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‘Diversity’ in Mainstream Yoga

On the 6th November 2017 Triyoga held a symposium at their Camden branch, discussing ‘The Diversity Problem in Yoga’. Some yoga teachers in studios such as Triyoga have found themselves looking around their classes, not seeing the same diversity that they see on the streets of London. The panel included Jonathan Sattin, Dana Falsetti, Corrie, Ananda Preace, Isa-Welly Locoh-Donou and Frederique Sardaise, who each spoke about the reasons this might be so (find out more about these teachers here.

There are predominantly three groups that are under represented in these spaces and they are – bigger bodies, people of colour and the less-able bodied (there are also those that identify as non-binary, queer and trans but this was not spoken about in this discussion). It is no coincidence that these are also the groups that are marginalised and under-represented in mainstream, popular culture outside of the yoga community. Therefore, it seems that places, such as Triyoga but also others spaces too, are recreating and re-enforcing elitist disparities, inequalities and marginalisation found in the rest of the society. It is a conversation that was long overdue and I was pleased that somewhere like Triyoga had enough self-reflection to ponder these issues and open the space for debate, discussion and feedback.

There were a number of discussion points that came up and I will not cover all of them here but I want to touch on the common thread that I thought salient throughout. That is that it is futile to reflect on representation (or lack thereof) in yoga without looking at the political, social and economic imperatives that shape and influence the way that it is transmitted. In short, without looking at the way in which power works we will be at a loss to understand why some voices and some bodies are paid more credence over others. We will simply assume it is some kind of natural order.

Another point related to this, are the suggested solutions. A perceived problem has been highlighted and now we want to find a way to resolve it. Some suggestions have been specialist classes for these groups, discounted prices or scholarships and ‘karma yoga’. It appears that specialist classes are considered acceptable for less-able bodies and larger bodies but are controversial for PoC and more specifically for WoC. I will write a separate article on this and update a link in due course.

Discounted prices and scholarships are a great way to make the practice accessible to students who would otherwise be excluded due to the cost. However, there are some issues with this. The first is that even the concession rates (20% off the full price at Triyoga) are still beyond the reach of many people, particularly the unemployed or those on low incomes. At Triyoga a drop-in class costs £17, this would be £13.60 at concession rate or £8.50 for community classes, all of which are still more than the hourly minimum wage in London. Scholarships are fantastic but they are little advertised and most people are unaware that they even exist. If they were, I would assume the uptake and competition would be extremely high. This brings me on to my last point, which is that concessions and scholarships, although helpful and well meaning, don’t consciously address the structural inequalities built into society. It doesn’t challenge the logic of capitalism that causes these inequalities in the first place. I recognize that it may be the best we can do for now but I would suggest this approach is problematic long-term.

Karma yoga is also offered as a means for redressing economic and cultural imbalances. Karma yoga is often described as service to others through either volunteering or other community based work. However, from my understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, karma yoga is not just service but is actually skill in action. It is the embodiment of yoga in everyday life and fulfilment of ones dharma. Karma yoga as service is a narrow understanding and limits actions that people could otherwise be taking that could be helpful. Skill in action could include all actions that alleviate suffering or bring about the goal of yoga, not just asana-based practices. From my perspective this could mean getting politically active and directly challenging some of the ideologically driven, socio-economic structures that are often the cause of so much suffering and distress in the first place. Yoga cannot be separated from the socio-economic conditions from which it embedded and practiced. This explains why somewhere like Triyoga unconsciously has recreated the unequal divisions found in society, yet at the same time Jonathan Sattin (the founder and managing director of Triyoga) sits at an event like this bemused, believing he had created an inclusive space.

The Haṭhayōgapradīpikā (HYP) talks about the conditions that a yogi should practice in. It talks about the temperature, the environment, the settings but it also talks about the political conditions. It suggests that equally as important as a particular space to practice, one most also practice in a country that is governed well and that is peaceful and prosperous [HYP, 1.12]. Therefore, there is recognition, within important historical texts such as the HYP, that politics matter. This is a subject that is often, and frustratingly for me, missing from these discussions about diversity in yoga. Little is said about the root causes and expressions of inequality that are playing out in spaces such as large studios like Triyoga.

There is no doubt that Triyoga has created a beautiful space. White walls emphasize the natural light that floods into the teaching rooms through large windows. Soft lighting and expensive features permeate the building and what is created is a peaceful and charming space that is ideal for the practice of yoga. To create this space costs money, to maintain this space costs money and Triyoga is following the true capitalist model of reinvestment of accumulated capital in order to expand. It now boasts of five large studios in London with more to surely follow. Ultimately, it is this mode of transmission that presents the ultimate problem. Yoga is now an ‘industry’ that supports livelihoods, creates jobs, harnesses profits and drives consumerism. As yoga is further caught up in these structural imperatives the more subtle ideals and benefits of the practice are lost, sacrificed under the juggernaut of capitalism. If this fundamental point is not addressed head on by the yoga community, we can talk all day long about solutions to diversity but we will only be moving deck chairs on a sinking ship.

The one thing that I found heartening from the discussion was when Frederique Sardaise explained that non-elitist yoga is taking place in communities, church halls, community centres and marginalised spaces all over London. So before we get carried away with the hype that Triyoga is yoga because of its visual and cultural dominance, we would do well to remember that already there are many teachers and practitioners working quietly under the radar servicing communities and demographics that are little reflected or glamourised in mainstream yoga.

The invisibility of this kind of teaching is telling. As yoga has become a profitable business model and a predominantly visual practice promoted through various media platforms and popularised by taut bodies, beach photos and green juices, this avalanche of visual imagery has reinforced and perpetuated the notion of who and what yoga is actually for. Visual dominance of this kind cannot convey the more subtle benefits of the practice and it’s ethical framework. Further, the metaphysical components that inform this ethical framework are discarded in modern Western society and are difficult to make trendy, visceral and fashionable even though they are equally, if not more important than asana based practice. These eternal and reoccurring concerns of humanity, the subject of philosophers and mystics over the ages are little comprehended by popular culture. Also, they are little appreciated and valued. Yet, even without an intellectual understanding, metaphysics still represents the fundamental principles that underpins, governs or effects the more apparent physical and symptomatic manifestations.

Therefore, a yoga practice must include ritual that familiarizes us to more than just physical asana and what occurs on the mat. Yoga is a holistic and comprehensive guide for how to live, it is the bringing together of all sides, it is union, it is transformation and paradoxically, it is also dissolution. These ideals should not, and cannot, be contained or circumscribed by corporate forces that seek to profit from this ancient knowledge. Yoga is a practice that is innate to the human condition and is most certainly, for every body. It is in fact the birthright of every sentient being and that fact is bigger than individuals and bigger than commercial depictions of yoga. As a yoga community, if we stay close to that, I believe it is possible to deliver, teach and transmit this practice with humility, respect and congruence.

I suspect this approach would leave us more open and curious to other forces that work within the world, such as the political, historical and economic power structures that also pervade over human experience. Without this missing link, yoga just becomes escapism. As Carrette and King say, ‘a spirituality that is separate from questions of social justice is a sedative for coping with an oppressive and unjust world’†. Yoga as transcendence will not change the world it becomes circumvention and individual redemption over collective bondage. Yoga as an ethical force for good in the world, requires us to get our hands dirty, to become spiritual warriors in a murky, imperfect world. In short, if we want to change the material world, to address inequality or lack of diversity and other kinds of marginalisation, we cannot simply retreat into isolated spaces, like the ancient images of the ascetics in the Himalayas. If we create spaces that are to address universal human suffering of all kinds, then we must make those spaces accessible to all humans. If not, the economic power relations of our time will reinforce the notion that these are elitist spaces and moral restoration is only for small section of the human population.

Thank you for reading, comments are welcome.

† Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 2005.


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