started to see, there already is a movement to build community in yoga studios – and it’s growing across North America. I wanted a phrase to refer to this movement and lovingly started to call it “community-based yoga”.

From what I can see, community based yoga projects have a few things in common:

By-donation classes
At Community Yoga Vancouver, where I teach, our classes are all by donation. Right now we’re fundraising to open a completely by-donation studio. Bryan Kest, who founded one of the first donation-based yoga studios in North America, wrote a great piece to get teachers thinking about how to offer by-donation classes. Many studios that I would consider to be community oriented offer less than market rate classes.

Safer Space Classes
Studios like Kula Annex in Toronto are introducing classes like queer yoga and brown girls yoga to create safer spaces for people who might not normally feel welcome in regular studios.  Similar classes are available at Community Yoga in Vancouver and at Ambaa yoga through Queer Yoga Montreal.

Combining yoga with other sliding scale healing modalities
Hemma in Victoria is a combination community acupuncture clinic and yoga studio. They operate on a sliding scale. Same with the Healing Roots center in Kitchener. Sacred Body Community and Healing Arts Center in Ann Arbor combines yoga with all kinds of sliding scale healing modalities.  Same thing with Third Root in Brooklyn.

Crowd funded
If you search “community yoga” on indiegogo lots of campaigns come up. Grow yoga project fundraised to send Angélica De Jesús to a teacher training, with the expressed goal that they would give back to community with more accessible classes when they graduated. Community Yoga Vancouver’s new studio will be crowd funded. Same with The People’s yoga in Oregon and Tri-yoga in Pensylvania.

Consent Cards
Queen St Yoga in Kitchener, Kula Annex in Toronto and Community Yoga Vancouver all use consent cards to allow students to indicate whether they would like to recieve physical assists. This keeps the students safe and opens up communication between the teachers and students that prevent teachers from making assumptions about people’s needs or their bodies.

Community Yoga's consent cards

Community Yoga’s consent cards

Many of the studios listed above embody several or all of these characteristics. What is most noticeable though, is that the goal behind these studios is not to make excessive amounts of profits – but rather to offer yoga to as many people as possible.  Accessibility is the bottom line. In these spaces, it seems money is exchanged to keep the spaces open and the teachers paid. We pool our funds collectively to allow community to grow. My feeling is that we do this because we’re stronger supporting each other to heal, rather than doing it all on our own. Community acupuncture recognizes this and slowly yoga is starting to catch on too.

There is a big difference here, I think, between charity and community building. We’re not asking teachers to work for free – which is challenging for anyone struggling to pay rent, as most yoga teachers do. We’re working together to support each other to heal and grow. In the same way an acupuncturist sits in the chair at the end of their shift at a community acupuncture clinic, with community based yoga teachers can take classes in studios that reflect their values and their community connections. We’re creating horizontal networks of community ties and we’re changing what it means to practice yoga in North America.

In my daydreams I wonder if one day all these community based yoga studios will eventually join together to create an organization similar to the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. What if we joined all these community-oriented studios together to support each other? What if we shared funds through crowd funding when one of us was threatened with closure? What if we could move from one city to another and know there’s a studio we can land in for instant community? What if we built a movement with yoga and we dared to boldly dream that healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth could be available to anyone who wants it – no matter who they are.

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My hope is that you’ll treat this as an introduction to some of the other people and places across North America who feel the same passion you do. An introduction to spaces working tirelessly to keep their doors and hearts open.

Whether we realize it or not – what we’re doing here is building a movement.

One breath at a time.

I want to thank Matthew Remski whose brilliant piece in 21st Century Yoga has been an inspiration to me as I’ve organized with Community Yoga Vancouver. I also want to thank Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey for putting this brilliant book together.

 

Community-based yoga studios:

Canada
De La Sol Yoga – Hamilton, On
Healing Roots center
 – Kitchener, On
Queen St yoga – Kitchener, On
Kula Annex – Toronto, On
Community Yoga – Vancouver, BC
Hemma – Victoria, BC

Europe
Edinburgh Community Yoga – Edinburgh, Scotland

USA
Just B Yoga – Lansing, Mi
Yoga to the People – Berkley, Ca
Third Root – Brooklyn, NY
Yoga to the People – New York, NY
Lotus Seed – Portland, Or
The People’s yoga – Portland, Or
Yoga to the People – San Francisco
Power Yoga – Santa Monica, Ca
Yoga to the People – Seattle, Wa
Tri-yoga – State College and Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
Yoga to the People – Tempe, Az

Feel free to introduce me to your studio by emailing andrea.grace.macdonald@gmail.com and I will add you to this list.

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The Privilege of Yoga.. or why it’s important to welcome discomfort.

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Recently I attended an event called the Privilege of Yoga. I was one of the facilitators and Community Yoga Vancouver, the collective I coordinate, was one of the sponsors. Here is an excerpt from the event’s description:

Join us as we talk about: Who gets to practice yoga? What does it mean to be queer practising yoga? To be a person of colour? To be a feminist? To be poor? Is yoga gendered? Are all bodies truly welcome in yoga? What does it mean to practice collectively in corporate spaces? How does modern yoga honour/dishonour the tradition? Come dig deep as we ask these questions and many others, and as we struggle together with how yoga can be a powerful tool for social change. 

I was really excited for this event and felt inspired and hopeful that it had been organized. What follows here are my reflections on what happened and what we could improve on. I want to start by saying that I have tremendous respect for everyone who was involved in organizing this event. I am deeply grateful for all their hard work and feel so inspired that they got this conversation started in a public, larger scale way that I haven’t seen accomplished in Vancouver so far. This piece is my way of contributing to the conversation they started. I also want to make clear that I mean no one any disrespect in writing this. I’ve left out names so as to be critical of people’s ideas and actions, rather than the people themselves. I think it’s great that we all showed up and I think we all had really good intentions. That said, we are all learning and social justice work is a steep learning curve. I am certainly always learning, making mistakes, growing and asking questions. I will speak about some of those mistakes and questions later in this piece. I am not innocent here, I don’t think any of us can or should claim innocence. Rather, I’m writing this as an invitation to welcome the uncomfortable feelings – to dig deeper and to do better to break down oppression in more meaningful ways. I have faith that we can do this work and that we can do it well – that’s why I’m writing this.

I want to start by looking at the event’s title “The Privilege of Yoga”. What strikes me here is the way the events title sets up the discussion from the perspective of people of privilege. I didn’t realize that the event title could be read this way, until I sat with it and thought about it after the event had ended. I think I didn’t really notice it at first because I am super privileged and the event, in some ways, is advertising to me. I am white, cis-gendered, often read as straight, university educated, a settler, able bodied, not-fat and from a stable upper middle class family. People like me are not uncommon in the yoga community, matter of fact we are the majority.

Here’s something I’ve realized after thinking lots about this event – if we want to talk about yoga as a tool in social change and whether all bodies are welcome, don’t you think we should be talking to the people who aren’t doing yoga, rather than to the people who are already doing it? If we are only talking to ourselves then really we can only guess who isn’t there and why – or worse, we end up just talking about ourselves, rather than doing the hard work of breaking down and understanding what makes yoga an activity that isn’t accessible to all bodies, or all people.

I think this lack of understanding outside our own perspectives was reflected quite clearly when we were asked to brainstorm topics for discussion in the second half of the event. Now, this event is meant to address the perspectives of various different non-normative groups practicing yoga, and yet, many of the suggestions, to me, reflected a sense of pre-occupation with ourselves that seemed to be quite off-topic. One person suggested a group to discuss yoga as a tool for self-development, for example. It’s not that I don’t feel like self development through yoga is important. In fact, I use it that way, but I wonder if we don’t have other spaces where this is the focus the majority of the time, so perhaps it would be appropriate, even necessary, for us to spend an evening not thinking about ourselves, but rather thinking about who isn’t here and why. That said, I was really relieved when someone suggested that we discuss accessibility, the group I ended up facilitating.

I’ve been facilitating for about 5 years now. I’ve done it in quite a few places, with lots of different projects and I can honestly say this is one of the hardest discussions I have ever facilitated. Some of the reasons for this are logistical. We had about half an hour for our discussion, which really isn’t an adequate amount of time to meaningfully explore this topic. I felt like we ended up mostly skimming the surface and I worry that people left feeling either like they didn’t end up having the conversations they were hoping for, or worse, like they had done some work to address this issue, when really we should feel like this is only touching the surface. I think it’s a good thing if we left that discussion uncomfortable. We are failing at accessibility and if we left this discussion feeling good, in my opinon, we really missed the mark. In situations like this discomfort is an invitation to go deeper and understand why we feel uneasy – what is it that isn’t working here and why? The challenges we face are enormous, we shouldn’t feel good – but that doesn’t mean we should be hopeless either. Quite the contrary. Feeling uncomfortable is simply an emotion signaling an opportunity to do much needed work and reflection. It’s an opportunity for change and connection. Uneasy feelings are ripe, fertile and necessary to move beyond where we are, to where we want to go.

As challenging as facilitating this group was, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to do it because I learned a lot and was exposed to people and ideas that really shined a light on the weak spots in my facilitation and organizing skills. My group included someone who was a member of a queer-person-of-colour sangha who brought up some extremely poignant and important critiques of the yoga community. They expressed concern that yoga accessibility is not simply about cost or the perception that people aren’t flexible enough to do yoga (a primary topic of discussion amongst my group’s members). This person wanted to talk about healing justice movements and how and why setting up an intentional space for a queer-people-of-colour’s sangha had been so challenging. Another member of our group, who is of Indian decent, mentioned how strange and problematic it is that Indian people don’t practice yoga in studios, when yoga is a practice that comes from India. These are incredibly important points and my group could have done better to honour and address them.

There are lots of reasons our discussion didn’t delve into these topics in more depth. As I said before, we were really limited for time. Another reason was that we were given prompts for our discussion that really didn’t suit what we were talking about. We were asked to discuss our personal experience with this topic and what we could do to improve this. Again, I wonder if talking about our personal experience is the best way to go about this. I’m not saying we should speak for others, but when we have a room of mostly white yoga teachers and we are talking about our accessibility struggles our discussion can, and did, work to ignore race as a factor in accessibility. If I had done a better job facilitating and if the audience for this event had been made up of a more diverse group  we could have had a discussion that explored more meaningfully the barriers to accessibility we aren’t yet addressing. Instead, we spent most of our discussion talking about flexibility and why men don’t feel comfortable in yoga. I was planning to prompt the group to ask, “why do you think yoga studios are mostly comprised of white people?” when I was told we only had five minutes left and needed to discuss the question “what can we do to improve this?”. Because we didn’t have the time to address this and I didn’t have the facilitation skills to orient the conversation around this topic sooner, our group ended up minimizing the voices and concerns of people of colour. This is not ok.

All that said, even if we had had more time and I had facilitated this more skillfully, it’s not to say that would have been enough. Our group was made up of well meaning people, many of whom are my friends, but that group was fairly homogenous (white, fairly privileged yoga teachers). What this homogeneity reveals to me, both in the people in the group and in the way people thought and spoke about accessibility, is that we haven’t yet done the work to build community with people outside of our norms. Our privilege grants us access to yoga studios and we maintain that – to our and everyone elses detriment – by not looking outside our own experiences and reaching out to discover and support the needs of people who aren’t like us. Even the way I’m writing this piece (a privileged white person speaking to other privileged white people) reveals a problem in the lack of diversity and self reflexivity of our community.

Recently I read a piece called “The Importance of Listening as Privileged Person Fighting for Justice” which explains the value of listening in social justice work:

“Men who refuse to listen to women, cis folk who ignore trans* voices, white people who ignore people of color… In every case, we are denying ourselves the knowledge of powerful perspectives.

And because privilege conceals itself from those who have it, those of us who benefit from identity privilege are often unaware of the perspectives we deny, silence, and stifle with our voice.”

I think this piece has really valuable insight that would have been useful for me utilize as a facilitator and I would high recommend that everyone read it. I should have worked to create more space for the voices and concerns of the people of colour in my group and in turn, I hope my group would have taken the time to listen, so that we might understand what can be done for us to truly make our spaces and programs more accessible.

At the same time, this event we did offer us, in my opinion, a great opportunity to listen to a person of colour speak about their concerns regarding how race operates in our community, both in the discussion group and in the first half of the event with one of the speakers. The same person who was of Indian decent that participated in my discussion spoke very eloquently at the beginning of the event regarding cultural appropriation. She spoke for about 5 minutes explaining the tension she experiences between how she relates to yoga through her family and her Indian roots and how those same experiences are not necessarily reflected in her experience as a yoga teacher. She asked questions, was open, friendly, calm and eloquent. Further I felt that her discussion topic was one I have rarely seen addressed in the yoga community previous to this event, whereas the other speakers, who did a great job, mostly focused on topics I have heard addressed before. After she spoke I went up to her and told her what a great job I thought she did and how valuable I think her voice is. At the same time I was wondering, what would have happened if she had spoken to us about the same topic but not maintained her characterstic calm and centeredness. What if she had expressed anger, frustration or resentment? I caught myself and realized that I had congratulated her for speaking to us the way she did, but really, it would have been totally within her rights to be angry – or any other emotion she felt about the topic she was addressing. Racism is not only frustrating, it’s harmful, violent and degrading and she would have had every right to express those feelings in that way – should she have wanted to.

Now, I’m not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth and I want to avoid speaking for my friend, who I love and deeply appreciate. What I’m trying to focus on here is how can we make our community a space where people can speak about their frustrations honestly and what work do we all need to do to be able to truly listen – no matter how uncomfortable what is said makes us. It’s natural to feel uneasy and uncomfortable as you are being called into responsibility for the ways in which you are complicit in racism, or any other type of oppression. We all participate in these systems – sometimes in subtle, difficult to detect ways – but the cumulative result of our participation means that our community becomes not only inaccessible, but unsafe and unwelcome to many people – the exact opposite of what I think many of us intend.

I want to close this piece by acknowledging that I might be stepping on quite a few toes by writing this. I might upset people – and that’s ok. If you read this and you find yourself upset with me, or my words, I invite you to consider that I’m writing this because I believe we can do better. I believe we can listen and support each other. I also believe that I can and do fail to do this sometimes, but I believe that failure is a natural and necessary part of this process. By failing to facilitate this group in a way that gave adequate space to the voices of people of colour I did them and our group a great disservice, but I also had a big illuminating spotlight shone on all the places I can grow into as a facilitator and that we can grow into as a community. I know in my heart that we can be a community that is welcoming to and supportive of a wide range of people and I welcome and encourage critiques of and responses to this piece to keep the conversation going.

In the coming months I’m hoping to organize more events to keep this dialogue building. If you would like to participate in these events by organizing, speaking or attending, please contact me at communityyogavancouver@gmail.com.

Calling for Community Care: a reflection on whiteness, privilege, connection and spirit.

This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for a while. These words reflect my ongoing process of coming to terms with my privilege. These words have laid dormant, wrapped up in fear and pondering; caution and consideration. I have been endlessly nervous and unsure of myself in articulating these sentiments because I worry what people will think – what the unintended consequences of my words might be. The reality is though, that I am privileged. Really privileged. And I want to be more accountable for what that means.

To start, I think it’s important for me to position myself. I am a white, thin, cis-gendered, flexible, femme identified “yoga” teacher. I am a settler, living in Vancouver Canada. My family came here 3 generations ago from Scotland (father’s side) and the Ukraine (mother’s side). I attend university here and I come from a middle class family, with whom I have a loving and financially supportive relationship. I am in many ways grateful for all these things. At the same time the more I become conscious of my privilege, the more I find myself feeling uncomfortable with it. I find myself wrestling with guilt, with the unintended, unspoken consequences of having so much when others have so little.

Feeling guilt, and lots of it, is a fairly common reaction. It’s easy to get stuck there. That is a privilege in itself – to have the time and space to get lost and bathe in guilt, as if doing that were enough. As if the guilt were somehow penance for all the violence and injustice that grants me greater safety and access than others. That said, we need to learn to move past guilt. Feeling guilt is not the same as taking action. I know guilt will never be enough, but I often wonder how to move forward. For now I’ve realized that all I can do is live and organize with integrity and maybe more importantly, be willing to be wrong. I’m trying to stop being scared of stepping into the vulnerability required to do this work, to write these words, both which put me at  risk of getting called out by people I respect. So, here goes.

Much of what I’ve written and what populates the yoga “blogosphere” is conversations about asana. We call this a discussion about “yoga”, but really, most of the time, we’re talking about asana (the poses we move through in “yoga” classes). So often, and I think of this as a direct result of imperialism and cultural appropriation, we get lost in the shallow, shiny, feel good, physical aspects of the practice. My friend and a fellow teacher at Community Yoga Vancouver, Blair Hayashi, recently wrote a facebook status that illuminates this really well:

something i overheard at the end of class ;
“how is your handstand doing?”
how come no one ever asks;
“How is your brahmacharya doing?”

Yeah – how is my bramacharya doing? How am I managing my energy and what am I dedicating it to? Lately, I have spent less time on my physical asana practice and more time with my breathe. My practice is making eye contact and listening – being present. My practice is being honest with myself and others, even when it hurts. My practice is learning to be gentle and treat myself and others with the love and compassion that we all deserve – the love we already know we are, but so often lose sight of. My practice is my politics – learning to be open and compassionate towards the lived experiences of people whose lives are different from mine, even when that learning demands I know longer cling to the comfort of believing that I’m innocent.

Learning yoga can and should be about so much more than handstands, fancy balancing poses and the coveted “yoga butt”. We get stuck on these things though, because for many of us they are more straight-forward to achieve than doing the so deeply needed self reflection that the rest of practicing yoga calls for and teaches. Getting caught up in a showy asana practice creates an impression that acrobatic asana is all our practice is and can be. We’re modeling these misguided goals for our students and each other and we are getting lost. Practicing like this not only shuts people out whose bodies don’t conform to our rigid standards – it also limits us in discovering and deepening our relationship with our spirit and our relationships with each other.

There is another element at play here. Getting stuck in and only developing a physical practice is itself a result of privilege. When you don’t have basic survival needs to worry about its easy and routine to get distracted by appearances – by how other people see us and how we see ourselves. This happens because we aren’t often faced with situations that force us to dig deep and learn who we are underneath those appearances. On top of that, most of western yoga studios, the spaces where many of us are learning – and I would argue often being pressured into – showy asana practices, cater to people with privilege. People who are “able” bodied. People who can afford expensive drop-ins. People who feel like they belong in a yoga studio.

Much of what is taught in the mainstream western yoga world focuses on teaching us to build better relationships with ourselves. We are told to “turn inward” and “be the light we are”. Put simply, we are learning to cultivate self love. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for self love – that’s something I am working very hard to build in my own life and it is an ongoing and challenging process. That being said, my position is this – self love isn’t enough. Not even close. It is just the beginning, a fundamental beginning, but just the beginning. Loving yourself, taking care of yourself – these things are important, they are undeniably necessary – but if all we do is turn inward, if our goal is only to take care of ourselves, then we are limiting our practice and we are missing out on accountability to each other, our communities and our shared struggles and resilience. We are missing opportunities to build communities of care.

Self care is, put simply, about taking care of yourself. This is an off shoot of an individualist society that puts the individual before the collective – a colonial, consumer capitalism society that teaches us ruthless self reliance, no matter the cost to others. Self care practices, particularly spiritual practices, that teach us only to go inward, I feel, are missing a key lesson. If we believe that “we’re all one”, why are we missing the part where we learn and practice care and accountability to each other? Not just to people like us, but everyone we’re supposedly referencing when we say, “we’re all one”.

Often I hear people in the yoga “community” make comments like “you chose your destiny” or “your thoughts shape your reality”. Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water here, these concepts can be useful. But here’s the problem – we aren’t often engaging these concepts critically. We say things like “we’re all one” and “Namaste” – I say them myself. I believe these things, but that doesn’t mean the way we use them isn’t sometimes deeply problematic. These phrases and concepts, especially when gestured to by privileged people, tend to erase or minimize the real, tangible differences in our lived realities. When you say “your thoughts shape your reality” or “this person is just angry at me because they are carrying this or that attachment” we are minimizing all the systemic factors that shape people’s experiences. We are minimizing forces like racism, sexism, homophobia and importantly for the yoga world – ableism. Without intending to, we are being condescending and dismissive. We are causing harm because, without even meaning to, we are reinforcing our privilege.

Now, here’s the thing I have recently been discovering about privilege  While it does give us undeserved advantages, this is not without harmful consequences. Privilege breeds isolation. It teaches those of us who have privilege (which is everyone, to some extent) that our common lack of empathy and self reflexivity is normal and even necessary. For our privilege to go unchallenged it is necessary that we learn not to consider other people – that we learn to see ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity and the world. The lived experience of privilege and the process of replicating and reproducing it teaches us to continue looking out for ourselves – to continue breeding individualism and isolation. Privilege can make us lonely because it prevents us from relying on and trusting community.

One of my profs, Glen Coulthard, recently said something in class that I found really helpful in understanding this idea:

“Power doesn’t just impose it’s will on you, it’s also productive. It normalizes injustice”.

There is a lot to parse through in this statement. For my purposes I find it useful, when thinking about power, to remember we aren’t just thinking about oppression and who is marginalized. We’re also thinking about the privilege and advantages that power produces. From there we can start to think about how the differences in our social locations are not only produced but normalized. Privilege is co-optive, because it’s comfort and it’s ability to veil injustice distract us from our responsibilities to each other. The more privileged we are, often the less we are willing to step outside our own experience and connect to our humanity. We get scared. We are fearful of losing our unearned privilege. We don’t want to be challenged, because if we truly learn to feel for one another we could not possibly let injustice continue like we do.

I recently read something by Lee Maracle that really helped me understand my own relationship to systems of power and domination:

“We need a country free of racism, but we do not need to struggle with white people on our backs to eradicate it. White people have this need as well. They need to stop our continued robbery, to rectify colonialism in order to decolonize their lives and feel at home in this land. Racism has dehumanized us all. It once filled me with shame and nearly drove me to death. It separated me from my brother, my sisters and my beautiful mother. It keeps white people separated from each other. It keeps white people either feeling sorry for us or using us as a scapegoat for whatever frustrations this society creates for us.” – pg 240 and 241 of Bobbi Lee, emphasis added.

I think part of what Lee Maracle is gesturing to here, when she says that racism is dehumanizing and harmful even for white people, is that the privilege racism produces carries a destructive burden. Privilege suggests that stepping on others and having more then others is normal – even necessary. Privilege works to normalize our profound lack of empathy. It can work to dissolve our humanity and leave us inward turning, isolated and fearful. It breeds attachment and often it prevents us from building community – because we don’t need it and we haven’t been taught the skills to tend it. Often when you have lots of privilege you are only taught how to look after yourself and maybe a small circle of loved ones. You are taught the skills to maintain your position of privilege  This is why simply seeking self care, as a person in a position of privilege, can be so problematic.

Now, I’m not saying that taking care of yourself isn’t in and of itself an act of resistance and decolonization – especially for marginalized people and communities. I believe self care is healing and revolutionary, that is why I teach it. But I also firmly believe – I know in my bones – that my self care and resistance becomes richer, more healing, more resilient, more effective when it is given space to grow within the rich, supportive soil of community. My self care is richer when it tends to and is supported by means other than those granted to me by my privilege.

When we say namaste often what we mean is “the divine light in me acknowledges and bows to that same light in you”. It’s a way to acknowledge and bask in our connection. It is a powerful word that invokes the commonly held spirit that connects us. What I’m calling for is that we do the work to understand, acknowledge and break down all the systems of power and oppression that make us forget this fundamental connective spirit.

For me, part of being grounded is fully acknowledging and being accountable to the lived realities and experiences of not only me, but everyone I share this planet with. We can do more to acknowledge and resist the forces that operate to create violent disconnection and separation between us. I’m asking that we remember our humanity so that we can reignite our empathy and rediscover our connections to each other and to all living beings. I believe we can do this by not only taking care of ourselves, but fighting for the space, time and resources to take care of each other. So yes, let’s spend some time going inward. But let’s take those practices into the world with clear eyes and open hearts, so that we might tend to each other as well.

Other pieces on Community Care:

An End to Self Care by B Loewe

Response to “An End to Self Care”: How About “An End to the Activist Martyr Complex?” by Spectra

for badass disability justice, working-class and poor lead models of sustainable hustling for liberation by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Yoga, Capitalism and Community – An Interview

Recently I did an interview for Words Away where I spoke about yoga, capitalism and how to build community. It was a bit of an experiment for me. Most of my pieces are drafted and edited multiple times before I publish them. This interview is pretty much my stream of consciousness – raw, unpolished thoughts and opinions. As always, critiques and thoughts are welcome. The interview is available in full below.

 

Andrea MacDonald on yoga and breaking it from a shallow mold

Andrea MacDonald

On her blog, yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald has explored how secluded much of the discipline is–at least as it’s most widely known.  This may seem fairly obvious to some, but there are few words to that effect.  So, here’s some more, in the form of a Words Away interview with her:

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There should probably be a distinction made between what I associate yoga with — at its broadest, most commercial level — and what it is in general, along with what you think it can be.

Yoga at a broad commercialized level is most commonly associated with white, slender, flexible, often female bodies. Bodies like mine. Usually these bodies are striking poses in spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, softly lit studios. Of course there is the prominent material association with particular kinds of food (coconut water), clothing (lululemon) and culturally appropriated, often inconsistently paired iconic religious imagery (Buddha heads and women wearing bindis for example). I think Frank Jude Bocio explains it well when he says:
“Rather than question the capitalist model of consumerism, with its creation of ever more desires and false needs for product, contemporary yoga has become a more than willing accomplice. Rather than presenting an alternative to the concomitant ideology of North American individualism, which prioritizes and valorize the isolate ‘self’ over the relational matrix, it has eagerly embraced it.”

What all of this signals is a sense of shallowness to our westernized, commercialized yoga practice. Yoga’s development as a philosophy and as a fitness trend, has taken place over thousands of years, all across the globe. It doesn’t have a central coordinating body, or even a central text necessarily — though one might argue the yoga sutras fill this role. The point is that yoga is not really definable. The word yoga evokes different feelings, images, communities and intentions. It’s used by the military to teach focus as readily as it’s employed by progressive activists to heal from burn out. It knows no fixed identity. In some ways, this is what lends yoga it’s power, popularity, mystery and appeal.

 How did you find your way to yoga?

For me, yoga started as a tool for personal growth and healing. I turned to the practice at 18 after being sexually assaulted at a time when I was suffering from severe anxiety and moderate addiction. You might be surprised to hear how many people have stories like mine. Most people come to yoga to heal some kind of suffering. This creates an often unacknowledged dark side to our communities, but also makes what we offer a powerful tool to build resilience, relaxation and sustainable political resistance.

Eventually my practice fell away as I took up a more than full time commitment to environmental and social justice activism. With my first experience of burn-out after the 2010 Olympics I came back to yoga. My practice was a balancing force of stillness and calm in my busy, chaotic, force-focused life. Eventually that balanced tipped so far out of whack I found myself exhausted, lonely (even while surrounded by community) and even more burnt out than where I started.

Needing to regroup and heal I took my teacher training and spent a year studying, teaching and living at Occupy Vancouver. I saw this time as “cocooning.” This year I’ve come out of the protective space I cultivated, newly inspired. I want to use yoga as a form of community organizing and open up political dialogue about the meeting places between our bodies, our breath and the realities of our lives. I founded Community Yoga Vancouver with teachers who care about making yoga more heartfelt, uncomplicated and accessible. As best we can we’re eliminating the material crap that keeps people from practicing or feeling like they don’t belong.

You’ve written some about how non-inviting yoga can be to people outside a very specific demographic, both financially and culturally.  Yoga’s most financially viable element seems to be tied to traditional lookism, in the way that many health outlets are.  How difficult is it to maintain a venue that’s counter to that?

Like I said before, there are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga. Yoga studios capitalize on peoples’ insecurities about their bodies and on their deep loneliness and disconnection from spiritual fulfillment. They promise students the “yoga butt” (or some other ridiculous incentive) that simply keeps people trapped in a cycle of self-hatred, judgement and grasping. Not all studios do this, but many do, particularly those that see the practice as simply a fitness trend. It’s a frustrating trend to watch grow and one that demands a consistent critique — I feel.

For us it was completely natural to open a space that celebrated and offered sacred protection to bodies that fall outside the norm, which really, is most bodies. We don’t promise our students they will magically transform into someone else. We offer them space to be exactly as they are. In practicing self acceptance our students support each other to do the same. Hopefully this ripples out to the broader community as well.

We really do believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga and we work to challenge the commonly held definition of what that sentiment means. We teach our students to find contentment and acceptance in their bodies. We teach them skills to balance fierce presence with deep surrender. We want them to acquire love and reverence for each moment – even when that moment demands struggle.

This was natural to us politically, but also personally. My partner in the project is a self-identified fat-femme-queer teacher. As her allie I willingly identify the anonymity,  access and privilege I have in a regular studio. I can blend in if I want because I’m thin and flexible, but that is not what my practice is about. Also that is not to say she isn’t flexible. She can open her hips waaaay wider than I can.

My practice and teaching is about honouring truth and discovering authentic embodiment. I think it’s dangerous to take steps away from that understanding, to make your practice conditional on your body looking and performing a particular way. Doing so will take you away from the fundamental truth that this practice, this life, is ultimately grounded in your breath and that is something almost anyone can access. It is not always an easy process because we don’t have a well-rehearsed business plan, like most other studios. We have to be creative and willing to take risks. We are lucky to have mentors and a quickly growing support network of senior teachers lifting us up, celebrating and encouraging our work. We are by no means dong this work alone.

I’m not sure that real diversity makes for something as easy as people would like it to be, nor that it makes for the kind of serenity people who practice yoga generally associate with its natural environment.  At its simplest level, it’s just fairer.  As a yoga instructor who wants to tap into that, what are your thoughts on the kind of diversity that’s perpetually lacking because it isn’t easy?

I think most studios see diversity and accessibility as most directly related to class prices. Sometimes they will offer a free class or two or do energy exchanges for free passes and they consider this opening up their studio. It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

The barriers are more complex than price. Some studios intentionally create, though usually don’t acknowledge, the barriers they set up to accessing their space. They want their studio to have a sense of a prestige. They aim to increase the sense of belonging for a select, privileged group. Some of this is related to “just paying the rent,” but much of it is masked elitism and classism.

There is an implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that yoga studios are places of serenity and therefore are not political, but this simply isn’t the case. The politics of belonging play out in every class where every students look, dress and move in the same way. We are grooming people into the status quo and calling it liberation.

In some ways, these dynamics make our work at Community Yoga Vancouver easier. By taking a stance against exclusion people can see what we are not. There is a growing resentment toward corporate yoga culture and in a way we make use of that. The physical space for our classes is sparse, unevenly lit and strangely shaped. It’s a typical East Van anomaly and we chose it on purpose. We want to embrace the strange, the unpredictable and the unpolished. We value raw honesty over pedicured pretense and it shows in our space, our politics and our classes.

Some neighborhoods are just more stressful than others, and I’ve heard the sentiment of how great yoga could be for the people who live in some of the harshest ones from people who have some familiarity with those places while fitting in well enough with the typical yoga demographic.  I’ve felt like this was one of those obvious sentiments that generally ignores the way the world often works.  The financial and cultural divide between the two worlds is a great one, so where do you think the border is?  And how out of the way is it for people on either side?

There is some incredible work being done to offer yoga to marginalized communities — prisons, women’s shelters etc. Street Yoga, Yoga Outreach – they do wonderful inspiring work to offer yoga without all the glitz and stuffiness of a studio setting. In terms of neighbourhoods though, I think yoga teachers and studio owners, people who have personally benefited a great deal from learning about yoga, often take the attitude that yoga will always be welcome and helpful, wherever they offer it. Frequently there is a sense of perceived need and yoga is offered as a solution. The problem is that often we aren’t asking — what is the actual problem here? Is it a lack of yoga? Or are we looking at a community shaped by a history of racism, colonization, violence against women and institutionalized poverty? When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

All that said — I think yoga can work to increase well being and deepen connection to spirit, if people want to learn the practice. Even so, for yoga service to work well we need to be conscious of the context, the historical and political realities, within which we make our offerings. Without this knowledge we’re imposing solutions that are not grounded in understanding. We run the risk of reinforcing and deepening the divide between server, service and served.

For Community Yoga Vancouver it was important to acknowledge a service gap that exists between very marginalized people and middle to upper class people. Both these populations have people working to provide them with yoga, though in starkly different ways. What this produces is a gap between the two groups, where the working class is underserved. We created a pricing structure that makes yoga accessible to people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, but aren’t necessarily experiencing life-altering poverty. This approach was hugely influenced by the Community Acupuncture movement, which seeks to serve the same population and also utilizes a community based model.

Is it a necessity to practice yoga in a group?  Is there anything that you think is gained from it as a social endeavor?   

Fundamentally, yoga is a journey inward, sometimes to a fault. It has often been used as a transcendental, individuating practice. “Turn inward to find the divine.” This approach lends itself simultaneously to reinforcing attachment to the self, in the short term, and on the other hand, supports empty rhetoric about discovering oneness. Actually discovering “one-ness” takes more dedication that the average yoga practitioner possesses –  myself included, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Can you see the contradiction here? You come to yoga alone, leave alone and then wear a t-shirt that says “We Are All One.” If we really believe that, if we really want to honour our connection to divinity and therefore to each other and existence in general, why not do so both in our practice and in our politics? It’s not an automatic connection, but it’s one we can cultivate.

That’s a pretty heady answer. So let’s break this down a bit. Yes, you can practice yoga alone. I have an at-home practice I find invaluable. The limits of this, though, are that we perpetuate self reliance over community ties. We don’t learn to release tension and holding in a trusted circle of our peers: people who are hoping for the same release, release that can only come with trust.  Trust in the safety of our bodies, the safety of space and the safety we find in community.

We don’t offer our presence up in service to others when we practice at home. We lose the potential for connection. When we practice together we offer ourselves up as examples of people in process. We might be turning inward to discover peace and stillness, but we do it together because part of our practice is developing unconditional support for ourselves and by extension, for others. When we practice together we build empathy because whatever patience we show ourselves, we extend to everyone else in the room. This kind of radical empathy and space-holding makes for rich, lasting community ties … and hopefully solidarity as well.

With Best Intentions: Yoga, Gentrification and Solidarity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

One thing I’ve noticed about yoga teachers is that almost all of us are in some way driven to help people. We want to create positive change in the world. We want to show others that healing is possible, just like others have shown us. Usually we’ve come from a place of suffering and when we found yoga we discovered safety, peace and serenity we didn’t have before. We discovered our breath, our bodies and even sometimes God – for lack of a better word. Eventually our paths as teachers and healers were revealed to us.  We excitedly make our way through our teacher trainings and when we finish we’re unleashed into the world – shiny eyed and well intentioned. We are a quickly growing league of big-hearted, makeshift missionaries. Despite the purity of our intentions, in our fumbling infancy we sometimes accidentally cause harm where we mean to be helpful.

Before I move on to the remainder of this piece I want to clarify a few things. I am a relatively new teacher. I don’t claim to know all the answers. I am merely hoping to ask questions and point out some problems I’ve noticed. I have respect for the teachers’ whose work I address in this piece and I hope to work with them in the future so we can discuss the questions raised here and more. I want to be a comrade and a friend – not an enemy or an outsider. I believe the work we do is deeply important, I just think we need to be more mindful of how we execute it so that we can better contribute to the change we hope to create. I also want to acknowledge that while I use one group as an example here I am by no means trying to target them – my intention is to spark conversation. This group is just one example of people doing this work and they happen to be doing it in my hometown, in a community I’m familiar with. There are many teachers, yoga studios and non-profits that should be thinking about gentrification, privilege and oppression – myself included. This is work we all need to be doing.

Recently I came across an article from Elephant Journal that was posted on the Karma Teacher’s website. It’s entitled “Karma Teachers: Showing the Huddled Masses How to Breathe for Free”. What I’d like to draw some attention to here is the language used to the describe the “huddled masses” Karma Teachers are “in service to”:

“We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks.
This is where Karma Teachers have opened their new studio. They are on a mission: teaching yoga for free with an open door policy in this forgotten part of town (emphasis added).”

As far as I’m aware the person who wrote this article is not a member of Karma Teachers. They don’t live in Vancouver. Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.

I find this article troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, how do you think potential students (or, you know, the “huddled masses”) would feel about this description? Do you think it would make them feel welcome and respected or looked down on and untouchable – just like they are made to feel every day by most of society? When we talk about accessibility, do we just mean prices, or are we actually attempting to create safer space where people can leave the judgments others have of them at the door? Our words have power and in this case they serve to illuminate a massive perceived separation between the people being served and the people doing the service.

Second, this piece is quite de-humanizing and degrading to the people being described. Yes, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are homeless, suffering from addiction or involved in the sex trade, but they are people having these experience. They are not simply “homeless” or “drunks”. The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”. Emma Laroque explains:

“As an inherent part of the colonial project, Europeans categorized themselves as the “civilized” and Indigenous peoples as the “savages,” the underlying assumption being that as savages, “Indians” were at the bottom of human development. From this institutionalized bias a complex set of images, terminology, policies and legislation has set Aboriginal peoples apart, both geographically (on reserves and residential schools), and as inferior peoples. In the larger society such assumptions are perpetuated through the media and the marketplace, through Hollywood, comics, ads and tourist sites. Such racism is deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society (emphasis added).”

Considering this historically established relationship of dominance, can you see why I would find the description East Hastings troubling? Reverence for this history is of particular import when we are offer yoga classes on un-ceded Coast Salish territory. Even more so when such a high proportion of indigenous people make up the demographics of East Hastings.

I think this situation offers us a crucial opportunity to think about our status as outsiders – both as settlers on indigenous territory, but also as teachers coming from outside the community of the Downtown Eastside. When you come from outside a community, especially when you assume they need your help, there is a tendency to impose solutions on the people you are trying to help – solutions they may not need or even be open to. This happened with Christian missionaries hundreds of years ago and it’s happening now as the Downtown Eastside is transformed through gentrification. Harsha Walia, an activist and organizer from the Downtown Eastside explains:

“Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers.”

Whenever newcomers set up shop in a neighbourhood that is experiencing gentrification, especially when we are trying to do good work, it is important that we are mindful of the realities of the neighbourhood which we now “call home”. In fact, it is all too common that predatory condo developers shroud their intentions in language similar to service – language like “renewal” and ”revitalization”. Harsha Walia explains:

“In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind [an] ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment… (emphasis added)”.

Gentrification is a vital part of this discussion because, I feel, it is the responsibility of groups like Karma Teachers to understand the lived realities of the communities they are hoping to serve. The Downtown Eastside is constantly swarmed by outsiders, who claim to have good intentions, but are usually much more predatory than they appear.  This neighborhood has a rich history of community organizing and resistance against predatory condo developers and the opportunist governments who work in partnership with them. Examples of this resistance and community organizing include the Woodwards squat, the Annual Downtown Eastside women’s housing march, the 2010 Olympic tent village and the campaign to save the Pantages Theatre– and this is just barely scratching the surface.

There is a big difference, I think, between for-profit condo developers displacing Downtown Eastside residents (and consistently failing to produce promised “affordable” housing) and the work Karma Teacher’s is doing. That being said, gentrification is an aspect of the political reality of the community they hope to serve. Considering this I think it’s crucially important that Karma Teachers be mindful of the language they use to describe where they work and who they work with. For example, note their intention, as quoted from their website:

“We make yoga accessible to those groups that might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in yoga classes. In doing so, we are helping to revitalize Vancouver’s lower east side community (emphasis added).”

No one I have ever met who lives or works in the Downtown Eastside refers to it as the “lower east side”. “Lower east side” is not geographically accurate and it works to erase the rich history and vibrant, relentless resistance of this community.

“Revitalization” is a stated goal of many condo developers as well as Gregor Robertson’s administration, both of which have contested, antagonistic and predatory relationships to the Downtown Eastside. Who is this revitalization serving? Does it work to accomplish anything positive for the people who are living and surviving in the Downtown Eastside? Many community groups and residents would say no. Considering this, perhaps this rhetoric should be avoided in the intentions of anyone hoping to provide service to this community. I don’t think this intention was meant as alignment with condo-developers, but I think this language is indicative of an outsider’s relationship to the Downtown Eastside.

I realize that this may read like a very harsh criticism. I want to make clear that while I feel strongly that this language is a problem and indicative of a power and privilege imbalance that needs to be addressed, I am not saying that their isn’t an opportunity for good work to be done here. I think offering accessible yoga is valuable and sacred work. It’s work that I feel called to do, however imperfectly. I’m simply suggesting that we need to be mindful of what we are trying to accomplish when we set our intentions for this work – are we suggesting that the community we hope to serve is broken? Are we saying that they must change or be “revitalized”? Or are we meeting people exactly where they are at and doing our best to empower them?  I believe this work can be made manifest in a powerful and beneficial way when we see ourselves as allies – not as givers of charity or missionaries with all the answers.

This work is not easy – but that’s why we do it. We want to do more than just feel our breath inside our bodies – we want to help others discover theirs, no matter who they are or where they come from. We want people to connect with a higher purpose and be able to remember the dignity bestowed upon them simply by existing. This is a beautiful and pure intention. With this intention in our hearts we would do well to remember that all those we wish to serve have stories of struggle and resilience, just like us. Their stories are held in their bodies and woven through their communities. These stories were written long before we came to serve and they are endlessly complex. If we open our hearts their richness will teach us the meaning of true service: solidarity, connection, empowerment.

Announcing Community Yoga Vancouver

I’ve teamed up with two inspiring new teachers to create Community Yoga Vancouver, a yoga program designed to create greater accessibility to the practice we love. Our classes are unique, quirky, unusual and community oriented. Here is an excerpt from our website to give you a better idea of who we are:

Community yoga was created to offer something different from Vancouver’s mainstream yoga studios.

We strive to eliminate the barriers that usually work to keep people out of yoga classes.
We know our students and teachers can use yoga to build community.
We believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga.

Our classes are different because:
We operate out of a collective space with gender neutral facilities.
We use a sliding scale for our drop-in classes ($8-$12 or more… pay what you can afford).
We are mindful of physical accessibility concerns.
We do our best to offer modififications to meet the needs of all bodies.
We publish a zine to encourage conversation and pay our rent, which anyone can submit to.
We offer classes not found in other studios in Vancouver like queer yoga, moon yoga, and clown yoga.
We value anti-oppression and do our best to offer a safer studio space.

It’s important to us that we do our best to offer a space you feel like you can belong to.

Help us build community:
Check out our website, like us on facebook and spread the words to your friends.

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.