Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
For years, I stood behind the desk of a well-known yoga chain, watching as students hurried through the doors. They’d drop their canvas bags and jangling keys on the counter and exhale their names to me, eager as kids at a pool party to hop into class.
It was my job to tell new arrivals where the water fountain and studios were and direct them to the locker rooms—“men’s” or “women’s.” As a trans person and longtime yoga student and teacher, my stomach lurched each time someone was gendered. I asked one of my nonbinary (an umbrella term for genders other than male and female) students, Mel, to reflect on this experience: “I felt misunderstood and embarrassed,” they told me. “As an adult, I know how to find the correct locker room.”
The gender binary’s presence in contemporary yoga is based in the white, patriarchal norms of Colonial America. The more than 500 Indigenous nations in what is now known as North America varied greatly in their traditional expressions of gender, as did the enslaved people forcefully moved here from Africa. Decolonial feminists, such as María Lugones and Gloria Anzaldúa, posit that enforcing the gender binary explicitly and implicitly subdued Indigenous practices like matrilineality, fertility affirmation, and nonbinary gender expressions—empowering white, cisgender (someone whose gender is exclusively the one they were assigned at birth) male landowners—and we can see the result in our yoga spaces today.
When it comes to gender in the yoga studio and creating equitable and inclusive practice spaces, our words and actions carry the power to foster either harm or ahimsa (nonharming)—which of those paths we follow, and pave for fellow practitioners, is a choice.
This is why I opened Courageous Yoga in Denver, Colorado, in July. Here, we believe yoga is a liberation practice that must center a very specific form of ahimsa: anti-oppression work. Common practices that support the trans and nonbinary community include teachers verbalizing their own pronouns, asking community members for theirs, and normalizing the use of they/them/their rather than assuming students use “he” or “she.” We also provide all-gender restrooms, ask for consent before touching, and use inclusive language in the classroom—such as “friends” or “y’all”—that does not reinforce gender norms. Language is a symptom of how we’ve been conditioned to think about gender; for this reason, our staff undergoes anti-oppression training that supports us in challenging the very social conditioning that establishes the norms that inadvertently or unknowingly create harm in yoga spaces.
Further adaptations to the environment and to business models can help create safety and belonging for trans and nonbinary folks. For example, studio owners should take inventory of how gender is represented in décor and reading materials, among the staff (from front desk to cleaning to teaching), as well as in the organizations or third-party businesses they partner with. But as important as it is to make changes to the physical makeup—the visible elements of our spaces—it’s vital that we don’t default to a performative antidote or quick fix but rather encourage people to examine and challenge what they believe, have been taught, and perpetuate about gender.
Promoting true inclusion for transgender and nonbinary students and staff must include examining the root of the issue: the structural realities that contour our viewpoints.
For example, the gender binary is explicitly visible in polarized locker rooms, student registration forms that ask students to identify as male or female, and retail items for men and women. The classification also reveals itself through words, such as greeting a group as “ladies” or encouraging the “guys” in the room to challenge their upper-body strength. I’ve even seen teachers hand out strength-training tools in colors they think align with a person’s perceived gender.
That’s how it works, after all: The gender binary normalizes certain expectations founded on our perceived identities, often at the expense of the oppressed group. “Yoga studios have often left me feeling invisible, excluded, even shameful,” Mel told me. “This might be a ‘healing’ space for some, but because of my identity, I’m usually excluded from that shared feeling of safety.”
No matter how we identify, these unspoken norms inhibit our potential, our connection to the nurturance of nature, and our body’s nondual and inherent wisdom. Changing how we endorse or question the gender binary and the patriarchal norms that it stems from might not be easy, but it is necessary if we wish to create inclusive yoga and healing spaces.
Fortunately, we have a practice that teaches us how to move skillfully with challenge and embody true expressions of ahimsa.
Interested in diving deeper?
Join Smiley in November for his online training, Bending the Binary: Creating Yoga Spaces Inclusive to Trans, Queer, and Non-Binary Practitioners, available at courageousyoga.us. For further reading, resources, and toolkits, visit The 519, a Canadian city agency that promotes the health, happiness, and participation of the LGBTQ2S communities, at the519.org.