* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The yoga industry needs to work harder to make their spaces inclusive for Black, indigenous and people of colour and the LGBT+ community
Shyla Soni is a queer South Asian yoga enthusiast. In her spare time, she volunteers for blended+, a London-based nonprofit organisation dedicated to creating uplifting and calm spaces for the LGBT+ community, including online
Given my South Asian background, it probably won’t come as a surprise that my first experience of yoga didn’t take place in a bougie studio. There was no post-session smoothie bar, no showers boasting botanically enriched toiletries, and there was certainly no overpriced activewear in sight.
Instead, one Saturday morning in the early 2000s, I was dragged by my mother along to our local community hall to join various tracksuit-laden aunties and uncles from our estate, along with their equally sceptical children in tow, for our first yoga class.
I was initially reluctant to get involved. But after wading through a flimsy layer of teenage angst and embracing the instructions of the teacher, I was overwhelmed by the sense of calm that overtook both my mind and body.
The space around me completely transformed from a dull community centre kitted out with scratchy woollen carpet, and pulsating with the hum of the overhead strobe lighting, into a space of serenity and restoration. For me, yoga has never been about pushing myself to master each pose nor about physical fitness.
Moving away from the sheltered bosom of my suburban South Asian diaspora to London, I began to experience the often-exclusionary effect of western yoga practice.
I started to feel uneasy about entering spaces that were so clearly targeted towards middle-class white women, leaving little room for people beyond this identity. As a queer person, I was also acutely aware of the ways this could be marginalising for many within the LGBT+ community. This led to me finding the once freeing experience of practicing yoga increasingly prohibitive.
The exclusion of certain identities from wellness spaces defined by white heteronormative culture can play out in many ways and, as with my own experience, each is not mutually exclusive.
For example, the lack of mainstream acceptance of gender diversity can be particularly problematic for some individuals when using changing rooms. Equally, the high prices often associated with wellness studios may act as a barrier to entry to some.
These factors lead to a lack of diversity and representation in these spaces, which can also paradoxically make people of colour (POC) feel that the practice is not for them, despite its origins being firmly rooted in ancient India and not West India Quay.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I believe yoga shouldn’t be for affluent white people too. But, at its core, yoga is meant to be accessible to everyone.
Having been co-opted by capitalism and commodified into a billion-pound industry, western yoga has largely become a practice for the few, excluding those who can benefit from the spaces the most.
This is particularly problematic considering the countless studies that demonstrate that people within the LGBT+ community are at higher risk of experiencing poor mental health than their straight, cisgender (non-transgender) counterparts, with those who identify as POC at further risk.
This is further compounded by the well-documented presence of bias, stigma, and discrimination in healthcare for LGBT+ people. Again, the outcomes are even worse for POC.
With research showing time and time again that yoga can reduce the impact of stress and may also be helpful for both anxiety and depression, the need to create a space for this community to feel comfortable, safe and free is crucial.
The current pandemic, the collective trauma following the murder of George Floyd, and the routine erasure of Black trans lives, have only served to further demonstrate the racial inequalities affecting experiences of violence, trauma and healthcare access.
Now, more than ever, access to therapy and alternative forms of healing is especially important for the community.
Though self-segregation is not necessarily the way things should continue forever, until the wider wellness space becomes more inclusive, being around others that have a shared experience will go a long way in enabling individuals to connect with their practice and reap its many benefits. The same benefits I felt when surrounded by uncles and aunties, back in suburbia.