Arts & Leisure

Yoga studio promotes equity and inclusion

Sasha Finnell leads BIPOC-only classes at Otter Creak Yoga Studio in Middlebury every Sunday during the school year from 3-4 p.m. PHOTO / ISORA LITHGOW CREATIONS

“Yoga For Every Body” is a slogan that the Otter Creek Yoga Studio started using earlier this summer. It is meant to capture the Middlebury studio’s mission to ensure that it is a space that is inclusive and welcoming to all. 

In 2020, Otter Creek Yoga Studio started the Yoga Equity Project, which is intended to offer folks who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) a $20 stipend for each yoga class they attend. During the academic year they also offer a BIPOC-only yoga class currently led by yoga instructor Sasha Finnell.

Joanna Colwell, yoga instructor and director at Otter Creek Yoga, talked about how the Yoga Equity Project came to be. 

SASHA FINNELL

“You know there is a great big population of humans who can all benefit from postures and breathing practices,” said Colwell. “And then you see who actually makes their way into the studios: oftentimes economically comfortable, older, white people.” 

“How do we make this space more welcoming and more reflective of the community,” she wondered.

Before the pandemic, the yoga studio hosted a set of anti-racism workshops, and at one of them, community member and yoga instructor Natasha Chang suggested that the studio offer a BIPOC-only class, which Chang was more than willing to teach. That’s when Colwell suggested the addition of paying students stipends to attend the class. Both women were excited to make this vision a reality. 

They raised funds and started the program in 2020 with a six week series of BIPOC-only classes that got cut short when COVID-19 began to spread. The program was advertised with a poster stating, “Get paid to relax,” which particularly attracted many BIPOC students from Middlebury College, as well as faculty.

During the pandemic, Otter Creek Yoga received an anonymous $25,000 donation toward the program through the Vermont Community Foundation. “We basically use the money for paying the stipends to the student and paying the teacher,” Colwell said, “This project, when we describe it to people, we say it is about creating access to the space. We call it radical barrier removal and also wealth redistribution. Those are our two guiding principles.”

Now, the BIPOC-only classes at the yoga studio are led by Sasha Finnell every Sunday during the school year from 3-4 p.m. Finnell is a yoga instructor in Vermont with Afro-Caribbean and Irish roots. “I’ve been teaching with them since last January 2022, about a year and a half,” she said.

After classes, the studio asks for written feedback from students on how they feel about the program. “The amount of gratitude and appreciation folks have for this class,” Finnell said, “(it’s) so much more than, ‘I got paid 20 dollars to come to this class.’”

OTTER CREEK YOGA Studio also offers “Fat Yoga” taught by yoga instructor Amy Mincher, shown here, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. COURTESY PHOTO

She emphasized that having this affinity space is more than about the monetary value of being paid to attend classes, it is a space that has created and built community for both students and teachers alike. “As a black woman growing up in Vermont, a 93.6% white state, it can feel very isolating not always being able to find community and build community with people who are also black and brown,” Finnell said. “I’m grateful for where I am, I’ve had many blessings in my life. I just didn’t discover that community until the past four years.”

Beyond the Yoga Equity Project, Otter Creek Yoga Studio really does make yoga available to every body. The studio offers a “Fat Yoga” class every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., taught by yoga instructor Amy Mincher. As a fat woman herself, Mincher said that barriers can exist for folks who are not commonly granted visibility in yoga spaces. She explains that when you don’t see bodies that look like themselves in yoga spaces, it is hard to feel comfortable practicing yoga.

“Yoga is about liberation,” Mincher said. “Asana, the physical practice of yoga, is just one part of the whole picture. It’s the gateway to get into the spiritual practice. And if people don’t feel comfortable going into that space they’re probably never going to meditate or do the other parts that are beneficial to coming into that power.”

Colwell, Finnell and Mincher all emphasize the importance of yoga being more than just a physical practice. The deeper practice is one of a spiritual nature and it can also be a space in which folks can form bonds and community with one another. By creating more inclusive affinity spaces like BIPOC-only classes and Fat Yoga, they are able to provide a safe and nurturing environment for folks who often feel unseen or shut out of these spaces. 

“There’s been really great things that have come out of it, too,” Finnell said. “There’s friendship and community being built. Joanna usually puts together a snack and tea afterward, (which) encourages folks to stay and chat and talk to someone you haven’t met before.”

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