Once upon a time, you opened a yoga studio because you wanted to help people. The yoga practice was a gift that you had received, and you wanted to share it with others. Perhaps you first shared the practice by teaching in a variety of places such as studios, gyms, and rec centers, and soon your passion led you to envision a place where a community of people could come together to support each other on this spiritual path. All would be welcome.
But soon after opening your studio, the reality of owning a small business has set in. In the U.S., yoga is the fourth fastest-growing industry. Yet getting people in the door in order to build your ideal community isn’t as easy as you’d thought it would be. You soon realize that you are competing not only with several other yoga studios but also with Pilates studios, cycling studios, and corporate chain gyms that offer yoga classes. And on top of that, you have to contend with free yoga in the park and the local community center, and then there’s the dreaded decision of whether or not to list your business on Groupon and/or ClassPass.
So you hunker down and begin focusing on numbers, doing the small business hustle. Maybe you’re ultimately successful at getting people in the door, or maybe you’re struggling. Then, somewhere along the way, you look up and can’t help but notice something essential is lacking in your yoga community. Diversity. You hate to admit it, maybe you’re even ashamed to. You always thought that your studio was so welcoming, and you hoped from the start that people of every race, ethnicity, income level, ability, and practice level would feel good about practicing there. Now you see that the community you’ve got just doesn’t reflect your original vision.
But the market is saturated. You think, “How am I supposed to expand my reach when it's hard enough to just hold on to the people I've got?”
Since the launch of our podcast, Yoga Is Dead, the number-one question from listeners has been “How can my studio be more inclusive and encourage diversity?” We think this is a great question that shows a true yogic mindset focused on union and ahimsa. So we’ve created a step-by-step plan to help you build and sustain a diverse, community-centered space.
"But the market is saturated!"
Before diving into the plan, we want to address the misconception that the yoga and wellness markets are saturated. They may seem saturated, but by now we know that yoga and wellness are primarily appealing to a specific demographic: white, affluent, cisgender, able-bodied people. There are plenty of people who don’t fit that description who could benefit from yoga but don’t feel welcomed by most studios. Sometimes these folks visit a studio once or twice, but something about the experience drives them away for good. Other times, folks don’t feel welcome from the get-go.
So how do you make sure all are really welcome to your studio? And is the effort to change even worth it?
As we see it, you could answer that last question two ways. First, ask yourself if inclusive marketing fits in with your personal ethos. If you opened a studio because you are passionate about yoga, you want to help people whether they look like you or not, and you strongly believe that each individual is important to the collective (aka union), then hopefully your answer is a resounding “YES!”
Second, you might wonder if inclusive marketing is worth it from a business standpoint. The U.S. Census reports that by 2020, a majority of youth under 18 will be people of color, and by 2027, the same will be true for those 18 to 29. Consider whether these statistics fit into how long you might want your studio doors to stay open. And then consider that according to Nielsen, “With 43 percent of the 75 million millennials in the U.S. identifying as African American, Hispanic, or Asian, if a brand doesn’t have a multicultural strategy, it doesn’t have a growth strategy.” Brands are increasingly recognizing the power of inclusive marketing.
On top of that, studies show companies that have diversity in their leadership teams (meaning a diverse array of people have decision-making power) fare better in their bottom line. Studies have also shown that diversity is a key component of entrepreneurialism and innovation. Diversity lowers employee turnover and creates a higher-quality employment pool.
Without diversity and inclusion, you’re missing out on the information, ideas, and innovation needed for your business to keep up.
For a while now, we’ve seen a shift from completely aspirational advertising to showing what’s real, emotional, and honest to the consumer. So if you’re looking to be more diverse, doesn’t your studio’s advertising need to diversify too? Basically, without diversity and inclusion, you’re missing out on the information, ideas, and innovation needed for your business to keep up.
Where to begin? We’ve laid out a six-step plan to take you from start to finish.
Take stock of your current clients, and get a feel for who isn’t coming to your classes. You can start to look at who may or may not be showing up in terms of a variety of factors, including race/ethnicity, age, ability, gender identity, sexuality, body size/shape, and more.
We recommend that you pay particular attention to race and ethnicity because these factors tend to cut across other marginalized groups. For example, a queer person of color is more often marginalized and excluded than a queer white person simply because their queer identity is compounded with their racial identity. And we recommend paying particular attention to South Asian identity because yoga was developed and codified in South Asia, and many studios in the West create an atmosphere where appropriation is the norm.
Next, look at who’s in the room during your planning meetings, when you set up the calendar for trainings and workshops, and when you decide on pricing and what types of classes to offer. If the people you’ve recruited to help make decisions are all in the same life situation and don’t represent the diversity you’d like to see in your business, then how will you know how to address and invite in those you’re missing?
Assessing your internal structures starts at the top: with the owner(s), management team, and anyone in an advisory capacity. These are the people who make the decisions that really drive the narrative. It doesn’t do anybody any good if all of your volunteers, hourly staff, and teachers ask for change, but no one at the top ever agrees.
After you’ve assessed who is currently showing up in your community and who isn’t, you’ll need to understand why certain people are missing from your community.
Examining your business culture allows you to understand the many ways it is distinct. But if your business is white-owned or operates in a location where white folks comprise the dominant social group (having the most power and privilege), then chances are your business is perpetuating some of the traits of white supremacy culture.* We recommend you research these characteristics (examples include: Fear of Open Conflict, Perfectionism, and Sense of Urgency) and start to understand how your business practices may be embodying them and how this impacts the marginalized groups you hope to include.
Next, gather feedback from your current community. Ask folks (particularly noting feedback from people of color) if there’s any way they feel you could improve your offerings, space, etiquette, hiring, marketing, etc., in order to make them feel more a part of the community.
However, this step must be done with caution and sensitivity. Never single out someone in a class or public place, as this can compound the feeling of being “othered” and can serve to re-traumatize already marginalized people. Always provide an option for anonymous feedback or a way to opt out of giving feedback, as feedback of this nature requires a huge amount of effort and emotional labor from folks who are constantly feeling the burden of educating others on how to repair a system that was never built to include them. What you may consider as a small favor may actually feel monumental to another person.
Once you’ve reached out to regular clients, staff, management, and your advisory team, check in with folks who have tried out your community and decided it’s not for them. If you use a digital system to monitor checks-ins, you could reach out to those who came once or twice and never returned.
After polling people who have made it to your space, it’s time to expand beyond that community. You could:
• Hire an outside consulting team that walks the walk and talks the talk with a mission to improve diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
• Attend workshops and seminars on topics specific to any needed areas of growth that showed up on your initial polls.
• Read, watch, and listen to educational materials made by folks who are currently not represented in your community. These can include articles, blog posts, books, podcasts, poetry, art, television shows, video channels, films, dance performances, and more!
• Follow the social media accounts of people who are vocal about their marginalized identities in order to understand different perspectives.
• Research the spaces where you might find people different than you to interact with. Ask in advance if your attendance and participation is welcome. We highly encourage being in a setting where you can be the odd one out to make an attempt to walk in another’s shoes.
• Learn more about the areas surrounding your business, including population, age range, education level, average income level, accessibility needs, migration history, and so on.
• Learn about systemic issues that may be preventing people from coming to your studio. For example, is public transportation or child care available for those who might want to leave home to visit your studio?
• Make genuine connections with folks from the demographic you are looking to include and learn from them.
Note that the market research and learning phase is ongoing. But once you’ve gathered enough information and are sure you have enough resources to continually revisit, you can move on to the next step.
*The term “white supremacy culture”often connotes hate groups like the KKK, but hate groups are only an extreme embodiment of this ideology. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, white supremacy culture refers to the systems reinforcing the idea that white folks and their thoughts, beliefs, and actions are superior to those of people of color. White supremacy culture is embedded into every system in the United States.
Once you’ve loaded up on information, it’s time to write a plan and create a timeline. Your plan should begin by finding someone to help you see what you can’t see, someone to point out your blind spots—a member of the community you hope to reach. This person could be a mentor, an advisor, a consultant—someone to help keep you accountable and help you navigate tricky situations. This person should not be someone who looks like you and has a similar life experience to you.
In your plan, make sure you ascribe changes in a top-down manner. Meaning your plan should address the parts of your organization that have the greatest decision-making power first so that the rest of the adjustments can be implemented smoothly. Likely your decision-makers will need to approve changes to the culture, physical space, offerings, and employment practices.
Next, you need a budget. Making changes requires a financial investment in your business. So be prepared to do just that. If you’re looking to bring in folks to consult on your business strategy or for current staff to add more operational tasks to their plate, you must also plan to compensate them for their time and effort. Whatever your financial situation, this is an absolutely critical step when engaging people of color and other marginalized groups to help you do the required work.
Inherent in this work is the knowledge that systemic oppression and biased governmental regulations have historically put people of color and other marginalized folks at greater financial and structural disadvantage than the rest of the population. Thus, asking people to do this labor for free is repeating the most broken aspects of our history in the present day. If you find you don’t have the budget to make the necessary investments, consider extending your timeline and engaging your current community in fundraising efforts until you’ve met your budgetary requirements.
After the funding is secure, create a project timeline with your implementation team that outlines concrete action steps and key deliverables.
Setting up a timeline doesn’t mean you can’t change the plan. Of course you can! But preparing in advance and communicating the plan to everyone involved not only shows your commitment and dedication to inclusion, it sets up who’s in charge of each task. This will help keep the communication lines clear and open for others to know where to ask questions and get answers.
Don’t be afraid to shift or delay due dates as you think of more ideas and strategies you may wish to implement. And remember to schedule regular check-ins with your team throughout implementation.
Once you’ve got your plan in place, you can think about implementing it as an exercise in building an authentic community. That means not just expecting community members to show up and give you business, but developing an equitable, two-way relationship between you and those you’re trying to reach.
An example of this might be dedicating a fundraising class for a local advocacy organization, conference, or festival aimed at creating a better understanding between folks in the local dominant group and those who comprise marginalized groups. Or coordinating your community’s volunteers to work with a local business or organization with meaningful ties to the group you are trying to reach.
Implementing your plan within your business structure will mean making room for representatives from your target demographics at every level of your organization, starting at the top. Assembling a task force to aid you in implementing your diversity and inclusivity initiatives may also be a good idea, especially if you’re still very hands-on with the day-to-day operations of your business. Being truly successful means creating space and time to let the impacts of authentic change settle in, and that may mean speaking up and asking for help when in need of support.
Another key element of community-building is providing pathways for growth for those you aim to bring into the organization. It’s essential to consider questions like: “How do I plan to keep new community members engaged here in the long run?” and “What new and different programs do I need to build to adapt the studio culture to the people I’m bringing in?”
Representation is an important element in letting folks know that “All are welcome.” So once you’ve started making changes to accommodate new community members, let them know through all your marketing and communications. Better yet, use your marketing as a way to invite new members to have a say in some of the changes and to engage with you during the process.
During this step, it’s also a great idea to be a cheerleader for members of your target demographic and show your support for leaders within their communities who are already doing the advocacy and activism. Use your marketing platforms as a way to elevate the voices of those who are doing important work but could use a brighter spotlight.
Some common pitfalls to consider:
1. Though you might hope that everyone at your studio will be excited to see change, this may not be the case. That’s why educating the studio community on the purpose and rationale for the changes can be very helpful, engender more mindfulness, and foster more inclusive behaviors from everyone there.
2. The excitement of showcasing diversity may end up tokenizing folks. Tokenism is covert racism because it asks a small group of people of color to stand in for diversity or inclusion (as tokens) while the existing power structure isn’t disrupted and racist and discriminatory practices aren’t canceled. This is another reminder that the management and staff at your studio needs to reflect the diversity you’re advertising.
3. In an effort to include more folks, you might fail to make a genuine effort to acknowledge and accommodate differences, which can result in spiritual bypassing.
Your intention may be to change the marketing to make people feel welcome, when nothing else has been implemented to change the experience within the space. For example: A new flyer showcases diversity, yet there isn’t a similar look and feel once entering the space—i.e., all employees are the same size, gender, practice level, mobility level, ethnicity; all the music in the lounge and changing rooms is similar in style; there’s an assumption that all accessibility considerations are accommodated without engaging and inquiring with the students (examples: consent around physical touch, use of fragrance, personal space around mats, and so on).
A change in the marketing may lead to more changes in the brand and within the studio. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen communication with everyone in the space. You could hold implementation-specific staff meetings and training sessions for employees, host workshops and post online material for the students, and even hold retreats for management. Create your own signature way to share the exciting news.
As you make changes, create regular check-ins for new community members. Ensure that new members feel valued and safe (physically, mentally, and emotionally). When doing the work to be more inclusive, especially if it’s a new process, mistakes will happen. Members from the marginalized group can end up feeling less than, singled out, tokenized, or othered. In these instances, folks who have already experienced marginalization and trauma can end up feeling retraumatized and used.
Obviously, this often unintended effect can be extremely harmful to those attempting to join your community. And this should be avoided at all costs. Through a business lens, you should also consider and be knowledgeable of the fact that many people within ethnically diverse communities rely on each other for referrals and value word of mouth very highly. So keep checking back in to make sure the intention behind your actions is reflected in their impact.
Mistakes are bound to be made. And key to allyship is apologizing when recognizing an error in your process or judgment. Don’t be afraid to take responsibility and apologize in a meaningful, thoughtful way, regardless of how many times it needs to be said. Oftentimes, when people aren’t invested in diversity work, they experience defensiveness, unwillingness to listen, a strong attachment to outcome that denies others’ experiences, and generally negative, isolating behavior. This perpetuates and reinforces oppressive and intolerant behaviors which may indicate a lack of readiness to do inclusivity work and will serve to deconstruct any progress you’ve made.
Our hope is to spread a simple message of living your yoga by working toward union. We hope what we’ve shared in this article helps in achieving that message.
For more tips and insight, please check out our podcast, Yoga Is Dead. This podcast was a result of frustration with the lack of diversity in the industry as well as the lack of clarity on important issues like fair pay, power dynamics, abuse, diet culture, injury prevention, and more. Each episode dives deep into issues we’ve touched upon in this article.