In the world of high-priced yoga classes, trendy fashions, and rockstar teachers, diversity in yoga falls far short of the spiritual practice’s idealized definition as a “union.”
In spite of its ancient roots, yoga in North America still remains a pastime of a select few—mainly white females with Lululemon comfortable incomes.
“I think it’s right to say that the people who typically take yoga are white, with disposable income and more importantly with disposable time,” Courtney Bender, a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, told Ascent Magazine. “That is, they’re in jobs and professions that allow them enough time to take classes. So there aren’t a lot of working class people, for example.”
Surveys About Diversity in Yoga
Few comprehensive surveys of the yoga world have been done, but the data that exist show that yoga continues to marginalize itself by promoting exclusion (intentional or not) rather than union.
In 2008, Yoga Journal’s “Yoga in America” market study showed that of the 15.8 million people who practiced yoga:
- 72 percent were female, and
- 68 percent had household incomes over $75,000.
Unfortunately, Yoga Journal didn’t collect any information on race or ethnicity. The 2002 National Health Interview Survey, however, found that 84 percent of people practicing yoga were white.
Yoga Teachers Speak Up
Many yoga teachers and practitioners are aware of the glaring lack of diversity in yoga, both in local classes and at national conferences, such as those sponsored by Yoga Journal.
In an interview with Hadji Jones (author of the website The Black Yogi), well-known yoga teacher Rodney Yee admitted that, while the yoga world is becoming more diverse, there is still a long way to go.
“Mainly it’s an economic separation at this point, and it always has been … the people with a little bit more leisure time and a little bit more money have the ability to be in these wonderful art forms,” said Yee in a YouTube video.
Other yoga teachers, like Cyndi Lee, echoed these comments. Lee added that some studios—such as hers—offer free or work-study classes for people who can’t afford to attend full-price ones. Even with that kind of attempt to promote greater inclusion, the yoga world is still far from diverse.
Defining Diversity in Yoga
Whether you define diversity in yoga as a lack of certain racial or ethnic groups, or along gender or socio-economic lines, it’s clear that yoga continues to shut out whole segments of the population.
Some proponents of yoga, though, reject the notion that there is an economic divide between people who can afford to attend yoga classes and those who have never even watched a yoga video at home.
Rashunda Tramble, who runs the website Yoga & Soul, feels that money only matters when you define yoga as the ability to attend classes or conferences, or to buy yoga products like DVDs or stylish Lululemon pants. “You don’t need money to practice yoga,” she said in a video on YouTube.
Instead, says Tramble, if you view yoga as a way of life—how we treat people or the attitude that we carry throughout our day—then everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, has equal access to yoga. Life is yoga, 24 hours a day, seven days a week … no matter who you are.
Equal Access Through Yoga Books and Videos
Even if you can’t afford to attend a drop-in yoga class in a posh urban studio—or if you live far from the maddening yoga crowds—many stores and websites are packed with a wide range of yoga media. For example, Amazon.com offers over 5,000 yoga DVDs, and YogaGlo frequently adds new online classes to its already extensive virtual library. And if those are too pricey, public libraries now let you check out yoga DVDs, and YouTube has plenty of free online yoga videos to keep you moving and breathing.
For students who see yoga as mainly a series of poses, often done in a heated room with music blasting, these multimedia offerings help them squeeze yoga into a hectic schedule. Tramble might also add that resources like these have smashed the economic divide in the yoga world—free information for all means everyone has equal access to yoga.
Both views, however, leave out an important piece in the search for greater diversity in yoga—the connection between the student and teacher.
Photo: Woman doing yoga before breakfast at Mani’s Santa Monica. © 2006 Susánica Tam (licensed under under Creative Commons license)