I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:
Person I Just Met: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a yoga teacher.
Person I Just Met: Oh, neat! Where do you teach?
Me: Right now I’m mostly just subbing, but I teach a regular weekly class at [local studio]. You should come!
Person I Just Met: Oh, um, yeah, maybe. We’ll see!
Me: It’s pay-what-you-can and all levels. I would love to have you!
Person I Just Met: I can’t do yoga. I’m just really not flexible. Sorry!
Here’s the thing: anyone can do yoga. I honestly believe that. I have taught a yoga class to a room full of octogenarians who stayed seated in comfy chairs the entire time – if they can do yoga, then so can you. It doesn’t matter how flexible your body is – any and all poses can be modified to meet you where you are. And really, if you want to try yoga but lack of flexibility is your excuse, how will you ever improve your range of motion without first taking up something like a regular yoga practice? Everyone has to start somewhere – why not start now, today, whatever shape your body is in?
Having said all that, I know there are a ton of reasons why people shy away from yoga, and most of them have nothing to do with flexibility. Part of the problem is that the yoga culture in the west is kind of fucked up.
Yoga is an ancient Indian discipline dating back several thousand years. The first definitive text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and the practice itself is even older than that. Yoga is one of the six astika, or orthodox, schools of Hindu philosophy, and in its original form was mainly a mental and spiritual practice with some physical elements.
The second sutra in Patanjali’s book pretty clearly outlines what was, at the time, understood to be the main goal of yoga. This sutra reads, yogah citta vrtti nirodhah, which is typically translated to mean something like, “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the consciousness”. In short, yoga is all about getting your brain to shut the hell up so that you can enjoy a little peace and quiet, for once. Yoga is also about moving past the busy, restless, endlessly nattering part of the brain, the one that Buddhists often refer to as the “monkey mind”, and towards the purusa, which I will loosely define here as a sort of universal consciousness. Yoga is meant to help you see clearly, and one of the things yoga philosophy tells us we need to learn to see is that all beings and all parts of nature are interconnected. We are all part of the same larger pattern, and we are all part of each other. Realizing that is the original, ultimate goal of yoga.
Here in the west, though, we view yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise. Although we chant OM at the beginning and end of every class, and although as part of our practice we often perform surya namaskara (sun salutations), movements whose original intent was to honour the Hindu solar deity Surya, the way we view yoga is pretty much totally secular. Oh sure, some people will tell you that it makes them feel “spiritual”, but most don’t think about the religious aspects of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that goes on in western yoga, a lot of white people wearing mala beads and chanting in sanskrit without really understanding what any of it means. In my time in the western yoga world, I’ve seen so many examples of people exoticizing Hinduism and Indian culture, but not many attempts to learn more about what all these words and symbols mean.
I could go on and on about cultural appropriation in yoga, and maybe someday I will. Right now, though, it’s mainly the above-mentioned white people that I want to talk about. See, yoga in the west has, for the most part, become the domain of young, skinny, upper-middle-class, heterosexual white women. I’m not sure how this came about, as, up until just a few generations ago women were forbidden from practicing yoga, but, well, here we are. And I, a young, skinny, white, middle class, heterosexual white woman want to tell you that this is a problem.
The main issue is that people feel intimidated not necessarily by yoga itself, but by the other students in the room. In a worst case scenario, people might feel unwelcome, even unwanted. The message that the yoga community often sends out is that students have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, have a certain body type and a certain sexual orientation in order to practice yoga. There’s a lot of privilege going on in the western yoga world, and not a lot of yogis who are willing to acknowledge it. And you know what? That’s not cool, because yoga should be for everyone. Yoga is for everyone. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the problem, we in the yoga community need to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves how do we solve this?
One way to help solve this is to create safer spaces for different types of students. For example, I love Kula Yoga’s Positive Spaces Initiatives, which include classes like “brown girls yoga”, and “queer yoga”. I think that we need more classes like this, more safe spaces catering to the needs of different groups. We already know that some people prefer specialized classes – prenatal yoga, for example, or yoga for seniors – so why not expand this idea? How about yoga for fat chicks, or yoga for trans folk? After all, yoga should be for everybody, not just a select few.
We also need more pay-what-you-can classes, which most studios call “karma” or “community” classes. The average cost for a yoga class in Toronto is between $16 and $20 – paying that amount even just once a week is not manageable for some people. We need to find a way to make sure that yoga is affordable to everyone, not just those with a steady income.
Mostly, what I really think we need is for people to realize that yoga isn’t about how you look, both in terms of poses and clothing, and is really about how you feel. As my (very wise) friend/teacher Charlene recently said, “Yoga isn’t the series of poses and movements that you do during class. Yoga is how you feel after the class.”
The thing is, I honestly believe that yoga has changed my life for the better; that’s why I teach it, so that I can hopefully share that experience with other people. I’m not saying that everyone has to do yoga, or that it’s going to have the same effect on other people as it’s had on me, but I do honestly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have a regular practice if they want one.
After all, as yoga teaches us, we are all equal and all part of the same greater system.