Yoga has its roots in India, but it has changed and evolved hugely since it came to North America. For some people it’s a spiritual practice, and for others it’s purely physical. Today’s North American yoga classes show influences not only from ancient texts and religious practices, but also English colonial military routines, Swedish gymnastics, Buddhist meditation techniques, and various forms of dance and movement styles. Trying to go back to the history of yogic texts to try to find some “true” definition of yoga reveals a plurality of philosophies associated with yoga, and these worldviews certainly do not always agree.
Ironically, this wide-ranging and diverse practice is usually represented by a single image in the West: a thin, young, white woman—usually doing backbends in a bikini on the beach.
That’s one of the reasons Robin Rollan created the Tumblr blog Black Yogis. The site is simply photos of black people doing yoga. These yogis are all ages and sizes, and they are shown in a range of practices from quiet meditation to intimidating yoga pretzels. In an Atlantic article by Rosalie Murphy on the overwhelming whiteness of yoga, Rollan explains that representation is key for welcoming diverse communities into yoga spaces: “I think a lot of us see yoga as something that’s not for us, because of the lack of imagery [of people of color in yoga]. It is changing, but the image of a white, affluent, thin person is still very entrenched.”
There are plenty of voices in the yoga community that are doing what they can to promote diversity in the yoga community and to celebrate black yogis. Shayla Thomas (@afroyogi) and Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn) are two advocates for body positivity that regularly post images of their practices as black women in bigger bodies. Stanley has a book coming out this year called Every Body Yoga. Brandon Copeland and his partner Lauren Turner opened a yoga studio called Khepera in Washington, DC that focuses on inviting the black community to the practice, partly by hosting classes called Trap Yoga and Black Girl Magic Yoga.
As many of us who practice yoga know, one of the first benefits you can get from taking even one class is a reduction in stress. Yoga Dork author Chioko Grevious writes, “With all of the chronic diseases that are plaguing the Black community, the practice of yoga is beneficial. Black people need yoga. The community is having a tough time right now and yoga has the ability to improve your outlook on the world and yourself.”
Yoga has helped so many of us find strength and resilience during difficult times. For me, yoga has always been a tool to help me calm down, focus up, and make mindful choices about how I want to engage in the world. This practice should be accessible to all of us, especially if we are a part of a marginalized group that might really, really need a good savasana right now.
Because yoga is such a pluralistic practice, it has the potential to help diverse people in diverse ways. Breaking down the mythology that you have to be thin, white, young, and flexible to get the benefits of this practice means more people can access a powerful tool to relieve stress and improve health. Representing a range of bodies through platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, inviting conversations about diversity in yoga studios, and welcoming a range of yoga teachers and students into yoga studio spaces can make us all more powerful. Together.