September is National Yoga Month and there is a lot to celebrate and take stock of.
More than 20 million Americans practice yoga. When it first arrived in the West, its practitioners emphasized it as a spiritual discipline. Yoga now has emerged as a major health and wellness practice accessible to people in a wide variety of settings (face to face or virtual – the Wii yoga game is very popular!).
For some, yoga conjures up images of hyperflexible, thin (and usually white) bodies in great clothes. That’s definitely one face of yoga. What excites me, though, is the way more people are building inclusive yoga communities and tackling pressing social issues. I’ve been a yoga student for almost 20 years and am also a lapsed yoga teacher. I see some interesting trends developing in what I like to think of as U.S. yoga’s third act.
First, yoga is being owned, so to speak, by many different types of people. There’s a lot of discussion about “decolonizing yoga” that looks at the history of cultural appropriation of South Asian culture, and why yoga classes and studios often don’t reflect the diversity of their communities across many dimensions of identity including race, class, ability status and sexual orientation. There’s also been some difficult dialogues about how the commercialization and representation of yoga promotes body shaming and unrealistic standards for women.
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Second, people are looking to yoga and meditation to help remedy issues that affect communities from schoolchildren (i.e. bullying) to veterans struggling with long-term mental health issues. The overall goal of yoga is to keep the body healthy and flexible so that you can develop a regular meditation practice. Research on meditation began in the 1970s and now with over a 1,000 studies on meditation, there is strong evidence that meditation contributes to improved well-being, and a decrease in stress hormones among other benefits.
YOGA (Your Greatness Affirmed) for Youth is an example of a burgeoning interest to provide young people with the resources that can help them create positive outcomes. Since 1992 YOGA for Youth has developed state chapters, certified and trained teachers and helped to place them in schools and after-school programs, pregnant and parenting teen programs, and mental and health-related programs which include HIV/AIDS and drug and alcohol dependency.
In the Triangle we have a strong YOGA for Youth branch in Durham that has served over 3,000 students in its six-year history.
I wasn’t introduced to thinking about the benefits of yoga beyond one’s personal interests until almost a decade into my practice. My own path to becoming a teacher was shaped by attending the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers Association (IABYT) conference several years ago.
Krishna Kaur, the founder of this conference and also the YOGA For Youth program, has said she sees yoga in black communities as “a continuation of the civil rights movement.” At this conference, I met many folks (mostly people of color), who were strategizing about how under-served communities can benefit from yoga as a low cost, accessible practice that can help with the very specific stressors of dealing with a variety of ‘isms.’ These stressors contribute to hypertension, diabetes and other chronic health issues.
I came back from that conference fired up. At the time the IABYT had a map you could click on to see if your state had an IABYT teacher. I clicked on North Carolina and was astounded to see that there were no IBYT members. Also, at that time I couldn’t find any local black instructors. It reaffirmed my sense that it would useful to have more teachers of color, and I felt a sense of urgency to work with under-served communities.
Finally, Off the Mat, Into the World co-founded by well-known yoga teacher and Nike representative Seane Corne is also part of this trend. Her teacher-training program blends leadership, activism and work around the world. They label it as “conscious activism.” More and more yoga teacher training programs are incorporating leadership and analytical tools to support and inspire grassroots social change.
Yoga’s transformational third act is well underway.
Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, writer and creativity coach. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org