Only fit, white, women in yoga? I beg to differ.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of diversity in the yoga community. It’s a common and agreed upon assumption that the singular and insular demographic of the typical yoga studio.

But perpective is all about the angle at which you view things. And I have a different perspective.

It is undeniable that the yoga industry (and all it’s accoutrements) is a product of the white, female, upper class demographic that’s in the majority at most  suburban and urban elite yoga studios. But assessing yoga community from capitalistic, comercial perspective misses the point. There is more to the community than where  all the money of the yoga industry lives and grows.

In fact, the population of yogis in America and across the world is incredibly diverse.

Creative Commons License photo credit: chantel beam photography

Yoga is being taught in juvenile halls, long-term care facilities, and church basements. It’s taught in Rwandan villages, neighborhood centers, and homeless shelters, where the only thin white female you might see is the yoga teacher.

I have a challenge for you.

If you look around your yoga class and see only practitioners with the same skin color, body type, and socioeconomic status… change your routine. Take a different route into your practice. Expose yourself to the true diversity that is the yoga community of the present moment.

If there is a problem with age, class, race and gender segregation in our yoga community, it has far more to do with the gentrification of our neighborhoods, the punitive and corrupt practices of our justice system, and the inequality of corporate financial systems than it does with yoga commercialism.

Doing yoga is not going to change anything if you limit yourself to the same class and studio every day. 

Yes, the “commercial yoga schtick of sexy and seductive” is a problem (as one of our wonderful contributors pointed out). However, you have a choice of how much you participate in it. You are not stuck in your homogenous context, and we do not have to be stuck talking about it as a problem. Let’s be problem solvers instead. Yoga is exploding with diversity. You just have to seek it out.

Do you think the lack of diversity in yoga is really a product of commercialism?

Posted by:

- who has written 31 posts on Yoga Modern.

Lauren Znachko is a yogi and writer in Chicago. She travels to the jungle, lives in the city and although she begins each day with a cup of coffee and never leaves the house without her iphone, she finds at least a moment each day with the page and on the mat. The art of combining an embodied life experience and expressing that it with crafted word is what inspires her to teach and write in a way that brings unity to the many communities of which she is a part.

25 Responses

  • lifeisGR8 says:

    Hmm, interesting thoughts. First I think the commercialism of yoga, with retailers like Lucy and Lululemon, would have you think that everyone is caucasian, size 2 or 4, and in their Gen Y Gen X years. I have yet to be in one of their stores, where I see an ethnically, or size diverse sales associate. Not sure what they are looking for in their hiring practices…but an interesting thought.

    As for ethnically diverse, I am a 5'2", size 6 or 8 depending on what day it is, 3rd generation Asian American woman, who practices yoga with an age diverse( 40 y/o+) class of caucasian women in a church auditorium. Our group is simply the product of our neighborhood. I have sought out more diversity and recently got involved with Yoga Activist, who also believes yoga benefits all, no matter the clothing, size, socio-economics or ethnicity.

    • Katherine says:

      the Lucy in my neighbor (affluent area in Houston, TX) has a really diverse sales staff in terms of size and ethnicity. I far prefer it to the lululemon directly across the way because that lululemon is full of thing white women who I've seen out for cigarette breaks while wearing their workout wardrobes.

    • arakawabunga says:

      Lucy and Lululemon cater to the upper white demographic of our society. I am Asian and 5'1" and depending on the day am a size 8 or 10. I have short limbs.

      I take yoga up in Boulder, CO and they have some of the best teachers taught by Richard Freeman @ the Yoga Studio. Boulder, CO demographic is upper class and white. I wish I could find a diverse yoga school up in Boulder with some color.

  • Raini says:

    I have to agree with your assessment of diversity being present. We all see the world through filters. One of my filters is race so I'm a little sensitive about this when interacting with others. Everyone assumes I'm white and middle class. My hereditary ethnicity is incredibly mixed: my paternal ethnicity is Portuguese, Basque and Cherokee Indian and my maternal ethnicity is Irish and Adirondack Indian. Most of my family looks very European with olive skin and dark hair, my mother with red skin and dark hair. I am more hispanic and Indian than white, but I have the recessive Irish genes of dark blonde-red hair. As far as assuming I'm middle-class, I grew up lower middle class in the 70s, but was surrounded by propriety and manners and I'm now a professor at a community college. So I conduct myself in a manner commonly associated with the "educated" middle class. My economic status is FAR from middle class.

    My question to everyone: are you viewing the world with preconceived notions? It's 2011. Can you break free from this?

    I'm encouraged by the diversity I see at my yoga studio, be it body shape, race, gender, age, or economic status.

  • Carol Horton says:

    Great post. It is more complex than just yoga commercialism. Yet, it would be wrong to deny the important role that that plays.

    It's also true that perhaps not every community out there equally needs or wants yoga. I taught at a studio in a neighborhood that's about 50/50 white/black, and while there were some black students in the yoga classes, it was a very very small percentage. More came to other classes. Yoga didn't seem to resonate so deeply. I have various theories as to why, which I won't go into here.

    But beyond what everyone has said already, which I agree with, I just wanted to add (making everything even more complicated) that at least in some cases, the lack of diversity may simply be a reflection of the fact that other modalities of exercise, spirituality, or whatever appeal more to different groups, and that if that's what's really going on, then that's OK.

    That said, the situation that I described is a very unique one – there are very few such integrated neighborhoods around – so in general, the call to seek out a more diverse environment proactively is going to be more relevant.

    • Lauren says:

      Carol, I'm glad you brought this up because a similar question came into my mind while writing this. There is the possibility that the way we have shaped and manufactured yoga in our communities might simply not appeal to certain demographics because of exposure and experience. While this does not have to stop the conversation, it is a good thing to wonder about. Thanks for speaking up and sharing your experience!

  • Lauren Znachko says:

    Listening to all the comments here and on fb and twitter I am realizing that a part of our problem with saying that there is no diversity in our studios is that we are blind to the mixing of ethnicities and races in our own blood. We are so quick to call people "white" when in fact many people who might appear caucasian actually identify with a different race or ethnicity. Thank you all for being proud of your heritage. It is inspiring.

  • I take African dance classes which are open to the white community, offered in a mixed neighborhood minutes from the most affluent neighborhoods in town but I'm often the only white woman in class. It's been this way for the 30 years I've been dancing, beginning in New York. Though I often recommend classes to my yoga students and friends they are often too insecure or disinterested to try them. They think they can't dance. They don't care, either. However when I taught an African dance based class that was bastardized to incorporate yoga and improvised, my students came. They found that less intimidating. Maybe people are insecure about entering other cultures.

    I may be speaking from an insular viewpoint so please forgive me but…. I have observed a lack of neurosis in the Black dance community that is prevalent in some or much of what I've seen in the yoga community. Perhaps white females are attracted to yoga because yoga is the antidote for what ails them. Perhaps other people work their stuff out in other ways.

    Also it's mostly white women who make up the fitness studio population. It's a different lifestyle which may be the result of economics or just culture. And maybe the yoga that is prevalent is an extension of the fitness studio.

    • Lauren Znachko says:

      Hilary, this is super interesting insight. I want to pose another thought: although we speak about yoga as "connecting to the body" there is still a tremendous amount of control and alignment in yoga that can be an easy escape from having actually to feel and be embodied (I speak from personal experience of using my practice to escape rather than observe my body). When I watch dancers (especially African dance), there is an intense flesh and blood connection happening with rhythm and storytelling. I hear what you are on to about the possibility that yoga fits the white community because certain aspects of it actually perpetuate a certain disembodied experience (which does along with obsession with diet, weight lose and fitness). Does this fit with what you are saying?

  • Lara says:

    Great thoughts, Lauren. And – this is a great reminder to change perspectives (maybe while in Sirsasana…ha) when considering the yoga community and the yoga industry both. Overall, I think these are exciting and relevant conversations. In fact, I just read a letter to the editor in the new Yoga Journal thanking them to for putting a woman of color on the cover last month. "As I go to classes, I often find that I am the only person of color taking part", the writer says, "For a time I felt uncomfortable because I did not see a familiar face."

  • IfeTogun says:

    My goodness, the absolute burden of being a white, female Yogi in the modern age—And I don’t mean that sarcastically at all. This week alone I’ve read three different article on this website in which white, female yogis have essentially been highlighted as what is wrong with Yoga today. Of course, no one says it this way, but the tone almost always implies it.

    Here’s what I have to say about it. Let the guilt go and just practice. As far as I can tell—and I admit I’m probably not in the demographic category of “color” most people are referring to—there are no African-Americans or Hispanics (as far as I know) sitting out there just waiting to be invited to practice yoga. If African Americans or Hispanics want to practice they will practice regardless of how many white women are in there. This is the case at the studio where I practice and teach, and I believe it’s also at the heart of Lauren’s (this) article.

    This whole “yoga affirmative action” movement to me seem less like a true desire to bring in diversity, than it is about feeling less guilty that there isn’t any. And, in so doing, I think we end up marginalizing a group of individuals (white, female yogis) who haven't done anything wrong except exist in an environment that seems to think they need to be a different color. If we’re not careful, pretty soon we’ll have to add “white, female, well-off yogini” to the list of disadvantaged groups recognized by the federal government, and have to figure out ways to bring THEM back to yoga.

    • Lauren Znachko says:

      Victmization is not an empowering position for anyone is it? Thanks for these words. Nothing more to add!

    • Lara says:

      I have to respectfully disagree with you, Ife, particularly because you referenced my earlier article – not necessarily b/c I want to debate (although I'm always good for a debate). I just wanted to clarify that I don't consider the questions I asked or the impetus for Lauren's article as a "yoga affirmative action" movement; instead, I think they are simply provocative issues that we need to explore as the yoga industry in our society continues to grow, as we all know it will. Access is a very real issue for many people with whom I come into contact. My musings didn't just arise from guilt or the all-white demographic in my studio class. Although, I will say I don't think guilt is always a bad thing. It can be important as long as we use it to motivate instead of getting stuck in a place that perpetuates stasis.
      I do agree, however, that we shouldn't make this an issue that seems to imply this is "everything that is wrong with yoga". It's hard to prevent this sometimes when working through the disequilibrium conversations like this sometimes cause. I guess we are lucky it's a lifetime practice, no? :)

      • Lauren Znachko says:

        Lara, I'm glad you spoke up. I was discussing this whole topic with a friend last night and I was saying how interesting it was the way that different people have interpreted the issue. Some have taken the space the speak up and share their diverse ethnic heritage. Others have shared their experience of reaching outside the yoga community for diversity. LOTS of people have spoken up about the diversity they DO experience in their yoga community.
        The question we need to keep exploring is what does it mean to be open and embracing? Especially when not everyone is going to be interested in joining? Is that because of intolerance or because of preference?
        In all of this, I still hold (and I think you agree) that it would benefit all of us to step outside their routine and see a new face that already exists in the yoga community, if not at your home studio. I am equally grateful for every person that has discovered healing in yoga.. whether it is lopsided ethnographically or not.
        Thanks for being a part of provoking good and rounded conversation both with your article and comments.
        Lifetime practice indeed!

      • IfeTogun says:

        Fair Enough, Lara. By the way, I didn't directly reference your article…but yes, it was one of the ones on my mind:)

        I will further admit that I thought about taking out the "yoga affirmative action" bit, but the more I thought about it the more it just fit. As an individual whose has had to contend with the looks and assumptions of governmental assistance, I suppose I may be a bit sensitive to the issue of inclusion by active recruitment. I almost said something about "busing" black students to various studios, but I did manage to leave that one out…until now.

        I didn't mean to offend (if I did that is). The suggestion that guilt may be at the heart of our motives was simple a possible explanation, though I admit I probably stated it more as a fact.

        I do have one question though for you (Lara), Lauren and whoever else wishes to respond: What is a yoga community suppose to look like? Should it look like whatever it is? Or should it look like what we imagine it should be? And is a community that is constructed versus one that arises organically (regardless of its composition) not more desirable?

        I suppose that's two questions…maybe four, but they're all related.

  • Lara says:

    No offense taken at all, Ife. I think our dialogue is a good example of how limited language becomes when muddling through these topics, and how much our own individual experiences colors the lens through which we view them. I'm glad we didn't let it shut down the conversation.
    I love your questions, particularly the one about whether a community that is constructed vs. one that arises organically is more desirable. I don't have the answer – to any of them. I just think a yoga community (and I'm specifically talking about access for opportunities to practice yoga asana) should be inclusive of all wanting to participate, and if there are barriers we can remove, we should.
    These deep issues, as well as the ones about identity we've touched on ( what does it mean to "help" or be a "helper"; what does identifying as "of privilege" mean, etc) are so layered they create as many questions as they answer. I sometimes wonder if we're just causing more ripples in the mind when the goal is to calm them, but then I wonder if by not exploring issues like these, are we passing up a greater opportunity to know – and show -our true selves?

  • Bill says:

    How about a straw poll has as to many commentators here are of the thin, white female variety? solvitur ambulando! This lack of diversity issue with the modern yoga fecund can be seen everywhere unless you like doing your yoga with your head in the sand. This discussion is taking place in the shadow of a middle-class mania that has repurposed competencies in exercise and teaching into commodified products like the ubiquitous "Yoga Diplomas" that have grown out of normative, orientalist educational theories that stipulate yoga teachers must know "the big thee" the Upanishads, The Yoga Sutras and the Gita. and although YTTC orgs and other ridiculous accreditation enterprises like to think they are promising a universal opportunity to teach a universal practice and reach a universal God (or the more palatable universal "force") there remains some fairly sinister ideology behind this sort of theory of education. What we are seeing is the same problem educationalists have in engaging certain social groups, formative education is dominated by whites, and also by females and there is no reason why we should expect anything based on this Framework can or will produce different results. I have no desire to change anyones yoga or make out there is a better way but neither are we obliged to agree with this overly educational approach. learn yoga or don't learn it, it is just like Fox, it can be interesting entertainment but it is mostly irrelevant - but please don't take my word for it – we can ask a dead Hindu….

    "A thoroughly illiterate man can attain to the highest state of spiritual perfection without going to any school or university, and without reading any Scripture, if he can conquer his animal nature by realizing his true Self and its relation to the universal Spirit; or, in other words, if he can attain to the knowledge of that Truth which dwells within him, and which is the same as the Infinite Source of existence, intelligence, and bliss. He who has mastered all the Scriptures, philosophies, and sciences, may be regarded by society as an intellectual giant; yet he cannot be equal to that unlettered man who, having realized the eternal Truth, has become one with it, who sees God everywhere, and who lives on this earth as an embodiment of Divinity." ("How To Be A Yogi" – Swâmi Abhedânanda) – oh – I s'pose the paradox of having to read about the lost yogic art of iliteracy might need highlighting – so – FTW

  • Marcus says:

    the image used in the lede is quite telling, a thin White, post-postmodern female with vaguely counter cultural hairdo. Can't YM come up with something showing REAL diversity, and not just same stereotype trying to be different like all her other mates from art college?

    • prettyhumanbeings says:

      I have to disagree with what's implied with the term "real diversity". A part of my interest is in discovering the diversity that is implicit in every experience and looking beyond race as the sole measurement of integration. I think that our society has profound discrepancies with race and class and that questions of racism are essential and accurate to bring up in nearly every manifestation of our communities. But also, as a part of that discussion I hope we can appreciate diversity in its many manifestation and not discount that in a pluralistic society, questions of belonging and membership are at the core many expressions–from race and religion, to sexuality and career choices. I very much like the photo above because it suggests that even within the "white thin female" framework, there are variations that can cause complaint and discomfort.

  • Diversity is in the eye of the beholder. A white woman in a class of 25 people all but one of whom are white would probably consider themselves in the midst of a diverse class. Especially if there was a senior citizen, and maybe an obese person also in the mix. However, each of those three individuals feel very much like they are in a non-diverse environment.

    I think the point is very much being missed by focusing on the LOOK of people who are not in class. The people I mentioned above are under represented in yoga studio classes not because of any factor other than socio-economic factors.

    Check out any community center or fitness club class and you will see numerous people who are not featured on the cover of Yoga Journal. However, they don't have the disposable income to fit into the studio mindset. They are not going to be able to afford the clothes, bags, mats, Toe sox, workshops, trainings, retreats, or anything else Lululemon. Not when they are on a limited income as seniors, making less money and live in an under served community, or are paying much of their income on medications to help them become healthy.

    As a middle aged Hispanic woman who is often the only non-white in class it has inspired me to try to reach out to the under served communities and become a teacher. I want to reach people who do not feel a yoga studio is for them. Show that them yoga is for them as much as anyone else though the cover of Yoga Journal may not be.

    • prettyhumanbeings says:

      You are so right…diversity is in the eye of the beholder. And perhaps being open to deeper or more subtle expressions of diversity is a "luxury" that not everyone can afford. It's easy to probe when you are in the visible majority. It is easy to withdraw when you are the visible minority.
      I am really grateful that you shared your inspiration and calling to reach out to under served communities. I hope that you continue to read the discussions here and share you experiences with all of us as these are questions that many of us are wrestling with.

      • Thanks for you reply. I just got back from trying a new class. Asian teacher, an Asian student, an obese senior female, three extremely fit white women under 40, and myself. Six students. Half representing the 'diverse' look being discussed here. That was the the most diverse class I've ever been too. It was at a fitness center. The classes are included in the price of the membership. I've seen this at numerous fitness centers, community centers (including the one where I work) and gyms.

        If you want to see true diversity in yoga you have to look outside of the studio. Especially if the studio is located in affluent suburbs.

  • Another thought on the socio-economic factors at play. Minorities are under represented in all aspects of health and wellness. Just as they are proportionately over represented in the numbers of afflicted with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, smoking, etc. How many Whole Foods stores are located in the inner city? How many Yoga Works? How many Lululemons? Coincidence? I think not.

    The question is not if yoga is diverse. The question should be why is it so SEGREGATED and as yogis are we comfortable with the fact that there is an elitist element to it. We also need to acknowledge that yoga is not alone in the elitism. Not by a long shot. The entire health/holistic/healing industry is guilty.

    I think one of the saddest and yet hopeful signs of the disparity in yoga the growth of yoga in prisons. How wonderful that there are people in prison who want to improve their life with yoga. It's a wonderful gift. Why can we not get that gift to them before they get to prison? And what difference could getting it earlier in their lives might it have made on their life?

  • Thinspo says:

    The color of fellow yogis doesn't bother me. What keeps me, as a black Portuguese woman, from going to yoga, is the intimidating spectre of all size 0 to size 3 women in there doing their poses. It makes you feel like a 900 pound elephant lumbering in there, and as for me, with an eating disorder, I lapse right back into starving, and running, and cutting. I know thin girls like to complain it's hard for them, but that doesn't resonate with me. They're the standard and they're rewarded for being it. Let's talk about how even seeing ultra-thin girls can send some of us straight back into pro-ana. Because it does.