Is American Yoga Racist?
It was late summer, and the young white middle-class women that run the Power of Om Yoga Studio in idyllic Santa Barbara, CA were bored. Suddenly, they struck upon a novel idea. Let’s invite our friends and neighbors to dress up like “Black people.” And not just any Black people, but Black people from the “ghetto,” a place, more imagined than real, perhaps, given the town’s – and their own — demographics. So, up went a giant poster inviting local resident to attend the studio’s first-ever “Ghetto-Fabulous” yoga session. They thought it would be good simple fun.
This was no mere flight of fancy. The women photographed themselves as a group, splaying their hands and fingers as if they were members of a street gang. The poster encouraged attendees to wear “corn rows,” “snap back caps,” or a “grill” (shiny metal worn over the teeth) and offered to provide “do-rags” and other appropriate ghetto wear free at the door. Did the American yoga community even notice? There was a brief blog post on Yoga Dork, with a handful of commentaries about what many deemed a bizarre and regrettable incident. But Yoga World, beset by scandal since the demise of John Friend and Anusara Yoga and the publication of a book by a New York Times reporter bemoaning widespread injuries and poorly trained yoga teachers and calling for stronger regulation of the industry, quickly moved on to happier news.
Arguably, this was a classic “teachable” moment – a time for reflection and dialogue by American yoga industry as a whole about its underlying assumptions about race, class and privilege. But all such moments, to be truly meaningful, require sustained reflection and dialogue, with active participation by those most stigmatized or offended by what’s transpired. And there’s the rub: while precise data on the racial composition of the estimated 20 million yoga practitioners nationwide are hard to come by, the industry’s racial narrowness – if not outright exclusivity — is plain to see. Open the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal and you’ll find dozen of glossy photos of trim and immaculately coiffed women attired in expensive stretch-wear demonstrating what yoga can do to keep you slim, calm and sexy – as the title of a book by yoga super-star Tara Stiles once put it. But you’ll find few if any people of color in those pages. Subscribers to Yoga Journal are high-powered suburban women on the go, mostly upscale and decidedly white, and the magazine, as most expensive publications do, reflects its core readership. It’s not up to us to lead on race, and possibly jeopardize our bottom line, their publishers typically say.
The fact is yoga is deeply embedded in America’s economic and racial social structure, in ways that are becoming more apparent – and indeed, more embarrassing — with time. Take the growing number of neighborhood yoga studios, which in some cities are nearly as ubiquitous as a Starbucks. Back in the day, when yoga was still a niche practice, yoga teachers held classes in their apartments or at local recreation centers, and frequently charged what students could afford. Now, the industry is so much about the “Benjamins” that real estate developers look to high-rent yoga studios as harbingers of “urban redevelopment”, the same way they once eagerly promoted shoe or grocery outlets as “anchor” stores. It’s a form of capitalist symbiosis that’s affecting every area of the yoga consumer market — from clothing and cosmetics to food and even beer – indeed, anywhere the purchasing power of affluent white women can help investors turn a hefty profit. It’s also infusing yoga culture with a set of values that tends to marginalize the African-American experience, and keeps real Black people on the margin – “ghettoized,” in fact — while leaving them prey to the kind of white cultural projections on display in Santa Barbara.
Many observers have extolled the yoga industry for nurturing and empowering women, and a growing number of female yoga celebrities are finding corporate sponsors, and earning high six-figure incomes — though few admit to it publicly. (Sadie Nardini, who bills herself as a quirky yoga “rocker” earned $350,000 in 2010, well before she produced her own TV show). But nearly all of these women are white. In fact, only one top American yogi is African-American — Faith Hunter — and she’s barely known beyond the East Coast. African-Americans are involved in practicing yoga — in cities like Washington, DC with large numbers of middle class Blacks, for example –but that hasn’t done much to alter the racial power dynamics of the yoga industry. And aside from a few pioneering Black yoga teachers at the community level — the yoga teacher corps in the studios remains as lily white as ever.
The incident in Santa Barbara is not the first in yoga with a distinctly racial cast. There was a minor uproar two years ago when an Asian-American yoga teacher posted a You Tube video entitled “Yoga for Black People” that some people found similarly offensive, if not downright racist. The video combined yoga slogans and hip-hop riffs and used mocking references to Black celebrities like R.J. Kelly and Oprah to suggest that yoga culture was often shallow and pretentiousness. In one typical scenario, the producer and star of the video shouts “raise the roof” with her hands overhead and then slips into a downward dog pose, saying “raise the roof….on the floor!” The video concludes with a brief meditation in which she substitutes “O-bammmmma” for the traditional “Om” sound. Waylon Lewis, the editor of one prominent yoga blog, Elephant Journal, posted the video for comments, and while a few African-American commentators expressed genuine dismay, criticisms from other yogis tended to be muted, just as they were in response to the Santa Barbara incident. Practice “detachment” rather than indulge in “judgment,” as so many like to say.
And that’s just it: yoga, over time, seems to be fostering a climate of official tolerance toward the world it inhabits that easily shades into political apathy — and moral relativism. Take almost any controversial topic, and raise it among yogis, and you will find a healthy core of opinion suggesting that the best opinion is to not have any opinion at all. For some yogis, social and political obliviousness is a deeply-held spiritual principle; for others, it’s simply an existential one: they come to yoga, they say, to “forget about the world” for an hour, or an entire day. They would rather not have to deal with the kinds of divisive political controversies that so often distract and agitate them outside the hermetically sealed bliss of their yoga studios.
There may be a deeper and more pernicious reason for yoga’s refusal to deal with race. And it strikes at the heart of the yogic enterprise: “Orientalism.” Whites in the West, whether they intend to or not, are reshaping and exploiting a deeply-rooted Eastern practice for their own commercial purposes, raising the hackles of groups like the Hindu-American Foundation, as well as conservative Hindus in India, who say they fear a loss of cultural authenticity and ownership. To date, American yogis have tended to dismiss such concerns as narrow and nationalistic. Yoga is for everyone, they say, and can’t be “owned” by anyone — even by its founders, apparently. This is a rather novel – and democratic-sounding — rationale for cultural appropriation, and for American yogis it seems to function as some kind of “get out of guilt” card when it comes to issues relating to race. How can we be racist when we are celebrating and promoting a non-White culture’s unique contribution to the world?
“Imitation,” it’s been said, “is the sincerest form of flattery.” But just like the minstrel shows that featured white comedians dressed in Black face singing old Negro spirituals and “talking Black” for White audiences, imitation in a racially unequal context is never value-free. Only in America, perhaps, does the sight of millions of Whites chanting and singing in Sanskrit and singing the praises of Shakti and Shiva seem so culturally unproblematic. Perhaps, rather than try to distance themselves from a seemingly isolated yoga event in Santa Barbara, yogis should take a good long look at themselves in the mirror – at their economic privilege and their assumptions about race and culture – and try to embrace their own hallowed yogic principle of ahimsa – “to do no harm.”
What might that mean in practice? For one thing, instead of lampooning the experience of ethnic communities, why not take your hallowed mind-body practice directly to them? These are some of the most stressed-out communities in America and if yoga holds so much promise, surely these communities deserve better access to yoga’s presumed benefits. And what is Yoga Journal doing to nurture body and beauty standards beyond what one Black commentator has called the “bendy, skinny white girl model”? It may come as news to Journal editors living in their own narrow cultural enclave, but “big and beautiful” – and “of color” — are definitely “in” these days. And as so many industries have learned, it’s potentially a lucrative market, too. So let’s dispense with the pseudo-demographic justifications for keeping yoga modeling as racially “pure” as the Augusta Country Club.
And lastly, it wouldn’t hurt if the Yoga Alliance, the industry’s informal trade association, adopted some affirmative action and diversity training guidelines, just like the rest of the world has.
Yoga doesn’t need to be “ghetto fabulous” – culturally sensitive, compassionately inclusive, and humble and corporately responsible would be fabulous enough.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org