The Importance of Inclusion and Diversity in Yoga
How many times have you been the only Black, male, older, rounder, physically limited, spiritually-focused, gay, trans, or otherwise ‘different’ student in a yoga class?
As an older, Black, spiritually-focused female yoga student and teacher, I have been “The Only” or “One of The Few” in one or more of these categories for some 20 years of practice. (My gender is always represented; there is a surplus of women in most yoga classes.) I often longed to be part of a majority in the room. I want to share the deeply felt experience of yoga with people who see me, “get” me, connect with me.
I found a way to feel fully included in the yoga world was after I became a yoga teacher. It was 2003 and I had recently become a certified Kripalu teacher. I watched a blighted park across the street from my home in DC be transformed into a bright, state-of-the-art community recreation center. I promised myself that I would offer yoga classes there. I’d do it for free as an offering to the community it served: my neighbors.
I applied for a Kripalu Teaching for Diversity grant that would help me get equipment and stretched the much-valued $500 I received to purchase mats, blocks, blankets, and straps. I wanted my mostly first-time, African-American, and low-income students to start their practice without disadvantage. My students deserved to practice with the same props found in most studios.
What a revelation the class was! My students were Black, multi-aged, of varying sizes and capacity, poor and working-class. Yes, there were mostly women in the room, but the few men who attended were open, flexible (in body and mind), deeply committed, and totally unfazed by all the women in the room. We all felt like we belonged there. After years of being The Only, I practiced with a space full of yogis who shared my culture.
The experience was transformative–for them and for me. As a new teacher who also taught in a “traditional” studio (read: white, middle class, young, slim, limber, and experienced), I found my true teaching voice while working with my neighbors. My humor, enthusiasm, patience, and compassion emerged. I really learned how to teach people how to practice yoga.
Over the years—13 in all—my weekly class at the “traditional” studio evolved into a more inclusive environment as well. While open to all, the class came to reflect me: older (I was 51 when I received my 200-hour certificate); non-competitive; and meditative (I always ended my classes with 10-15 minutes of meditation in addition to Savasana).
By setting an intention, I had created the inclusion and diversity that I sought for my own yoga experience. I provided a haven for students who wanted something more than the physicality of the asana-focused classes on the schedule. They were drawn to the space I created, where gentle assists, a range of pose variations, and application of yoga philosophy were available in every class. These students, from a variety of backgrounds, reflected my love for the deeper practices of yoga. The feeling of connectedness and of having students who are “mirrors” for my experiences, deepened my practice and allow me to tune into my True Self.
That is the power and opportunity that comes from being a Black yoga teacher. We can create the inclusive space that we long for by bringing yoga to the communities in which we feel most comfortable, attracting students who align with our deepest needs for a rich and fully expressed practice.
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Denise Alston, Ph.D., RYT-500, is trained as a Kripalu teacher and Para yoga instructor. As founder of Spirit 1st Yoga, she offers her services as a transition facilitator and self-care guide as well as an Ayurveda specialist.