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15 Influential Yogis You Need to Know

These creators, innovators, and disruptors are shaking up the way we look at, talk about, and practice yoga.

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In 2021, yoga in America looks like many things. It’s practiced in community centers, in schools, and on native lands. It’s Black and brown and queer. It’s larger-bodied. It uses a wheelchair. Yoga lives on our phones and laptops—all eight limbs of it. The days of posturing and posing are making way for nuanced conversations and debates about philosophy, healing, and appropriation.

But we wouldn’t be here without the people who put in the hard work—the individuals who took risks, spoke up, led with their hearts, and fought for justice. They put themselves out there, and showed the rest of us how to be badass and brave, and true to ourselves—and to the practice that we all love.

The face of yoga has changed. And these are the people who’ve changed it. They’ve pulled a 5,000-year-old practice into the new millennium, and are pushing it into a future that’s broad and whole and inclusive and visionary. These are the game changers.

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Rep. Jeremy Gray

(he/him/his)
Opelika, Alabama

Jeremy Gray
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Fighting for yoga in schools

This past May, Alabama State Representative Jeremy Gray (D) became the unexpected champion for yoga in America’s classrooms when he sponsored legislation to lift the state’s 28-year ban on yoga in public schools.

Passing the controversial legislation was a three-year battle—and it didn’t come without compromise: The bill bans any references to Sanskrit (including pose names), and prohibits including any spiritual aspects of the practice, such as meditation, chanting, and mantras. Parents have to sign a permission slip acknowledging that yoga comes from India and is part of Hinduism. These amendments frustrate the 35-year-old Gray, who was elected to state office in 2018 and would like to see the full practice taught in schools. Still, he believes that some yoga is better than no yoga.

Currently, Gray—who started doing yoga when he was a college athlete and graduated from yoga teacher training in 2014—is working to have terms such as “meditation” defined in the bill, and to change the language in the permission slip to expand on the way yoga is interpreted. He hopes this will allow the more transformative aspects of yoga back into schools. He’s also advising legislators and school officials from across the country on how to start pilot yoga programs in their own districts.

Gray credits yoga for helping him stay centered and positive through Alabama’s yoga debate and the demands of politics in general. “Yoga, breathing practices, and meditation helped me find clarity, purpose, blissfulness, and enlightenment,” Gray says. “[Through it] I found my true essence and stepped into my role as a leader.”

See also: Legislation, Appropriation, & the Battle Over Yoga in Schools

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Naomi Hirabayashi | Marah Lidey

(she/her/hers) | (she/her/hers)
New York City | New York City

Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

As two women of color, we were tired of not seeing our struggles represented in mainstream wellness.” —Marah Lidey

Creating inclusive mental health platforms

After more than a year of pandemic shutdown, political turmoil, and racial upheaval, people are going back to the office—but not necessarily back to normal. To ease the accompanying stress and anxiety, particularly among people of color, Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey launched Shine at Work. The app, an enhanced version of the Shine app they introduced in 2016, serves up daily affirmations and meditations that focus on the kinds of concerns that marginalized people face in the wake of current events.

“As two women of color, we were tired of not seeing our struggles represented in mainstream wellness,” says Lidey, who is Black. (Hirabayashi is half Japanese.) “Our stress, anxieties, and traumas weren’t being addressed, certainly not in meditation apps.”

Their goal is to make Shine the world’s most inclusive mental-health membership. That inclusivity starts at home: The Shine team itself is 80 percent BIPOC. “If you’ve experienced hardships because of the color of your skin, the gender you identify as, the people you love, the size of your body, your religion, or anything that made you feel otherized, you will find a home in [Shine],” Lidey says.

Feedback from the community keeps them motivated, Hirabayashi says. Their metric for success isn’t the 25,000 five-star reviews the app has received—it’s how many app reviewers refer to Shine as “life-changing.”

See also: Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health

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Natalia Tabilo

(she/her/hers)
San Francisco

(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Everybody can practice yoga—no matter if you are in a larger body, an abled body—no matter your mind, your age, or anything.” —Natalia Tabilo

Taking body image to the next level

In 2018, at the first “all levels” in-person vinyasa class Natalia Tabilo ever took, the teacher had the students move into Kakasana (Crow Pose) without much instruction or any variations for someone in a larger body like Tabilo’s. “I was already questioning the ‘all levels, everyone is welcome’ thing and thought, ‘No, this can’t be,’ ” Tabilo says.

So two years ago, after completing a teacher training, she had a clear vision that she wanted to “share that everybody can practice yoga—no matter if you are in a larger body, an abled body, no matter your mind, your age, or anything.” Tabilo, who is originally from Chile, also decided to teach in both Spanish and English. She created Yoga for All Bodies, a method of teaching based on offering variations for all poses.

Soon, local studios were asking her to teach. Tabilo, who was inspired by body-positive yoga teachers Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes, expected to have students in larger bodies in her classes; she got that, plus seniors; teenagers; and people with eating disorders, anxiety, or depression; people living with chronic illness; and more. Now Yoga for All Bodies is also a growing online platform. Tabilo also trains other teachers how to make yoga welcoming and inclusive, and hosts workshops for yoga teachers and businesses on inclusive marketing.

“I realized people were coming to class because I ask them to notice what their bodies and minds are asking for and give them the freedom to choose, and that feels amazing,” she says.

See also: Fat Shaming and Toxic Diet Culture Are Rampant in Yoga. It’s Time to Push Back

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Michelle Cassandra Johnson

(she/her/hers)
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Michelle Cassandra Johnson
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Pioneering anti-racism conversations

Michelle Cassandra Johnson started asking questions about who is (and who isn’t) becoming a yoga teacher when she was one of only two students of color in her yoga teacher training. It was 2009 and she wondered, “Why are there so few people who look like me?” The question prompted her to create a 200-hour and a 300-hour yoga teacher training program focused on the intersection of social justice and yoga, and to begin facilitating anti-racism conversations in trainings and workshops.

When she wrote Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World in 2017, it was an invitation for people to examine the interplay of power, privilege, oppression, and suffering in yoga spaces—and to take steps to make change through their practice.

“In the last two to three years, more people have started centering anti-racism conversations in their [yoga] spaces,” Johnson says. Then there was the 2020 murder of George Floyd—set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and coming on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and a string of others at the hands of police.

“All of a sudden, white-identifying people were awake to what we have been experiencing as BIPOC all along, while BIPOC folks felt utterly exhausted,” she says. Johnson’s second book, Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief, released in July, explores how members of the BIPOC community can support each other through trauma and grief.

In the past year and a half, Johnson and her staff of six have worked with nearly 1,500 people on anti-racism efforts. “My dharma is connected to uplifting things that have been covered,” she says. “I know my ancestors and Spirit brought me into this physical form to shake things up. I feel grateful for their guidance and my ability to listen to it.”

See also: How Restorative Yoga Can Help Heal Racial Wounding

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Melissa Shah

(she/her/hers)
Tongva land (colonized as Los Angeles)

Michelle Shah
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

It’s better to do your own dharma and make mistakes than to do somebody else’s.” —Melissa Shah

Decolonizing the wellness industry through yoga therapy and Ayurveda

“One of the things that stands out for me in the Bhagavad Gita is when Krishna tells Arjuna that it’s better to do your own dharma and make mistakes than to do somebody else’s,” says Melissa Shah, creator of the Find Your Breath yoga studio.

The first-generation Indian-American yoga therapist followed her own path by launching a yoga therapy platform, where she offers individual and group sessions, and an online membership centering on yoga therapy practices. She also serves as a mentor for yoga teachers looking to deepen their practice, and credits a long line of teachers for inspiring her work, including Tejal Patel, Ekta Hattangady, Chase Bossart, Tiger Rahman, Allé Kamela, Raquel Bueno, Jesal Parikh, Anjali Rao, and Pooja Virani.

Representation is a huge issue in the wellness industry, she explains. It is rare to see a South Asian yoga teacher. “There was a gap in virtual yoga therapy classes and videos that are taught by South Asian teachers, as well as classes that are breath-centered and adapted to different bodies and experiences,” Shah says. Find Your Breath offers weekly live classes, many for BIPOC only, as well as on-demand classes that honor yoga’s roots by incorporating pranayama, meditation, mantra, and more.

Next, Shah is extending that effort to Ayurveda. “I want people to understand that Ayurveda is a way of being in and seeing the world, rather than a whitewashed to-do list of ‘If I eat or don’t eat this, then this will happen,’ ” she says. “Ayurveda is about giving people the opportunity to see something differently. In Western culture, that’s discouraged. If you’re going to see something differently, you have to consider that the way you’ve been taught to see something isn’t always the most supportive way for you.”

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Heather Shereé Titus | Ravi Singh | Judy Weaver

(she/her/hers) | (he/him/his) | (she/her/hers)
Carson City, Nevada | San Diego, California | Boca Raton, Florida

Heather Sheree Titus, Ravi Singh, and Judy Weaver
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Revolutionizing yoga education

For the past 20 years, there has been only one path to becoming a qualified yoga teacher in the United States: Complete a YTT and have your name put on a registry. Yoga Unify wants to change that.

The organization, created to provide educational support and mutual accountability for yoga students and teachers, doesn’t evaluate its members’ teaching ability on a set number of training hours. Instead, they base it on basic competencies in mind-body science, a knowledge of yoga history, teaching skills, dedication to their personal practices, ethics, and an awareness of diversity and inclusion issues. Depending on the teacher’s unique lineage or specialization, they’re also evaluated by a counsel of senior teachers in that area of expertise.

“Anyone who gets a Yoga Unify qualification will be vetted by their peers, and that will uplevel the overall standards in the yoga world,” says cofounder Ravi Singh, a Kundalini Yoga practitioner with 45 years of teaching experience and the author of dozens of yoga books and videos.

Singh started planning Yoga Unify in 2019 with fellow cofounders Judy Weaver and Heather Shereé Titus. Weaver is a trauma-conscious yoga therapist and teacher with 30 years of experience and the cofounder of Connected Warriors, which offers yoga to vets. Titus cofounded the Sedona Yoga Festival.

They have made community investment central to Yoga Unify. “We’re focusing on areas of urgency in the yoga community right now: building equity and addressing stress and trauma in the wake of the multiple crises we face today,” Titus says. They’re doing this through sliding-scale fee structures, scholarships, and grants. They anticipate that as membership grows, so will the amount they’re able to contribute to the community.

See also: Does Everyone and Their Mother Really Need to Do a Yoga Teacher Training?

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Octavia Raheem

(she/her/hers)
Atlanta

Octavia Raheem
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

These practices have been transformative for me and other people who have been conditioned to think there is no rest for them.” —Octavia Raheem

Bringing rest to Black, Brown, and Indigenous women

A decade ago, Octavia Raheem—then a Power Yoga teacher—felt her spirit call her to slow down. “I remember thinking I should maybe quit yoga, because of the courage I knew it was going to take to turn my identity more toward who I really am,” she says. “Authenticity takes courage.”

Raheem’s personal slowdown translated into a movement to help Black, brown, and Indigenous women do the same. In 2016, she opened Sacred Chill {West}, a studio focused on meditation, Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga, and yoga nidra. Her teacher trainings, workshops, and programs drew yoga students from around the country—all attracted to her encouragement to rest and restore.

During the pandemic, Raheem closed the studio space and put her energy into other projects, including her 2020 book Gather, a collection of poetry, affirmations, and insights. In January 2021, she launched Devoted to Rest—a four- to six-month program for Black, brown, and Indigenous women to find community and support through yoga, meditation, and journaling. She recently completed her second book, Pause, Rest, Be, about how stillness practices can help us access courage in times of change, out February 1, 2022.

“Freedom and liberation come from practices that are still,” Raheem says. “These practices have been transformative for me and other people who have been conditioned to think there’s no rest for them. I work with Black women and women of color to unpack what it means to rest when part of your legacy in this part of the world is that your people were forced, free labor. Your whole life was work and die. We will thrive and rest.”

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Jana Long

(she/her/hers)
Baltimore

Jana Long
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Building the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance

Jana Long started the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) Facebook page with Maya Breuer in 2009 as a way to connect and support yoga teachers from the African diaspora. The community blossomed with members who were thirsty for connection and acknowledgment in an environment that has long been dominated by white teachers.

By 2016, they had evolved BYTA into a registered nonprofit providing networking and continuing education for Black yoga teachers, with a sold-out conference at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Long eventually retired from a career in newspapers and became the organization’s executive director. Under her leadership, BYTA has seen record membership numbers and donations.

“I think the touch point last year was when George Floyd was murdered,” Long says. After that horrific event, Long says people started to reach out to the organization like never before—teachers who wanted to join and organizations that wanted to support BYTA’s work.

“BYTA is not a social justice organization,” says Long, herself a practicing yoga therapist and teacher specializing in classes for seniors. “We have members who do that work and we want to support them with the tools they need by strengthening their knowledge of yoga.”

Among those tools: the Yoga as a Peace Practice curriculum, which offers practices to heal hearts and communities, along with yogic wisdom to take off the mat and into daily life. Long and the BYTA board, led by Gail Parker, PhD, have focused on yoga philosophy since the organization’s inception. “When you start hitting the fifth, sixth, seventh limbs of yoga, that’s when personal development happens,” Long says.

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Dr. Sará King

(she/her/hers)
Los Angeles

Sara King
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Connecting science, yoga, and social justice

“We cannot effectively work toward social justice in our communities without taking care of our hearts, minds, and bodies, and vice versa,” says Sará King, PhD.

With a background in neuroscience, linguistics, political science, African-American studies, and education, as well as her yoga and meditation training, King uses yoga and other somatic and contemplative practices to help people embody a sense of social justice and liberation, and to heal from intergenerational trauma. And she applies it in all kinds of ways.

This summer, she—along with Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams and Rae Johnson, PhD, co-directors of the Embodied Social Justice Certificate program—spent three months teaching more than 700 students how systemic oppression impacts people physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically.

As a postdoctoral researcher in neurology at Oregon Health Science University, King also studies the impacts of yoga and meditation on perceived discrimination and chronic pain. Her research also focuses on the impact of immersive art and mindfulness experiences on individual and collective awareness through the Artful Practices for Well-Being initiative at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

With her consulting partner, Teruko Mitsuhara, PhD, King is also working with Google Cloud to create a next-level diversity, equity, and inclusion experience. Employees participate in a three-month mindfulness- and movement-based program that helps them experience what freedom and power feel like in their bodies.

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Tristan Katz

(they/them/theirs)
Portland, Oregon

Tristan Katz
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

I teach yoga and wellness folks how to keep growing their businesses, while also staying engaged in the deeper working of being aware.” —Tristan Katz

Creating affirming yoga spaces

When Tristan Katz took a yoga teacher training in 2015, their world opened in unexpected ways.

First, it was then that they started to question gender as a construct. “I was claiming she/her pronouns, but I didn’t feel like the other women in class,” Katz says. “When I understood, finally, that nonbinary is a thing, I understood that I didn’t fit into womanhood, and never had.”

Katz also realized they had skills that could help yoga and wellness businesses. They had been working at their father’s construction-education business, helping him market and organize educational content—exactly the kind of thing yoga teachers and studios needed.

Then, studying with Michelle Cassandra Johnson (see above) gave Katz a stronger social justice lens. Everything they were doing and learning—about themself, about yoga, about business—began to align. Katz saw a niche for their work. They call it justice-focused marketing.

In 2018, they created Tristan Katz Creative, a consulting business that helps organizations market themselves with integrity and a social justice perspective. One focus is to help yoga teachers and students take steps toward creating affirming spaces for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and communicate their alliance to people in all the ways they may self-identify—including as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and Two-Spirit (the term used in some Indigenous cultures for a person who has both a masculine and a feminine spirit).

The demand for Katz’s services has grown significantly over the past couple of years. “We’ve seen the way in which taking up space [in our marketing] can be harmful if we’re doing it with a lack of awareness…of the privileged identities we hold,” explains Katz, who is also a board member at Accessible Yoga and the co-host of the All the F*ck In podcast with Lauren Roberts.

“I teach yoga and wellness folks how to keep growing their businesses, while also staying engaged in the deeper working of being aware,” says Katz, who teaches that marketing should be about relationship-building, rather than about measuring success through transactions and social media likes.

See also: Let’s Create a Safe Space for Transgender & Nonbinary Yogis

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Quentin Vennie

(he/him/his)
Baltimore

Quentin Vennie
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Building bridges to mindfulness

Twelve years ago, Quentin Vennie was struggling with depression, anxiety, and an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. Suicidal and alone, he started researching ways to heal through alternative medicine. First, he started juicing. Then he came across YouTube videos by Tara Stiles and began to explore yoga. He started to feel better. “Yoga found me when I was at rock bottom,” he says.

Vennie took a yoga teacher training, but decided teaching wasn’t for him. “Instead, I felt I could be a bridge builder, and make this healing practice more accessible to people who look like me and come from where I come from,” he says. Vennie served as the vice president of the Yoga Alliance Foundation in 2019.

The author of Strong in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Addiction and Redemption Through Wellness, today Vennie works to normalize conversations about mental health through his social platforms, podcasts, and an upcoming book on creating an anxiety-free home.

These days, he also pours his time into his new tea company, EquiTEA, and mindful gardening—at his home and as the creator of school gardening programs. “Just being outside for 10 minutes basking in the sun changes your mindset,” he says.

Critical to Vennie’s work is helping people become aware of and work through difficult emotions. “As long as we’re able to stay present in these moments, we are creating a space where anxiety and depression can’t exist,” he says.

See also: Rates of Trauma and Addiction Are Skyrocketing. Yoga Can Help

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Haley Laughter

(she/her/hers)
Gallup, New Mexico

Haley Laughter
(Illustration: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo)

Our ancestors were yogis, too. We use ceremony to create a path toward empowerment and realize the sacredness of who we are.” —Haley Laughter

Organizing Indigenous yoga teachers

In the 1960s, Haley Laughter’s Navajo parents were among the thousands of children taken from their homes and put into boarding schools designed to strip them of their Indigenous identities. Laughter’s own childhood was marked by alcohol, chaos, and domestic violence. “I inherited my parents’ trauma,” she explains. Now, she’s trying to heal herself and other Indigenous people who had similar experiences.

After completing yoga teacher training and opening Four Corners Yoga studio in 2011, Laughter founded the nonprofit Hozho Total Wellness in 2015. The mobile organization travels from reservation to reservation in New Mexico, teaching workshops and leading events that combine yogic philosophy with Indigenous traditions, such as a connection to nature. “Every class I teach is ceremony to me,” she says. “I end my classes by saying Hózhó náhásdlíí’, meaning, ‘It has become beauty again.’ ”

When she started Hozho Total Wellness, many people in the Indigenous community wondered if yoga was for them. She helps them see the connection between yoga and native traditions. “Our ancestors were yogis, too,” she says. “We use ceremony to reset our chakra system and create a path toward empowerment and realizing the sacredness of who we are.”

When she began, Laughter was one of the few Indigenous yoga teachers. Now, the teaching community has grown to about 25. To help them organize and share experiences, Laughter is creating the Indigenous Yoga Instructors Association on Facebook. Next she plans to create an Indigenous yoga teacher training and organize an Indigenous Yoga Day.

“My mission is to heal our people and bring them together through yoga,” Laughter says.