How Do We Build Safe and Accessible Yoga Communities?
I identify as black, queer, and non-binary. This means that I do not see a place for myself in the existing gender binary (man or woman). Sometimes this manifests in straying away from stereotypical gender expectations like shaving my armpits or wearing bras. My personal gender presentation isn’t particularly unusual or radical—many people still assume I am a woman and often misgender me by using “she” pronouns to refer to me. This still leaves me subject to sexism and misogyny as a feminine person (you can read more about my identity here). Other non-binary people, or people who do not conform to the rigid gender binary created by society, may present in a myriad of different ways.
What am I trying to say with all this? I’m saying that the spaces we create when doing yoga are just as important as the movements themselves. Yoga is a practice heavily rooted in the body. Therefore, if I and other gender non-conforming people want to practice yoga, it is important that we feel our bodies and our identities are valued and respected.
As someone who inhabits many marginalized identities, finding supportive and wholesome communities is really important to me. Some people are able to drop into classes, do their thing, and head out again. Others, like myself, greatly prefer to use those spaces to form friendships, create bonds, and develop meaningful relationships with other people. For me, these relationships strengthen my own interest in a class, whether it be yoga, Zumba, or aquafit. It is in feeling a sense of belonging that I feel more relaxed and perform better.
As someone who inhabits many marginalized identities, finding supportive and wholesome communities is really important to me.
Over the past few years, I have attended yoga classes in different parts of Vancouver—at my university campus when I was a student, at the gym where I’m a member, and at large-scale pop-up yoga events. I grew increasingly frustrated with those environments because I felt a reoccurring exclusiveness in how the spaces were created. My discomforts included feeling out of place in a space dominated by slim, white, middle-class women, feeling judged for not having the latest gear, and hearing snickers when my body didn’t bend the way it was supposed to. Even though Vancouver is a yoga-loving city, a strong and welcoming yoga community has not been created.
At the university, students were in a hurry, having dropped in between classes, and forming connections with people was not a priority. The gym is in the heart of downtown and has a similar vibe—most people are busy and the class is purely instructional. There are also frequent free yoga events held at beaches and parks, but they are one-offs. And I was growing increasingly disinterested in yoga because of the negative experiences I’d had in the spaces where I was practicing, spaces where community was not a priority. During one class at my gym, an elderly man sat next to me and touched my leg, saying I looked really sexy in my shorts. I told the teacher about the experience but she said it was out of her control; the class was open to anyone. It’s true—anyone can attend these classes—but if no framework of respect and safety is established, there is nothing to stop people from acting inappropriately.
How can we make these spaces safer for everyone?
My friend AJ feels the same way about the exclusiveness of yoga spaces. AJ is a non-binary person who runs an Instagram account dedicated to their love of yoga. AJ says, “I frequently add #transyoga or #transyogi to my posts in order to add my particular body, identity, and expression to the landscape that is Instagram yoga—a largely white, female-assigned, woman-identified, highly feminine landscape. While I fit some of those descriptors, I am non-binary and gender neutral in my expression and it's been cool to search the #transyoga and #transyogi hashtags to find and connect with other trans yogis from around the world.”
AJ makes an effort to create and find intentional spaces where they can practice comfortably. They told me that when they moved to Vancouver, they sought out yoga studios that were compassionate and inclusive toward transgender and non-binary communities. These were hard to come by though, so AJ does most of their yoga at home where they feel safe, relaxed, and warm. At home, AJ can feel free and uninhibited (except perhaps by the involvement of their cat) whereas class settings can sometimes be anxiety-inducing. AJ says they can do yoga pretty much anywhere—on campus, in the park, at friends’ houses—but there is sometimes a barrier to accessing official classes because of a lack of knowledge about trans and non-binary identities.
They explained, “In my home practice, my gender identity falls to the sidelines. I just feel strong and calm and like my body and mind are this incredible package that I can make do incredible things. When I'm misgendered in class settings, my gender identity comes swiftly back into my mind and can kind of ruin my groove! I'm also more acutely aware of my sexed body in yoga classes than I am in my home practice—at home, if my shirt falls away from my body and my chest is exposed, I'm not worried. In a classroom, I know that this would be potentially problematic and am always mindful of whether my body is adequately covered as I move. In some studios that I've attended, male-assigned people are permitted to participate in class without their shirts on—and I find this unfair. Legally, I could also be shirtless in these spaces, but I reckon that there would be an uproar if I dared take off my shirt mid-practice!”
Being transgender or non-binary (or both) means that our bodies are a constant source of both internal turmoil and external interrogation. (What genitals do you have? Why are you wearing a dress? Why don’t you shave your armpits? Who do you sleep with? Are you a girl or a boy?) Yoga spaces should not contribute to that turmoil. AJ agrees with me that for yoga spaces, particularly commercial studios, to be welcoming to people who don’t fit the stereotypical yoga mold, they must actively create safe environments.
How? It’s important to us for yoga teachers, studios, and practitioners to listen to a diverse range of voices, be compassionate and humble, and be open to change. AJ adds, “I prefer teachers who provide variations and modifications for all poses on offer, so that people of different abilities, shapes, and sizes can find the version of the pose that's right for them—and teachers who make the classroom a place where laughing, falling, farting, and snoring are all okay. I appreciate studios that offer work-exchange and reasonable per-class fees.”
It’s important to us for yoga teachers, studios, and practitioners to listen to a diverse range of voices, be compassionate and humble, and be open to change.
I think my friend Aida has another possible solution to my concerns. I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across her post. “I recently completed a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training this summer. I want to offer by-donation yoga classes to you! Once a week on Sundays...I will host them at my place,” Aida wrote alongside a cute photograph of her apartment, which is set up for yoga-lovers.
She continued, “My intention is to cultivate a space where people can increase awareness of themselves and their bodies along with what’s going on in the world around them, which is often not addressed in yoga spaces. I invite and welcome people with any level of experience, people who may be living with or have lived with depression, anxiety, [and] PTSD, amongst other conditions, or those who are simply curious and want to practice in this type of setting.”
Aida’s post practically went viral in the local community; people seemed really thrilled by the prospect of a yoga practice that made space for all types of identities and put community before fitness. Another friend shared Aida’s post with the caption, “Have you ever walked into a yoga studio and felt like you didn't belong there?” Others commented with affirmatives, praising Aida for offering yoga in a safe space with a by-donation payment scheme. Some friends commented they were excited to see a yoga practice run by a woman of color. I asked Aida why she decided to offer yoga in her home and what she thinks about yoga as a community-building practice.
Aida expressed that she wanted people to be able to show up as their authentic selves—without having to pretend to be something they’re not. She offers tea and casual hangouts after the sessions and allows people to go at their own pace. She said, “Practicing yoga with people who have more communal values shows me that it can be a strong way of building community. I have also experienced how isolating [yoga practice] can be in Vancouver, because in some cases it has manifested as a way of enabling people to retreat within themselves and disengage even more from the world around them. That is the last thing that the world needs, and I’m excited to be offering an alternative!”
It appears a lot of people have been looking for a community space like Aida’s homemade yoga studio. Most of the people who have attended so far are students or recent graduates and/or activists, and many are young people of color. Aida says she also sees more male-identified folks in the space than one normally would in a studio class. She remarks, “I’m excited because for a lot of people, they are taking their first classes with me. They may be drawn to the space because of the community-building component of the classes, the historical component that contextualizes the practice that we do, or simply the fact that they want to practice around more people that look like themselves.”
Aida also shared with me some of the guiding principles she used to make sure her space was accessible and welcoming. First, she makes her sessions by-donation so people can pay whatever they like. Then, she makes sure the class sizes are small, which allows people to connect and create meaningful friendships. Yoga mats are also available for free for those who might not have one, and class times are flexible, based on the group’s desires. Aida’s most important tenet is her commitment to social consciousness and awareness. She explains, “Through storytelling, music, and conversations before and after class, I aim to demonstrate that the physical practice of yoga can play a role in developing social consciousness as well as inner awareness. Addressing religion, colonization, and healing in relation to the practice enables people to engage meaningfully with others, with yoga, and with themselves.”
Perhaps Aida’s home will be the place where I get into my yoga groove. I hope the future of yoga holds many more spaces where people feel comfortable, validated, and supported, no matter their body or identity.
Cicely Blain is a Black/mixed, queer, non-binary writer who lives between Canada, the UK and the Netherlands. They write about feminism, queerness, race and politics whether in fiction, poetry or journalism. They’re passionate about Black Lives Matter, getting famous on Instagram, dinosaurs and ending the gender binary. They are an award-winning activist and graduate of the University of British Columbia. If they’re not travelling, you can find them on the beach, drinking red wine or... Read more>>