April 20, 2015

Is Western Yoga as Inclusive as it Claims to Be?


Yoga is too much a closed world—closed to people without money. This is even more true of yoga teacher training.

I think this is unfortunate because I would like to have more access to yoga classes and teacher training. And I think that would be nice across the board—for everyone to have more access.

I realize that I’m not the first person to say this, or make this complaint. I realize that this could sound like just another complaint; someone trying to denigrate the current yoga scene.

As it stands right now, I am not active in any local yoga group, although I do meditate. So I realize that there’s also the risk of my criticisms seeming like an outsider trying to tear down the yoga tradition—kind of like a democrat criticizing republicans.

Nevertheless, I think my complaint has some merit to it.

Allow me to outline my reasons.

I recently tried to enter a yoga teacher training program, taught locally by someone I’ve known—albeit not very well—for many years. She formed a group for this teacher training course and we met once to discuss the deal. There were scheduling issues right off the bat—and this, I can’t blame her for. But what I found surprising was that, when I said that I didn’t make much money and tried to negotiate the price a little, the walls came down.

Since the teacher was local—somebody I knew, a nice person—I assumed the money side of things would be somewhat flexible. My initial offering—I think thirty or forty a month—was very small, granted. But I was willing to up this, even take out a loan for part of the fees. She made it clear that negotiation was not on the cards.

I understand that yoga is, for many people, a business that is also spiritual. This being a source of tension is not news to most people. But not being able to train as a yoga teacher was saddening and frustrating to me. The doors to that route closed pretty quickly and they wouldn’t had I been rich.

I think this is a sad state of affairs. A small town yoga teacher is not some college, or bank, able to offer financial aid. But still, I feel that the money barricade is too high when it comes to yoga classes and teacher training.

Walls of money are maintaining yoga’s social and cultural limitations. The world of western yoga is notoriously limited to wealthy white people—middle class and above—income wise. Having a hard barrier to YTT supports this problem and furthers it. For me, and for many low income folks, being a yoga teacher could be a very rewarding way to work a part time job, as well as to continue our spiritual practice. It’s not right that the door to teacher training is so firmly closed to certain people.

Many teachers have started offering free, or pay-what-you-want yoga classes and this is a step in the right direction. I think this is wonderful, but more should be done.

I have not done extensive research on this, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think money has created some problems in the world of yoga. I can find many places in my area to meditate and practice for free, or for very little. I can’t find that many to do yoga for free, or very little.

My first anecdote was about not being able to start teacher training. My second is about talking to someone about a well known yoga center. I mentioned the complaints I was just outlining above and she said she’d had a good experience at this center and that they were very “professional.” Another lady in the room nodded, smiling and agreed.

They were professional—I think this might be the problem.

Yoga has become very professional. I think it needs to become less professional.

Is “a professional” the ideal prototype, the ideal archetype of a realized yogi, that we want to propagate? I don’t think so.

The problem is the way money is warping the yoga scene in the west. I can’t claim to know the exact solutions, but here are some ideas:

More donation-based or free classes and adequate advertising thereof, so people know about them.

This could mean teaching in spaces like community centers, libraries, and churches, since the pressure to make a profit seems to go back to studio owners having to pay rent.

The advertising and outreach portion is key here. Personally, knowing that I can’t afford most classes, I don’t shop around much or walk into most studios these days. It is partly up to teachers and owners to reach out and make poor folks and interested newcomers welcome. This does not mean promotions and deals designed to make cash. It means reaching out, with the intention of making the yoga scene more inclusive and less materialistic.

That’s the first suggestion. It’s not about designing promotions and payment plans that will attract customers. It’s about thinking about how we want the yogic community to grow and evolve over the next few decades. A lot people will say their teaching is spiritual, but their main goals seem to be developing a part-time job or career in yoga. This is not good.

Look at the state of yoga. There are so many problems and a lack of openness and inclusivity is not where it ends. Materialism, watered down spiritual practices, abuse—the list goes on. And I bring these things up because I see yogic practice as an excellent opportunity that’s too often wasted.

The second suggestion is the development of a deeper practice mindset.

Yoga “retreats” or “trainings” that happen in the tropics are very common. This is not real practice. It’s a vacation. Now, this is not entirely about inclusivity, but it does connect. Are those “trainings” in beautiful sun-soaked locations open to all, regardless of income? No—they’re pricey vacations. Taking an honest look at these things could reveal that money is twisting and limiting the scene.

The third suggestion—and this is a little more substantial—is that poor people need more access to teacher training.

I did some research when I was seriously considering it and did not hear back from one studio. Another offered a very small discount—about five percent—if I paid the whole fee upfront. Another studio responded, but could not offer any kind of aid or discount. And you already know the story about my acquaintance who just refused to talk numbers.

Then, the issue is how to do it? Without big institutions involved, like colleges, how can we provide help to poor people who want YTT? How can this training become more accessible to people who could actually use the part-time gig?

I’m afraid I don’t know, so I leave it to others—to smarter, more financially savvy folks. I feel sure there is a way, if we look at all of the angles and question the current system with openness, honesty and a desire to make the modern yogic tradition as real, as powerful and as beautiful as possible.

Yoga is a practice lineage that has become too much about business. And this must change.


Relephant Read:

Sobering Advice for Those Considering Yoga Teacher Training.


Author: Jake Karlins

Assistant Editor: Hilda Carroll / Editor: Renee Picard

Photo via Wikipedia


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