Examining Studio Culture

How do we create yoga spaces where everyone feels welcome?

Studios (in contrast to ashrams, for instance) are where most yoga students in the United States practice and learn about yoga. With yoga vacations and retreats now on the rise, retreat centers—like Kalani, where I teach—are now a close second to studios.

The culture of a yoga studio or retreat center matters because it’s where we practice, and it’s often also where new teachers are trained. Because of the fact that in our studios, just as anywhere else, we consciously or unconsciously tend to default to our broader culture’s norms and values, it’s important to examine studio culture.

All of us can default to convention—it’s how human culture works. The tendency is pervasive. However, many of the broader culture’s norms and values that can seep into our studio culture run counter to not only yogic principles but also basic kindness and inclusion.

My aim here is not to make definitive statements about what makes for a good yoga studio, nor to claim that ashrams or retreat centers (or free classes on the lawn) are inherently superior to yoga studios. We can, however, learn to pay attention to the dominant values in our practice spaces—whatever those spaces are. And we can do more to ensure that a wide variety of people feel welcome to practice yoga so that discussions on studio culture become less myopic and more likely to encourage positive conflict and growth.

Many of the broader culture’s norms and values that can seep into our studio culture run counter to not only yogic principles but also basic kindness and inclusion.

If we don’t attend to “studio culture” we will default to consumer values, body hierarchy, and competition—to name a few persistent U.S. values. It simply doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s a scenario that illustrates how U.S. consumer culture influences yoga practice, sometimes without us even noticing. This experience reflects numerous encounters with different students I’ve had over the years.

After nearly a month of noticing a student’s late arrival (sometimes as much as 15 to 20 minutes late), I decide to speak to him about it after class. How I address his tardiness reflects what I see as my role as his teacher: I don’t comment on how this behavior is disruptive or on how he interferes with the sequencing of the class by often missing poses meant to prepare the body for later ones. After class, I say this:

“Hey, can I talk to you for a moment? I’ve noticed that you repeatedly come to class late. You may not even notice it’s happening and might benefit from reflecting on what it means to you. It’s great that you’re coming regularly. And you may be resisting the discipline of a regular practice with your repeated tardiness.”

He stares at me, at first surprised and then as though I’ve said something really inappropriate. His eventual response indicates that he feels he is free to come into the class at any point he finds convenient or desirable. I answer, “Okay, I just wanted to tell you what I noticed about your practice. That’s my job here, after all.” And he walks away muttering about how that is not my job and about what my job really is.

My sense of what my job is comes from my early training. The teacher with whom I apprenticed back in 1998 was trained in the Iyengar lineage, and by extension, so was I—though neither of us is a certified Iyengar teacher. Our approach is alignment focused; students hold poses and refine them. We are aware of body diversity and also pay attention to the more esoteric barriers people carry with them into the yoga practice. I will never forget being a new student in my teacher’s class, as well as my fear of inversions. She once pulled me aside to tell me that she’d noticed how obediently I got out all of the props for shoulderstand, whenever instructed, and then did nothing with them but just waited for others to finish the pose. “When you’re ready to do a shoulderstand,” she told me, “just let me know and I’ll help you.”

When I spoke to the persistently late student, I did what my mentor-teacher might have done. Pointing out the pattern I had noticed in the student’s practice was part of what I understand to be my role as teacher, but his idea of “my job” was apparently different than mine. It seemed he saw my job as being limited to showing the postures, looking like a model of health and fitness, and offering a modification when needed.

His view was different from mine because we come from different yoga cultures. He may not have even been aware of his own “yoga culture.” I spend a lot of time thinking about mine. For instance, tardiness wasn’t the same issue where I learned to teach. My mentor locked the door two minutes after the start of each class.

At the retreat center, we don’t lock the door. We welcome everyone whenever they come. We welcome them wet from the pool; we welcome them to their first classes and their thousandth; we welcome them wearing dresses or jeans; we welcome them cranky or grateful or late. We welcome them in part because a business doesn’t turn away customers, but also because “creating welcome” is an explicit part of our collective yoga culture at Kalani.

About half of the students in any class at Kalani are there for just a day, a week, maybe two. Unless those are their first yoga classes ever, it would be hard to assume I’m having much impact on their practice or their views on yoga. However, I still believe that our “studio culture” matters a great deal. It matters in how we teach yogic principles as well as the values of kindness and inclusion.

Subtle messages embedded in our language choices, in studio decor, and in marketing materials offer cues as to why a more diverse or dedicated or [fill in the blank] group of students isn’t present.

The way some students have wandered off muttering about “my job” doesn’t surprise me. Yoga is now firmly embedded in consumer culture in many countries and students tend to think of themselves as consumers first, learners second—and supplicants, almost never. I’m not suggesting that my way is the only right way. I’m encouraging an examination of studio culture and then a conscious construction of the values we wish to convey. This particular story of student pushback is illustrative of a mismatch between student and teacher expectations. More often though, students who disagree with us or feel uncomfortable with our teaching simply don’t come to class. Often we wonder why. Subtle messages embedded in our language choices, in studio decor, in marketing materials—just to name some of the ephemera that make up “culture”—offer cues as to why a more diverse or dedicated or [fill in the blank] group of students isn’t present. We can become proactive about creating the studio culture we want. Noticing how consumer values sneak into our studio values is part of that.

Back in the early ’90s, when I became a regular yoga practitioner, it seemed more common for teachers to state clearly the type of yoga they taught. Usually, they referred to a specific lineage. “Iyengar yoga” or “the Mysore practice” or “Kundalini yoga” were traceable to specific teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers. Nowadays, this is less common, thanks in part to “certifications” from the hundreds of yoga studios that are registered schools with Yoga Alliance. Local yoga studios in every city are cranking out new teachers via 200- and 500-hour teacher trainings. Teachers with very little experience claim influence from many lineages and students see them as ready to teach. Indeed, because YA affiliation is a marketing tool, many students assume that registering with Yoga Alliance is required in order to teach yoga in the U.S. It definitely is not, though studios increasingly want teachers to have it because it aids in advertising.

I’m not specifically taking Yoga Alliance to task. They seek to offer meaningful standards with an eye on public safety. In addition to being lineage-based, yoga has always involved innovation and responded to the culture in which it’s practiced. I can see how Yoga Alliance came into being within the specific cultural context where it evolved. I also find it problematic that many students believe a certain level of training makes a “good” teacher and automatically offers safety. Things surely aren’t that simple. Neither is it true that having a teacher who adheres to a specific guru’s training methods will ensure a “good” teacher for every student of that teacher. We must always be discerning.

While training organizations offer guidelines that can invite us to reflect on the kind of culture we create in our studios, no set of exterior guidelines on their own will ever be enough to ensure that students are safe and welcome. For instance, it’s possible to adhere to Yoga Alliance’s training guidelines but still promote U.S. consumer culture values—such as body hierarchy and shaming, eating and exercise disorders, physical and spiritual competition, cliquishness, one-upmanship, racism, classism, sexism, gender conformity, and a variety of exclusionary or culturally appropriative practices. This can even happen via implicit bias, without us realizing we’re doing it.

Fear not, however—we are also capable of consciousness, practice, and community reflection. A group like Yoga Alliance offers a form of community reflection in their guidelines. Good news, though not sufficient. While registration groups or specific yoga lineages may offer solid recipes, every community is still a different oven in which those ideals alchemize. We have to move those aims forward in small, context-specific teaching groups, as well as within ourselves. In this way, studio culture is created and nurtured.

At the retreat center where I teach and coordinate the resident faculty, we have developed two principles to guide us: We respect a diversity of practices and we welcome every body to practice. While that can seem incredibly simple, to my mind, the practice of both respect and welcome involve lifelong learning. Our quarterly continuing education sessions are as much about discussing how we grapple with the concepts of diversity and inclusion and about our own development as teachers as they are about learning new meditation tools or sharing physical adjustments. We raise a lot of questions along the way about how our work exists within the context of the culture of the retreat center and our communities, and also within a broader context.

Here are some specific areas of inquiry that other yoga venues might take up in order to establish a cultural counter-narrative inside of community-based yoga studios. This is only a partial list intended to prompt reflection and begin dialogue about studio culture.

Questions to Consider

1. How are classes marketed to students? Take a look at current ads, images, and language and ask: What does this ad convey as important (e.g., hot buns or inner peace, longevity or flexibility) and to whom do these aims speak? Whom do they leave out? Who might feel particularly intimidated? Consider physical ability and appearance and also race, social class, culture, and origins. How does marketing define and limit who feels welcome?

2. How does the studio market teacher training programs? Are individuals invited one-on-one? If so, based on what criteria? If marketing materials are used, discuss the possibility of integrating the criteria from #1. Are students with physical limitations or non-dominant body types and abilities included? Given that they normally face greater barriers to participation, are they particularly encouraged (beyond being tolerated)? How do teachers use language to help students see themselves as future teachers—or not. (e.g., “You look like a yoga teacher already.” Or “Wow, look at that pose. We have a teacher training coming. Just saying!”)

3. How are teachers interviewed for positions at the yoga studio? Do they need to have a certain social media presence? Are they asked to teach a demo class? Provide a resume? Bring a class following? What overt and latent messages are at work in these choices? How are teachers conceived as being “of use” to students, each other, and the broader community? What’s being conveyed in the diversity (or lack thereof) of class offerings and types of teachers?

4. When diverse bodies are welcomed to classes, and then to teacher trainings, what is the studio doing to ensure that there are teaching jobs available to fat, older, or disabled yoga teachers, for instance?

5. What role does money play in the teacher/learner environment? How is cost a barrier to training new teachers? How is the likelihood of employment for anyone completing a teacher training discussed?

6. If the studio markets and sells products (including food, clothing, jewelry, books, etc.), what do those products convey about studio culture? Consider social class, race, size-range of clothing, reputation of products, environmental impact of products, etc.

7. What does the studio location, décor, and accessibility convey about the studio? Is there easy disability access to the building? What about the availability of parking or public transportation?

8. What image does the studio put forth and is it mission-driven as much as dollar-driven or image-driven? What is the mission? How are teachers invited to “live into” that mission in a variety of ways? What do teachers share about their work in applying the mission in their teaching and language choices? How do teachers do outreach—not just for the studio but also on behalf of the studio’s mission? What is required of teachers for continuing education?

9. How are various yoga lineages, teachers, and traditions understood and discussed in the studio? What opportunities are there for teachers to speak to each other and share their understanding of yoga, bodies, teaching, and working in a yoga profession? How do studio owners relate to teachers and are they part of the yoga community?

Our diligence, self-reflection, and genuine caring are needed to allow for the complexity and contextualization of the answers to these and other questions that emerge. We also must listen—again and again—to the students who come to our classes, along with those who say they want to come, but never do.

Yoga arrived in Western culture because of specific social circumstances and it has grown in specific social soils. The studio construct is not neutral. Neither is the ashram a neutral location. We can begin to examine which practices we take for normal and which we choose to challenge. We can work with our own discomfort, find mentors and allies, and also find compassion. We can commit to doing better to build consciousness and inclusion in our places of practice.

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Kimberly Dark

Kimberly Dark

Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist, storyteller and yoga teacher. She works to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life one clever story, poem and performance at a time. She hosts two... Read more>>