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6 Conversations That Yogis, Teachers, & Activists Are Having About Inclusivity - Yoga Journal

Live Be Yoga: 6 Conversations That Yogis, Teachers, & Activists Are Having About Inclusivity

Aris Seaberg reports on discussions about the not-so-pretty side of the practice, acknowledges how she has contributed to the problem—and ideas that will help create progress.
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Live Be Yoga ambassadors Jeremy Falk and Aris Seaberg are on a road trip across the country to share real talk with master teachers, explore innovative classes, and so much more—all to illuminate what's in store for the future of yoga. 

As we rounded out the first section of the tour in Nashville, I reflected on one word that consistently surfaced in the communities and with the teachers we visited and interviewed:

INCLUSIVITY.

This kicked off at the very start of the tour at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, where Jeremy and I attended a panel about the #MeToo movement and other ethical issues facing yoga today. The evening began with the acknowledgement that the goal was not to solve the problems but to bring them into the light. As a result, panelists and audience members alike launched conversations about: representation of all genders, races, and body types in mainstream media and events; whether teacher trainings should equip teachers with the knowledge of how to work with all bodies, to create a safe space for all genders and races, and to use trauma-informed tools; Yoga Alliance’s role in policing allegations of assault; and painful stories of assault in the yoga space.

It was as if the panel planted seed for the tour—and in my awareness, since this was the first time I’d ever joined a discussion on these topics. As we traveled from NYC, to DC, to Charlotte, to Tampa, and to Nashville, the seed started to sprout. We have had the opportunity to hear so many more stories—some good, some heartbreaking—about how yoga has impacted people’s lives. No matter where we visit, we are hearing calls to action for yoga to be more accessible and inclusive.

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For too long in the West, influential media platforms morphed this practice—that at its core has effective tools for anybody (literally, ANY BODY)—into a fancy workout routine for those who can afford it. Yoga marketing is rife with thin, white women in designer yoga apparel, bending their bodies into beautiful yet mostly inaccessible poses. Then it trickled down: Yoga teachers started emulating that formula to thrive in a career that united their passion and work.

I now look back and see how I have personally contributed to this problem: I briefly owned a yoga studio, and much of what I learned about marketing was based on targeting an affluent demographic to ensure that I could pack classes in the ever-growing (and overcrowded) sea of yoga studios in Southern California. I truly did want to create an inclusive community that offered yoga for many types of people, but I understand now how my approach may have undermined my intentions and the values of yoga. This has a tangible impact on who feels welcomed into a studio and how people experience yoga.

A common thread from so many yogis we spoke to was that, when they first encountered yoga in the typical yoga studio, they didn’t feel welcomed, supported, or included. As a result, they began forming their own groups in community centers or parks. While it is beautiful to see perseverance in action and to hear the stories of dedicated teachers who created safe spaces for a variety of practitioners, it is unfortunate that there is still a separation within a community that is supposed to support unity.

As we continue to have these discussions with yogis from all walks of life, we are listening with open ears. That’s the first step in creating a yoga community that truly is for all. Some ideas may contradict others; many trigger different thoughts and feelings. But, just like the panel, what is important is not to find an immediate answer but that we use the tools of yoga to come TOGETHER to share these hard-to-have discussions. If we can approach these talks as yogis, with the openness to understand and be understood, we can work through issues in more impactful ways.

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These conversations can be uncomfortable, and that’s OK. This discomfort is key to putting yoga's tools to good use when you’re off the mat. As a Live Be Yoga ambassador, I’d like to use this platform to report on the conversations and ideas that yogis, teachers, and activists across the country have shared on how to make yoga more inclusive:

  1. It starts with yoga teachers. Teacher training curriculums should have sections that discuss how to support different body types, age groups, and cultures.

  2. Yoga Alliance should require all teacher trainings to have a section about inclusivity.

  3. Talk about it! Host a discussion of your own within your community to start the conversation and come together. (This is how one group of yogis in Charlotte did it.)

  4. The marketing and media world holds power and should work harder to portray yoga as a practice for all.

  5. Classes that are labeled as “All Levels” are actually not supportive to all students. (Jeremy wrote about that here.) Writing detailed and specific class descriptions can direct people to the class that is most appropriate and beneficial for them. Ultimately, it helps avoid excluding yogis on the mat.

  6. Yoga teaches us to be in the seat of the observer. Whether you are an instructor or student, this awareness helps you better understand your own thoughts and feelings. Many yogis have expressed that we live in a hypersensitive culture and must use the practice to understand where reactions come from. Are they are valid, or are they are projections? Perhaps they are a bit of both, but the key is to not point the finger at others. Direct awareness inward to create space for learning and growth.

Even though yoga has evolved and embedded itself more deeply into our daily culture, we still have a lot of work to do. “Yoga is a microcosm of what’s happening in the world,” says Grace Millsap, Charlotte-based teacher and activist. “We are not exempt from these issues, and sometimes they become even more hush-hush, as the yoga community is supposed to be a safe space.”

However, based on the progress and positivity of activists and teachers we’ve met—like body-positive advocate Jessamyn Stanley; Raquel Bueno, owner of Liberation Yoga Nashville; and organizations like Urban Yoga Foundation—I’m encouraged. Yogis have tools that allow us to come from a place of depth and awareness. 

As Jeremy and I continue this epic journey across the country, we are ready to engage in more deep and difficult-to-discuss topics—and do a lot of listening. My hope in reporting and starting these conversations on the not-so-pretty side of yoga is that it allows for conscious and mindful discussions to take place. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Follow the tour and get the latest stories in real time @livebeyoga on Instagram and Facebook.