On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old beloved Black father, son, brother, and friend, was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. With the help of his fellow officers, former police officer Derek Chauvin sat with his knee on the back of George’s neck for eight minutes and 45 seconds as onlookers implored him to stop and George begged for his life. Since the video of George’s murder went viral, people have taken to the streets to protest for justice for George and for all of the Black people whose lives were taken too soon because of racism and police brutality.
In the wake of the footage of George’s murder and the protests that have now spread across the globe, many companies are taking a stance in support of Black people and reflecting on how they can do better. While the events that triggered this movement involved police, the issue is rooted more deeply in systemic racism, which infects all parts of our society.
It would be a mistake to assume that the industry of yoga has no room for change. While publicly condemning racism and police brutality with a Black Lives Matter email is a start, there is so much more that businesses can and should do to build antiracism into their company culture and become part of the solution.
First, let’s define antiracism. Antiracism is the act of acknowledging one’s privilege and actively working to dismantle racist policies and outcomes. Antiracism was born out of the idea that it is not enough to simply be “not racist.” Racism is systematically embedded into culture and society.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and former President of Spelman College, uses the example of a moving walkway when she explains antiracism. If you are on a moving walkway and you want to go in the opposite direction, it is not enough to simply stop walking or turn around. You must walk in the opposite direction at an even higher speed than the walkway. It’s the same thing for antiracism. Passively claiming to not be racist but refusing to use your privilege to fight against the system of racism makes you complicit.
If the yoga industry truly wants to be a part of the change, they need to take action. Below I share a few ways to begin moving toward sustainable change.
1. Hire Black People, Listen to Black People
Diversify your company on every level—not just the levels visible to the public. Diversify your marketing staff, models, and influencers used for marketing; brands that you partner with; executive leadership; front desk staff; and teaching staff. In an attempt to make themselves appear diverse and inclusive, companies often hire one Black model for advertisements. Having Black people in your stock images does not create meaningful change within your company. Similarly, if you’re only hiring Black people to work at your front desk but not within your leadership, you’re likely building bias into your business. Companies can avoid tokenism by being proactive in their hiring practices and intentional about including Black people at every level.
Not having a diverse staff is not only biased but it puts your business at a disadvantage. People from different backgrounds offer unique perspectives and help the company connect with different communities. The only way to gain access to unique perspectives is by following through with inclusion after diversifying your staff.
In other words, hiring Black people is not enough if you are not providing them opportunities to contribute, not listening to them when they speak, and not following their lead when appropriate. For a company that has never been diverse, this may be difficult and that is one of the reasons why educating yourself and your staff is necessary.
2. Educate Yourself and Your Staff
To ensure that your staff is treating all customers equally, your Black employees are in a safe work environment, and your company truly embodies antiracism, it is essential that you educate your staff. Every company should be providing racial and bias training and workshops throughout the year. Dr. Tatum says that racism in America is like smog. If it’s not in your home or community (which…look again because it likely is, there are few parts of America that racism has not touched), then it’s in the media, news, and entertainment in both obvious and subtle ways. Whether you like it or not, we all ingest it.
And from all that we ingest, we develop our own personal prejudices and biases. Do not assume that because you have Black staff you do not need antiracism training and education. Even Black people can develop biases against other Black people (and no, Black people cannot be racist. Racism is a system of oppression that benefits white people. Black people do not have the power to institutionally oppress others). Because racism and white privilege are so deeply embedded in American culture, one training during orientation is not enough. Companies need to have continued conversations and workshops around race, privilege, and trauma.
Hire a professional to facilitate the bias and racism trainings and workshops. Do not rely on your Black staff or colleagues to teach you about racism or facilitate trainings. The burden of educating others should not lie in the laps of those who have been oppressed. While some of this can be done internally, bringing in an external professional to facilitate training and workshops is extremely beneficial.
Race and privilege has a long, complicated history in America and its effects on humans are deeply psychological. People need to be educated by someone who understands that and knows what tools are necessary for change. Someone with cultural competence, who is trained in bias, will be better equipped to convey this knowledge in a way that does not cause more harm to Black people.
3. Lower Barriers to Yoga Teaching and Practicing
In order to become a certified yoga instructor one has to go through at least a 200-hour yoga teacher training. To be competitive at most yoga studios, you have to go through an additional 300-hour teacher training. The cost of these two programs combined ranges from $3,000 to $7,000. As a direct result of systemic racism, there is great economic inequality in America, making yoga teacher training less accessible to Black people. The yoga community can break down the barriers to entry in the profession by offering more scholarships and more affordable teacher trainings and by advertising in Black spaces.
Furthermore, the location of yoga studios poses another barrier for Black yoga teachers and both veteran and potential students. Yoga has been shown to offer healing for stress and trauma. If the last few months have shown us nothing else, it’s that Black people in the United States are experiencing an extreme amount of stress and trauma. The pain now being displayed around the world is pain that Black people have been feeling all along. It’s not new pain that surfaced with the murder of George Floyd. It is the agony of a long and torturous cry finally being let out. Yet the yoga industry has focused almost solely on serving white communities, particularly white women. Most yoga studios are located in majority-white neighborhoods. It’s not that Black people do not practice yoga—it’s that it’s not largely accessible to them. Yoga companies can use their privilege and power to branch out into more diverse neighborhoods and intentionally seek to serve diverse communities.
With so many studios moving online in the midst of the coronavirus, this is actually a unique opportunity to serve Black communities. Studios can make their online offerings more accessible to the Black community by having Black teachers, hiring Black practitioners to demo in online classes, partnering with Black brands, and being transparent about their support for Black people. Black people fighting for liberation want the companies that they spend their money with to clearly stand with the Black community. This means going beyond the blanket statement “Black Lives Matter.” Share with your customers what you are doing as a company to practice antiracism. By being intentional and transparent, not only do you appeal to Black customers but you may even educate others about antiracism and how they can use their privilege to create change.
4. Show up Financially
The yoga industry has often shown what it values by the things it pours its donations into. While trees and dogs are wonderful causes, it is saddening that it has taken this much for fundraisers to begin the fight against racism and police brutality. Hopefully, with this new knowledge will come new norms.
Companies can practice antiracism by donating money to the Black Lives Matter movement and severing ties with companies that are known contributors to racism. Right now, there are bail funds across the U.S. to help bail out protestors practicing their First Amendment right in support of Black Lives Matter. With the help of financial donors, organizations like Until Freedom have fought, and will continue to fight, for racial justice in this country.
The changes that society needs to undergo to truly dismantle racism and oppression will not happen overnight. The Black Lives Matter movement will continue to need funding, activists will continue to need bail funds, and people will continue to need support as we grieve those already lost. Yoga businesses can show lasting solidarity by holding occasional fundraisers and contributing a portion of their proceeds to an organization in support of dismantling racism.
5. Stop Ignoring Black Pain
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Michelle Cusseaux, Walter Scott, Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Sean Reed, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. These are just some of the Black people who were murdered by the police in the past 10 years, most of them on camera. Each time their stories blew up across the country Black people were reminded that they were not safe. Their hearts were broken, and yet they were expected to go to work and act as though nothing had happened. Black yoga students were going to classes, hearing their yoga teachers speak of the weather and lofty weekend plans. Being acknowledged when you are in pain is a basic form of comfort. To have your pain ignored as though it does not exist is abuse. The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of Black people pleading for America to acknowledge our pain. Now that a full uprising has spread across the globe, most companies have finally put out a statement about Black Lives Matter.
In the future, companies can be more mindful about how they engage with their customers and employees when a traumatic event involving a Black person is in the news. Acknowledge what has happened and extend some grace to Black employees who may need time to grieve and process. In yoga, sometimes we can go on spiritual bypass mode and push the idea that “The breath is all you need.” Well, one of the rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement is “I can’t breathe.” Not only because those were the last words of Eric Garner and now George Floyd, but because being a Black person in America can quite often feel suffocating. To live in a country where people hate you because of the color of your skin—and the very people paid to protect you, or any racist on the street, can kill you with impunity—is oppressive. So when a Black person is murdered because of racism yet again, and your company chooses not to condemn it and your teachers choose not to denounce it, you are a part of the problem.
While this moment in time is heartbreaking, it’s necessary. The land that we live on is stolen land, Black people were brought to the United States enslaved, and injustice has been accepted for far too long. We all have an incredible opportunity right now to finally embody the values that we say this country was built on.
The yoga industry is not exempt from the need to change. Thankfully, it is never too late to learn and grow and be better. Embracing antiracism is not always easy but it is necessary to combat the hundreds of years of racism and oppression.
If yoga is to truly be for everyone, the people who run yoga businesses must be for everyone. By lowering barriers to access yoga for teachers and students, increasing diversity and inclusion company-wide, contributing financially to the cause, and vocally condemning racial injustice, yoga companies can contribute to lasting change.