Recently I was asked to contribute a talk that I originally gave to a workshop – run by Iyengar Yoga in Action, a group of Iyengar yoga teachers and practitioners, who came together from all over the UK – to raise money for the Terrance Higgins Trust, following the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. The talk was delivered virtually at the Iyengar Yoga UK Convention 2021.
IY(UK) made the bold decision to take positive action against ignorance and discrimination following a call from its members to address the disparity and potential barriers to inclusion that exist within its organisation.
I’m publishing an extract of the talk that I gave, in which I try to illustrate what the barriers to participation might be, in order to continue the debate on the subject, and to encourage change to make Iyengar yoga more equitable and welcoming to all.
“My first exposure to the Iyengar Yoga community was as a student teacher, when I went to my first Convention and realised that there weren’t very many people like me present. The demographic wasn’t representative of the wider UK and possibly even the practicing Iyengar yoga community and there are many reasons why that could be the case. I’d like to list just three:
Going to an Iyengar yoga convention is costly! Not just financially, but economically in terms of allotting the time and having the necessary technology, which is most relevant at present; having space to put one’s mat out and time away from family, and other commitments. Not everyone can afford to negotiate these constraints.
Covid-19 has affected us all – financially and emotionally. But, it’s documented that the virus has had more severe health effects on people with low incomes and those with a black and minority ethnic background. According to the TUC, the negative effects of Covid have meant that twice as many BAME people have lost their jobs, compared to white people. This, coupled with structural racism that still has people with ethnic-sounding names finding it more difficult to get a job interview, means that the outlook for BAME people is particularly bleak…
The Yoga Studio
Here I’m going to use a term that some may not like or be aware of and others may dispute: and that is “white space”. Let me explain:
Anyone can feel a little anxious entering somewhere for the first time. But if you’re other than a white European, your lived experience is different. When casual and micro acts of racism or aggression are your everyday experience, you become adept at sensing them and certainly won’t want to be in a place where you feel uncomfortable.
More often than not, the teacher will try to make you feel welcome, as will students in the class; but one doesn’t have to be hypersensitive to feel that you are in the company of people who are not used to being with, or even teaching, someone like you.
So, if you are the only non-white person, you may want to seek out a class in which you feel more comfortable – and so the class demographic becomes a barrier in itself.
That’s not to sweep over the differences in the non-white experience, but to give you an idea that being open and well-meaning is not enough. [This experience also is relevant to people with additional needs and non-cisgender students.] As a teacher one needs to educate yourself on how to make all people welcome and how to deal with incidents that may take place in your studio. You must be a fierce advocate of the practice of ahimsa [one of the yogic principles known as yamas that advocates non-violence, aggression or harm]. Then there’s…
The Yoga “Type”
Now I’m referring to the young, flexible, white females clad in expensive skin-tight outfits that one sees on social media, on the front of magazines etc., in gymnastic poses. The image of yoga is simply not representative of all of the people that practice it.
Because of its reputation as being measured and remedial, an Iyengar class is more likely to feature those of us who have had back, neck and shoulder injuries, who’ve chosen the “Iyengar way” because it is safe! There will be older people in the class who have likely been practicing for decades, adapting how they work over time, taking their inspiration from Mr Iyengar himself, for whom daily practice was as necessary as food and drink.
We know this. But a person without any experience will be put off because of their inflexibility or body shape, simply on the strength of what they see on the television and in the media…
So, where are the images of the members and teachers of colour today? I’m drawn to the phrase: “If you can see it, you can be it.” So let’s see more input from our members of colour in IY News, and see them disseminated throughout this varied yoga world, giving people the opportunity to choose Iyengar yoga.
Guruji said: “Don’t be exclusive, be inclusive – not only in asana but every walk of life.”
Taking positive action and questioning our behaviour, is intrinsic to our practice of yoga in its Ashtanga form, incorporating the yamas and niyamas: ahimsa – non-violence; satya – truth; asetya – in the form of misappropriation or cultural appropriation; aparigraha – which is interpreted as not hoarding, but in this case can be interpreted as sharing one’s privilege; tapas – a conscious and passionate effort; and not least svadhyaya – which reinforces the notion of self-study.
This is a moral imperative – essential to those of us who like to call ourselves “yogis” or “yoginis”. So let’s educate ourselves to the issues and equip ourselves with the means to make a positive change within our personal spheres and in our yoga communities. It’s something we can do, and we must do, with compassion and without delay.”