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Yoga and Social Equity

Once upon a time, I was a broke college student who used to work on my laptop sipping free cucumber water in one of London’s poshest yoga studios. Sometimes, I would close my eyes, imbibe the scent of palo santo and pretend that one day I would be one of the teachers in this space, contorted into some cheerleader shape and rattling off Sanskrit like it were my second language. Could I polish Ganesh statues to work my way up the spiritual ladder?

A few years later, I became a yoga teacher. Quickly, I awakened to the fact that I had literally bought into the yoga industry’s false image of perfection. I found myself still broke as a yoga teacher working in certain studios on the brink of financial disarray that put up a façade of luxury to entice wealthy clientele. All this while excluding those who could not afford to drop $20 on a single class or felt uncomfortable in a whitewashed space. How had yoga once provided so much meaning if the industry was so fundamentally flawed?

The problem is this: yoga has been commoditized. Today, it is sold as a product we can only access if we have fancy yoga pants and money at our disposal for studio memberships. These were among the issues we discussed in a recent virtual training with LL Studio on the Yoga of Social Equity led by Brima Jah.

The pandemic has placed financial strain on yoga studios – many of which were already in an economically unstable state. This has led to a shift in power: Teachers who were once financially tied to a certain studio now have nothing to lose in speaking out against racism, ableism, financial exclusion, and cultural appropriation that can exist within studio culture. And yet, yoga studios are not the root cause of injustice, but rather, injustice that exists within them is a symptom of yoga being integrated into capitalism.

The solution is this: we can dismantle the forces of oppression in the yoga market by disentangling the practice from the industry. Yoga as a practice is a sacred pathway to liberation; yoga as an industry is a workout that can be purchased and completed in a 60-minute session.

We can visualize yoga as a practice thought several lenses. In Brima’s Yoga and Social Equity training, we discussed at length the chakra system as a lens for practicing yoga. For example, if we see the sacral chakra as an energetic space in the body associated with sexuality, sensuality, pleasure, and creation, we can recognize rape culture, toxic masculinity, and threats to women’s reproductive autonomy as social injustices associated with the chakra. The practice of yoga can also be understood through the lens of the Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras is the classic collection of 196 aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga synthesized between 400 and 500 CE by the sage Patanjali. Modern renditions of this ancient text are often required reading for yoga teacher trainings. In the sutras, Patanjali breaks yoga down into eight limbs that are commonly taught as its core components:

  • Yama – Moral codes for how we interact with others

  • Niyama – Positive habits for how we conduct ourselves

  • Asana – Physical postures

  • Pranayama – Breathing techniques

  • Pratyahara – Sensory withdrawal

  • Dharana – Concentration

  • Dhyana – Meditation

  • Samadhi – Bliss/enlightenment/nirvana/liberation

What is noteworthy and often surprising to new yoga students in the West is that the physical component of yoga is only one small piece of the puzzle. It is clear from the ancient texts that yoga is not an industry but rather a personal practice that can lead us to harmonize with our mind, body, spirit, and the world around us.

Still, as a personal practice, yoga must be learned. This leads us to another dilemma: How should yoga teachers be compensated? Perhaps more importantly, teaching yoga was never originally intended to be a profession, so should yoga teachers be paid? The answer to the latter question is easy: yes. Teaching yoga involves an exchange of energy, and money is the currency of energy that allows us to survive in our society. So, how?

I can’t claim to be an expert in economics, but I know from lived experience that the way teachers are currently compensated is flawed. Personally, making a living from teaching was a hustle fueled by passion that ultimately felt unsustainable even prior to the pandemic. I only have ideas, not hard, fast answers, but I believe there are several potential avenues to making yoga accessible and financially viable:

Yoga as a public good: Is it possible for yoga to become a public good? Yoga as a public good would mean it would be made available to all people regardless of whether they have the ability to pay for it. I envision it working like public radio: corporate sponsors, grants, individual donors, and “memberships” could finance local yoga nonprofit organizations that could pay its teachers to lead free, accessible yoga classes in community spaces. “Memberships” would be an optional way for community members to contribute rather than a ticket into exclusive classes. In addition to open community classes, classes could also be taught to specific targeted populations, such as pregnant people, immigrant/refugee communities, and elderly populations.

Yoga fueled by digital freedom: Virtual yoga classes are an aspect of the pandemic that are likely here to stay. Assuming Internet, devices, and tech literacy are widely accessible in the future (which admittedly is a BIG assumption to make), the digital world presents an opportunity to make yoga globally available. Practicing yoga online removes traditional paywalls associated with yoga studios, instead often allowing students to pay teachers directly. Many teachers these days are offering donation-based or pay-what-you-can classes or free YouTube classes with an option for practitioners to support their work on fan pages like Patreon.

There are still so many kinks to be worked out in this digital world (Will there be overall fewer opportunities for teachers in the digital world? What if no one pays me? Are acting skills required to teach on YouTube? How can teachers network online to find niche clientele? Will I ever discover how to use social media in a way that is not superficial or fuel my Instagram addiction? What is proper Zoom yoga etiquette anyway? What if my husband walks into the background naked while I’m teaching? What if I forget to turn my camera off while I’m breastfeeding in a yoga lecture?), but the possibilities for creating educational content truly are endless.

Yoga fueled by freedom dividends: I was never an official member of the Yang Gang, nor was I ever great at math, but I do wonder if universal basic income can play a role in social equity. It sounds utopian to me, but if everyone living in our country were provided a baseline salary that could cover our basic needs, then perhaps we could pass our days chasing our passions. Yoga teachers could teach as many (or as few) free or donation-based classes as they need to fill their energetic cup without feeling financially strained. If money were no object to me, I would never go back to teaching 20 classes per week; but would I teach 1-2 classes per week pro bono if my financial needs were taken care of by a freedom dividend? Absolutely.

When I look back to my summer in London as an aspiring yogini, I see it was not the sparkling cucumber water that enticed me to yoga, nor was it the plush bolsters, the complementary sauna, the designer elephant pants, or even the raw cacao brownie samples; what formed the glue in my relationship with yoga was the tangible tools it provided me in navigating anorexia and anxiety. Sometimes, at the end of a practice, I would drift into a state between unhurried wakefulness and light sleep, and for a moment, I would forget all the grocery items, to-dos, schedules, and lists of life crises my mind was trying to juggle. For a fleeting instant, I would become free. This feeling is what keeps me pushing away the industry and returning to the practice.



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