Is the Yoga Community Creating a Sense of Otherness?

The concept of “otherness” has come up for me a lot lately. Whether it’s in the context of yoga, education, or mental health, I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself how my communities unintentionally exclude others. Yoga Modern’s Managing Editor, Chelsea Roff, wrote a great post about hierarchies in communities. In her words, we flock to communities because their members confirm, “I see you. I value you, and you’re wanted here.” 

I wonder, though, about those who can’t or don’t seek out community. Or worse, those who are met with exclusion. How many people come to yoga wanting to hear “I see you” and hear only silence?

slow down, slow down, slow...
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Just last weekend I taught my first yoga class in a studio. A bit anxious before the class began, I flipped through the September/October issue of YogaChicago, and an article about Molly Lannon Kenny, creator of Integrated Movement Therapy®, caught my eye. In it she discusses the need for yoga teachers to embody the concept of bodhisattva, a Buddhist term she describes as

…one who has the attitude of ‘I feel so humbled by the body, mind, and soul, and circumstances I was born into. I am so grateful for the opportunities and to have the money to go and study yoga. I feel so blessed by all of this that it is my life’s orientation to be a better person. I want to serve and help other people. That’s my life”.

Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s why I’m here. I recommitted on the spot to this intention of devoting my life to the service of others through my work in yoga and trauma counseling  – not as a savior, but as someone seeking liberation alongside my students, my clients. Class shortly thereafter, rocky and a bit mangled as many first attempts might be, was richer as a result.

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Yet, daily — from magazines, to clothes, to accessories, yoga styles, to yoga conferences and trainings that cost hundreds and thousands of dollars — our community seems to be encouraging a very different ideal.

We are bombarded by the commercial yoga “shtick” of sexy and seductive.

As an emerging yogi, I find myself vacillating between the image of yoga presented by the media and the one Kenny talks about, the yoga of service and surrender.  At one end I am susceptible to the manufactured yoga goddess image myself, and at the other I am finding the strength to declare the lunacy of such an ideal. And sometimes it’s difficult enough to recognize when hypocrisy hijacks integrity, let alone raise my voice when it does.

Yoga Bums
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I wonder, however, if this hypocrisy does more than just perpetuate damaging sexist stereotypes. Does it also continue to marginalize populations our westernized yoga culture has dismissed, furthering a paradigm of otherness? Look around in your next yoga class. Who do you see practicing beside you?

Chances are the majority are white, middle class females in sound physical shape. Hey, no shame in being a white middle-class female; I’m one, too. In the classes I frequent, however, there are typically only a handful of men (although word on the street is this is changing), and women of color are few and far between. I rarely see men of color or a female  larger than a US clothing size 12.

Many studios offer discounts for students, but there are few that provide support for parents of one-income families, folks just struggling, or for the unemployed outside of weekly community classes  . It’s no wonder, after all, since the “face” of yoga we see in the mainstream media represents anything but the increasingly multicultural and physically and socioeconomically diverse population in the United States. We could write entire posts about the intersectionality of access, economics, provocative marketing, and consumerism, but a more urgent question to me is this:

Is our community creating a sense of otherness?

If, as Molly Lannon Kenny posits, our life as yogis should be oriented toward serving everyone, how did we get here? How did we get from bodhisattva to ballyhoo, and more importantly, how do we get back? Can we ever go back?

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Lara Veon is a regular contributor to Yoga Modern. She also works as a body-centered psychotherapist and consults for Mindful Practices, a school wellness organization bringing yoga and wellness programs to schools and educators throughout the country. Her home is Chicago, IL where you can find her loving, laughing, and most likely standing on her head.

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