Is a Yoga Class for People of Color Racist? No It’s Not.

lotus-flower-wallpaper-hd-e42eA reader sent along a story today about a yoga studio in Seattle that had a once-a-month class for people of color. White people were respectfully asked not to attend. This raised the eyebrows of a conservative radio host. He thinks it’s as racist as a whites-only class.

He’s wrong.

The complaint has forced the studio to back down and the owner posted an apology:

My intention in offering my space to POC Yoga was to offer a widely inclusive healing space where all people could receive the benefits of yoga. I never intended to exclude anyone based on race or ethnicity. I have several classes on my schedule that are open to everyone, and my intention in bringing this class to Rainier Beach Yoga was to encourage more inclusivity within our diverse community in Seattle.

That being said I now realize there was discriminatory language used in the advertising for this class. For that mistake I am deeply sorry. My intention was always to be inclusive.

For the time being classes at Rainier Beach Yoga are on hold until further notice.


This kind of thing, where people in dominant majorities go after people in systemically disadvantaged groups for trying to create comfortable spaces, really gets under my skin. It’s like when students take a feminist philosophy class and ask why there aren’t more men on the syllabus?

Suddenly they’re so concerned about equity.  I tell those students: if you want men on the syllabus, take any of the other hundred courses offered in philosophy or most of the rest of the university for that matter.  And if you want a yoga class where you’re surrounded by white people, attend pretty much any other yoga class than the one class a month that’s attempting to create a safe and welcoming space for people of color.

Because you know what? Yoga in North America is dominated by privileged white people with money. And maybe that environment isn’t so welcoming for people who don’t fit the normative profile. So me, I want to applaud the sentiment of the studio owner who was trying to do something positive and create a more inclusive environment.

There’s a great paper by feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar, where she talks about the need for closed communities as a transitional phase, when the groups might still be considered vulnerable and at risk. Sometimes, because members of dominant groups tend to be so…well…so dominant, it’s necessary to keep them out of it for awhile and let some empowerment take place without them stealing the thunder all the time.

You get this sometimes with Take Back the Night. If you’ve attended TBTN you’ll know that men are respectfully asked to stand aside. How in the heck can you successfully take back the freaking night if you’re being accompanied by a man, walking alongside you? That’s not taking back anything. That’s doing what we always have needed to do to feel safe after dark. So it’s not a way to make us feel strong and, yes, I will use the word: empowered. So no, you can’t join in the march and it’s not sexist.

That’s how I feel about these classes at the Rainier Beach yoga studio. They’re not racist. I do not consider racism to be an equal opportunity thing at all. Why? Because one of the things that racism does is it systemically subordinates people on the basis of their race/skin color. That’s why it’s a bad thing. And white people are not systemically subordinated when a yoga studio holds one class a month from which they’re asked to stand aside.

I’ve defended women-only races and spaces quite a bit. See here and here and here. In my defence of women-only races, I said, among other things, that:

The reasoning for women-only and girls-only spaces flows from the assumption that they have been structurally and systemically disdvantaged by a society that implicitly privileges men. [this is not to say that male privilege is the only sort of privilege operating in our world — we might also note the existence of white privilege, class privilege, non-disabled privilege — for now I’d like to focus on gender].  Creating opportunities for women as a systemically disadvantaged group is not the same as doing the same for men, who already enjoy social privilege and entitlement in all sorts of public arenas, including sports.

I could say the same thing about the special yoga classes that used to meet once a month at Rainier Studio: Creating opportunities for people of color as a systemically disadvantaged group is not the same as doing that for white people, who already enjoy social privilege and entitlement in all sorts of arenas, including yoga studios.

It’s sad that the studio had to back down when it’s obvious to anyone who understands the structural forces of power and privilege that create oppression that Laura was doing her damnedest to create an inclusive environment. She should be thanked for her efforts in the direction of creating social equality, not forced to shut down and apologize.

If nothing else, this incident shows you who still wields the power.

12 thoughts on “Is a Yoga Class for People of Color Racist? No It’s Not.

  1. There is an interesting irony going on here. Isn’t the practice of yoga intended for an individual to feel at one with the Universe and love, compassion and acceptance of all that is? That said, she may consider alternating classes for the celebration of people of all ‘perceived differences,’ anyone interested can attend.

    I understand we all feel more comfortable around those who seem most like us. I understand when there is too much testosterone in an exercise activity it can be overwhelming for women. But that is also where our perceptions of separateness are reinforced. I don’t think her intentions were bad at all, just not well thought out. Provocative post.

    1. The ideal of my oneness is great and all but there is nothing to be gained by pretending we are there when we aren’t. I think it would be great if people didn’t use race as a marker of difference at all. But that’s not the reality even if it’s a yogic ideal. How do we best deal with an imperfect world? I think that’s a difficult question.

      1. I suppose you offer interesting things and advertise in the communities that you wish to draw customers from? Whoever shows up is welcome.

  2. Good intentions, but people will jump at the opportunity to attack when they feel “attacked.” It’s unfortunate that having a class for people of color is frowned upon by, of course, a person not of color.
    It is what it is though.

  3. I have been a Yoga teacher for almost 10 years. I started just on the cusp of the Yoga explosion in the US and Canada. Although, there is an irony where the practice of yoga is intended for compassion and acceptance of all, unfortunately it is not. I dare say that 10 years ago, the feeling of inclusiveness by minority individuals, would have been easier than it is now. I have seen yoga go from a few fringe people like myself practicing and teaching to become a fashion statement and fitness class. The true essence of Yoga is diluted among the Lululemon and Cirque De Soleil classes. I may sound a little bitter here but even though I have been practicing for over 18 years, sometimes I feel out of place in a class just based on age, or ability. Don’t get me wrong, this is a double edged sword. I am glad to see younger people and the popularity of Yoga overflow into popular culture but it has lost some of its purity in doing so. The fact that Laura wanted to give the opportunity to those who may feel uncomfortable in a class the chance to enjoy and find their own practice is a great idea. Perhaps as they find their own practice, they would feel comfortable enough to go to any class in the future. Good on you Laura.

  4. Personally, I don’t see how this is not racist (or at the very least, discriminatory). In my opinion, we can’t only apply terms as we see fit and say they apply to one group and not another.

    Just because a class may be predominately “white” doesn’t mean that everyone else is excluded. Creating a class where any group is excluded is not okay in my mind.

    I think this is an interesting perspective that is presented well, but I don’t agree in this case.

    1. Do you also think that women’s events are and women-only spaces are sexist? That something like take back the night is sexist? I honestly think a view like that would simply entrench the status quo and does not recognize structural power imbalances.

      1. Not sexist, no, but discriminatory, yes. I believe that men can be feminists and support women’s issues. If they are interested and want to take part, why not?

  5. Outstanding post, Tracy – thank you for its clarity of voice and argument. I’m in full agreement that this kind of – extremely modest! – POC-only environment is incredibly valuable for those who feel excluded by the middle-class, largely white yoga community in North America, and especially in affluent cities like Seattle. I also applaud Laura for her choice, and I regret that she has been bullied into reversing it by someone who either does not recognise his own profound cultural and political power, or cynically pretends he has none.

    I’ve practiced yoga on several continents for almost 10 years now, and my favourite class ever was in a small studio in east-end Toronto that openly welcomed one and all: young bodies, old bodies, disabled bodies, underprivileged (which is to say: not clad head-to-toe in expensive yoga gear) bodies. We all learned from each other that yoga is not about perfection or the spectacle of strength; it’s a journey of discovery about our bodies in a community space that welcomes difference. I wish there were more classes with such an ethos.

    1. Sad that the yoga studio had to back down. I really wish people would understand what it means to be surrounded by women…who are blonde, redhaire or brown haired, but all white. And they are wearing chic yoga clothing.

      That’s just as intimidating as a bunch of women cyclists in only cycling clothing and clipless bike shoes.

      The more I think about it: how stupid. We want to encourage healthy lifestyles and better fitness. If it means a class or cycling ride of only black women (those groups do exist in the U.S. by the way), that’s super. The end goal of this is really getting lost: happier and healthier women. Doesn’t matter how they got their to reach those goals!!

      If people are so concerned by equality, maybe they should start crashing in on Asian only tai chi groups outdoors in Vancovuer or Toronto. …

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