Inclusion Matters – Even in a Yoga Studio!

I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.

Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.

Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?

Anyway…

Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.

So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!

This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:

  1. The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
  2. The classes were consistently not inclusive.

Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.

The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.

So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).

Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.

Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.

If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.

Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!

A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!

Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!

Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.

Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.

Inclusion is not just a business requisite.

It is a human requisite.

What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?

Let me know in the comments below! Stay well!

First published on LinkedIn here.

Where Are The Indian/SA/BIPOC ‘Safe’ Asana Teachers?

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Gosh! Believe me when I say this: I am not following Jenni Rawlings or her blog. But, this link to her latest blog post 7 Prominent Yogis Weigh in on Yoga Injuries and What to Do About Them was shared on a group I am a part of with the comment that the member found it concerning that there were no POCs of prominence featured here. Anyway, someone tagged me – yes, me, the Indian teacher, not a prominent one – and clearly not white or white-passing, so not eligible to have anything constructive to add to this blog, I suppose.

Turns out, to a query on Instagram for this blog post about the lack of POCs or larger bodied teachers in this article, the author replied, “I wish there was more diversity among high-profile senior yoga teachers who actively train other teachers.

So now, you clearly have me hooked because above and beyond the lack of sensitivity and the clear condescension that Jenni had demonstrated in her tone back in July, this post and comment more or less underscores her lack of desire to actually both consider POC (let alone mention them) and recognize or approach the diversity of practitioners and teachers in the community.

Questions that came up for me:

  • Does the author assume / believe that Indian / SA / POC asana teachers do not teach safe practice? Do we not consider injuries or know what to do about them? Do we not train other teachers actively? Is the Indian context of teaching safe asana different? Is it not relevant to the Western yoga context?
  • Do these 7 prominent white and white-passing able bodied yoga teachers know what it feels like to be a larger bodied yoga practitioner? Do they know by lived experience what injury in a big / fat / large body feels like and what to do about it?
  • What exactly makes a yoga teacher high profile? The number of Facebook / Instagram likes and followers? Don’t those numbers increase ideally when you are able bodied & white / white-passing anyway?

This blog disturbs me and I know I might do both Jenni & myself a world of good by just ignoring her posts. But I can’t do that today. Not just for this blog post but for any that continues to perpetuate the disparity and marginalization in the name of existing prominence. It would be so wrong on my part… on so many levels!

Firstly, I am familiar with just two of the teachers on the list – so the others I haven’t heard of. But then isn’t this the exact case for white supremacy and lack of diversity in ‘today’s yoga world‘? If yoga is continued to be represented by white & white passing teachers, and if no effort is made to even reach out & ask Indian/SA/POCs for their input, then needless to say, the playing field is skewed! And yes, so is prominence!

Secondly, the blog post on safety is also quite exclusive. It caters to the stereotyped able-bodied practitioner. In other words, the safety of bigger bodies doesn’t seemingly fall into the radar of the blog. I can understand that it is not the area of expertise of the author, but her insta comment indicates that she is aware of diversity that, in her opinion, is lacking prominence.

The author’s wish to see more of diversity in the ‘prominent’ list, those who are actively teaching safe asana is, well, quite fulfilled already if only she looked them up!

What is needed then? Because the problem is not this blog (although it is problematic as always), the problem is not one person’s obvious colored prejudice and the unadjusted bias against POCs or people of non-conforming / non-stereotyped bodies. It is simple.

It is about the lack of platforming. And it is about the privilege of supremacy that showcases, repeatedly and consistently white, able-bodied practitioners & teachers to supplement their benefits. In the process, the marginalized remain in the shadows, kept there with a pitiful ‘wish’ for more diversity because it is easier to say, “I don’t know they exist!” or “Do they even do this work to keep asana safe?”

And so, until then, we carry on with the pantomime by allowing the White Savior Complex to take us through asana and help keep it safe for us, even if they don’t really  know how to.

10 Tips for Inclusive Yoga Classes in India

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I’m a yoga teacher. I teach in India. I’m an Indian.

There, I’ve checked all the right boxes to assure you that I am speaking from the corner of the play arena where I hope to see change in.

My reasons are simple – if yoga is defined as ‘union‘, then there’s all the more reason for the teachers to bring in a sense of inclusive unity in the classes they teach. I know for a fact that not all yoga teachers out there are trained in the soft skills that they would do well to embody. And, well, not all schools and yoga teacher training programs in India have a curriculum that goes beyond expertise in asana and teach the deeper aspects of what it takes to be a yoga teacher.

So I thought today, being Accessible Yoga Day, I’d put together a few pointers to help yoga teachers make the Indian yoga studio experience a world-class one – inclusive and accessible to a diverse audience, while still maintaining it’s heritage, integrity and authenticity.

1. Smile

It couldn’t get simpler than that. During my earliest studio experiences as a practitioner, it was unnerving to get into the studio where the teacher was grumpy. And grumpy, disconnected, haughty teachers created grumpy, disconnected cultures and left their students (all of them) grumpy and disconnected. A smile emits the energy of friendliness and approachability allowing your students to feel safe to be in your class.

2. It’s not all about asana

I’ve noticed that many yoga teachers focus on asana – on themselves and with their students. Go deeper and invite your classes to take away more than the physical practice. Give them insights on the philosophy and energy of the asana. Educate them throughout the class so they have a little something more to take back with them that just the ‘workout’. Speaking of workout…

3. Make the asanas accessible.

Yoga doesn’t have to be challenging every step of the way. And no asana has to be done only in the way of the one text book example image. Recognize what the asana is intended to achieve and find options for your students to explore. Understand that different bodies may need to approach asana differently – even through props, if required. Allow them to really experience their asana as well its energy!

4. Keep your classes safe.

Ok, well, I love my yoga anatomy – but that doesn’t make it any less important for any other yoga teacher. It is really important for you to know the structure and function of the human body and how to address any limitations your students may bring into class. When you’re in front of the class, leading a class, it becomes your responsibility to keep your students safe (of course, the students also carry the responsibility to inform the teacher of any health conditions and/or concerns). But, when someone comes in with a limitation, be prepared to know how to present safe options for your chosen asanas.

5. Ask permission to touch.

Yes, Indian culture does put teachers up on a pedestal, but let’s face it, contemporary yoga practitioners are aware practitioners. They read, have access to the internet and are a more present and conscious lot. Even if they weren’t aware of their right to refuse manual adjustment, it would be safe to understand that a teacher does not know the story behind every student who enters the studio. Many of my students have shared their fear of refusing manual adjustment from their teachers. If you need to adjust to keep your student safe, a verbal cue could be just as effective – perhaps even more potent for your student.

6. Go easy on the Sanskrit.

Terminology is important – but honestly, your students come from diverse backgrounds. Not everyone would be able to pronounce the Sanskrit names but many new practitioners would probably have Googled their way to the first yoga class and are expecting to hear ‘Downward Facing Dog’ instead of ‘Adhomukha Svanasana‘. It’s OK to switch.

7. Improvise with a touch of dramatics.

Everyone loves an engaging class – even if it is a yoga class. Adding a touch of humor in your classrooms will lighten your classroom and dissipate any lingering tension.

8. Build your speaking skills.

Monotonous instructions in a yoga class can be drab and a jarring voice instructing the class to come out of savanasa  (dead man’s pose) or kaya sthairyam (body stillness) Learning some verbal cueing options along with tone, inflection and voice modulation would go a long way in building the class energy. Be  mindful, however, of talking too much or too little in your class. Be mindful of the language you use – keeping it encouraging, uplifting and inclusive.

9. Build community through yoga.

People love to be included. Practitioners come in all shapes, sizes, faith, gender identity and sexual orientation. Unless you choose to work in one specific niche, you most likely teach a general yoga class. Upskill yourself with teaching techniques, read up on current affairs, and incorporate sensitivity and compassion in your classroom. Learning to make yoga available to the entire diversity that society presents helps us truly advocate for our community members.

10. Humility

As yoga teachers, we are not faultless. We are human too and it helps to remember that. Not every teacher is able to demonstrate every asana, but they most likely can teach their students how to safely and correctly practice it themselves. And it is fine to accept and acknowledge that. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not being able to. And most students would appreciate the honesty and integrity.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – everything else comes just from being present and experience. It does take effort and the intent to hold space for yourself and your class, but at the end of it all, it really makes the practice much deeper and beautiful – we really do get an opportunity to inspire transformation… and of course, transform ourselves in the process too.

Best of luck!

Whose asana is it anyway?

Did you know that yoga is one of the most frequently recommended practices to manage stress? It is! And it is recommended by doctors, practitioners and non-practitioners alike – even if they have no clue about the ‘why’ of it – and even if they haven’t ever seen the on side of a yoga mat. So yeah, yoga is recommended as a practice that boosts not just your flexibility and tone, but also works on your moods and stress levels.

Teaching and practicing yoga has shown me that this very practice has the potential to also exacerbate your stress levels so much that you may begin to totally get turned off by the sight of a yoga mat – let alone someone sitting cross-legged in stretchy tights.

There are many reasons for this – and one of them may be that perhaps the practice is indeed not for your after all! Maybe you’re just not ready for yoga yet.

One of my pet lines in my classes is allowing the asana to come to you – whenever – and know that yoga meets you where you are.

But regardless of how we put this thought across, the fact that we are practitioners of the 21st century, pumped on by the rush of competition holds many fresh yogis in its grip and, in my very humble opinion, the role of the yoga teacher here is to gently shine light on this tendency and allow for the practice to unfold – in its own way, in its own time.

And this is also where the teacher needs to remember that demonstration of her absolute asana form need not come forward. This is not the time to show the student how far he has to go, but coach and allow them the space to recognise how far she has come along in the practice! There is no comparative text-book description for an ideal asana – although some perfectionist, orthodox yogis may choose to have you believe otherwise. Yes, there is the way an asana is supposed to look like (thanks to text-book imagery, super-flexible lead teacher demos and those Pittas in the class), but more importantly, there is a deeper way in which an asana is supposed to make you feel and experience its energy and influence – in its own way, in its own time.

And a reasonably good yoga teacher, with his/her intention set on bringing you the experience of yoga, will be a wonderful hand-holder through this perfectly personal journey.

Your body is your own – unique and perfect just the way it is…. there are no ‘should’s in yoga – just ‘be‘s.

So…

1 simple rule to follow

Make your practice your own.

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