Last Spring 2019, I was invited by a friend to join her for an “urban yoga” class and vegan brunch in Tampa, Florida. I was excited because it combined two things that I love: yoga and vegan food.
When I first entered the room, there were almost two dozen people setting up their yoga mats while the instructor was preparing her place on the stage. I watched her as she prepared. She had beautiful, glowing skin and she moved like a dancer. There was a gentleness in the way she spoke.
But the most significant thing for me was that she was Black.
In the 18 years that I’ve been practicing yoga and the seven years that I’ve been teaching, I have never had a Black yoga instructor.
As I scanned the room, I saw that most of the students were Black, too—of all shapes, and sizes, and hues. For the first time in my entire yoga experience I was not The Only One.
As I tried to stay present on my mat, I couldn’t help but watch the teacher as she moved through the class with such beautiful grace, full of knowledge of the asanas and their benefits, gently assisting students to get a little deeper, and reminding us to breathe. I felt a connection, a sense of knowing, and familiarity with her. I saw myself in her. “Is that what I look like when I am teaching a class,” I wondered. “Is that what I sound like when I am giving directions?”
It was beautiful to see so many people of color sharing space together. But the fact that I was so touched by it was not lost on me: I was moved because it was so rare. Yoga is presented and represented in the Western world as if it is not for everyone. The images you see in classes, videos, and advertisements make it seem as if yoga is only for the wealthy, the fit, the physically capable, or just one race of people—and not our race. When I’m looking for yoga community, I’m sometimes at a loss to find a space where I feel like I can be with like-minded people—people that I can share with and learn from.
My experience in Florida strengthened the validity of why inclusion and diversity in yoga matters: It is important for people to see themselves in the spaces that they enter, and to feel as connected to the community as they feel to the practice. When there is representation there is understanding of others.
Inclusion and diversity are the essence of yoga because to do yoga is to engage, to get involved, to participate, and to connect. Yoga is a way to create relationships. Having an inclusive and diverse environment is truly how we learn to build community, to value ourselves and our neighbors, and to love unconditionally because we see ourselves in one another.
Through the practice we are also learning how to just be who we are and be good in knowing that who we are is alright, so it’s important that everyone feels not only invited, but welcomed in yoga spaces. When the yoga world shows that yoga practitioners and teachers come in all colors, shapes, sizes, capabilities and economic backgrounds, then we’ll know we are truly practicing the meaning of yoga.
Nessie Johnson is a certified yoga instructor, certified personal trainer, and a certified permaculture designer with a passion for overall health. It is her mission to help guide others towards personal sustainability and communal sustainability using yoga and permaculture techniques to connect the mind, body, spirit, nature, and community in a unique way. She develops workshops on sustainable living, she teaches yoga in communities that are the most underserved including for the Special Olympics.