My mother first introduced me to yoga when I was three years old; I have been practicing asana and learning about yoga for the past 42 years. The practice was a large part of who she was (and still is), and in much the same way, yoga has become a large part of who I am, and how I still experience the world around me.
I strongly believe I am naturally drawn to yoga because it is in my blood; there is not only South Asian blood, but also rich African blood from the Gold Coast, and British blood from the colonizers of Barbados flowing through my body. To round off my diversity, I was born in Canada.
I have found that being a person of color with a rich cultural background allows me to view the world with a uniquely broad perspective. I am hyperaware of who I am and where I fall within society. I love observing people’s reactions to me as well as my own reactions to life and the situations around me. My yoga studies, too, have afforded me a heightened awareness of myself in relation to the world. My local yoga community is mostly homogeneous—just like the majority of yoga studios throughout the Western world—with only a small percentage of people of color found in public classes. (I’ve heard there is often a greater degree of diversity in hot yoga classes. Hot yoga is not for me; my dosha is pitta dominant, so I tend to stay away from heated practices.) But regardless of my personal inclinations, today I am simply reflecting, retrospectively, on my yoga career within this community, and must admit that I have certainly butted up against discrimination and judgment throughout my four decades of practice.
My mother first introduced me to yoga when I was three years old; I have been practicing asana and learning about yoga for the past 42 years.
I started my yoga teaching career in my local church hall. I was very unaware of the local yoga community and yoga culture at that time, and my intentions were simple: all I wanted was to share my understanding and experiences of yoga with everyone and anyone who would listen. I taught exclusively in that church hall for three years. When I finally did venture into the local yoga community, it was incredibly disappointing. I was made to feel less than welcome for being a bigger-bodied yogini. I was the only fat black person in the room and the judgment and hostility were palpable. It forced me to retreat back to my own space and inspired me to open a studio of my own.
On the path to opening up my own studio, I was presented with the opportunity to partner with a new up-and-coming studio. I was elated; this was an opportunity to join the local yoga community! I thought that studio ownership would give me credibility and legitimize my knowledge, as classes taught in spaces like churches, schools, community centers, or gyms are often dismissed as inferior. It seemed like a smart idea to align myself with someone who already had an established space—and best of all, I could add some diversity to that space!
But upon further investigation, I found some flaws in this proposed partnership. I learned that the motivations behind the offer weren't exactly pure, nor were they communicated to me honestly. I discovered that the offer came from a place of desperation; this person was looking for an investor, not a collaborator, and the basis of the entire partnership offer was to take advantage of my students and me. The studio owner expected me to buy into their business for tens of thousands of dollars. They would be in charge of running the studio and scheduling my classes. There was no spirit of sharing the load. They wanted my students and their contact information, and they weren't interested in honoring their existing memberships. It seemed to me the intention of the studio was to get rid of their competition by absorbing it. I realized that this studio would not reflect my presence or my culture because I was not asked what I wanted to teach; I would simply be managed like an employee, not like a contributing co-owner. It felt like my business was being appropriated. As a culture, I find we do this a lot—we extract resources from others and appropriate them for our own advantage. This is an especially familiar situation for people of color.
After extensive self-study and lengthy discussions with my own yoga teacher, I eventually decided it wasn't in my best interest to partner with this individual. It didn’t feel right, and what I was offering didn’t really fit the expectations I was being presented with anyway. Partnering would have required me to abandon my authentic self in the transaction. It was a hard decision to make; I wanted to share my knowledge, experience, and clientele, but I certainly did not want to be taken advantage of.
When this partnership failed, my training, credentials, and ability to teach yoga came under fire. All of a sudden, my qualifications and the yoga I was teaching were no longer seen as "good enough," or even legitimate. The studio owner began speaking poorly of me to their current students and the local community. To this day I still receive criticism about my abilities and training. I have thousands of hours of training and thousands of hours of teaching, yet my qualifications are still being questioned by “yoga professionals” in my community, and l can’t seem to figure out why.
One of my yoga teachers once told me that the yoga mat is a mirror that reflects what we see in society: our culture, beliefs, privileges, and biases—if we choose to see them. Society at large has a distrust of people of color and a dislike of people who are fat; I have two strikes against me. People assume that because I am a person of color I am simply "not good enough" to do what I do, or to achieve all that I have achieved within the yoga community. I still witness that look of shock and surprise when I show up to teach. I still hear about certain teachers within my community speaking poorly of me to their students. I hear it all, and have even heard some students admit that they "don’t trust" a yoga teacher who doesn't look a certain way or perpetuates a certain stereotype.
I was the only fat black person in the room and the judgment and hostility were palpable.
I am blessed to have found my students in my community—students who hear the message of inclusion and are comfortable enough to share their yoga with me. It has taken a while for me to find my voice and to present my offerings authentically. I have my tribe and it is nice to belong and feel accepted. As for those people out in the community who spew hate in the name of yoga, I ask you to take a long, hard look at who you are and what you are doing. I invite you to revisit the yamas and niyamas.
It's important for each of us to ask ourselves: "As a yoga practitioner, teacher, or studio owner, how do I want to share yoga with the world?" "What am I teaching people with my actions?" and "How can we move toward inclusion and acceptance for all people?"
We can no longer sit idly by and allow the appropriation of the yoga practice to continue. This is a practice created by people of color. And yet we continue to see a homogeneous, whitewashed version of yoga perpetuated in Western culture. It’s time to turn this paradigm around and be the change we want to see, not only on our yoga mats but also in our world at large.