Lotus Flower

Yoga and Privilege

Blog written by: Natalia Bonneville

Yoga and privilege are touchy subjects that can potentially be divisive within the yoga community, which includes studio owners, teachers, serious students, as well as casual learners. For this reason, before documenting  my own observations, I interviewed a number of wonderful people to get as broad a view as I could regarding this subject. It quickly became clear to me that the topic is multifaceted and could easily turn into a year-long study.  Therefore, for the purposes of this blog, I am simplifying the complex idea of privilege and yoga in order to start a conversation. From there, I encourage every reader to think about yoga and privilege as it applies within their own yoga community. I would like to begin with three definitions: yoga, privilege, and the underprivileged.

Yoga: yogas chitta vritti nirodhah – Patanjali’s yoga sutras, I, 2. Broken down this means yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind. A definition most westerners recognize is the one given by the Hindu American Foundation, where yoga – in its broadest sense – means to unite. What are we uniting? Through yoga we are uniting our present selves to our highest potential and everytime we practice yoga, we get a glimpse of what our higher self could be just as we move closer to this ideal.

Privilege, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others; a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud; the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.” We see examples of privilege everyday across almost all situations. The most blatant privilege in the West is being Caucasian and male.  If you are born in this category you automatically have an advantage over others. It is not a question of fault, nor does it seek to demean the efforts and achievements of white males. It is the reality of living in a patriarchal Euro-centric country. No more, no less.

Again, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be underprivileged means to be “deprived through social or economic condition of some of the fundamental rights of all members of a civilized society.” We see this more and more as the gap between rich and poor becomes wider. Money will afford you better health-care, better education, and more options in your day-to-day life. These advantages contribute to increasing privilege for those who have it, making the class gap ever wider.

Privilege, in one way or another, seeks to separate which is in stark contrast to yoga. Yoga, as an industry, rakes in billions of dollars every year. According to statisticbrain.com the majority of yoga practitioners are female college graduates earning above $75,000 per year. These numbers suggest that yoga is indeed reserved for the privileged but that is not the case. It could simply be that university graduates have more opportunity to be introduced to yoga which may become part of their lifestyle post-graduation. As I mentioned above, yoga is big business, and so the more disposable income you have, the more you have to spend on extra curricular activities.   Yoga business knows this and wants a piece of your budgetary pie. Hence every year there are new gadgets that come out to help you in and out of poses (how many yoga wheels have you seen on Instagram lately?), detailed meditation cushions and bolster pillows, expensive yoga clothes, and even yoga hybrids (YogaBoxing™ anyone?). To an outsider, this smells of privilege if not downright elitism. I can’t afford Lululemon pants, how can I possibly show up to a yoga studio? Wait a minute, I can’t even afford to go to a yoga studio. I can barely afford my smartphone! (our crazy modern prioroties) Our capitalist economy and avaricious consumerism has made yoga seem unattainable to those without disposable income. Social media encourages the idea that you need to be female, lithe, blonde, and incredibly flexible to even attempt this activity. Yoga has become the victim of our Western values which unfortunately has degenerated to valuing money and social visibility over non-stealing, non-violence, truthfulness, non-greed (we really screwed tis one up), and faithfulness. Sound familiar? These are the five Yamas, or rules of social conduct of yoga. Privilege as it is defined has no place in yoga. Yoga is an ancient science and no one person can own it any more than Sir Isaac Newton could claim ownership over gravity.

When asked about privilege most interviewees spoke of the advantage of wealth. If you are affluent you could afford a membership to a yoga studio or gym, the best yoga mat, various yoga accessories, and designer wear. It becomes a complex issue for studio owners and teachers because in most cases, they wish to live the ethics yoga has taught them. On the other hand, they have chosen yoga as a career. Many yoga teachers must work extremely long hours or take multiple jobs to make ends meet. Studio owners need to make a profit in order to pay themselves, staff, and to continue to evolve. Despite these challenges, those I spoke to thought there was room to improve accessibility for those that cannot afford it or who are uncomfortable with a studio environment due to preconceived notions of ability, size, or gender. In addition, while belonging to a studio is not a necessity (anymore than thigh-gap creating capris – yes, these do exist!), it can take your practice to an entirely new level. I say this as someone who has practiced at home (using DVDs), at a gym, and in a studio. While all concurred that yoga is not the dominion of the privileged, all agreed that is was a privilege to practice yoga. Not because it is an exclusive practice for the few but because they were lucky enough to discover something that lifts you up toward your authentic self; because it opens your eyes, your heart, your mind; because it heals.

Each person I spoke with exemplified the Montreal yoga community in the most positive way and even suggested or have already implemented some ways to make yoga accessible to a wider range of people. One studio in particular offers classes to the trans-gender community, and a pair of teachers recommended that studios offer karma classes twice a week instead of only once (usually Friday evenings). From my own experience as well as from my conversations with other yoga practitioners, be they student or teacher, it is not for lack of effort on the part of studios that keep the underprivileged from practicing; it is simply a lack of awareness that yoga is even a possibility.

I would like to thank the following wonderful women who took the time to speak with me regarding yoga and privilege: Kathryn Berry, Anna and Nishia Cioffi of Kallula Apperal, Jodie Duplesea of studio Ambaa, and Urpi Samara of Taino Studio Inc.