No, We're Not Asking Too Much: On Making Yoga More Inclusive


There seem to be a lot of people in my yoga groups of late who are talking about inclusivity. It's great that more people are aware of this concept and the need to address it, and I really want to be happy about that. But the comments I hear are almost always along the lines of: “Are we getting too PC?” “We can't make everyone happy,” or “I can't be everyone's teacher.” Ugh.

Of course different people are going to connect more with some teachers than with others. But there are teachers offering classes to the general public who I hear talking about inclusivity as if it’s too much of a burden on them—often while touting how their classes are accessible to anyone who cares to walk in. And anyone does. In such classes, we teachers know nothing about the people who walk into the room. We don't know their histories, nor their stories. We may get some limited information if our waivers ask for health info, or if we ask them if there's anything we should be aware of (and they choose to share). But overall, in these classes we're guiding people we know nothing about. And some of them live every day in what amounts to a very different reality from our own.

There are teachers offering classes to the general public who I hear talking about inclusivity as if it’s too much of a burden on them—often while touting how their classes are accessible to anyone who cares to walk in.

They don’t have the luxury of asking questions like "Are we taking inclusivity too far?" "Are we too worried about being PC?" or "Do I really need to worry about my language that much?" They have to think about these things whether they want to or not—quite literally, their life could depend on it. Think you’re too worried about language? Try being queer and using the wrong word in the wrong space to talk about your partner. Hell, having a picnic while black is more than enough to get the cops called on you. Simply existing, much less talking, can put your life at risk.

Being able to ask such questions about inclusivity is itself a marker of privilege.

So I want to ask you this: Why did you become a yoga teacher? I’m guessing it wasn't for the money. More than likely, yoga had a profound impact on your life. I am not hesitant to say yoga saved my life. And I frequently hear that from other teachers. The story I hear over and over again is that we came to yoga to get into better physical shape or to lose weight or some other diet-culture-based goal. But then we step onto our mats with the hope of losing those extra pounds and we suddenly find ourselves sobbing for no reason, seemingly out of the blue. We don't know why. What happens is life changing. Our mind quiets. Our breath slows. Our relationship to ourselves changes. We realize that yoga and its benefits have little to do with our physical selves.

Most of us are probably at our most vulnerable when we're on our mats. I know that I am. We're opening up to ourselves. We are connecting to and discovering parts of ourselves that we've been hiding or avoiding for longer than we care to remember. They may be the best parts of ourselves, or only coping mechanisms we use for surviving our lives. I know this isn't just my story because I've heard it time and time again.

We know what can happen on our mats. We've experienced it. That's why we became teachers—to share that experience with others. We know how vulnerable we are on the mat, and we know the hard work that's coming once you start your practice.

Yet, here’s the catch: Too often I hear teachers say that being inclusive and accessible is just too much responsibility. They capitulate to their own desire for personal comfort and their avoidance of the hard work they need to continue to do in their practice and their teaching.

From what I can tell, this questioning of the value of inclusivity comes from cisgender, heterosexual, white people (typically women). These are people who can walk into pretty much any yoga space and feel welcome, included, and visible. They already feel they matter in these spaces. They see others in these spaces who look like them, have stories similar to their own, and use language similar to theirs.

For many marginalized people, whether they're trans/queer, fat, disabled, a person of color, or, more than likely, some combination of these and other identities, this simply is not the case. Almost any yoga space (and in general, almost any space in the world) isn't safe for us. Whether it be from life-threatening violence, flat-out hostility, or just micro-aggressions, we live our lives monitoring our situation and feeling under constant potential risk. Going out of our homes, turning on the television, or getting onto social media can be a roulette wheel where any action can mean the difference between safety or danger.

And this holds true even in so-called safe spaces that are labeled inclusive and accessible. So often in yoga, accessible is taken to mean just accommodating physical disabilities. Many are unaware of the myriad ways their actions and language make yoga inaccessible to many. This is particularly harmful in these spaces as we may not be expecting the oppression or aggression, and so we've let our guard down. The wounding then bleeds even more.

So, when these questions about inclusivity come up, I inevitably find myself sharing distressing stories about my personal life or others’ personal lives that have been shared with me—furthering the trauma I experience daily—in a desperate attempt to get others to realize that most people have a different reality than they do. It's just part of our lives, it's our normal.

During these conversations, in my mostly fruitless attempts to help people understand (at great emotional expense to myself), I tell people how I basically have to run through a checklist in my head when I want to talk about my significant other. Where am I? Do I know these people? Can strangers overhear our conversation? If it's safe, I say “girlfriend.” Sometimes I'll go for “partner,” but that's really still a queer giveaway since very few het couples use that term in the U.S. Often, I'll just say “friend.” My friend went to Toronto with me, my friend helps me with my wheelchair, my friend made a delicious dinner last night. When was the last time you had to consider how your language could affect your safety when talking about something as benign as who made dinner last night? But then, you're now asking if it's too much for you to reevaluate the language you use during class.

With the people asking these questions and feeling overwhelmed at doing the work needed to make their classes truly inclusive, I share another story. It's one more story of a boring, everyday life lived under threat. One that happened very recently. While getting ready to go to the park for a walk and then to the grocery store, my girlfriend asked me if the clothes she was wearing were safe. Safe. Not if she looked cute or if they fit okay. Safe.

Another friend tells me of repeated instances where her wife avoids using the women's restroom when they travel, even when their young child needs to be changed, because of too many past frightening experiences.

And then you're annoyed when we point out that your women's circles don't automatically include all women?

We don't all arrive at our mats with the same reality.

After they realize that—and the work they must do to make their classes truly inclusive—many of these teachers feel overwhelmed. And that's fair. We in the West live in a society that relies on us not knowing (or acting as if we don’t know) that we have privilege, and that our daily habits and norms are hurting others. It requires that we don't know our role in the oppression of others, some of whom may even be our friends, many who are our students.

We don't all arrive at our mats with the same reality.

But almost all of us experience some combination of privilege and marginalization. We're all too happy to acknowledge our marginalization while pretending our privilege doesn't exist. But when you live in an oppressive society, there is no neutral. You are either actively opposing oppression or you’re supporting it. As a yoga teacher, if you're not actively working to make your spaces inclusive, you are simply reproducing the oppression from society in your classes. Full stop. No debate. It doesn't matter how uncomfortable that makes you. It doesn't matter if you don't like it. It's still true. You can either choose to acknowledge that discomfort and then work to undo the oppression of others that is the actual cause of the discomfort, or you can continue to participate in oppression. Those are your only options.

So when you ask, "Are we asking too much from ourselves as yoga teachers?" I hear the yoga teacher equivalent of men responding to the #metoo movement by asking if they're even allowed to talk to women anymore. No, men—if you're asking that question you're not allowed to talk to women. And, no, yoga teachers, if you're asking that question, you shouldn't be teaching.

You know the impact yoga can have on a life. It's probably why you're a teacher. As someone who is creating a space that encourages people to be vulnerable, you hold a tremendous amount of power. And this is especially true when already vulnerable people come into your space. If you're creating these spaces, you have a responsibility to make them as safe as possible. You have a responsibility to do the hard work required to make sure you do as little harm as possible (because we're all going to mess up from time to time). And if that's too much, you shouldn't be a yoga teacher.

About the Teacher

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Elliot Kesse
Elliot Kesse is a fat, white, atheist, agender spoonie who strives to create safe spaces for joyful movement... Read more