Queer Representation in Yoga Needs Practice | well+well

Happy Pride Month! With Love Out Loud, Well+Good is celebrating love and respect, representation and fairness for all this June. Check back throughout the month for conversations among thought leaders in the LGBTQ+ community about the ways their identities affect their well-being.

In Sanskrit, the word “yoga” translates to “yoke” or “join,” but in the United States, the yoga industry has historically fallen short of, and still doesn’t live up to, the inclusive definition of its name. A 2013 study found that about 85 percent of yoga practitioners in the US are white, and while no statistics exist on the number of queer practitioners, career site Zippia estimates that only about 10 percent of all yoga instructors identify as LGBTQ+. In other words: the odds are low of walking into a yoga studio as a Queer, Black, Indigenous, of Color (BIPOC) person and feeling a sense of oneness with like-minded people.

Here, two yoga community leaders, who are also part of the queer and BIPOC communities, share how they think yoga could become a practice that is accepting and accommodating for all people. Meet Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher, body positivity advocate, and author of Yugo: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance; Y Nicole Cardoza, award-winning social entrepreneur, public speaker, Y author of Mindful Movements: Yoga for kids and peaceful activities for a happy and healthy life. In this conversation, Stanley and Cardoza discuss how the yoga industry has historically excluded people in marginalized communities, how it could evolve toward inclusion, and why a home practice can provide a space to embody and accept oneself for what it is. What is it.

Kells McPhillips: To start, I’d love for you both to share how you found your way into yoga in the first place and how your practice has evolved amid the pandemic.

Nicole Cardoza: I stumbled upon yoga when I was in college. For many years of my life, it really provided a haven for me where I could find myself and handle some of the mental health struggles I was going through at the time. As my practice has evolved throughout my professional career, I think I’ve found a level of patience that I haven’t had before.

I think the patience came from being able to practice in isolation for the past two years during the pandemic, which also consciously pushed me away from the yoga industry. I’m in a very reflective and intimate space with my practice that I haven’t been in before.

Jessamyn Stanley: I started practicing yoga when I was in graduate school, also when I was experiencing mental health issues. I was in a nonprofit arts management graduate program and thought, “Is this what I want to do with my life? Do I know anything about myself?” I was also going through a breakup at the time, which tends to make for some sort of life change.

A very good friend of mine told me, “You should come to a yoga class with me!” and i really thought yoga was only for skinny white women. I didn’t know it had anything to do with me or someone who looked like me, but I ended up going to class. And what I appreciated the most was that each part seemed impossible to me. It seemed that everyone had gathered and practiced together beforehand to come to class and do everything together.

What I appreciated was this opportunity to see my limits, see my barriers and see what I have decided I can do. And then you could say, “I’m going to try, even if I fall, even if everyone in this room sees that I don’t know what I’m doing, even if I’m going to be embarrassed.” in the biggest way. I’m still going to try.” At the time, I didn’t realize how revolutionary it would be to try. I didn’t realize how many parts of my life I wasn’t trying.

Yoga pushed the limits of what I thought I could do. And that’s why I keep coming back to my practice to this day: it’s just because he always gives me the exact same medicine. Ultimately, yoga is about how we connect with each other by how we connect with ourselves.

The pandemic made you have to stay home and be alone, period. Then on top of that, you had to manage yourself through the worst thing that has happened in collective living history.

KM: Do you consider your yoga practice in conversation with queerness? If so, how?

JS: I definitely think they’re linked, but I don’t consciously think about it all the time. Yoga, ultimately, is about acceptance, and the literal translation of the word “yoga” is often translated as “union.” Union as putting together the pieces of oneself that don’t always make sense and don’t always seem to go together, but they do go together. That union is the process of acceptance.

Accepting yourself means accepting the parts of yourself that Puritan culture hopes to reproduce. We live in a very puritanical society where divine sexuality, sensuality, and eroticism are rejected as dangerous, evil, scary, and problematic. So if you are in a process of self-acceptance through yoga, then the acceptance of what has been considered dangerous and bad is inevitable.

From that place it is seen that what is really feared in sexuality and sensuality and eroticism is creation. What is feared is the generation: the one that will lead to something else. All that eroticism really contains is our ability to manifest new life. And if you rest in that place of self-acceptance, then you are resting in a place of generation and creation.

NORTH CAROLINA: That’s really powerful. It’s not something I think about often because I think my relationship with queerness is as much a practice as yoga itself. My practice just stretches out the space and expands the possibilities of who I am and how I can show myself. If you can proverbially accept yourself on your mat, you create that space for yourself. You are aware of how you want to be received in the spaces you want to occupy as a person outside the tatami.

My practice has helped me understand how to eliminate some of the talk that comes from society in general about which spaces I should occupy and which ones I should occupy. it’s a practice. My identity is certainly not set in stone. It develops and becomes more nuanced, beautiful and complete as I continue to explore it. I think that is why I keep coming back to it, because it offers the tools and grace that are necessary for self-reflection and the evolution of my identity.

KM: Both have talked a lot about their practices at home. Why does this setup help you feel free on your mat?

JS: Studio classes are great, but having your practice fully rooted in one studio means it depends on that studio. The pandemic was a test of what happens when you can’t go out to the studio. But if you have your practice at home, you always have a safe place to return to. It is reminding you that the true home you are looking for is not a physical place. It is living inside of you. It’s also very normal in a study class to be totally distracted by the people on the mat next to you, trying to do a good job for them and not thinking about practicing for yourself or just experiencing it for yourself.

Now, I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t have teachers. If you have access to an Internet connection, you do not have to subscribe to a specific platform. You can literally go to YouTube, and there are thousands of videos taught by all kinds of instructors. Every teacher isn’t going to resonate with everyone, but if you find a teacher that resonates with you, that’s what you need to be able to guide your practice.

The teacher who has had the most impact on my personal practice is Kathryn Budig, and she has taught on a variety of platforms, most notably Glo and now her own platform, Haus of Phoenix. Kathryn took me to the teacher that lives inside of me. The best teachers hold your hand and then eventually you can let go.

NORTH CAROLINA: I also love that home placements have served as a platform for so many teachers who have historically not been given the opportunity to reach out to the community they want to work with through the traditional studios model. That is really beautiful because there are many people who started practicing yoga in the last few years. And they started because they saw those people, because they were able to take an Instagram Live class, or because that person started their own platform. They may never have been seen in the studio when they were walking down the street. So it’s really interesting for representation, and I love that it took some of the power that these brands often use to exclude people.

KM: As the two of you have articulated, there is comfort and self-acceptance to be found in a home practice, but how can we work toward a yoga industry that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community and in the future? ? What are your hopes for yoga in the United States?

JS: My hope is that yoga is used as I think it should be used: as a way to be present in this world and to listen to one another in the difficult times ahead. I think that is why yoga has always existed. I hope to see everyone who has ever wanted to teach get some kind of practice on whatever platform they would like, how they would like to do it.

Yoga has survived for thousands of years and there will be ups and downs. When things are popular, there is going to be discrimination, and now there is a lot of rampant discrimination in the world of yoga. It is currently fashionable to talk about it, but less fashionable to do something about it. So we need our practices to do the inner work, yes, but we also need to use the practices to really assess the ways in which we are homophobic, transphobic, racist, age discriminatory, disabled, and the list goes on. We need to really assess this on a personal level and then see how the personal impacts the collective. I think that in that way yoga could be used to heal our world in a larger sense.

NORTH CAROLINA: My first instinctive reaction was, “I don’t care about the future of yoga.” I have lost a lot of faith in what the yoga industry has become. We have a lot of conversations where we say we need to decolonize the yoga industry and make it more inclusive. I’m frankly really tired of that conversation. Often I think we talk about the industry as something that can be solved rather than something that is inherently broken. I care a lot about this practice, but I don’t think the yoga industry can be solved through representation and inclusion because it’s swimming in the white supremacist world we live in.

My real hope for yoga is that instead of us trying to use it as a tool to resolve some of these inequities that we’re seeing, we ask how we can break this model. How can we use the yoga practice itself as a model of how we want to live? What would it be like if instead of trying to dismantle these systems, we actually tried to reinvent them?

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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