Awhile ago, Roseanne posted about MyKula Annex’s new Brown Girl and Queer yoga classes and asked her readers if they felt this was “un-yogic”. This post struck me because I found the idea very different from classes that might become specialized for sound physiological reasons such as pre or post natal yoga. And while I am glad to see active members of the yoga community in Toronto tackling issues of inclusion, the idea of having Brown Girl and Queer yoga made me take pause. I don’t think that the commodification/commercialization/westernization/appropriation of yoga can be separated from the fact that its consumers are largely white, middle class women. Nor do I believe that one issue can be adequately addressed without the other. If segregated yoga classes for non-white, non-straight students is desirable to non-specified classes, let’s ask why.

In my view, where there is money and power and resources such as the profits generated by the yoga market, there will be boundaries created by the privileged and the policing of those boundaries (consciously or not). I am not particularly excited about creating ghettoized “safe spaces” within the confines and constructs of a privileged space. I do acknowledge that in many instances, especially when it comes to state institutions like education, law and health care, that safe spaces may be necessary. However, explicitly inviting in the marginalized has the effect of reinforcing and rationalizing an existing power dynamic and the structures that support that dynamic. It frames yoga as a resource, housed within a highly prized, desirable and demarcated space inhabited and owned by rich, white, pretty women (and the marginalized folk who have made good with the ways and norms of the privileged) who may be so charitable and thoughtful enough to open up those boundaries to others.

In the case of yoga studios, I think a more effective strategy would be to move resources and power outside the boundaries of privilege – not to think of it as granting or creating more access, but to challenge the construction of privileged spaces and the notion of of ownership and entitlement. In this way, the strength and the rationales of the boundaries of privilege are not reinforced. Perhaps this could be achieved with Brown Girl/Queer classes, depending on how they are delivered. Whether MyKula’s initiatives lean more to the former or latter strategy (reinforcing or deconstructing privilege) is unclear, but time will tell. Perhaps it will do a bit of both simultaneously.

Another point that made me pause in the ensuing discussion over these classes was the overall refrain that this type of segregation is not ideal, but necessary. A step forward as it were.

Says who?

Although they are not as well attended as some of the larger classes run by more prominent studios downtown, I have taken classes in Toronto where the students represented the spectrum of Toronto’s diversity in terms of age, race and sexual orientation. There is nothing necessary about segregated yoga and you don’t need to artificially produce diversity in yoga students with segregated classes, especially not in a city like Toronto.

Let me make one thing clear: Marginalized people don’t need rich white and straight people to grant them access to any privileged space to practice yoga. This isn’t about landing immigration papers to Canada when you’re in the refugee class or securing ID documentation when you’re transgendered. In these types of cases, if the privileged parties won’t budge, won’t go to bat for you, well you’re basically shit out of luck.

The paths to yoga for someone who feels excluded might look different than those of the average white, straight, slim and middle class woman, but those other paths do exist, paths independent of privileged spaces and structures. If anything, maybe if you feel excluded from LULUified yoga, you’ll more readily and quickly develop a yoga practice that isn’t just about being sexy-slim-calm or whatever. Privileged parties always like to assume that everyone wants what they have. It’s a self serving narrative that justifies the heavy prices they pay for policing their privileged boundaries and separating/isolating themselves within them. But aside from having basic human rights, I think the desirability of everything else in privileged spaces is up for question. Including yoga studios dominated by rich, white, slim, pretty women.

On one level, it is definitely worth questioning why the yoga industry is so white, straight and rich. But on another level, I really don’t care. If we are talking about yoga and spiritual development, and not yoga and the pursuit of a commodified lifestyle of wellness, social status and superficial beauty in a pretty spa-like setting, then yoga can and will transcend all the power structures you can try to ensnare it in, this much I do know. Unlike human rights, no one can grant or deny you access to spiritual and ethical development as a human being; this is your unalienable birthright.