Let’s do some free-association here. When I say yoga, what comes immediately to your mind? You might picture a warm space, a mat, maybe a buddha statue or two. My personal memories of yoga classes include the soothing voice of a teacher, a lavender-scented eye pillow, a few awkward moments with yoga-lady strangers in crowded locker rooms.
At this point in middle and upper-class America yoga is a cultural phenomenon. Yoga (and its accoutrements) are everywhere. As a culture we wear yoga pants so much (perhaps in constant readiness for an impromptu yoga class) they have been banned in schools, and Godly women have vowed never again to wear them in public. Beyond our fashion choices, yoga in general has developed from an ancient spiritual practice to a $27-billion dollar industry.
Many of us take yoga for granted, yet we must realize that this industry excludes many of people. A one-hour yoga class can cost $20. Even the marketing of yoga is focused on thin, white women wearing expensive yoga clothes. Do a quick Google image search of yoga with an eye for diversity. You won’t find much.
Unfortunately, the populations yoga is most likely to exclude are usually the ones that need it the most. Racial and economic health disparities are well-documented. Chronic stress is a significant problem for marginalized groups and those struggling to make ends meet. Evidence even links chronic stress to early death.
Yoga can be a powerful tool to promote health. Yoga’s benefits include reduced stress, improved sleep, improved immunity, and improved eating habits. Yoga can even be a management tool for chronic conditions, including depression. Clearly yoga is not reaching those that need it most.
As Kristen Mercado of Solstice Yoga and I walked through the locked gates and barbed wire of the prison complex to teach prenatal yoga last night I wasn’t thinking about the inequalities of yoga. I was happy to be there and excited to see the women I spend every other week with during Mothering from the Start, Motherhood Beyond Bars’ childbirth education series. As we walked through security we could see women busily setting up mats, donated by Manduka, for the hour-long class.
Five minutes in I could tell this would not be your typical yoga-class. Almost all of the 11 women there were completely new to yoga, and the majority were new to exercise in general. There were giggles at hip-circles, laughter as women tried a pose and didn’t quite make it, and shouts of encouragement and praise when they did. There were groans and sighs as we stretched, frequent interruptions by correctional officers, and it all happened in a cafeteria. It was definitely the most fun I have had in a yoga class. When it was over the women were happy to have tried and proud of themselves for exercising.
As we left, I thought this is the type of yoga class that matters. This is the kind of yoga that should be happening everywhere. Fun, uninhibited yoga for those that need it most.