Dismantling Racial Barriers in Wellness

Yoga studios in general have an open door policy. Anyone, of any size, background, ethnicity and sexual orientation is welcomed. Yet, the majority of students and teachers continue to be White. Surprisingly, these statistics don’t shift much with demographic. Even in the most diverse neighborhoods, yoga studios are filled with White bodies. The open door policy is not working.
Why not and what can we do about it?

Uncovering your own Implicit Bias:

The first step to diversifying your clientele as a teacher and studio owner is to be mindful of your own implicit bias. The Perception Institute states that “thoughts and feelings are ‘implicit’ if we are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people”. As yoga teachers we know that most of our daily actions are played out without our conscious input. It is imperative to take these biases into account when we interact with BIPOC in our wellness space. Implicit racial bias shows up when we encourage and support certain types of students to attend a teacher training over others. It shows up in who and how we mentor and how we build relationships with our students. It even shows up in deciding which business platforms and organizations to partner with.

As a yoga practitioner it is easy to to lean into the simplicity of escapism and spiritual bypassing. We say things like, ‘all humans are equal, everything happens for a reason’ or even ‘I don’t see color’. Although these statements might make us feel better in that moment, the only thing they actually do is validate our own inaction. These statements feed into our own ego, and allow us to comfortably rest in complicity. They do nothing to promote and nurture diversity in yoga spaces and classes. The practice of karma yoga asks us to take action. In order to shift the current white washed landscape of yoga, we have to take intentional and actionable steps to uncover our own implicit bias. Even if we are not racist, and we ‘wish’ our classes would be more diverse, if we are not intentionally stepping outside of our comfort zone to implement lasting change in our environment, we are actively contributing to the white supremacy and racial divide in yoga.

Financial Barriers to Diversity:

Income inequality is a direct effect of systemic racism and oppression. Inequality.org states that the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median the Black family and studies have shown that this racial wealth divide only continues to grow. These inequalities directly affect the level of diversity in yoga spaces. Many studios have both strategically and sometimes inadvertently placed themselves in the luxury wellness sector. Studios charge $20+ a class, and yet believe their classes are financially accessible to the public. Clients mostly pay for yoga classes and memberships with disposable income; income that was allotted to them by the intentional oppression of others. Thus, BIPOC have a very different relationship with their money. Further so, self-care, healing and spirituality are often portrayed as a luxury rather than a right.

Too often the environment that yoga studios cultivate only reinforce this belief system. It is important that we prioritize the well-being of our community as a whole (including Black people) over potential profit margins. In this climate as many yoga studios struggle to keep the doors open it might seem difficult to envision a way to manipulate the current pricing structure. However, even with current business models, an overwhelming amount of yoga classes remain partially empty. Creating inclusion and diversity in wellness spaces is not only our duty as practitioners, it is also good business. Instead of ignoring an entire demographic of people, what would it look like to remove the financial barriers, and foster an economically sustainable relationship?

Creating a safe space for Black People:

The reason many Black people do not feel comfortable in yoga spaces is because they are predominantly occupied by white bodies. Historically, Black people have not been safe nor allowed in spaces occupied by Whites. One might argue that the past is the past, however racial segregation was only abolished in 1964. To put this into perspective, that was 56 years ago as of 2020. Now, if we believe that trauma and PTSD can be generational, it is no surprise that certain fears and safety mechanisms are ingrained into the Black community. The trauma is passed down and only validated by the daily racial micro and macro aggressions from White counterparts. To this day, Black people can’t walk into certain establishments without being scared for their life, can’t run through certain neighborhoods without being killed, and can’t even be in their own homes without being viewed as criminals. So why do yogis think that an all white yoga studio would seem like a safe space for Black people who are majorly suffering from conscious and subconscious trauma.

Creating a safe space doesn’t start with a diverse clientele, but a diverse teaching, management, and desk staff. If potential clients look at your website do they see diversity? When BIPOC enter your studio, do they see themselves represented? As teachers and studio owners it is not enough to just open the doors and hope that diversity will inevitably occur. It is your duty to take actionable steps to define yourself as a diverse culture. This means not being passive and naive, but intentional and aware of the barriers black people encounter when entering any wellness space. It is not enough to claim inclusivity, you must actively challenge white supremacy. Dismantling the status quo and fighting for social justice has to be a daily practice.

As yogis it is our job to pull apart our own patterns, to evaluate the why behind our actions and to hopefully progress and step into a new way of life. Can we evolve in our opinions and our actions the same way we evolve in our teachings? Through dedication, hard work and the desire to be and do better.  Can we as teachers lean into the discomfort of change the way we lean into our practice? Through patience, action and breath. Now is the time to take your practice off of the mat. This, is the Yoga!

Patricia Luensmann

Patricia is a NYC based Yoga teacher, founder of Yoga While Black and lifelong student. Her teachings aim to cultivate mental, physical and emotional well being through yoga, meditation, and reiki. In a society where healing and spirituality have become a trend, her offerings are rooted in digging deep, finding vulnerability, and doing the work. With a belief that healing has no shape, color or gender, Patricia works to bring awareness around the lack of diversity, specifically Black representation, in the wellness industry.