Although the literal translation of the word “yoga” is to join or unite, American yoga classes can be somewhat exclusive. In real life, though this homogeny often isn’t intended, it is perpetuated by the constant media portrayal of the ideal yogini as a skinny, affluent, white woman. This parody of yoga does everyone a disservice—except perhaps those selling fancy pants.
Despite the increasing “business of yoga,” there are still large segments of the population that find yoga unapproachable. A commonly spoken fear is that “I’m just not that flexible.” This is understandable, as yoga ads and magazine covers often give the impression that you’ll be expected to do Yoganidrasana (Yoga Sleep Pose) with a smile on your face at your first class. Unfortunately, many people also feel they won’t be welcome or comfortable due to their body size or shape, gender, sexual orientation or skin color. This could be because the dominating marketing image is of the thin flexible white (and presumably heterosexual) woman. These ads have burned this stereotype into our subconscious, a pseudo-symbol of what yoga looks like, another unattainable two-dimensional monochromatic landscape.
While it’s easy to be upset at the media for projecting their Hollywood-style false reality onto yoga, studies show that the majority of yoga practitioners in the US are indeed financially comfortable women. The media’s images show that most marketing and publishing staff believe them to be white. In fairness, of course, it is the financially comfortable, thin, white women who are buying $90 pants. So it’s no wonder that these are the people the media is interested in talking to.
Most people in the yoga community have good intentions, but this notion of yoga as something for the young, flexible, beautiful, privileged, straight, and/or mostly white, creates a barrier to entry. While most of us would like to believe that we don’t attend, own or teach at a studio that would make people feel unwelcome, it happens. Sometimes it is the newcomer projecting these judgments on to others, but like it or not, there are also subtle or overt messages given off in some studios or classes that make it clear when someone’s ‘difference’ is noticeable.
Luckily, some wise yogis have noticed this and are working to break down these barriers and make yoga more approachable for those that don’t fit the cliché. Global Mind Body (GMB), a nonprofit based in Toronto has put together a four-part documentary series on yoga and diversity, addressing issues related to ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, body size and body image. Through conversations with people that have felt marginalized in the yoga community, GMB’s Co-Director E.K. Park shines the light on these sensitive subjects and offers encouragement and hope for building more inclusive communities.
Obviously, the skinny white woman stereotype is a new image, and is nearly the polar opposite of the historical image of a yogi. It has been promoted by those in the West that have tried to commodify yoga for profit, and it’s up to the current day yoga practitioners to remember and practice the true goal of yoga—unity—in order to repaint the picture.