Diversity Training For Yoga Instructors
By Nick Krieger
There were six of us (plus two facilitators) in the room for the Diversity Training for Yoga Teachers workshop at Yoga Tree. Six. A tiny number, minute for a city that boasts progressive values and a fervent yoga community of avid practitioners, many of whom would proudly claim a foundation of practice rooted in Karma Yoga (or service), as much as the asana or postures.
For me, as well, as some of the others in the room, “diversity” is not the word we would use to advertise or explain either the intention or discussions that occurred in our seven hours together. Diversity implies variety for the sake of, and often results in the tokenization of marginalized people for the purpose of greater representation.
The concepts of welcoming and inclusivity are more relevant. Rather than pursuing diversity as if this were the goal in and of itself, we consider: What barriers to entry could we remove to allow a wider range of people access to our yoga classes, studios, and workshops? What patterns of historical and structural oppression are we replicating inside our yoga studios?
Doh. I did it. I used the “O” word. Oppression. I’m always cautioning my friend who leads these types of inclusivity workshops in mainstream yoga spaces to avoid social justice language, and to stay away from mentioning isms and phobias—racism, classism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia—in any fliers and promotional materials.
Because instead of a willingness to investigate the overarching systems we’ve inherited and unintentionally perpetuate, we too often space out and shut down at the mention of oppressive structures. These structures appear distant, and perhaps even unreal. That is, unless the pain caused by them is constant, persistent, and personal.
Gender, and specifically my transgender experience, has been my eye-opener to understanding system-based suffering. I notice every time a group is separated into men and women (what about people in the middle?) and every mention of “both genders” (“all genders” is a good alternative). I notice that in yoga anatomy discussions the bodies of trans folks are invisibilized, and that many yoga teachers cannot help but crack a joke about men on their menstrual cycles or male pregnancy—hilarious until a trans man is laughed at by his ob-gyn, or has a health insurance company reject his claim for a pap smear because his paperwork says “M.”
Those were only a few examples of what is meant by systems of oppression replicating themselves inside the yoga studio. By changing our behaviors and words inside of our classes we can not only make our yoga spaces more inclusive, but we can model and teach the inclusivity we need to create in doctor’s offices and health care companies.
During one of the workshop exercises, we colored in the petals of a flower based on the perception of our privilege in categories such as ethnicity, race, citizenship, sexual orientation, religion, education, gender identity, healthcare access, and others.
My flower bloomed in a colorful array of privilege. I am a white, upper-middle class, American citizen who is highly educated, male-presenting, gender-normative appearing, and straight-seeming. In many ways, this is why I feel comfortable in traditional yoga studios. Financially, I can afford to attend, I blend in to the sea of white faces, and I share a past similar in many ways, at least in privileges, to others in the room.
For many years I have felt split down the middle between my yoga sangha and my queer activist community, desperate to bridge the divide and bring these two worlds together. I wonder, what does it take for more than six people to show up in a workshop around diversity, welcoming, and inclusion? What would it take for you to cross this divide with me?
I know, I know, we never have enough time. Even in 200-hours of teacher training, there is barely enough time to cover the yamas (the first of the eight limbs in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali). But what if, when we discussed the first yama, ahimsa (non-violence), we spoke of the violence perpetuated in our yoga spaces? What if we acknowledged the possibility that we might be causing some harm simply in the ways that we engage with yoga?
I wear a Ganesh chain around my neck, and I have a drawer full of clothes with the Sanskrit phrase “Om Namah Shivaya” on them. I feel connected to the meaning behind the image and words, as well as the reverence, intention, and devotion that went into the creation of these items. I am committed to a lifelong learning of the history and cultures from which these symbols arrived.
AND, I am uncomfortable that my white skin allows me the privilege of wearing this cultural iconography when an Indian-American woman with a Lakshmi on her car dashboard could be subject to religious and racial discrimination and disrespect.
I am not interested in cutting off my relationship to Ganesh, nor abandoning my homogenous yoga community. But I am interested in a conversation about our blind spots of privilege, and the ways we create and perpetuate systems that only allow for certain and specific populations of people to show up in our spaces.
Time is the reason we often state for avoiding these conversations. But fear is more accurate. These are difficult topics. They can cause us to question the practices we hold so dear, challenge the egos that grip so tightly to the label of “good,” and force us to look closer at an unjust world. In order to have these conversations, we need skillful facilitators, people who have a handle on power and privilege, as well as the ability to hold the shame and self-defense that so often shuts down these discussions before they get going.
Six people at a diversity and inclusion workshop can seem like a small number, a discouraging number even. Or it can seem like the spark of something huge. I envision a future when this type of training is required for every aspiring yoga teacher.