by: Christa Smith | July 27, 2020
“Most women who are celebrated as yogis don’t look like me— they aren’t women of color and/or don’t have my body type.” Ashley Smith-Purviance | Orange Theory Coach
What does it mean to be truly seen and heard in a space you occupy? How does it look to be celebrated, welcomed, and acknowledged for your presence? What does inclusion truly entail and how do we manifest it in our world and personal industries?
I am Christa Janine; a 200hr E-RYT yoga instructor, teacher training lead, and wellness entrepreneur with a decade of experience in the yoga and fitness industries. I fell in love with yoga almost 10 years ago, and can legitimately say it has saved my life. When I found yoga I was in a deep depression and couldn’t see my way out. However, through the exploration of my practice, both spiritually & physically, I’ve learned to appreciate all joys life has to offer. I’ve also learned how to better digest the heartbreaking ones it serves up as well.
Yet, though my love for yoga runs deep, I still often find myself asking the questions above. I am a Black woman who entered the health and fitness world at a time when diversity and inclusion were not at the top of people’s minds. I’ve lived in major cities across the country, and have worked out and practiced yoga at various studios and gyms throughout the U.S. I’ve taught at a major corporate studio for almost a decade now, and can say without hesitation that I have felt like an outsider looking in more times than not throughout my yoga journey.
As a curvy Black woman, I am not what most people think of when they talk about yoga or fitness. I am not thin, I am not white and my hair exists in its natural curly state. Therefore, when I enter into most yoga spaces for the first time I don’t get a warm and fuzzy greeting. Honestly, most times I’m ignored for quite sometime before anyone even acknowledges my presence. When I originally began my practice I didn’t think much of it, and it wasn’t until I became an instructor that I fully began to realize the depths of this issue. At first glance, I thought perhaps I was just being sensitive or impatient, but the more I spoke with other Black women the more it became clear that this was a universal trend in the yoga and fitness industry.
"If you look at all the boutique fitness studios and yoga studios, you can see they are mostly owned by white people. Most of the teachers are white. The majority of the time the people in leadership are white and the student base is white." - LEANA MARIE MARSHALL, MHA, RHIA | E-RYT 200, RYT 500 | YACEP
"Most of the boutique gyms and studios I’ve gone to have been predominantly white. I’m still surprised if even a quarter of a class is black or Latino." - BRITNEY BOUIE, YOGA STUDENT
When you look at the covers of yoga, fitness, or health magazines the majority of what you see is thin white women or super buff white men. Our industry overlooks BIPOC as a whole and the underlying sentiment of this trickles down into local studios and the way they treat their clientele. There are many stereotypes that feed into the notion that Black women don’t workout, so when one arrives at a local studio the lack of acknowledgement stems from the idea that “they’re not supposed to be there.” And if you think someone isn’t supposed to be in your space it’s easier to ignore them.
When I began my yoga journey I was searching for peace and healing, and though I received both of those things, I also took on a new battle I wasn’t even aware I needed to fight. As an instructor, I’ve been over disciplined for minor mistakes at work by my managers. I have been overlooked for promotions more times than I can count. I have been questioned by students while entering in “employee only” areas of the studio, and even ignored by other instructors who were unaware that I too was a teacher and not simply a member of the cleaning staff. I wish these stories were unique to me, but unfortunately, they are all too common with BIPOC who enter into these spaces on a regular basis.
"When I started my yoga journey, in literally every studio experience I had, I felt like an outsider... I always, always walked into these environments expecting to be the only black person there. Until recently, I never even considered anything different." - DENISE PAYTON, E-RYT 200
"Close friends have told me they don’t feel welcomed or celebrated, therefore didn’t go. This ultimately leads to a defeated feeling before even trying and hinders those who wish to accomplish active lives." - NICOLE HARRIS, YOGA STUDENT
"I walked into a yoga studio and the person at the front desk completely ignored me. I didn't get a "Hello" or "How are you?" or "Welcome to XYZ Yoga studio!" I just received a blank stare as if I didn't belong there. The crazy thing is, I actually worked for the company, just at a different location. It was unbelievable how I was treated. The women who walked in behind me got the warmest welcome and all the love and hugs. I was just standing there looking crazy." - LEANA MARIE MARSHALL, MHA, RHIA | E-RYT 200, RYT 500 | YACEP
Even though these stories are disheartening there is hope and change is happening. The more BIPOC and their allies speak up the more we can see a shift in this type of behavior. Over the past 10 years I’ve seen an increase in Black instructors throughout the country, which in turn has increased the number of Black yogis as well. This movement alone has started the conversation about inclusivity in the yoga and fitness industries as a whole. Conversations are happening today that would not have occurred a decade ago. Many of us are working to show up in these spaces and provide a perspective that pushes for accountability on a global level.
We all seek equity in every space we enter. We want to see ourselves represented in every aspect of an industry we know, love, and constantly pour ourselves into. Yoga and fitness have saved my life, and I choose to work in this space because I want others to experience this as well. However, I am no longer willing to sit by and allow people who look like me to be ignored or mistreated for the simple fact that they don’t fit an antiquated idea of who belongs in what space. And I am not alone in that feeling.
"Filling yoga studios with black and brown instructors, more men, and different body types, will only increase the inclusiveness of yoga and better it as a practice." - NICOLE HARRIS, YOGA STUDENT
"The first step to be more inclusive is to just treat everyone the same when they walk into the space...Everyone should be greeted with a smile and a huge warm welcome." - LEANA MARIE MARSHALL, MHA, RHIA | E-RYT 200, RYT 500 | YACEP
"Show us more classes and practitioners that look like us. Show us routines that fit into our lives. We want yoga to decompress just like your average white mom in Santa Barbara." - BRITNEY BOUIE, YOGA STUDENT
"Don’t just play our music in class but give us weird looks when we are in the space. Hire more black coaches, studio managers, etc." - ASHLEY SMITH-PURVIANCE, ORANGE THEORY COACH
My wish for the yoga and fitness world over the next decade is that we continue to grow in representation and inclusivity. I love sharing my practice and experience with my students throughout the U.S. and I will continue to show up and hold space for them. However, I will no longer be silent about the way BIPOC are treated in the spaces we bring so much value and love to.