I am interested in what happens when people look at either an image or video of a yogi ‘performing’ an impressive pose (like here). Clearly we can only understand the physicality of that moment how the body contorts or holds the person strongly. Usually we can only guess at that person’s internal level of calm and how their breath flows in that moment. I don’t wish to say that the yogis in these snapshots are anything less than zen. But we can’t really perceive it. There is an interesting debate about whether these things make yoga aspirational or potentially alienate people who feel that they can never live up to such ideals. Even those of us that possibly who have been studied well the ins and outs of yoga, and understand its not all about flexibility, may end up feeling inadequate as teachers like Charity Poole and Sarah Erzin describes in their blogs .
There is no denying that the backlash against the ‘typical yoga’ image has given rise to some great projects showing and practicing yoga diversity. But they are still only the small minority. The majority of media is still a depressingly narrow view of yogis as young, lithe, highly flexible predominately white and mostly female. These characteristics are not negative in themselves but they certainly don’t fully represent me or the students in my classes very well.
Arguably it also feeds into wider debates over whether yoga and meditation is elitist in western society. For me some of the most interesting projects happening at the moment are working with much more diverse students. In prisons like Prison Phoenix Trust, with homeless people and those suffering from addictions (see this TED talk) and with those who can’t access mainstream yoga classes (see local charity Yoga Mobility and Matthew Sanford a disabled USA teacher).
So I’m really pleased to be supporting the upcoming #yogaforwallich event. Firstly this will be a great opportunity to get to practice yoga with some of the most experienced teachers in Cardiff; Tori Lang, Ray Hussian and Sharon Davies to name just a few! Then you’ll also get the opportunity to raise money through taking on the challenge of 108 sun salutations. So not only are you likely to have a great day but you’ll also get the warm glow of helping to raise money for a brilliant charity. The event demonstrates that yogis can live their values by caring for those around them, even the hidden parts of society.
Yoga students know the huge benefits of the practice on their body, mind, and wellbeing. But it’s worth bearing in mind that some people, possibly those who could most benefit from yoga, either think it excludes them or for practical reasons are not able to access it. The two issues need different approaches to find suitable solutions.
I think all yogis have a responsibility for promoting diversity if someone says I can’t come to class because I’ll be the only man, overweight, older or less flexible person challenge them to try it. Then support them when they do attend. Attitudes are slow to change but they will shift eventually. Teachers also have a responsibility to promote diversity. Yoga teachers must also be mindful of how these poses are taught and their use of language. Teachers, students and media share responsibility for strongly advocating that yoga is truly for everybody.
The second part of providing access to those with more physical barriers may not be as easy for everyone to support. But we can encourage projects and groups that facilitate this (see links at end of the article). Everyone can also campaign for a greater number of classes and facilities that gives wider access. I’m not naive enough to suggest it’s an easy process but if western yoga wants to evolve beyond the accusation of too much individualistic, or self-serving focus then we must continually push for that equality of access and diversity which is what makes yoga truly strong and powerful.
Some of my favourite projects and organisations if you are interested in finding out more:
Yoga for Wallich – takes place 10th May in Cardiff County Hall.
Off the mat – a US project encouraging yogis to engage in activism
Prison Phoenix trust – supporting prisoner to access yoga and meditation
Yoga mobility – Cardiff charity supporting greater access to yoga
Special yoga – London based charitable business supporting children with additional needs and training teachers to help create more of these classes.