Questioning “Yoga Culture”

This guest-post was written by Jason Spencer, a graduate of our 2015-2016 Yoga Teacher Training program. You can meet Jason as part of the team of teachers leading the Sunday 6pm Community Classes!

I feel like I live in a yoga bubble call Queen Street Yoga. Initially, I was attracted to the studio by it’s location and because I had practiced in the past with Meaghan Johnson (who founded QSY). In the four years that I have passed since starting to practice at QSY, my connection to the studio has deepened, I have volunteered as a Trade, I have participated in Queen Street Conversations and I have continued my yoga practice to the point of wanting to learn to be a yoga teacher taught by the wonderful teachers who practice with this studio. What makes this studio so attractive to me is the focus on community and inclusion. Even as a newbie yoga practitioner, I always felt supported and encouraged to build my practice. When I was going through a difficult time in my life, the studio offered me options to continue my practice. In my classes, I see diversity of people and there is a clear message that all are welcomed. At QSY, there feels like an open invitation to be a part of community.

Note: In writing the above paragraph, I realize I write from a place of privilege. I am a white, middle class, able-bodied, herterosexual man. I do not directly see the many barriers others face to participate in yoga, because these are not barriers for me to participate in yoga. Though it may be easier for me to walk into a yoga class due to this privilege, it may not be for others. I really appreciate the proactive management of QSY to minimize barriers and promote a culture of inclusivity.

What I learned from my Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) weekend on Anti-Oppression, social justice and WAWADIA (What Are We Actually Doing in Asana research by Matthew Remski) is QSY is not the norm. North American Yoga culture is highly commercialized, sexualized and practiced in a way that promotes exclusivity. Whether it is the predominance of imagery featuring white woman in tight fitting expensive yoga clothing or your qualifications as yoga teacher judged by the number of likes you have on your instagram account (one yoga teacher shared that she was asked this question as part of her interview for a teacher position), as much as, or in spite of, how well you instruct asana or your knowledge of yoga history and philosophy, there is an overt expectation you need to look, dress and practice a certain way in order to be a part of this culture.

Due to this, many voices within the yoga community are minimized because they do not meet the expectations promoted and are marginalized from participating. There are few champions for change because those who are benefiting from the current yoga culture are in positions of power and influence in addition to reaping most of the financial benefits which entrenches their position. And worse yet, those with power within the yogic leadership do what those with power usually do, they abuse it. The number of male Yoga Teachers/Leaders, who have violated their own codes of conduct to abuse or misuse their relationships with others is too many. This leaves me frustrated and disappointed. Mainstream yoga seems exclusive, filled with barriers, not only for marginalized groups, but perhaps also for me.  

In my yoga teacher training we have discussed the Yamas and Niyamas. Donna Farhi describes them as “ emphatic declarations of what we are when we are connected to our true nature… The yamas, or “outer observances”, and the niyamas, or “inner observances”, are often referred to as the inner and outer “restraints.” What we restrain however isn’t our our inherent badness or wrongness but our inherent tendency to see ourselves as separate. It is this inherent tendency that causes us to act outside our true nature (“Bringing Yoga to Life” pg 29-30). This quote resonates with me in regards to my own yoga practice. I am drawn to the meditative and physical aspect of yoga – I think of it as active meditation. My relationship to myself has changed over the past four years. I have a more strength and flexibility, I am happier and calmer and I have a greater awareness of my body and my breath. I am learning to be me through observance the interconnectedness of my body, breath and mind, an aspect of niyamas.

More importantly though, I recognize the interconnectedness of my yoga community, the people I meet in class are people I see in my community. The space I create with my community both inside and outside of my practice is important to me, an aspect of yamas. As a burgeoning yoga teacher, yoga is a much about my interconnectedness to myself as it is with others. I am honoured to have the opportunity to share my passion with others and hopefully help them to find that same passion in their lives. Our YTT weekend on Anti-Oppression reinforced for me the barriers people face in coming to practice. Through my practice and my teaching I hope to support and encourage a greater connectedness to the community by promoting a space for everyone. This will require conversation and communication to understand what different people need to feel welcome to practice with me. I won’t be the panacea to the barriers faced others but I want to be challenged by the reality of what other people faced, so I learned and hopefully be an ally of those individuals to practice.

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