May 12, 2022

The bar for doing a yoga practice couldn’t be any lower: all you need is a mat and a body, although even the mat is optional. You don’t have to be flexible. You don’t have to be strong. You don’t have to do a single thing — as we yoga teachers are fond of saying at the start of classes — except be present, and breathe.

As fitness goes, then, yoga has always been among the most accessible forms of exercise. Yet the community surrounding the practice is paradoxically plagued by anxiety about access, led by critics who are less interested in doing yoga than in obsessing about everything that yoga does wrong.

The online communities where yoga instructors gather are some of the messiest and most judgmental environments on the internet, marked by high tension and fierce infighting — even before the pandemic forced studios to close their doors. Battles raged over the proper way to om, the acceptability of sanskrit-based puns like “namaslay”, and whether the white women who make up the majority of American yoga instructors were guilty of colonising a spiritual practice to which they had no legitimate claim.

Those who eschewed those aspects and approached yoga primarily as a form of exercise, however, were treated with no less contempt — especially the yoga-influencers of Instagram, whose ability to stand on their hands or twist themselves into pretzels inspires envy and awe even among seasoned practitioners. Just like the culturally-appropriating woman om-ing in a “namastay in bed” tank top, the Instagram yogis were guilty of crimes against inclusivity — in this case, making less-svelte practitioners feel inadequate by comparison. The last time I posted a video of my own practice, standing on my forearms in a pose called charging scorpion, another yoga instructor huffily scolded me that “yoga is not for showing off”.

All this scolding isn’t very zen, nor is it particularly in keeping with the fifth-century ethical code that yoga practitioners are supposed to abide by. On the other hand, it hews closely to a dynamic that seems to invariably emerge in spaces where liberal white women tend to gather, where whatever shared hobby or interest becomes subsumed by infighting over social justice issues. As with similar meltdowns in the YA fiction or knitting communities, the problem with yoga isn’t the practice itself but the audience it attracts. If privileged white women like it, it’s inherently suspicious for that reason alone — a conviction that nobody feels more keenly than the women themselves.

This predates the 2020 diversity reckoning that took particular aim at stuff white women liked — and that toppled the girlbosses in charge of brands like Refinery29, Man Repeller, or Reformation. The “whiteness of yoga” was a topic of critical discussion as early as 2014, but as in so many similar communities, the pressure to explicitly declare one’s allegiance to progressive politics ramped up to a fever pitch in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

The first time I saw one of those now-ubiquitous In this house we believe signs was in 2019, hung on the wall of a local yoga studio where most of the clientele had mink eyelash extensions and shopped regularly at Lululemon. In early 2020, shortly before Covid threw us all into a state of emergency, the Yoga Alliance (a sort of unofficial governing body for certified yoga instructors) announced that it was overhauling its certification guidelines: registered yoga teachers would now be required to complete additional coursework in social justice and to sign an ethical commitment to “equity in yoga”. A statement on the website read:

“[We] recognise the inequities in the systems that surround yoga and through which yoga is practiced. These inequities have led to the marginalisation of many communities within the practice. In the spirit of “ahimsa” (non-violence), we acknowledge the harm that has resulted from this.”

As is often the case, evidence of the aforementioned harm is relatively thin on the ground. Critics of yoga’s “exclusivity” will point to things like the prevalence of thin, white models on the cover of magazines such as Yoga Journal, or one-off anecdotes such as this one — in which a non-incident, wherein the author accidentally stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat, spawns an increasingly far-fetched series of imaginary harms including the murder of the mat-stepping woman by racist police.

It’s not hard to see how yoga’s politics are fuelled by this particular brand of liberal guilt, the same one that made Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility an instant bestseller among the suburban wine moms of the world. It’s the sense that one must always apologise, not just for being privileged, but for being basic: to be the type of woman who has a yoga studio membership, who goes to book club, who wears Reformation dresses, is in itself a sinful state for which you must atone. Your leisure time is not for having fun; it’s for doing better.

Of course, the exceptional levels of privilege-awareness and equity-commitment in yoga offer little protection from cancellation. Indeed, in some instances, it appears to have only made it that much easier to identify vulnerable targets, the ones least able to defend themselves. Take the case of Kindness Yoga, a chain of studios in Denver, Colorado whose owner Patrick Harrington was so committed to inclusivity that he regularly held classes just for people of colour. But when the studio posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, it was immediately denounced by its own employees for “performative activism” and “tokenisation of Black and brown bodies”.

The owner of Kindness made the requisite apologies, promising to listen and learn, but critics were not placated — and all nine studios, already in financially precarious circumstances from having been unable to operate during Covid, were forced to shut down. (The last news report on the Kindness Yoga cancellation noted that Harrington and his wife were frantically trying to sell their home to cover the costs of their lost livelihood. The ringleader of the campaign to kill Kindness, meanwhile, was planning to open her own studio, although it doesn’t look like she ever actually got around to it.)

Meanwhile, the alleged exclusivity of the yoga community becomes laughable in contrast to the genuinely exclusive fitness trends that attract a similarly elite but less guilt-ridden clientele — and also, it must be said, to men, who can be found performing exactly zero hand-wringing over the whiteness of pursuits like alpine skiing, ice hockey, or the Tour de France. Compare the yoga folks meditating unhappily on their privilege to the Peloton junkies of the world, blithely spinning away on $3,000 exercise bikes — or to the $650 per hour pilates instructor Liana Levi, whose entire brand is to be explicitly, even hilariously, inaccessible. “I don’t cater to the masses, I cater to a demographic,” Levi told the New York Times in a recent profile. (When pressed on which demographic that might be, Levi’s amazing reply was: “Not masses.”)

And yet, perhaps Levi has the right idea. Cynically, what happened to Kindness Yoga can be seen as a cautionary tale, the living embodiment of the axiom, “Go woke, go broke”. But what’s more striking is how it reveals the cruelty that lurks within a community that prides itself on caring, and how the quest to repair harm invariably seems to perpetrate it in worse and different ways.

In this case, a few venal and self-interested actors were able to destroy reputations, torpedo livelihoods, and rob a community of nine wonderful spaces where people once joyfully gathered — all in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The yogis who commit the hardest to this new ethos are only putting blood in the water: the more you do, the more you’ll be accused of not doing enough.

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