Re-naming yoga to make it accessible for all
Updated: May 12
I've been working with a charity recently, as a 'community inclusion' volunteer, teaching yoga classes to adults who could be classed as vulnerable for different reasons. Some have anxiety and some have a history of self-neglect but it would be inappropriate to list more details.
The first few classes had about 5 people attend. But numbers then dwindled. Last week I ended up with only one client and we ended up chatting quite a bit. We discussed the lack of interest in the class and she made some really enlightening points that I'd never thought of before, on which I've expanded here:
One: Yoga seems to have become a past-time that is elitist, gentrified, and somewhere they don't belong. It's true that most yoga classes cost between £7 and £15 depending on where you live and the length of the class. You need money to be able to join in with this hobby. You could argue that you can do it for free on Youtube, but even then, the yoga world seems like one where some people don't belong. This is connected to..
Two: The term yoga conjures images of mostly skinny, white, female bodies in skin-tight clothes, in an Instagram-worthy setting. This is undoubtedly partly due to the sheer number of yoga teachers competing for space in the yoga teaching world, and needing to advertise their business (this is not representative of all yoga teachers.)There is an obvious tug-of-war in the yoga world- between trying to make a living off something you love doing, which is understandable, and the central ancient principle of yoga which is to do with loosening the grip on your ego. But the Insta-world has changed the yoga world, and as yoga receives more attention in the media, it often goes along similar lines. We have created an monster!
Three: If some people have a really hard time looking after themselves, and in some cases feel a lot of shame about their own bodies and minds- how can they be convinced to start actually being in their bodies, becoming aware of their bodies, their breath, the fluctuations of their minds? It could be very scary for those who have been sabotaging their health in different ways, both voluntarily or non-voluntarily, to suddenly be told to close their eyes and notice how their bodies feel. Some have been purposefully ignoring how their bodies feel for a very long time.
Four: Shame. I was made aware that just the term 'yoga' and the images it evokes can make people feel more aware of their perceived inabilities or failures. The paradoxically narrowed media representation of yoga can lead people to feel more ashamed of what their bodies can and can't do, or even their place in society. The clothes the teacher wears, the space they are in, how they speak, the demonstrations of the poses, and some specific instructions could all trigger shame in a person who feels excluded from society. Most 'accessible yoga' methods and training is aimed at age, disability, race, sexuality and gender- but what about social class and the plethora of issues it produces?
How can we invite people to explore themselves without frightening them away with the perceived need to fit into an ill-defined mould? How can we turn self-neglect into self-care?
My first thoughts are:
Very gently, with no pressure, and repeated calls for compassion.
The invitational style and cultivation of the protection of the body.
Emphasis on the non-competetiveness of yoga.
Delicately-worded encouragement of acceptance.
Welcoming and adapting to differences in personal situations.
What if I removed the name 'yoga' and therefore, hopefully it's precarious associations?
Could I rename my classes from 'Beginners Yoga' to something less intimidating, eg.
'Gentle stretching' or 'Introducing self-care'?
I know there is a whole world out there to discover- the new boom in Yoga Therapy, the Accessible Yoga ambassador and/or training path, but as I am just starting out, I am limited with time and resources at the moment. I am also unaware, at the moment, of any yoga organisation dedicated to including those of poorer socioeconomic status. A quick Google search found me some more scholarly articles on this topic, linked below, but it seems like this is an under-investigated area.
I endeavor to find a way to help people who have previously felt left out of yoga spaces, feel less intimidated by them. But my main goal is to give people the opportunity to explore some range of movement in their bodies mindfully, and if that means calling it by another name, then so be it.