Is yoga too white and rich? How it became inaccessible to most

Nadia Gilani had high hopes when she started working as a yoga teacher in London in 2018. Although teaching yoga was never the plan – Gilani was a media journalist by trade – she was introduced to the practice at age 16 by his mother and it had been a big part of his life ever since.

After going through various difficulties in her personal life, including the death of her grandmother, she believed that teaching yoga full time would give her the peace and direction she needed.

“Because I loved yoga so much, I thought I would be living the dream when I started teaching, but I was let down by the industry almost instantly,” she says. Stylist. “I had major impostor syndrome. I was going to all these auditions where I was the only person of color trying out, so I felt like the odd one out.

“I was seeing all these styles of yoga that were very different from the way I was teaching and next to the other instructors with their nimble bodies and fancy gym clothes, I felt like I didn’t have the air of the game”, she continues. “I ended up buying myself all these multicolored leggings and tops to look like a ‘yoga teacher’ and be taken seriously.”

Gilani often felt conflicted between meeting the expectations of studio owners and students in a yoga class and sharing the practice in a way that felt authentic to her. “I spent hours choreographing elaborate sequences and creating hard-hitting playlists because I knew that was what they wanted, even though I didn’t believe that was how yoga should be taught.”

Looking back on that time in her life, Gilani remembers feeling upset, stressed and anxious most of the time. She found herself working within an elitist, whitewashed wellness industry that she hated and that seemed totally at odds with the practice she had known since her teenage years.

“It was painful for me to see yoga being twisted, decontextualized, and repackaged into something so far removed from what it was meant to be.”

She explains that when yoga first appeared in ancient India thousands of years ago, it was about making sense of the world, discovering yourself, and meditating. “The new practice seems to have become a selfish, fitness-focused, fashionable, expensive and in many ways elitist activity,” she says.

As Gilani continued to see problems with the modern yoga industry, she couldn’t ignore them or stop thinking about them, so she started writing as a way to deal with her feelings. “I didn’t take writing seriously until I resigned from my studio job and felt able to speak freely about the state of modern yoga,” she says.

The Yoga Manifesto: A Guide to Decolonizing Yoga

She started writing long Instagram posts about the cultural appropriation of yoga and the Instagramification of wellness. She didn’t get much response to begin with, but when the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, that all changed.

As Gilani continued to post, it seemed his message resonated with more and more people. “My posts were full of people of color telling me how grateful they were for me speaking up and putting their feelings into words.”

As her community continued to grow, she was quick to secure a book deal, and in October 2020 Gilani began work on the The Yoga Manifesto. “I wanted to take my pain and my anger and turn it into something positive that could make a small difference.”

Part memoir, part manifesto, her debut book explores where yoga came from, how it evolved into the trendy wellness product it is today, and what the future holds for it. ancient practice.

Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation

One issue Gilani discusses at length in the book is cultural appropriation. What does it look like in yoga? It’s Om tattoos, mispronounced Sanskrit chants, classes that involve booze and endless namaste puns, she says. “It’s about taking the ancient Indian practice and reorienting it to something completely different and profiting from it, without respecting or acknowledging where it came from.”

So how can we practice in a culturally sensitive way? It all comes down to integrity and respect, says Gilani. “I think it’s about looking at your own practice and asking yourself if it feels respectful to you. If you want to sing, for example, learn the meaning of mantras and practice your Sanskrit pronunciation.

It is also important to recognize that yoga is not just a physical practice. “The way we treat yoga today is very much tied to the physical body, but it is a philosophical practice and the asanas (postures) are only part of a larger spiritual system. I think it’s really important to recognize that.

Should we partake in the different styles of yoga popping up all over Instagram like puppy yoga, beer yoga, and hip-hop yoga? “I’m not here to tell anyone what to do, but again, it’s about looking at your own practice with integrity and respect.” For Gilani, these variations contradict what yoga was designed for.

“I don’t think they can be described as yoga. Poses are a means for many enlightenments, so I don’t see how the practice is going to work if you layer all those crazy distractions like up-tempo music, puppies, and booze.

If you’re concerned about cultural appropriation and want to learn more, she advises taking the time to educate yourself on yogic principles. “We’re sick of being asked questions about cultural appropriation so do your own thing. The information is there, it’s not that hard to find.

Looking at the way yoga is marketed, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s exclusively for thin, blonde, hyper-flexible white women who eat superfoods, wear expensive gym clothes, and post “workout workouts.” yoga” carefully curated on social media. This is a major problem, says Gilani, because it excludes and disempowers people of color — both teachers and practitioners — who don’t feel welcome in a predominantly white space.

And it’s not just people of color who are being pushed away from the billion-dollar industry. There seems to be little room for people from LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, and other groups that don’t reflect the stereotype of modern yoga. “We’re so creative with our yoga classes in terms of hitting the playlists, booze, and puppies, why aren’t we creative in making it accessible?” Gilani said.

Another major hurdle is the commercialization of yoga. “Not only are yoga classes expensive, with studios often located in affluent areas, but training to become a yoga teacher is expensive – I paid £3,000 for my training,” she explains.

These high prices suggest that well-being is a privilege, says Gilani, and shouldn’t be. “Yoga is so powerful and should be easily accessible to as many people as possible, especially those who are so often overlooked by the wellness industry.”

Gilani acknowledges that on the face of it, things are looking up when it comes to diversity and representation in yoga. “After George Floyd died, people became obsessed with diversity and inclusion and they started offering various models in their marketing,” she recalls. “While representation is important, if your efforts stop there and you still keep prices high and you don’t hire teachers of color, that’s not good enough.”

Is it time for a revolution in the yoga industry?

“The yoga industry needs a massive shake-up, we can’t go on like this. The world needs better,” says Gilani. “Everyone involved in yoga – companies, brands, media influencers social workers, teachers and students – however we interact with yoga, we need to look at how we do it.”

Although the yoga industry is riddled with problems, it still has hope for its future. “It may seem like an insurmountable task, but we can all take action to change the world, it just takes effort and willpower.”

What does this look like in practice? In her book, Gilani offers an eight-part manifesto detailing how we can all do our part to restore yoga, preserve its roots, and make it accessible to all.

“One of the most important things that needs to happen is awareness,” she says. “If you have a yoga business, I think you should live in the spirit of the practice. Look at the environment you are in and think about how you can meet the needs of the surrounding community and make it better. to serve so that it crosses the doors.

Prioritizing opportunities for teachers of color, paying teachers fairly, providing scholarships and bursaries for training courses, and offering courses that meet different needs are also crucial steps, Gilani says.

As students, we can take a look at where we choose to do yoga, we can ask our teachers about their journey, and we can try to practice more mindfully, without the namaste slogan t-shirts. and mala beads.

“With the Yoga Manifesto, I know there’s a lot of criticism and I’m tearing things up but it’s in order to rebuild and create something better. People have the power to change everything. This may sound drastic, but I really believe it.

Nadia Gilani’s first book, The Yoga Manifesto, published by Pan Macmillan is available now.

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