Racist ‘Yoga for people of color’ is opportunity for dialogue not divisiveness

The backlash over 'Yoga for people of color' is painful because of its tunnel-vision.

Screenshot of the Rainier Beach Yoga website

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 18, 2015—Next to the court decision that Bikram Yoga’s Bikram Choudury has no copyright protection on his billion-dollar Hot Yoga sequence, the latest shakeup in the yoga community surrounds a yoga class in Seattle-based Rainier Beach, Wash., that is aimed at people of color and specifically asks that white people not attend.

Apparently Rainier Beach Yoga’s “yoga for people of color” has run once a month for five years without incident. That is, until a local KIRO host Dori Monson decided to make it a topic of his segment. Monson posed this question: “If it’s illegal and considered racist for a white, straight business owner to deny service to a gay person or person of color, shouldn’t the same be true for a yoga class that bars white people from attending?”

According to MyNorthwest.com, Teresa Wang, co-founder of the specialized class, said it was started by five queer people of color who came together to create a safe space for people of color who might otherwise be uncomfortable.

“An email blast about the class says it’s aimed at people of color and of all sexualities, ages, body sizes, abilities, genders, and experience with yoga. It specifically identifies ‘lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and trans-friendly/affirming,’ plus people who self-identify as ‘African American/black/of the African Diaspora, Asian, South Asian, West Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, First Nations/Alaskan Native/Native American/Indigenous, Chican/Latin, or Multiracial/Mixed-Race.’ The email adds that ‘white friends, allies and partners are respectfully asked not to attend.'”

Just the description is headache-inducing and would turn off anyone who simply wants yoga without the serving of social justice. Anything that steeped in requirements always has an agenda attached, and this Yogi and yoga instructor tends to be selective about whose and what agenda to promote. While yoga activists of every stripe populating the landscape, there is a greater appreciation for the ones that have a more deft hand in their promotion.

The article continues, “So what would happen if a white man decided to attend?” Apparently Teresa Wang did not have a really clear answer to writer Eric Mandel’s question. “‘Well, it’s a class for people of color, so he would be coming to that class knowing that we’re really clear about who we are asking to come to class, so…I’m not really sure because it hasn’t happened to us,’ Wang said. ‘So I don’t really know.'”

Mandel stated that Dori Monson said he has no problem with the exclusionary practice of the class. His beef is with the presumed reaction that people will applaud this class for being progressive, while the opposite — a group of white people saying they didn’t want people of color in their class — would be “vilified.”

Monson has a point, and this standard was proven last year when a Santa Barbara yoga studio decided to host a “Ghetto Fabulous” class, replete with encouragement to wear corn rolls, grillz, and your best ghettoized Lululemon leggings. The backlash on the studio’s Facebook page and among online media from Jezebel to Global Grind to Laist, was swift and ugly.

The Rainer studio’s backlash was less swift, but even more ugly. After Monson’s segment condemning the class as racist, the instructor of POC Yoga and the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga have been harassed and received death threats. People of color yoga was canceled, and all the other classes at Rainier Beach Yoga were put on hold.

That was on Oct. 7. Now the Rainer Beach Yoga website has posted a message that classes will resume on Tuesday, albeit with a police presence to protect the safety of the instructors and the participants.

In progressive Seattle, police are the enemy… until you need them to protect you. Interesting.

Here is what is truly sad about all this: 1) that you have to create such a class in the first place; and 2) that it actually went on for five years without any backlash!

A writer at Fit is a Feminist Issue, and many others, disagree with Monson’s assessment. No surprise there.

The blogger opines: “This kind of thing, where people in dominant majorities go after people in systemically disadvantaged groups for trying to create comfortable spaces [emphasis mine], really gets under my skin. It’s like when students take a feminist philosophy class and ask why there aren’t more men on the syllabus?”

Wasn’t the point of the civil rights movement for people of color to receive the same rights and privileges as whites in society, and to be treated like everyone else? If that’s the case, why this “need” to create comfortable spaces? This writer fails to track the logic.

In this effort to create these “comfortable spaces,” tell me, who is stopping you? The plus-sized yoga movement has been doing this for years—they have just been smart enough not to put out language or information that overtly excludes people who do not fit their target audience. You have the privacy of your own home, a meetup group, a park and other venues where “comfortable spaces” can be created. However, if you are asking people to frequent your profit-based yoga studio and your goal is making certain people feel included, while overtly excluding and stigmatizing one particular race, you are failing miserably. Rainier Beach Yoga’s banner says, “Community. Compassion. Transformation.” By hosting and encouraging this class, the studio is essentially saying these tenets are only for a select segment of the population.

Just saying.

This female yogi-of-color does not feel their pain. What is painful is that we cannot be trailblazers and live out the legacy our civil rights forefathers left us. Just as much as we sat at “whites only” lunch counters and rode buses that had discriminatory codes, so we should be populating yoga classes that are so-called exclusive to the white and the privileged.

That’s one of the reasons I became a yoga instructor: to be, as Gandhi said, the change I wish to see in my world. Frankly, the whole issue of yogis of a certain size and shape is more a discriminatory element at many yoga studios than the issue of race. From the lack of props that would enhance the practice of plus-sized participants, to clueless instructors who do not know how to adjust or layer their cues to include the plus-sized, to the front desk person or instructor who bothers to question someone of a certain size on whether they can handle an advanced class. That struggle is real, this feeling excluded because of color, less so. But this writer is fortunate to be able to tear down both those walls, so my pickaxe is always at the ready.

If nothing else, this is once again continuing the conversation on how yoga is marketed only to people who fit the paradigm of the Caucasian, skinny, hypermobile yogi, and all others are excluded or ignored; hence the “need” to further more divisiveness, rather than rework the paradigm. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition, Kimberly Dark, Anna Guest-Jelley, Tiina Veer and others have been confronting the stereotypes and encouraging dialogue for quite a while. Despite the negative publicity that Rainier Beach Yoga has received, let’s hope the studio, and the rest of us can use this to propel the conversation forward in a positive direction. Let’s work on eliminating the “need” for such classes in the first place.

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