Ways of Seeing: Yoga can, must advance equity


I have always loved the saying “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Although often attributed to Karl Marx, slightly different variants of the slogan were common among French Socialists and Utopian thinkers. Some scholars even trace the phrase to the New Testament, in Acts of the Apostles, which says “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

This sentiment guides a program we started at our yoga studio in Middlebury, one we hope will be replicated at healing spaces everywhere. The Yoga Equity Project seeks to provide the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of yoga and meditation to everyone, by addressing the inequalities that keep some people from accessing yoga spaces. It’s no great mystery why yoga studios tend to be full of people from similar racial and economic backgrounds. To take part in a typical yoga class, not only do you need money for the class fee, but you also need a free couple of hours, childcare if you have kids, and transportation to the studio. It’s no wonder most yoga classes are primarily attended by whiter, wealthier people.

And spaces that are filled with mostly white people are not usually welcoming spaces to People of the Global Majority (this is another way to say people of color; I really like it). Why is this and what can be done about it? Let’s come back to these two questions in a moment, Gentle Reader.

So we have named two problems here, the barriers that prevent many students from attending yoga classes, and the lack of a welcoming, inclusive environment in existing yoga spaces.

Our Yoga Equity Project aims to dismantle these barriers by offering classes that are by and for People of the Global Majority, and by paying students to attend class. You read that right, Black and Brown students receive a $25 stipend for every yoga class they attend. When we first began offering these BIPOC-only classes, we advertised them with a flyer that said “Get Paid To Relax.” Our first session was fully enrolled in four hours. The current Yoga Equity Project class takes place on Zoom, and is attended by folks all over Vermont.

I think of the stipend for attending class as a little “wind at your back,” helping students receive a nurturing experience for body and mind. Black and Brown Vermonters experience a lot of everyday stressors that diminish wellness and joy. Things like being more likely to be pulled over while driving, getting followed in stores, and even having racial slurs shouted at them from passing cars. These acts of racial aggression land on top of existing burdens like student debt and housing insecurity. And of course for undocumented Vermonters, the fear of deportation is an additional constant stressor.

As a white Vermonter who is lucky and privileged to be a small business owner, I am looking for ways to share my resources. I don’t have a lot of extra cash, but I do have a beautiful yoga space that I want everyone to have access to. So where does the money come from, to pay students for attending class? Good question. Our first sessions were funded by sun salutations and community generosity. A sun salutation is a series of yoga postures, linked together by the breath. There are many different varieties, from the super gentle to the intensely vigorous. Want to try a simple, beginner-friendly version with me now? Let’s take a yoga break.

Find a wall (or a closed door) that is free of framed artwork, shelves, or thumbtacks. Face the wall, stand just a couple inches away, and stand up tall. Place your hands together in front of your chest, like a prayer position, and take a gentle breath in and out. Now release your hands down to your sides, and with an inhalation, reach wide and sweep your arms up overhead. As you exhale, bring your hands onto the wall, in front of your chest. Pressing gently into the wall with your hands, lift your chest and look up slightly. Now look straight ahead at the wall, and step your right foot back, like a runner’s lunge. You can step back a little or a lot, according to your ability. This next part is so simple, and so good for your back! Bring your other foot back as well, and pull your hips away from the wall. At this point the arms and legs should be straight, and the shape of the body is like an upside down capital L.You may feel a stretch on your hamstring muscles. Hold here for a few breaths, and then step your left foot forward, so you are once again in the runner’s lunge position. Now step the right foot forward, stand close to the wall, and lift your chest, looking up slightly. Pull your tailbone down to lengthen the lower back. Look straight ahead once more, and with an inhalation, sweep the arms out to the sides and up overhead. With an exhalation, bring the hands back down to prayer position, in front of the chest. Repeat this whole sequence, stepping back with the left foot this time. Gentle Reader, if that was your first time doing a sun salutation, congratulations! How do you feel?

Here’s how we funded the first Yoga Equity Project sessions: my friend Natasha and I declared our intention to perform 108 sun salutations, and we asked all our friends, family members, and yoga students to sponsor us. Some people offered us ten cents or twenty five cents per sun salutation, some offered a dollar or more. Natasha, a Vermont yoga teacher of color, was also the instructor for the very first Yoga Equity Project class. We got together in the yoga studio one winter afternoon, and at the end of about 90 minutes of deep stretching, breath, and movement, we had each completed 108 sun salutations, and we had raised several thousand dollars for the Yoga Equity Project. This would be a good place to express gratitude to the many supporters of our first sun salutation fundraiser. You believed in this project, you encouraged us to make it a reality, and you wrote us checks. Thank you!

Students who attended that first six-week session gave us feedback at the end. One of my favorite testimonials was this one: “I have new connections & a sense of community & belonging. I feel more able to wind down & be in the present. I’ve noticed I’ve been less critical of myself & my flaws.” As someone who has been teaching yoga for almost thirty years, all I can say to this is “Amen!”

This is why I love yoga.

Several paragraphs ago, I promised to return to the question of why predominantly white spaces aren’t welcoming and inclusive spaces. Now I myself am a white lady, so my perspective is limited by my life experience. But over the last decade of doing anti-racism work, I have learned to 1. understand that I don’t have all the answers, 2. be humble and seek out different points of view, 3. be willing to continually learn, this is truly a lifelong endeavor, 4. apologize sincerely when you mess up, and do better next time, 5. if the space you inhabit is primarily white ask yourself why and see what you might be able to do differently, 6. always pay people of color for their labor to consult with you and help you do better, 7. Share your resources.

Speaking of sharing, several months ago I received an amazing email from the Vermont Community Foundation. An anonymous community member wished to give a $25,000 grant to the Yoga Equity Project. What a beautiful example of supporting the health of some of the most vulnerable and marginalized Vermonters. Angel Donor, a lot of people are enjoying an hour of peace, healing, freedom, and community every Saturday afternoon, thanks to your generosity. From the depths of my heart, thank you.

Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives in Ripton, where she enjoys taking walks, cuddling her cat, cooking for Abolition Kitchen, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]

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