Leadership Lab: Kerrie J. Kauer on Power, Privilege and Practice

A Gender Studies professor describes her dream yoga class.

In this four-part series, and lululemon athletica introduce the panelists and moderators participating in the Practice of Leadership conversation on Friday, September 19th at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, CO. Stay tuned for thoughtful—and thought-provoking—interviews with these trailblazing yogis, teachers and social justice activists.

Kerrie J. Kauer, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She combines her academic training, which focuses on gender equity, social justice, women’s leadership and LGBTQ identities, with her passion for yoga and is an advisor to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition as well as a contributor to the Yoga and Body Image anthology. Find out more at What first brought you to yoga?
Kerrie J. Kauer:
I started doing a bit of yoga in my doctoral program around 2003/2004. I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t stick with it after graduate school. It wasn’t until about three years later that I began a consistent and regular practice. I started having serious knee pain due to osteoarthritis caused by an old basketball injury. My pain subsided—and I started reaping many of the benefits that comes with a consistent practice. I was hooked! What inspired you to become an advocate?
K.J.K.: Seeing and paying attention to what other leaders in the yoga community are doing really inspires me. There are so many people doing extraordinary work in prisons, schools, homeless shelters and detention centers, and work with survivors of domestic violence and PTSD. It was a natural blend for me since a lot of my research and teaching is around social justice, feminism and diversity with regard to the body and human movement. I feel very passionate about how yoga can be transformative and I want to be an advocate for the practice to counter some of the dominant narratives and images people might assume about yoga. People often talk about the “yoga community.” What does that mean to you?
I’m actually not sure. Yoga has become so big, and there are divergent communities that are practicing. My yoga community exists in the studios where I teach, where I practice and with the relationships I have made through yoga. What visible barriers do you see working against diversity in the yoga world?
I believe the main visible barriers that work against diversity are mediated images of yoga that people see in magazines, on social media and in advertisements for yoga apparel. We are a consumer capitalist culture, so this is what is on the frontlines for people to “consume” if they know nothing else about yoga. The images tend to reflect a homogenous group that look like thin, young, white, cis-gendered, hetero women. I’ve spoken to so many people who believe yoga is not “for them” because their bodies (e.g., queer, fat, black, old, differently-abled) do not fit into this ideal. The lack of this imagery not only works to exclude diverse students of race, body shape and size, but also sends subtle—but just as dangerous—messages about the health, motivation or desire of those who are excluded. I also think that the diversity of people practicing yoga in studios across the country reflects a predominately thin, white, middle to upper class population, so if you are a person of color, or queer, or fat or curvy, you don’t see yourself in those classes, and that is a major issue. You probably don’t see yourself in the teachers, the studio advertisements or in the spaces themselves. What about invisible barriers?
Some invisible barriers include language around gender, sexual orientation, ability and body image. I have heard so many comments throughout studios where teachers assume something about a body based only on narrow and essentialized understandings of gender (e.g., “all women move like this”), or make comments about “one more Navasana to get that bikini belly” and these comments can be incredibly offensive and exclusionary. That’s not entirely their fault either. There are very few 200-hour teacher trainings that include diversity and social justice components to their curriculum. Social class is also an invisible barrier, and people that might greatly benefit from yoga often can’t afford drop-in rates, or packages to have the experience of practicing with a community and a knowledgeable teacher. What does yoga miss when it lacks diversity?
K.J.K.: Yoga misses the richness of groups and the excellence difference can bring to a classroom and a community. When any group or community is homogenized, they tend to reproduce the same thoughts and ideas. When there are inclusive and diverse groups, they are more excellent because a variety of ideas, thoughts, and experiences culminate to create change and new ways of thinking and interpreting ideas. It’s about inclusive excellence, not diversity for the sake of diversity. The more diverse we are as a yoga community, the stronger and more excellent we will be. What do people miss when yoga doesn’t speak to them?
Sometimes, when people tell me, “I am not flexible,” or “I don’t look like the yogi on a magazine cover,” I think these students miss an opportunity to find the many benefits yoga has to offer, such as peace of mind, better sleep, improved strength and flexibility and a better connection to Self and their bodies (just to name a few). And one of the biggest surprises for me was the sense of community and the friendships I have made through yoga. I have met some really interesting, smart, funny and genuine people through yoga that I never would have met in my professional or personal circles—that has been one of the best gifts! So I think they miss that, too. Paint a picture of an amazing yoga class:
An amazing yoga class is one that is filled with diverse students with regard to race, gender, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, gender expression, and body image. Everyone is moving, breathing, chanting, and sharing that energy with one another. And there’s also a little bit of interpretive dance involved.

YJ: Okay, lightning round. Fill in the blanks:
YJ: Today, yoga ___
… is very popular and is quickly changing both as a cultural phenomenon and as a diverse set of practices.

YJ: Tomorrow, yoga ___
K.J.K.: … should be more diverse and less based on consumer capitalism and reflective of a different model so that healing and change can happen for everyone. That might be a bit idealist, but it is my hope!

YJ: Yoga needs more ___
K.J.K.:diverse imagery, teachers, spaces, and leaders as well as more inclusive language and practices so people feel less intimidated, a sense of belonging, and freedom to join.

YJ: I encourage all yogis to ___
K.J.K.: … think critically about and become reflective of their practice, their studios spaces, and who is included and who is not. I hope that everyone in the yoga community realizes that they have agency and the ability to make change, and part of that change might be recognizing their own privileged position and taking responsibility to make yoga more inclusive and accessible. The personal transformation that often occurs through a yoga practice has the ability to move toward broader social and cultural change.

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