Since last summer’s racial reckoning, as critical conversations about inclusivity, equity, and accessibility spilled into the mainstream yoga community, a growing number of teachers started offering scholarships to their programs.
The idea behind these full or partial grants—which eliminate or significantly lower the financial barriers to registration—is that they invite folks into trainings, workshops, and classes who may not have otherwise considered joining them. Many teachers have considered offering them a form of seva (service), especially during the pandemic, which has driven yoga programs online, shuttered yoga studios, and left people out of work. Importantly, though, scholarships can help create more diverse, more enriching yoga spaces.
“As a white-led organization, I think we have a responsibility to offer scholarships and make our programs accessible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC),” says Jivana Heyman, founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to access to the practice of yoga and advocating for an equitable yoga culture. “Scholarships play an essential role in sharing power. Rather than you trying to enter a community outside of your own and being the white instructor, it’s better to create opportunities for people to become leaders and teachers in their own communities.”
His organization fulfilled upwards of $80,000 in scholarships in 2020. “We wanted to value what we offer, while finding an approach that’s fair, balanced, and effective,” he says. His team put more thought and time into the scholarship process than any other aspect of program planning. As Heyman says, accessibility is complex.
Are You Ready to Offer Scholarships to Your Yoga Program?
There isn’t one “right” way to offer scholarships. At the same time, if you are a white teacher with the intention of welcoming practitioners from marginalized communities, there are situations in which you may inadvertently cause harm.
“I want folks to make their yoga programs and yoga teacher programs more accessible, but scholarships may not be the first thing on their list. I want them to be doing the work that comes with that,” says Stephanie Hicks, PhD, founder of Yoga for Black Lives and social justice educator. “If your intention is to make your teacher training more inclusive or accessible, make sure it genuinely comes from wanting to be a part of the development of yoga teachers, who feel both seen and heard in terms of their identities and feel celebrated and centered when appropriate.”
Have you asked yourself why you want to include folks from different communities? “I think sometimes people aren’t sure, or don’t think about the value that BIPOC members bring to the program,” says Rajni Tripathi, executive director of the Yoga Service Council. “Do you want to add a diversity of opinions and experiences to enrich the cohort you’re creating?” (Of course, there is a difference between welcoming the folks in your program and creating space for their perspectives—and expecting them to perform emotional labor and educate the room on their race and culture. Use discernment.)
Also, if you’re approaching a scholarship initiative because it’s something to check off a marketing list or because it’s a popular thing to say you’ve done at a time when more people are learning and discussing issues around race, gender, and equity, you may need to hit pause.
“I am not interested in being a part of someone’s program where I know that they are going to get more out of my representation than I’m going to get out of the experience,” says Dr. Hicks. “I don’t think people have that intention, but that’s what happens in the impact.”
If you’re feeling unsure, invest in inclusivity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression trainings, so you can get a handle on dynamics around power and privilege and become more aware of the ways you may inadvertently cause harm.
How to Design Scholarships for Your Yoga Programs
Ready to move forward? Our experts generally agreed that setting up scholarships is a process that requires thoughtfulness and community involvement, along with an expectation that things will evolve as you move forward. Plus, your initial groundwork will help dictate how it’s received in the community. Here, a list of things to keep in mind as you’re setting up your scholarship program.
Clarify the Community You’re Trying to Reach
Who are you inviting? How will this community combine with your own to co-create a space that enriches the overall experience, and how will you help facilitate that? Be specific: Are you hoping to reach BIPOC students and teachers? LGBTQIA+ practitioners? Folks with disabilities? Or is it strictly financial need?
Also, Tripathi suggests thinking about ways to go beyond ethnicity or culture that may bridge back to various communities. As an example, she offers scholarships to healthcare practitioners, so if a nurse who is also a yoga practitioner from Bangladesh joins, she may bring in a whole different set of perspectives and opinions.
Determine Your Offering
How many scholarships are you offering? Are they full, partial, or a combination of both? “It can be challenging to decide how many scholarships you’re offering, because it feels like you can give more and more,” says Heyman, who decided in his most recent training to offer partial scholarships in order to benefit more applicants. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the actual expense of doing this?’ Is it simply lost revenue?”
For example, consider the workload for your staff. Is the training getting too big, in terms of student-to-admin ratio, which overwhelms your systems and diminishes the quality of the experience for the overall group? It’s okay to strike a balance. (If you have limited admin help, community pricing is an approach to accessibility you can take on with minimal processing. Read more about that here.)
Craft Your Application Process
Our experts generally said that applications are helpful, because it provides a space for applicants to share a bit about themselves. You want to create a genuine connection through your application—but avoid creating an experience that requires applicants to “perform” their trauma in order to be considered. There are a variety of approaches out there.
One suggestion is to ask all practitioners interested in joining, whether they are applying for a scholarship or not, to fill out an application, Tripathi says. Asking questions across the board can help you curate an appropriate cohort for your program. For example, perhaps you want to ensure that folks can join virtual sessions live, so there is minimal disruption in a training.
“Additionally, I would suggest having a different application for scholarships, where students provide more insight about themselves and why they wish to join the program,” she says, going on to say that she recommends that you run programs with co-teachers, so you can all review submissions together, to help control for implicit bias.
On the other hand, Heyman’s organization was receiving so many applications that they decided to create a custom form through Google. By automating the process, he felt that they eliminated any potential impact of implicit bias. The form allowed folks to check off various intersections of identity. Are they yoga teachers, do they have a financial need, are they BIPOC, are they disabled, do they serve marginalized groups in their work? Each question was assigned a point value. In the end, the form generated a list of names by point value, and there were various tiers of discounts based on the applicants’ points.
Ask for Help
Once you start packaging your scholarship language and application, get two to three sets of eyes on your copy. You’ll want students or teachers from the community you’re trying to reach to review it—but practice discernment and only reach out to folks with whom you’ve built mutual trust and honesty. “Recognize which relationships can hold that authenticity, because not every multi-ethnic relationship has that authenticity there,” says Tripathi. Can’t think of anyone? That’s probably a sign that you still have work to do.
Be Open to Constructive Feedback
Keep the door open to genuine interactions. “Think of it as the beginning of a conversation as opposed to something that you do once, and that’s going to be the end of it. You might want to get comfortable with the idea that, no matter how you frame your scholarship program, you may mess up,” says Dr. Hicks, “When you’re new at anything, there’s a likelihood of stumbling.”
Expect to Evolve
Language is always changing, so you need to continue attuning to the best way to communicate with different communities. For example, five years ago, the term BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ weren’t the terminology we used; in another five years it’s possible that that may change. “No group of people is monolithic in terms of how they describe themselves, and folks are always thinking of new ways to describe themselves,” says Hicks.
In other words, anticipate that your best practices now may shift. Heyman agrees: “We’ve gone through many iterations of the process in the last few years.”
Resources to Deepen Your Practice and Teaching
- Want to learn how to create a more welcoming space? Join Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD. for her six-week, on-demand workshop, Inclusivity Training for Yoga. You’ll learn how to use more compassionate and inclusive language and so much more.
- Plus, Jivana offers Chair Yoga 101, a five-week, on-demand workshop to help learn how to make your practice and classes more accessible. Watch the free intro session here.
- Finally, join Rajni in her two-part series, Awakening the Sacred Feminine Through Meditation. You’ll learn the science and practice of how to tap into your intuition and wisdom within through your practice. (Available for Active Pass members.)