Think about the photos you see of people doing yoga. What do they look like? In my experience, they tend to incorporate a thin, able-bodied, white woman in her 20s doing a pose that requires a great deal of athleticism, flexibility, or balance. She’s usually pretty, wearing something tight and expensive, and she somehow has the entire brightly lit studio/New York City street/breathtaking natural landscape all to herself. Most of you have probably seen a multitude of images that fit this exact description on social media, billboards, or even in your favorite yoga studio. But what does it say about the yoga industry and society as a whole that this image has become the emblem of yoga’s ancient sacred practice?
Before I go any further, I want to make myself very clear: there is nothing wrong with being a young, flexible, strong, thin, able-bodied, wealthy, and/or white person who loves to do yoga. I fit into many of these categories myself and I recognize my position of privilege in writing this post. However, no matter where we fit in, it’s up to all of us to be aware of this imbalance so that we can make the yoga space more inclusive, accessible, and welcoming to every person who is interested in being part of it. If uneven representation in yoga is a concept that’s never occurred to you, welcome! Thank you for being here. Please continue reading and learning so that you can become part of the solution.
Yoga originated as a spiritual practice 5,000-10,000 years ago (depending on who you ask) in Northern India, with its first documentation in the sacred religious text, the Rig Veda, and again later in another Vedic text, the Upanishads. About 2,000 years ago, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, which laid out the philosophical framework of yoga, and which many practitioners and teachers still reference to this day. As students and teachers began embracing the physical aspects of the yoga practice in the 4th century CE, Tantra Yoga was born, later giving life to Hatha Yoga (the physical, postural practice, focused on asana, which is common in the US today) around the 11th century CE (Yoga Basics).
But it wasn’t until centuries later, during the Modern Period, that yoga made its way to the West. According to Philip Deslippe, The United States first became aware of yoga in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda gave a lecture highlighting the spiritual and psychological benefits of yoga at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Although there was a mixed reaction to his teachings, Vivekananda established 2 branches of the Vedanta Society in the US during subsequent visits. Deslippe states that as immigrants from South Asia began teaching Hatha yoga classes in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, emphasis began shifting more toward the physical practice (likely because a concrete physical practice is simpler to see and understand). As Americans began seeing yoga as a physical practice with spiritual elements, rather than a spiritual practice with physical elements, more students became interested in trying it. In 1947, Indra Devi, an Eastern European dancer and actress, travelled to India to study under Krishnamacharya, who is often revered as the “father of modern yoga”. After her studies in India, Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, California, which skyrocketed yoga’s popularity among wealthy women across the United States (Yoga Journal). Other students of Krishnamacharya also travelled to the United States to introduce several other types of physically challenging Hatha yoga, including Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), TKV Desikachar (Viniyoga), and BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga). Yoga continued to gain momentum among hippies in the 1960s and its popularity skyrocketed with the release of workout videos in the 1980s and 1990s (History). With its widespread distribution via video and its association with exercise, yoga in the US became firmly rooted in the category of “fitness”. Although yoga is ever evolving, all of these events shaped the culture around yoga in the United States, especially the emphasis on its physical and athletic components.
In the West, we tend to focus on asana – or the physical postures in yoga – above all else, even though asana is just one of 8 limbs of yoga (more on this in a future post). In order to appeal to the Western audience when introducing yoga, many teachers emphasize the physical aspect of the yoga practice, which makes sense in the context of modern Western culture. In general, Westerners place emphasis on the external aspect of wellness: using vigorous exercise as a tool to achieve a physical goal like running a marathon, mastering a handstand, or achieving a certain physique. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having physical goals, exercising, or using asana as part of your yoga practice, but the truth is that yoga includes so much more than poses. Unfortunately, the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects tend to get lost in translation in the modern yoga industry.
In early yoga culture, yoga was often free and taught as a lifestyle with an emphasis on the relationship between a single teacher and student. Many yogis devoted their lives to their practice and depended on their communities to take care of their needs because they earned no money. In contrast, the modern yoga industry is booming. With 55 million people in the US practicing in 2020, the revenue of the yoga industry amounts to about $11.6 billion (Statista). In a PubMed study, 92% of participants stated that they perceive yoga as an exercise activity, with spirituality coming in second at 73%. Participants cited general wellness, physical exercise, and stress management as reasons to do yoga, with 98% of them believing that yoga would improve their physical health (PubMed).
Based on a study by Crystal Park, Tosca Braun, and Tamar Seigel, 76% of yoga practitioners in the US are women, and are most likely to be white or Asian, college-educated, and straight. Only 4% of yoga practitioners are over the age of 64. Yoga practitioners also tend to have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) and are more likely to describe themselves as “spiritual” compared to the general population (ResearchGate).
So Now What?
It seems as though that yoga ad described in the first paragraph of this post is actually a pretty accurate depiction of what the average yoga practitioner looks like these days. We could spend all day debating whether that’s the chicken or the egg, but the real issue here is that a typical yoga class does not reflect the general population, which may make yoga seem like a closed group to which only certain people are invited. Additionally, the emphasis on the physical practice of yoga neglects its other important aspects. So, what can we do? Here are some ideas to get you started:
No matter who you are: look around you the next time you’re in a yoga space, whether that’s online or in person. Who’s missing? Is there a variety of cultures represented? Races? Ages? Is there body diversity? Different abilities? Is it inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people? Does it not only include, but celebrate these different identities? I’m not saying every yoga class should be for everyone. We have different levels for a reason. You wouldn’t expect to see someone who’s never done yoga before to go to a 3-hour inversion workshop. Some yoga spaces are specifically designed for a group, like Queer and Trans Yoga classes, or classes for older adults. What I am saying, though, is that there should be a place for everyone in yoga because yoga belongs to all of us. Not just slim, wealthy, white women.
If you’re a student: learn from different voices. Of course, we all love having a teacher we can relate to, so if your favorite teacher is someone a lot like you, great! But make sure you’re getting a balanced perspective. Follow a variety of yoga teachers, attend their classes, and support them with your attendance and your money.
If you’re a teacher: think about ways you can make your class more inviting to all. Still referring to students as “you guys”? I’m guilty of that too! Let’s try to break that habit together! Providing hands-on adjustments to all of your students? Stop! Ask their permission or come up with a system where they can let you know what they’re comfortable with. Start providing modifications that work for different body types and abilities. Maybe even consider doing a donation-based or community class every once in a while, so that students from all financial backgrounds can join in. Make sure your personal practice includes more than just asana and share that with your students.
If you’re a studio owner: Make the studio a place where all of your students feel comfortable. Hire a diverse group of teachers. Offer a range of classes so that students can choose one that feels right for them. When running teacher trainings, use texts from South Asian authors that emphasize the roots of yoga, and consider offering scholarships for some aspiring teachers that aren’t currently represented enough in the yoga world. Ask for input from the students that attend your studio about how you can make your studio feel more like home for them, and actually put their suggestions into practice! And please, for the love of yoga, pay your teachers a living wage.
The modern yoga industry looks very different from the ancient spiritual practice of yoga. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing, though, if we as students and teachers commit to creating an inclusive and welcoming community that continues to heal, connect, and empower anyone who wants to be part of it.