Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi” Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga

Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

I am currently in a yoga teacher training at a studio in East Los Angeles called People’s Yoga. They are the first yoga studio in this particular area of Los Angeles and are going to be celebrating their two-year anniversary in the coming weeks. People’s Yoga prides itself in making yoga accessible to the community of East Los Angeles. Classes are affordable, some are bilingual or in Spanish, there are classes for families to practice together, many of the instructors are people of color and the studio is accessible via public transportation. This year they offered their first 200-hour yoga teacher training. The others in my cohort are also people of color. All different backgrounds and ages but sharing the experience of what it is like to be a person of color who has been drawn to yoga on their own healing journey. As we learn about yoga together, we also share our experiences of feeling excluded, navigating being undocumented, being a queer person of color, how yoga is viewed by our families, and how we view injustices every day. We have a space in yoga to integrate our cultural and ethnic identities and experiences from that identity. This process is powerful.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family. I think this is because of yoga’s ability to cultivate self-awareness and self-love. In yoga, we embrace all parts of ourselves. From this space, I can see that a yoga practice brings individuals closer to who they really are. Each of us is unique. Our stories and experiences are unique. If we allow space to share and unite these stories, the experience of each of us will be richer and more full.

Black, white or brown (or however you identify) – we can all be united in our experiences of trauma, pain, sadness, joy, happiness, and gratitude. These are universal human emotions that link us together. We can heal together.  As we move toward this ideal, we still need to acknowledge that there is a need for safe spaces to heal for marginalized groups. It may look like a yoga studio that opens in East Los Angeles. It may look like a workshop about traditional Mexican healing practices. Each community should have the right to access safe spaces to provide wellness and healing, individually and together. Each community should have the right to choose the practices that will help them heal. Healing movements and leaders historically emerge from within their own community. In this case, as fellow brothers and sisters in color and among all throughout Los Angeles, our shared role is to respect and support this work for authentic and accurate cultural representation in any way we can.

BLACK YOGA TEACHERES ALLIANCE

When I heard about the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) I was excited and wanted to learn more about their work. The group was founded in 2008 and first began as a social media group. The goal was to create a safe space for teachers, students, practitioners, healers and enthusiasts to discuss yoga, share resources and create community. They wanted to create a place to explore the many paths and types of yoga, while also incorporating the authentic spirituality that black yoga teachers bring to the practice of yoga.

The BYTA provides their collective community with resources about teacher trainings, educational programs about yoga, scholarship opportunities and yoga publications. It also launched its first national initiative named Yoga as a Peace Practice: Redefining black lives and restoring peace and pride in our homes and communities. The initiative includes offering curriculum to yoga teachers so that they can take action by offering yoga, meditation practices and yoga based on lifestyle philosophies among those who are victims of violence (BYTA.com).

Since 2008, the group expanded and will be holding its first major retreat and conference in August 2016. The speakers being highlighted are black yoga instructors who have been leaders in this movement for a long time. The BYTA wants to celebrate and highlight these leaders that do not often get the recognition and space to share their wisdom and experience. The conference information describes that there will be an emphasis on the experience of being black in yoga and in this nation, as well as spaces to share and heal in community.

The Black Yoga Teacher Alliance currently has a Kickstarter Fundraiser organized by Jacoby Ballard of Third Root Community Center. The fundraiser aims to raise enough money to support 10 scholarships to black yogis who otherwise would not be able to attend the conference. A second goal of the campaign is to have 1000 white yogis donate to support the campaign. This would be a sign of support and send a powerful message that these types of safe spaces and events are important.

I donated to the BYTA scholarship fund because I support their efforts to create safe space for and to celebrate black yogis. They are not only sharing yoga but also leading the way with national initiatives that use the practice of yoga to engage with major issues such as violence and victims of violence, especially in black communities. I encourage those of you who are part of a yoga community to also support by donating to the scholarship fund, finding out more about the BYTA and/or attending the conference to learn more about their work first hand. Their efforts and contributions to the broader yoga community are valuable and are contributing to breaking stereotypes of exclusivity in mainstream yoga.

 

BYA logo

 

See what the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance is up to, get involved or donate here.
Photo Cred: BYTA.com

Challenging Concepts of the "Western Yogi" Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga

Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

I am currently in a yoga teacher training at a studio in East Los Angeles called People’s Yoga. They are the first yoga studio in this particular area of Los Angeles and are going to be celebrating their two-year anniversary in the coming weeks. People’s Yoga prides itself in making yoga accessible to the community of East Los Angeles. Classes are affordable, some are bilingual or in Spanish, there are classes for families to practice together, many of the instructors are people of color and the studio is accessible via public transportation. This year they offered their first 200-hour yoga teacher training. The others in my cohort are also people of color. All different backgrounds and ages but sharing the experience of what it is like to be a person of color who has been drawn to yoga on their own healing journey. As we learn about yoga together, we also share our experiences of feeling excluded, navigating being undocumented, being a queer person of color, how yoga is viewed by our families, and how we view injustices every day. We have a space in yoga to integrate our cultural and ethnic identities and experiences from that identity. This process is powerful.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family. I think this is because of yoga’s ability to cultivate self-awareness and self-love. In yoga, we embrace all parts of ourselves. From this space, I can see that a yoga practice brings individuals closer to who they really are. Each of us is unique. Our stories and experiences are unique. If we allow space to share and unite these stories, the experience of each of us will be richer and more full.

Black, white or brown (or however you identify) – we can all be united in our experiences of trauma, pain, sadness, joy, happiness, and gratitude. These are universal human emotions that link us together. We can heal together.  As we move toward this ideal, we still need to acknowledge that there is a need for safe spaces to heal for marginalized groups. It may look like a yoga studio that opens in East Los Angeles. It may look like a workshop about traditional Mexican healing practices. Each community should have the right to access safe spaces to provide wellness and healing, individually and together. Each community should have the right to choose the practices that will help them heal. Healing movements and leaders historically emerge from within their own community. In this case, as fellow brothers and sisters in color and among all throughout Los Angeles, our shared role is to respect and support this work for authentic and accurate cultural representation in any way we can.

BLACK YOGA TEACHERES ALLIANCE

When I heard about the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) I was excited and wanted to learn more about their work. The group was founded in 2008 and first began as a social media group. The goal was to create a safe space for teachers, students, practitioners, healers and enthusiasts to discuss yoga, share resources and create community. They wanted to create a place to explore the many paths and types of yoga, while also incorporating the authentic spirituality that black yoga teachers bring to the practice of yoga.

The BYTA provides their collective community with resources about teacher trainings, educational programs about yoga, scholarship opportunities and yoga publications. It also launched its first national initiative named Yoga as a Peace Practice: Redefining black lives and restoring peace and pride in our homes and communities. The initiative includes offering curriculum to yoga teachers so that they can take action by offering yoga, meditation practices and yoga based on lifestyle philosophies among those who are victims of violence (BYTA.com).

Since 2008, the group expanded and will be holding its first major retreat and conference in August 2016. The speakers being highlighted are black yoga instructors who have been leaders in this movement for a long time. The BYTA wants to celebrate and highlight these leaders that do not often get the recognition and space to share their wisdom and experience. The conference information describes that there will be an emphasis on the experience of being black in yoga and in this nation, as well as spaces to share and heal in community.

The Black Yoga Teacher Alliance currently has a Kickstarter Fundraiser organized by Jacoby Ballard of Third Root Community Center. The fundraiser aims to raise enough money to support 10 scholarships to black yogis who otherwise would not be able to attend the conference. A second goal of the campaign is to have 1000 white yogis donate to support the campaign. This would be a sign of support and send a powerful message that these types of safe spaces and events are important.

I donated to the BYTA scholarship fund because I support their efforts to create safe space for and to celebrate black yogis. They are not only sharing yoga but also leading the way with national initiatives that use the practice of yoga to engage with major issues such as violence and victims of violence, especially in black communities. I encourage those of you who are part of a yoga community to also support by donating to the scholarship fund, finding out more about the BYTA and/or attending the conference to learn more about their work first hand. Their efforts and contributions to the broader yoga community are valuable and are contributing to breaking stereotypes of exclusivity in mainstream yoga.

 

BYA logo

 

See what the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance is up to, get involved or donate here.
Photo Cred: BYTA.com

Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi”: Part I

Challenging the “Western Yogi”: Part I
By: Viviana Vallin, M.A.

Imagine walking into a magazine shop and all of the covers concerning yoga have a woman who is of brown skin, has a full curvy body type and thick dark hair. All of the covers had this image. Imagine walking into a yoga class and all of the yoga instructors also fit this image. This image is all around you, and yet this is not you; this is not what you look like. The majority in the class also fit this image. Perhaps, you consider whether you should stay or go.

What thoughts or feelings arise in your body?

It probably depends on how closely you resemble that woman. If you are also a woman of color, a woman with a fuller body, a woman with thick curly hair maybe you would breathe a sigh of relief or maybe you would also feel incredibly uneasy, like what is going on here? Is this a trick?

If you are a woman who is Caucasian, slimmer body type and have blonde straight hair you may also be feeling uneasy. How comfortable and easy would it then be for you to walk into a yoga studio space and be able to jump right into focusing on your practice when you are a blatant minority in that space?

This example is simplified, but I want to highlight the discomfort and not-so-subtle message of what is and is not the “normal” yoga practitioner. This is what people of color experience not only in the yoga studio but in other spaces where Whiteness is the standard. It is not only people of color, but really anyone who does not fit that image or standard who may be more aware and made to feel uncomfortable by pronounced difference.

Since I started practicing yoga eight years ago, I have been on a journey to deepen my understanding of yoga and to explore the ways in which, within the U.S., it has become a mainstream physical practice for a select group of wealthy, white and educated individuals. This past year, I undertook a thesis project for my final year in the Yoga Studies Masters program at Loyola Marymount University. I was the only Latina student in my cohort and one of only a few students of color in the cohort overall. Here and elsewhere, I felt the very subtle but also very real messages that yoga is not for me, or for people that look like my family members in most yoga studio spaces. Most of the women in my family for example, are closer in image to the women I described in the opening imagery.

I never experienced direct discrimination from anyone when taking a yoga class. This is because, in most cases, these impacts are happening outside of the studio space. Media images, commercials, clothes, high costs, and the mainstream profile of the typical yoga teacher, as well as an overall lacking of yoga studios in most communities of color, are all messages that people internalize. They [the media] tell you that yoga is not meant for you; so you naturally might wonder: Why would I even go try a class?

For my thesis, I conducted a survey of people of color who practice yoga in Los Angeles. I was able to collect over 40 surveys within just a few weeks. Although this is a small sample size, it is not meant to be representative of all people of color; however, there are some very strong common responses. The majority of the respondents did not report experiencing discrimination in yoga spaces. They did however share a similar feeling of unease, discomfort and anxiety over not “fitting in” or looking like the “typical yogi.”

These doubts tend to increase self-criticism and so, feelings about not fitting in are powerful barriers that often prevent individuals from exploring yoga or attending a class in a studio. We cannot see this type of exclusion and discrimination, but the results are evident when you look around most yoga classes in Los Angeles. Here and most everywhere, yoga is equated with Whiteness.


So, what can we do? To reclaim yoga as something that is representative of its natural integrity, history and essence; by encompassing and including all persons regardless of race, sexuality, disability or any other ‘difference.’ This is our shared goal and the ultimate goal of yoga, to achieve a real understanding of Oneness.

Photo Cred: People’s Yoga, “Yoga Seeds Family Class” held each Sunday

In Part II…
By Vivi Vallin

The story about how yoga came to be this way is both simple and complex. In a way, it feels like our nation has corrupted yoga. Yoga in itself is a practice of self-awareness, self-inquiry, self-liberation. It is not inherently exclusive or discriminatory. Yoga is just highlighting what is already present in America.