When Jessamyn Stanley started doing yoga, she felt completely out of place.
“I was almost always the only fat person, the only Black person, like I'm very physically different from everyone else in the room,” said Stanley, 33. “It was very alienating.”
Despite wanting to quit, Stanley stuck with yoga for the emotional benefits. Nearly a decade later, Durham, North Carolina-based Stanley is a yoga teacher, author of “Every Body Yoga,” and a renowned body-positive wellness influencer who uses her hard-won visibility to flip existing narratives about who belongs in the yoga and wellness world.
Wellness, however, still hasn’t come far in terms of inclusion.
“To this day, especially if I go to a random class with people that I don't know, there's still a lot of prejudice,” Stanley said. “It’s like, there’s a fat, Black, queer woman, what is she doing here?”
The whitewashing of wellness
The reported $4.5 trillion wellness industry is all about self-care, but with $100 yoga pants, studio classes, imagery of long-torsoed, slender — mostly white — women and “positive vibes only” platitudes, self-care seems like it’s only for a select few. Those who are left out are often the people who could most use the benefits of practices like yoga, which has been shown to improve mental health and stress.
“Black people need self-care more than ever."
-Morgan Fykes, a Washington DC-based yoga teacher
Black women in particular deal with a variety of stressors from higher maternal mortality rates to racist microaggressions and police violence, and also receive less mental health care than their white counterparts. All of this chronic stress can lead to physical problems like hypertension and diabetes. Wellness practices like yoga can make a difference — but if only they actually seem like viable options.
“Black people need self-care more than ever. It’s something that we really struggle with, because it does feel like we have to be constantly plugged in, especially as this fight for change is happening,” said Morgan Fykes, a Washington, D.C.-based yoga teacher and practitioner who is Black.
Despite the need, Black and brown communities are largely ignored by the wellness industry.
“Mainstream wellness is still very white and very elitist,” said Chrissy King, a Black Brooklyn-based fitness expert who runs an anti-racism workshop for wellness practitioners. “By and large, they still only market to white, thin women.”
That particular coupling of wellness with weight loss in the U.S. is something that alienates people and cultures who aren’t in pursuit of being thin, added King, who points out that movement and healthy living has numerous benefits that have nothing to do with reaching an idealized weight.
“I think when we start looking at yoga and the brands around yoga and who gets pushed to the front, it's continuously this image of a petite, super flexible white woman. It's the Lululemon woman,” said Fykes. “It’s also about the people studios hire, how they welcome guests, the questions that they ask," she added. “And if you are the owner of a space and you look around, you can't tell me that you don't notice that everyone who comes in looks exactly the same, especially in a city that doesn't match that.”
The irony is that the dominant forms of yoga practiced in the U.S. come from India, where yoga requires no fancy clothing and is often taught and practiced by potbellied old men — the antithesis to American yoga imagery. There’s no data specifically about race and yoga in the U.S. In fact, a 2016 Yoga in America report included myriad demographic data about practitioners and studio owners, but notably made no mention of race.
In addition to whitewashed imagery, the wellness world embraces certain mantras that can do more harm than good.
Fitness instructors everywhere espouse generic platitudes, telling people to “find gratitude” or “exhale love." While the “positive vibes only” affirmations can feel like a welcome escape for some, it’s the spiritual equivalent of “I don’t see color.” Black women explained that it can often feel like glossing over their experiences — and they can’t bring their whole selves to the practice.
“With all of these shootings, police brutality, when you're telling me to clear my mind, I can’t do that. I feel like that's not taken into consideration when I've been in white yoga and meditation spaces,” said Sevon Blake, a Black 29-year-old baker in Queens, New York. “And then it’s just… bam bam bam do this pose, do that pose. There’s no real connection or acknowledgement.”
“There's a level of toxic positivity that we never really talk about,” Fykes added. “We would all love to be positive all the time, but when your positivity comes as a response to real trauma or pain that people are having, then you're trying to use your positivity to erase instead of empower.”
It’s part of what Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh call “spiritual bypassing.” The two Indian-American yoga instructors expose the yoga industry’s exclusionary practices in their podcast “Yoga Is Dead” and also teach classes in New York City specifically addressing the needs of BIPOC participants. Yoga is particularly rooted in spiritual wellbeing, they say, as opposed to, say, an aerobic class. Without that, said Parikh, “you’re just doing stretches.”
“Yoga is literally the opposite of escapism; it’s a trauma-informed practice,” said Patel. “What yoga tells you is to be present, to work through the emotional discomfort. So if you're buying into a studio culture that only makes you feel good, that only tells you you're OK, even when you're not feeling well, you're not actually gaining the real long-term benefit of yoga.”
Changing the narrative
The women interviewed for this story are trying to make yoga and wellness more inclusive by calling out the industry, creating safe spaces for people of all cultures and increasing their own visibility so people know that wellness is for any and every body.
Industries from tech to media have been grappling with their role in benefitting from and promoting systematic racism, but now the corporate gatekeepers in the wellness industry are having these conversations, too.
“For the first time, we're starting to see a shift,” said King, who teaches two virtual workshops, one on how to be anti-racist, and one specifically for how wellness practitioners can be more inclusive — everything from language (like why terms like “spirit animal” shouldn’t be used) to tips for making culturally sensitive health recommendations. “People in the wellness industry are now open to talking about and learning about their own implicit bias, how they can be anti-racist, and how the wellness industry really hasn't been inclusive.”
The issue is how to move past performative wokeness to make an intentional effort for inclusion, she said.
“Inclusion starts at the top — from the boards of directors and executive leadership at wellness companies, to those who are chosen as experts to speak at wellness conferences,” King said. “We need to avoid tokenization, where companies think they can put a Black face on something and the work is done.”
Stanley experiences this too often.
“I'll get studios from around the world, reach out to me asking, ‘Can we use your photos to promote our classes? We don't have any teachers who look like you,’” Stanley said. “They literally just see it as a PR issue. They’re not actually hiring teachers of color or changing their leadership. They just want to be close to what's cool. What's popular. But will they actually want to work within the organization to understand and dismantle the systemic racism that is at the root of everything? That remains to be seen.”