Is American Yoga Racist?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Deklofenak
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It was late summer, and the young white middle-class women that run the Power of Om Yoga Studio in idyllic Santa Barbara, CA were bored. Suddenly, they struck upon a novel idea. Let’s invite our friends and neighbors to dress up like “Black people.” And not just any Black people, but Black people from the “ghetto,” a place, more imagined than real, perhaps, given the town’s – and their own — demographics. So, up went a giant poster inviting local resident to attend the studio’s first-ever “Ghetto-Fabulous” yoga session. They thought it would be good simple fun.
This was no mere flight of fancy. The women photographed themselves as a group, splaying their hands and fingers as if they were members of a street gang. The poster encouraged attendees to wear “corn rows,” “snap back caps,” or a “grill” (shiny metal worn over the teeth) and offered to provide “do-rags” and other appropriate ghetto wear free at the door. Did the American yoga community even notice? There was a brief blog post on Yoga Dork, with a handful of commentaries about what many deemed a bizarre and regrettable incident. But Yoga World, beset by scandal since the demise of John Friend and Anusara Yoga and the publication of a book by a New York Times reporter bemoaning widespread injuries and poorly trained yoga teachers and calling for stronger regulation of the industry, quickly moved on to happier news.
Arguably, this was a classic “teachable” moment – a time for reflection and dialogue by American yoga industry as a whole about its underlying assumptions about race, class and privilege. But all such moments, to be truly meaningful, require sustained reflection and dialogue, with active participation by those most stigmatized or offended by what’s transpired. And there’s the rub: while precise data on the racial composition of the estimated 20 million yoga practitioners nationwide are hard to come by, the industry’s racial narrowness – if not outright exclusivity — is plain to see. Open the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal and you’ll find dozen of glossy photos of trim and immaculately coiffed women attired in expensive stretch-wear demonstrating what yoga can do to keep you slim, calm and sexy – as the title of a book by yoga super-star Tara Stiles once put it. But you’ll find few if any people of color in those pages. Subscribers to Yoga Journal are high-powered suburban women on the go, mostly upscale and decidedly white, and the magazine, as most expensive publications do, reflects its core readership. It’s not up to us to lead on race, and possibly jeopardize our bottom line, their publishers typically say.
The fact is yoga is deeply embedded in America’s economic and racial social structure, in ways that are becoming more apparent – and indeed, more embarrassing — with time. Take the growing number of neighborhood yoga studios, which in some cities are nearly as ubiquitous as a Starbucks. Back in the day, when yoga was still a niche practice, yoga teachers held classes in their apartments or at local recreation centers, and frequently charged what students could afford. Now, the industry is so much about the “Benjamins” that real estate developers look to high-rent yoga studios as harbingers of “urban redevelopment”, the same way they once eagerly promoted shoe or grocery outlets as “anchor” stores. It’s a form of capitalist symbiosis that’s affecting every area of the yoga consumer market — from clothing and cosmetics to food and even beer – indeed, anywhere the purchasing power of affluent white women can help investors turn a hefty profit. It’s also infusing yoga culture with a set of values that tends to marginalize the African-American experience, and keeps real Black people on the margin – “ghettoized,” in fact — while leaving them prey to the kind of white cultural projections on display in Santa Barbara.