When you think of a yoga student, what image comes to mind? Often, the “stereotypical yoga student” is portrayed as a thin, pretty white woman doing an advanced yoga pose. If you don’t believe me, search for “yoga” in Google Images and see what comes up. Or check out a few yoga studio websites or yoga publications and see who the primary images represent. Chances are that in most, if not all cases, the featured models are thin, white women. Rather than highlighting the yogic aspects of oneness, diversity, and acceptance, these marketing materials may have the opposite effect by alienating people who don’t look just like the images. Is it any wonder then that minorities, people of color, those in lower income brackets, and people who otherwise don’t fit the stereotype of the “typical yoga student” often feel excluded from the practice?
Enter Yoga Green Book, an online yoga streaming service designed specifically for people of color, founded by Carla Christine. Fed up by the lack of diversity, in terms of race, gender, and economic status that she encountered in studios, and tired of people talking about the problem but never taking action, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Influenced by the Negro Motorist Green Book, a printed publication that listed friendly businesses for African American travelers during the era of Jim Crow laws, the Yoga Green Book is a culturally affirming safe space where people of color can access yoga and meditation classes online. With more than 30 classes to choose from and a very reasonable price plan, the site is a refreshing response to the stereotypical assumptions (yoga is only for thin, white, affluent females) that have taken hold in the yoga world.
In these times of increased racism and intolerance toward minorities and people of color, the message of support, inclusion, and healing offered by Yoga Green Book is more important than ever. While issues like mental health, physical and emotional trauma, and disease are prevalent all across the US, they are found in disproportionate numbers in communities that are predominantly minority or African American. Add to that economic pressures and the often high price tag put on yoga classes and clothes, and one can begin to see how access to yoga is not equal across the social spectrum.
The good news is that more people across the world are taking note of this disparity and taking action to make yoga more accessible and welcoming for all. One such organization is the nonprofit Light a Path, based in Asheville, NC. Founded by a group of yoga teachers and wellness professionals, it provides yoga services to underserved populations, including youth at risk, the unhoused, and the incarcerated. All the teachers and staff at Light a Path volunteer their time; and demand for their services continues to grow, with yoga and wellness programs now offered at area prisons, addiction recovery centers, and after-school programs.
Street Yoga, a similar nonprofit based in Seattle, provides yoga classes to unhoused youth and offers Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher Trainings in studios across the country. Organizations like these serve as much needed bridges between teachers and those who need, but may not have access to, the healing and therapeutic practices of yoga and related movement therapies.
There is also a growing presence of yoga students, teachers, and activists who don’t fall into the category of the “stereotypical yoga student” who are sharing their stories and helping to shift the dominant narrative of what yoga should look like. Jessamyn Stanley, a prominent yoga teacher, writer, and advocate for body positivity has become popular in many social media outlets as she shares her message of self-love and equality. Jacoby Ballard, another well-known yoga teacher and activist for LGBT rights, is also pushing back against common yoga stereotypes by offering LGBT and queer-inclusive yoga classes, workshops, and retreats across the US.
Their authenticity and honesty remind us that yoga is a journey of self-inquiry, self-acceptance, and connection to one’s own personal truth, and it has nothing to do with race, gender, body shape, or economic status.