feature: why are people of color underrepresented in yoga? a mixed yogini’s journey to the practice

July 21, 2014

I recently came across a post on this fine blog entitled ‘Yoga IS for black women. We’re just not showing up’, and I thought, “How very true!” As a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga yoga, I am well aware of the underrepresentation of people of color in yoga. And much like Larissa Postell, the author of the post, I too, am familiar with being the only brown-skinned-afro-puffy-yogini on the mat. Maybe one out of two, at best.

By Wambui Njuguna, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Let me be clear on one thing though. I am a Kenyan-American living in Finland, so the demographic context is rather different than, say, Washington D.C. However, irrespective of this, when I lived in Chicago, I remember attending the free community clases on Sunday afternoons at Moksha Yoga Studio and I was still pretty much the only nonwhite in the class. That never kept me away though. Being a graduate student on a monthly stipend, the thing which did limit my yoga practice (before Ashtanga yoga and the discipline of a solo home practice) where the monthly studio fees!

I do think it’s safe to say that yoga has been marketed to a predominantly white, educated, upper-middle class audience. Nothing wrong with that at all. No matter how yoga is marketed, and to whom, the fact of the matter remains that yoga works. On a fundamental level, yoga is a practical and philosophical system which promotes Self-awareness. Needless to say, this awareness is far deeper than anything skin color, nationality, gender and age can touch upon. Yoga literally IS for everyone. Or can be. If you make up your mind that, yes, this truly is a benefit.

I was always one of the only students of color in middle and high school. It didn’t matter that my mother is an English woman, kids asked if I was adopted anyway (I’m not). At that time, in my social environment, one could only be black or white, not black and white. My point being that I have always been surrounded by both black and white family members and therefore, apart from being called on to represent an entire race of people in class discussions, I feel equally comfortable around large groups of white people and large groups of black people. I do wonder though, what it would take to attract more people of color to yoga. Postell claims that most black women wish to focus on weight loss rather than wellness, and many feel that ‘stretching’ won’t help with losing weight; furthermore, there seems to be a general misunderstanding when it comes to yoga and religion, that there is a conflict of interest between the two. The last pattern had to do with white representation and the marketing of yoga. How black women don’t go to yoga since they are not represented, and how they are not represented since they don’t go.

When I came into my own as an Ashtangi, I was living in the United Arab Emirates, far away from the United States and its ubiquitous racial context. When I started with Ashtanga, I couldn’t have cared less if the teacher and my fellow students were green with purple dots. I had reached a time in my life when I needed yoga with all my heart. So when my first teachers, a lovely Canadian couple, spoke of living a life with more peace, happiness, clarity and self-acceptance, I clung to the practice like a lifebuoy, with the desperation of a person drowning. Because I was drowning, in my own heavy, dark, confused mind. On my own, I didn’t know how to navigate myself through life and the world. Yoga showed me how, and when something shows you how to transform yourself and your life entirely, hell, it can also place the our racial dichotomy into a radically different context, not to mention the religious dogma argument as to why folks cannot practice yoga. But I’ll save that for another day!

Photos above by Marco Weigang; Model: Lawino Maria

Photo below by Charlie Harjulin; Model: Nina Adams

* Wambui Njuguna is an Ashtanga Yoga teacher based in Helsinki, Finland. A true blue third-culture kid, she was born in Kenya, moved to the US at the age of ten, and has worked in South America and the Middle East. She has written for elephant journal, The Helsinki Times, The Seattle Globalist, Ananda magazine, and Rebelle Society. She is the English editor on Petri Räisänen’s book on Ashtanga Yoga and is currently involved in the Finnish-English translation of Räisänen’s second book. When not involved with yoga, she can be found checking books out at Helsinki’s state of the art public libraries, blogging about being a yogini mama, and dreaming of a sewing room, complete with mannequin. Connect with Wambui on Twitter andFacebook .

Wambui Njuguna photo by Nea Halsto