Earlier, I wrote about how yoga is not colorblind. I still stand by it. Yoga does not care if you are black or white or yellow or brown. It does not care if you are fat or thin or short or tall or in between, It does not care if you wear fancy yoga clothes or pajamas. It does not care if you are rich or poor. Even my ethnic heritage of being an Indian does not grant me any privilege. I still struggle. My heels don’t touch the floor. My knees do need to bend generously. Just like any other middle-aged chub of any ethnic extraction (lets leave those bendy whities out of this!), I need to manage get my spare tires out of the way for a forward bend. So, yes, yoga is free of discrimination, racial and otherwise.
The benefits of yoga are well established. From building general flexibility, healing reparations of injury to stress reduction, Dr. Timothy McCall lists 38 benefits of yoga. It reduces your blood pressure and blood sugar, regulates your adrenal glands, makes you happier, more relaxed and more focused, helps you sleep better, improves your lung capacity among a host of other benefits. So why is such a useful and personally meaningful practice contested territory?
Critics claim that white women have colonized yoga in the US and the industry as a whole is said to marginalize and alienate groups such as people of color and fat people. Data somewhat supports this claim. Most of the yoga practitioners are female, white, young and college educated. Out of the 25 million Americans who practice yoga, 76.5% is white and only 6% is African American. Yoga industry is not only not color-blind it is also ageist. Americans over the age of 65 who practice yoga is an even smaller group at 4% but in general inactivity rates are highest among the 55+. But there is a self-selection bias operating here. 95% of the people who practice yoga in America are in excellent to very good health and only 5% fall into the poor or fair health category. Similarly, most yoga practitioners are less likely to smoke and more likely to drink lightly or moderately. So why do people who can use it most don’t do it? Low income stressed and maxed out single mothers and older people getting more inflexible and prone to injury and so on.
The clamor of voices protesting against this marginalization is increasingly ever-present in this conversation. Evidence of racist anecdotes are available online. There was a recent brouhaha about a yoga salon in Santa Barbara throwing a ghetto style yoga party. Yes, you read it right. And there was a young white woman (prototypical American yogi) writing very feelingly about an out of shape, black woman struggling with yoga in her class. At the cost of repeating myself, why is yoga such a controversial social subject?
My take is that it is the age-old capitalistic exploitation than anything new. Yoga like most traditional knowledge systems operates on benevolent mental models. Benevolent mental models are interdependence-centric with an understanding that knowledge is communal property in service of collective wellbeing. In fact, one of the famous and my favorite Hindu prayers is, “Lokha Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu,’ meaning, “Let all of universe be joyful, free of suffering.” Although yoga’s roots are in the benevolent mental model, yoga industry operates very much on an exploitative mental model. In this mental model, knowledge is seen as a resource to be exploited for private profit. When collectively evolved knowledge is viewed as a resource to be exploited for private profit, consumers of yoga are merely markets and not seekers of spiritual or personal growth. It is a victimless crime because the knowledge belongs to the public realm but criminals abound.
But yoga industry is merely a part of the next trillion-dollar industry: The Pursuit of Wellness, which its critics term the wellness syndrome. With 153,00 gyms worldwide and 273,500 personal trainers and 70,000 yoga teachers in just US, it is a very large industry. With 67% of gym memberships go unused, this industry is used to its customers paying them for not using their facilities. How many times have you had your gym or cable company or cell phone calling you to downgrade or suspend your service because you are not using it (yes, I am rolling my eyes here)?
So why does Yoga journal feature disproportionately high number of white women compared to every other group? In just one issue of the magazine, black and white women combined represent only 2.5%. There was only one picture of a black male. 98.3% of women pictured are nearly identical and slender. So what is going on here? Is it a conspiracy to keep black and other people of color out of yoga? It is definitely not a deliberate conspiracy, but like most capitalistic firms, the industry is not out to change people’s lives, it is out to bolster its bottom lines.
As per NIH statistics, 48% of the Americans practicing yoga belong to households earning more than 65K per annum in 2008. The median African American household income during the same period was 37K and has declined to 33 K in 2012. 46.3% of the African America households are headed by women and an average black woman’s weekly earning is $590 compared to a white woman’s $712. No wonder the yoga industry is not clamoring to sell itself to black and other people of color. Even when they clamor, beware! It is like when car and credit card companies’ commercials started to target women. It has nothing to do with leveling the playing field or providing access to those who never had it before. It has everything to do with expanding the market just like the bottom of the pyramid strategies that create large markets of consumers for products peddled by multinational corporations. As usual, race and class issues are enmeshed ones.
Nothing but the same old exploitative market orientation, even if the original intent of the knowledge creators and custodians of yoga was far from creating knowledge resource for the production of private property. As a person of color or as someone who cannot afford fancy yoga lessons, the best thing you can do is to remember that yoga belongs to the knowledge ‘commons.’ No one owns it. The Government of India has created a public database for yoga and other allied areas of science such as Ayurveda to return these knowledge resources to the public domain so we all can use it.
If you cannot afford a studio lesson, there are a number of high quality videos posted by yogis who understand the benevolent nature of yoga that you can use for free or a really small donation. These yogis, regardless of their color and size are sites of micro-resistance against the yoga industry. You don’t need fancy yoga clothes or yoga mats. And you don’t need to be bendy-skinny to do yoga. If you know yogis in your community, get them to offer lessons on a sliding scale or donation options. Engage in group practice. Get your church of community center to give you free space so you can keep the costs down. Or ask your local public library to set up a community room with a computer and projector so you can view the yoga and work out with your friends and family. Get the older people in your community to practice it. Resist the commercialization of yoga by the greedy, exploitative wellness industry. Yoga belongs to you and me and everyone. Take it and feel well. That is exactly the purpose of yoga.