Dear Confused Yogi,
Thanks for asking, as there has been way too much quiet in the yoga community about this incident, and not enough conversation. For this topic I wish I was not anonymous. I don’t want to hide behind a pseudonym.
My understanding is that a class was started about five years ago by a local teacher dedicated to providing a safe and supportive space for people of color. This class, called People of Color Yoga (POC Yoga), had been promoted only by word of mouth.
After being held in a community center for some time, the class was moved to a yoga studio in the Rainier Beach area. At that time the studio owner, a well-intentioned white woman, posted about the class on social media, asking her friends who were not people of color not to attend. She was unaware of the risk of putting this out in a public format.
This caught the attention of a local media personality and jettisoned the class, its founder and host onto the local and national stage. The argument was that this exclusion was an unjust business practice, not unlike the decision on behalf of a Washington state florist who chose not to take clients planning same sex marriage.
Within hours the studio owner and the founder of POC Yoga were attacked and threatened, apparently with their lives. While the studio closed for a few days, it reopened, but POC Yoga has ceased to exist.
Now there is way more to say about this story, and the environment it occurred in (I honestly think this was more about making a case for businesses like the florist to be able to refuse same sex couples, though I may be totally wrong), but let’s bring this back to yoga.
Yoga is an ancient practice from a people (Indian) who are not white, but yoga studios are filled with people who are. The teachers are (mostly) white; the owners are (mostly) white; the students are (mostly) white. And change to that reality is going to take a while, and a great deal of effort, by all yoga practitioners of all races, genders and socio-economic levels. In the interim, POC Yoga tried to provide a place where the people of color could be the majority, where they could feel in the company of people who looked more like them, who had experienced our world more like themselves.
The fact that this class was brought to public attention has had detrimental effects, but I am hoping that it will also raise awareness that we have a long long way to go before a person of color can look at the yoga experience in America and say “this is me” and/or “I belong here.” White yoga practitioners need to be asking what they can do to bring other faces into the public eye. We need to train and hire teachers and staff of color, encourage yoga entrepreneurs of color. We need to start asking people of color “what can we do to support you?” All while taking a big deep collective breath to heal this nation of our legacy of pain.
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