Yoga Enterprise

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 back in 2018. Although teaching yoga had never been the plan – Gilani was a news journalist by trade – she was introduced to the practice at 16 by her mother and it had been a big part of her life ever since.

After going through various struggles in her personal life, including the death of her grandma, she thought teaching full-time yoga would bring 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 became disillusioned with the industry almost instantly,” she tells Stylist. “I had major imposter 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 which were very different from how I taught and next to the other instructors with their agile bodies and fancy activewear, I felt I didn’t look the part,” she continues. “I ended up buying myself all these multicolored leggings and tops so that I would look like a ‘yoga teacher’ and be taken seriously.”

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

Reflecting on this period in her life, Gilani recalls feeling upset, stressed and anxious a lot of the time. She found herself working within an elitist, whitewashed wellness industry that she hated and which seemed totally at odds with the practice she had known since she was a teenager.

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

She explains that when yoga arose in ancient India thousands of years ago, it was about making sense of the world, self-discovery and meditation. “The new practice appears to have become a self-serving, fitness-focused, trendy, expensive and in many ways elitist activity,” she says.

As Gilani continued to see problems with the modern yoga industry, she couldn’t unsee them or stop thinking about them, so she started writing as a way of dealing 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 lengthy posts on Instagram about the cultural appropriation of yoga and the Instagramification of wellness. She didn’t get much of a response to begin with, but when the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, everything changed.

As Gilani continued to post, it seemed her message was resonating with more and more people. “My messages were filled with people of color telling me how grateful they were to me for speaking out and putting into words how they had been feeling.”

As her community continued to grow, it wasn’t long before she had a book deal and, in October 2020, Gilani started working on the draft of The Yoga Manifesto. “I wanted to take my hurt and anger and turn it into something positive that could make a difference in some small way.”

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

Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation

One issue that Gilani deals with at length in the book is cultural appropriation. What does this look like in yoga? It’s Om tattoos, poorly pronounced Sanskrit chants, classes that involve alcohol and endless namaste puns, she says. “It’s taking the ancient Indian practice and repurposing it into 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 for you. If you want to chant, for instance, learn the meaning behind the mantras and practice your Sanskrit pronunciation.”

It’s also important to recognize that yoga isn’t just a physical practice. “The way we treat yoga today is very attached to the physical body but it’s a philosophical practice and the asana (postures) are just one part of a bigger spiritual system. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that.”

Should we be taking part in the various yoga styles that are 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 comes down to looking at your own practice with integrity and respect.” For Gilani, these variants sit at odds with what yoga was designed for.

“I don’t think they can be described as yoga. The postures are a means to many enlightenments so I don’t see how the practice is going to work if you’re layering on all these mad distractions like uptempo music, puppies and alcohol.”

If you’re concerned about cultural appropriation and want to learn more, she advises taking some time to educate yourself about the yogic principles. “We get fed up of being asked about cultural appropriation so do your own work. The information is out there, it’s not that difficult to find.”

We’re so creative with our yoga classes in terms of banging on playlists and alcohol and puppies, why aren’t we creative in terms of making it accessible?

Looking at the way yoga is marketed, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s exclusively for slim, blonde, hyper-flexible white women who eat superfoods, wear expensive activewear and post carefully curated ‘yoga workouts’ on social media. This is a major issue, Gilani says, because it excludes and disempowers people of color – both teachers and practitioners – who don’t feel welcome in an overwhelmingly white space.

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

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

These high prices suggest that wellness is a privilege, says Gilani, and it shouldn’t be. “Yoga is so powerful and it should be easy to access for as many people as possible, especially those who are so often ignored by the wellness industry.”

Gilani acknowledges that on the face of it, things are improving when it comes to diversity and representation in yoga. “After the death of George Floyd, people became obsessed with diversity and inclusion and they started featuring diverse models in their marketing,” she recalls. “While representation is important, if your efforts stop there and you’re still keeping the prices high and you’re not hiring teachers of colour, it’s not good enough.”

Is it time for a revolution within 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 who’s involved in yoga – businesses, brands, social media influencers, teachers and students – however we interact with yoga, we need to look at how we’re doing it.”

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

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

“One of the biggest things that needs to happen is outreach,” she says. “If you have a yoga business, I think you should live in the spirit of the practice. Take a look at the environment you’re in and think about how you can tap into the needs of the surrounding community and serve them better so they come through the doors.”

Prioritizing opportunities for teachers of colour, paying teachers fairly, providing bursaries and scholarships for training courses and offering classes which cater to different needs are all crucial steps too, says Gilani.

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

“With the Yoga Manifesto, I know there’s a lot of critique and I’m ripping things apart but it’s with a view to rebuild and create something better. People have the power to change anything. It might sound radical but I really do believe that.”

Nadia Gilani’s debut book, The Yoga Manifesto, published by Bluebird and One Boat, Pan Macmillan is available now.

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