When Sue Forde returned to practising yoga in a studio earlier this year, for the first time since the pandemic, it was with a sense of trepidation. Because it meant she was, once again, usually the only black woman in the room.
“I’ve had my body pointed to as ‘an African body’,” said Forde, from Hackney, east London. “Recently, in a class, this discussion sprang up about whether black women have a bigger tendency to a pelvic tilt. You think: ‘Oh, please don’t bring this into the yoga room.’”
Forde is one of a growing number of black and minority ethnic yoga teachers and practitioners who are challenging racism in British yoga organisations. Many said they have experienced inappropriate touching of, and comments about, their bodies and hair in classes, as well as crass racial stereotypes, such as Indians being ‘naturally bendy’, and ignorance of yoga’s sacred texts, including the Bhagavad Gita.
Last autumn, Forde was among several members of the renowned Iyengar Yoga London in Maida Vale who raised concerns about racism at the centre. A meeting in September to discuss equality and diversity at the institute heard about “women of colour who had visited IYMV once or twice and not returned as they felt unwelcome and uncomfortable”. Forde, who has not since returned to the studio, also told the group that it was “not reflecting the diversity that is on the streets around it”.
Despite its roots in India, the sector, which, along with pilates, is worth more than £900m, is not diverse. In a report about yoga practice in the UK in BMJ Open in 2020 87% of practitioners who responded to the survey were women, and 91% were white. This reflected the findings of an ethnicity audit by the British Wheel of Yoga in 2016, which found that 86% of its members were white British, 2.8% were British Asians, and 0.5% were Black British.
In a book published this week, yoga teacher trainer Stacie Graham argues that in Europe and North America, yoga’s traditions have been misappropriated and commodified as fitness.
In Yoga As Resistance, which Graham wrote as a guide to making yoga more inclusive, she noted that social media representations of the practice are dominated by images of white women who are “very skinny, bendy and blonde”.
Graham, who has led anti-racism workshops for yoga studios including Triyoga, said whenever she asked studio managers why their membership did not reflect the ethnic diversity of the local area, their answers were often based on inaccurate racial stereotypes “about what ‘those people’ do”.
Together with three other yoga teachers of colour, Graham has set up Radical Darshan, an anti-racist teacher training course in London. It covers the harmful impact of British colonialism on India and how that led to modern western-style yoga, focused on exercise rather than spirituality.
One of the other course leaders, Kallie Schut, who also runs decolonised yoga group Rebel Yoga Tribe, said many UK yoga organisations were exploiting India’s cultural heritage while failing to appoint south Asian teachers.
She recalled a class where a white teacher “who’d just come back from an ashram in India was wearing Indian clothes, and all the accoutrements, in a class full of white people”.
“It felt like it was almost a parody of being south Asian,” said Schut, from south-east London. She added that such experiences in white-led yoga spaces were traumatising for people of colour, and she was no longer willing to practise in them.
Amanda Evans from Brighton said she had quit teaching yoga in commercial studios because some white students had walked out of classes when they saw a black or brown teacher. “It happened to me a couple of times and with south Asian teachers I know as well,” she said.
Other yoga teachers of colour said they had stopped providing anti-racism work for white-led yoga organisations in recent years because they had not carried out meaningful reform.
Sophia Ansari, a Cardiff-based yoga teacher and therapist, who has run workshops on decolonising the yoga curriculum for trustees of the British Wheel of Yoga, said she had distanced herself from the industry because “they’re doing a disservice to yoga”.
“I felt like I was getting nowhere with studio owners after challenging them for the last two years,” said Ansari. “There is a wall of silence, always. I had to withdraw from it because it’s exhausting.”
Dorothy Hosein, chief executive of British Wheel of Yoga, said the training body had recently set up an equality, diversity and inclusion working group to discuss how to change the culture of the organisation.
Hosein, who is white, said the organisation’s new board, which is elected annually, was all white. She added: “We haven’t got diversity in our demographics, and there’s a lot of work to do.”
Alan Reynolds, manager of Iyengar Yoga London, said he accepted that people of colour were underrepresented in classes. He added that the institute had several teachers of colour and had recently formed a diversity advisory group to address how it could become more inclusive.