Yoga and Race: Why Representation Matters

Queen Street Yoga teacher and creative director Emma Dines shares an important personal experience about race and representation as it relates to yoga teaching and representation in the yoga studio community.

B&W yoga photo

During our March Yoga Teacher Training weekend, QSY hosted two presenters from Toronto who shared their experiences and best practices of merging anti-oppression work with the teaching of yoga/hosting of yoga studio communities. Jamilah Malika and Christi-an Slomka led the group in considering the experiences of those who are underrepresented in yoga studios and yoga media/imagery, and understanding how and why yoga studios remain mostly white and mostly cis-gendered spaces, and how and why we might work to shift this.

During our closing circle, where we shared our insights, reflections and challenges with one another, I shared the following personal story, which touches on themes of race and representation. It was a story that I had forgotten about, but it bubbled up to the surface during the circle.

A bit of background before the story. I grew up in Toronto in a mostly white neighbourhood, going to a mostly white school. I am mixed race – my mom is third-generation Japanese Canadian, and my dad is second-generation Scottish Canadian. I remember being pretty aware of my race as a child – I was one of two or three Asian or half-Asian kids in my class. When I blew the candles out on the cake at my eighth birthday, my wish was to wake up the next day with white skin and blond hair. My mother experienced what I now understand to be micro-aggressions from many of the other parents in the area. The racism that my mother, my siblings and I experienced was subtle, sometimes internalized, but definitely present.

Fast forward to now. I have graduated university and I am a yoga teacher at Queen Street Yoga, teaching workshops, teacher trainings, and coordinating studio programming. All of my training has been in Canada and the US with white teachers. I am comfortable in the yoga studio world, for the most part.

So here’s the story.

One day a few years ago, I went to a class at Octopus Garden in Toronto. It was being taught by Pat Harada-Linfoot, one of the studio directors. I had set my mat up in the practice room near the bright, sunny windows and was arranging my props near my mat. I had never taken a class with Pat before, and I was looking forward to it, as I heard she was a seasoned, experienced teacher. I looked up when Pat walked into the room. And all of a sudden, before I knew why, I found myself crying.

As Pat walked to the front of the room, I realized that I had never before seen a yoga teacher who looked like me. Pat is Japanese-Canadian, and her frame and muscle tone and stature reminded me so much of my own mother. I realized, through my tears, that I was so unused to seeing anyone around me who looked anything like me, much less someone in a position of authority or leadership who looked like me. I realized that I had, for the most part, trained myself out of the need for seeing my race reflected in the leadership around me. And it was my tears that reminded me that I did have that need. I was crying before I even understood why. I was crying out of a sense of mourning that I did not see or experience more diversity in the world around me, that I did not feel more represented by teachers or leaders or role models.

It is more clear to me that seeing oneself (whether that is race, gender, body size, age, physical ability, etc.) reflected in the space around you and reflected in teachers and leaders is very important.

As one of the leaders of the QSY community, I hope to stay present to this reality and this issue in the next few years, and see what changes we can nudge and develop in order for our space to become more diverse, accessible (and desirable) to more people. Can we create a space that is as diverse as the rest of the city, rather than only reflecting a few groups? Can we create a space that reflects the full richness of the many and varied communities in Kitchener, so that the inside of the studio looks more like the city around it?

There is starting to be more awareness of the importance of representation and diversity in the wider yoga world, and one group that I have been following is called the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. They promote yoga that is “accessible, supportive and reflects the full range of human diversity”. They are hoping to change the face of yoga by “challenging industry leaders and media creators to expand their vision of what a yogi looks like”. I am glad to see more varied representation in terms of race, gender and body size in their work. I look forward to more initiatives like these in the yoga world, as part of the work to create more diverse, accessible yoga spaces.

2012-11-02-09-09-42 copy Emma Dines is the creative director of Queen Street Yoga. She loves writing, visiting thrift stores and going for walks in the woods. She also loves cartwheeling, sewing and making her own kimchi.

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