In contemporary yoga classes everywhere, teachers and students recite this popular Sanskrit chant. It roughly translates to May All Beings Everywhere Be Happy and Free.
We can assume that "all beings" includes trans folks, disabled folks, larger bodied folks, and BIPOC.
Yet woven into the cultural fabric of the rapidly expanding territory where yoga, wellness, and spirituality surreptitiously collide, lies a long history of ignoring privilege, and sidestepping conversations about intersectional systems of oppression.
In particular, there has been an uptick of Black Lives Matter meme reposts by rising spiritual and wellness influencers. On reading the captions (or lack thereof) that accompany many of these posts, what becomes apparent is a distinct failure by the influencer to grasp the gravitas behind them.
And sometimes a tangible lack of any actual fu@ks being given.
...these feeds are filled with white, thin, able-bodied, cis-het women, laughing whilst drinking green juices or striking advanced yoga poses on beaches.
In a sea of white privilege float lonely memes like this stating "no one is superior" accompanied by a low commitment, empty caption like “no words needed". Or this one insinuating the influencer is "listening" - with a single emoji as the caption (despite other more sales-promoting posts having long, well thought-out captions).
Dear White Yoga Influencers: Your Anti-Racism Posts Feel Fake
And yet more often than not, the anti-racism stuff these individuals post (or far more commonly, RE-post) feel utterly fake. So far I have commented on several of these posts asking about the influencer's personal views on these issues, and/or what they are doing to dismantle white supremacy and its many manifestations within their business.
I have waited for their responses. And I have received exactly zero to date.
It's as if the yoga bubble is a sacred white space of "good vibes only", where meaningfully confronting issues that challenge the status quo are not really permitted to enter.
Perhaps it's just too unpalatable and uncomfortable a subject to bring into a professionally styled yoga feed crammed with natarajasanas and succulents. People go to yoga to feel good, right? There's no room for all that political stuff. That would lower the vibration in our #yogatribe too much.
(Btw, unless you are yourself a person of indigenous lineage, please stop using the word tribe. It sounds dodgy AF.)
I want to hear rising wellness influencers sharing their personal thoughts on systemic racism and privilege. I want to know how spiritual folks in positions of power are working to de-centre themselves and dismantle white supremacy within - and beyond - their businesses.
Closer to home
I know what it is like to be targeted because of the colour of my skin and my facial features. And I also know that what I've been through is but a sliver of what BIPOC go through everyday.
I am NOT an expert in anti-racism, and I too have felt confused and torn about what I should do to help. So now I'm going to describe the process I've ended up undertaking.
Please note that I'm not saying that this is THE way to go about it and that everyone should do the same, but I think a little transparency is warranted here given I am critiquing the steps (or lack thereof) taken by many of my #BigWellness counterparts.
Over the last few months, I’ve intentionally resisted the temptation to post BLM stuff as a way of reassuring everyone that I’m strongly supportive of BIPOC and oppose the systemic oppression they face (which of course I am). There have been times when I’ve felt that posting a black square would help me feel like I have met the quota required for appearing to give a shit (and I vehemently do give a shit.)
And. I have intentionally not posted memes stating “No One Is Superior”, "We Are All One", or the particularly egregious "I Don't See Colour" with a single love heart emoji or similarly brief caption.
Because as a yoga teacher and (possible) wellness influencer I’m extremely wary of falling into the camp of yoga/spirituality/wellness people who post disingenuous pro-inclusivity memes yet haven’t actually done THE WORK.
People who post these memes possibly out of a desire to connect to oppressed folks (or possibly to alleviate their own discomfort), but in doing so negate the lived experiences of folks of colour who don't have the luxury of pretending that colour doesn't matter.
Because for them, colour affects EVERYTHING.
I’ve also sat with the unsettling realisation that what people think about me possibly felt more crucial than doing my own internal work dismantling white supremacy. That has been uncomfortable. So instead of reactionary posting, I decided to give myself time to get working.
Because I don’t want to post a meme with a half arsed caption as a way to remain socially acceptable and morally palatable. I want to be accountable to anyone who wants to know more about what I’m actually doing to dismantle white supremacy in my business and personal life.
SO. I’ve been unpacking the ways systemic racism colours the way I see the world, donating (although this alone is not enough), educating myself, and trying to figure out what I can do beyond just posting warm fuzzy memes.
I’ve been having tough conversations with family who are openly racist. And I’ve got a long way to go.
An additional impetus for me to do this work is the fact that diet culture - which I work so hard to dismantle and help folks heal from in my nutrition counselling work - is rooted in racism.
Racism is not only a social justice issue, but a public health issue. We can’t talk about diet culture, intuitive eating, improving body image or even have basic discussions about nutrition and health without understanding that all of these things stem from and have roots in the oppression of some bodies, historically black bodies.
Again I'm no anti-racism expert - so if you're interested in learning more about this I highly recommend reading "Fearing the Black Body" by Sabrina Strings, and "Skill In Action" by Michelle Cassandra Johnson. If you can afford to, buy their courses. Support their work.
The genuine, the fake, and the Racist
I'll start with this: not all wellness influencers are completely disingenuous in their public discourse on anti-racism. That's not what I'm saying here. As with everything, there seems to be a spectrum.
Over the last few months of the spotlight being on BIPOC, there have arisen a couple of main categories of yoga/wellness/spirituality influencer who posts pro-inclusivity, anti-racism material: those who are actually trying to do better (however imperfectly), and those who don't really give a shit (but want to look like they do).
Then there are those who actively promote racist and white supremacist ideals under the guise of high spirituality. The "All Lives Matter" people who covertly (and sometimes overtly) dismiss the struggles long endured by BIPOC. But that's a whole other kettle of fish I won't go into today (my nervous system can only handle so much).
Before I go further, I want to clarify something:
Am I saying that every yoga influencer should incessantly post about social justice issues? NO. If all you want to do is post instructional videos that is cool by me. Go for it. Maybe you don't know what to say or are still trying to figure out how to say it. Maybe you're doing more research or you're busy dismantling your own internal biases, in which case good on you. Maybe you prefer to keep anything aside from your niche material on your personal platforms, or not on social media at all, for whatever reason. Maybe you're scared of getting it wrong. I get it. It's ok.
But if you post multiple anti-racism / BLM memes all with half-arsed captions I think your followers deserve to know what your personal views on systemic racism and privilege are, and what you are doing to uplift BIPOC given you seem to want your audience to believe you care about this issue.
You can't have your cake and eat it, too.
You can't garner the kudos for being racially sensitive and radically inclusive without any real proof that you indeed, are. Leverage your privilege to centre marginalised folks and de-centre yourself, not to pay lip service to the hot topic of the times whilst staying well and truly in the spotlight.
Know better, Do better
Yeah ok, sure.
There are many wellness influencers out there who are trying to do better. This is awesome. And we are striving for integrity, not perfection here (perfection also has roots in white supremacy).
We all make mistakes - I certainly do. I was recently pulled up by a non-binary student for having only two options for gender on my new yoga student sign up form: male or female. D'oh! After dealing with my own feelings of resistance and embarrassment, I felt thankful for the correction and have since changed my forms to be more inclusive.
When we know better, we do better.
There are yoga people who, like me, are trying to do better, albeit clumsily. Some posts like this one demonstrate the tendency for some white wellness influencers and yoga teachers to actively ask BIPOC to reach out to them and instruct them on how to do so. And I can see that they are trying to do better, and I respect that.
And for the record, asking indigenous and POC to educate you on what you should do to do better is perpetuating the expectation of emotional and intellectual labour by BIPOC. Don't ask BIPOC what books you need to read, what organisations you need to support, or who to follow. BIPOC should not have to do more work here. It is not their job to educate you; that is up to you. Deal with your internalised racism, and if it is safe for you to do so, speak up when family members, friends and colleagues say racist shit.
This I think is the real work. No donation can ever really match one's willingness to get uncomfortable AF, and challenge long held beliefs that keep systemic racism in place.
Pretending to Give a Sh!T
For these folks, it's a move to remain socially acceptable and morally palatable, rather than an act of anti-racism.
It's a "keeping up with the Joneses" manoeuver rather than a reflection of any real concern or desire to dismantle the rampant white supremacy (and the racism, capitalism, anti-feminism, fat phobia, transphobia, ableism and more that go with that white supremacy)...
...in a business that sells the concept of the highly spiritual, highly well individual by ignoring the far more impactful social determinants of health that exist outside of diet and exercise (such as poverty, violence, education, stigma, social exclusion, accessibility, environment, genetics, and so on).
In opposition to the lokah samastah sentiment, the distinct lack of happiness and freedom that many marginalised groups in our society are experiencing right now is mostly ignored by this type of influencer... in lieu of product positioning, upholding the spiritual, successful, sexy woman ideal, and incessant self-promotion.
In many wellness influencers' feeds, the posting of memes conveying one's own quotes (that may or may not have been original concepts) easily outnumbers the posts bringing awareness to social justice issues.
In others, an effort to appear racially sensitive is made that simultaneously reveals a gross black hole in awareness around issues of race.
Take for example this post. In the context of a homogenous feed lacking in diversity, grossly misstating “respect to the traditional customs” of this land when the word custodians is the appropriate term, further amplifies the eerie feeling one has that this wellness influencer is seriously lacking in both understanding of - and genuine concern about - issues of race.
FYI you may have heard people paying their respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the land before a meeting or event. It's the humans, not just the customs that are to be paid respect to here.
Giving an Acknowledgment of Country [...] doesn’t truly mean much unless you’re actively assisting and fighting for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you aren’t doing the work to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, an Acknowledgment of Country is simply empty words.
Acknowledging Country can become tokenistic very quickly [my emphasis] if their meaning and purpose isn’t understood and respected. They aren’t simple words to be read and ignored, it’s an important custom of our people in this modern day and a symbol of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ongoing Culture, community, and contributions.
- Georgia Mae Capocchi-Hunter, Wurundjeri and Ngurai Illum Wurrung woman who authored this article.
The Exclusionary Space of Yoga's Social Media
Which suggests that the customer of this yoga studio is similarly racially homogenous, and/or similarly privileged. Which suggests that little to no effort is being made to make this studio's classes more accessible to BIPOC despite their alleged solidarity with and "respect" for POC.
No scholarships exclusive to indigenous folks, no sliding scales for classes. A look at the yoga studio's website (which is predictably predominated by thin, white, able-bodied people), reveals the expected lack of accessibility to BIPOC.
Simply put, POC don’t feel welcomed in yoga spaces. This one, and others just like it - of which there are many.
It's not only yoga students of colour who are excluded or penalised against in white yoga culture - it's also marginalised folks who are dreaming of becoming yoga teachers, who are already yoga teachers, or who yearn to be elevated to the social status we see embodied by the most successful, highest earning yogalebrities (who are all white, thin, affluent and able-bodied) by undertaking a YTT at a famous yoga studio.
White yoga spaces penalise disadvantaged yoga teachers, too.
Prospective yoga teachers who can not afford the earlybird AKA the regular full up front fee for teacher trainings are given the "option" of payment plans to which a significant additional amount of money is applied - one that exceeds even what is reasonable to cover administration fees for handling such a payment plan. This further penalises already financially strained folks.
The yoga studio owners and wellness entrepreneurs who take part in these flagrant actions are not trying to lead the way forward in creating anti-racist yoga spaces. They are not trying to increase inclusivity and accessibility to disadvantaged folks.
They're trying to build personal empires.
Does social media translate to real life?
Well in the name of full disclosure: I actually worked at the "Respect to the traditional customs of this land" yoga studio for three years. During this time I became one of their most popular teachers and was given some of the busier yoga class slots as a result. And I eventually left due to a number of issues that came down to classism, and exploitation of teachers and other "karma yoga" workers in the name of maximum turnover.
It was spiritual capitalism at its finest.
At this studio I witnessed and experienced a significant volume of classist and egregiously capitalist behaviours, including unpaid work in exchange for classes mislabelled as "karma yoga". Karma yoga means ethical or right action, or righteous duty, with no attachment or expectation of to outcome. It does not mean after-hours cleaning of the studio with the expectation of free classes. Mopping floors and cleaning toilets in exchange for classes is not "karma yoga", it's bartering. Work under the guise of karma yoga is exploiting free labour, usually of people who can not afford the hefty class fees and are willing to work at night when more privileged folks get to relax at home. Again, financially disadvantaged folks are further exploited.
There was also generally poor treatment of teachers who were sole contractors but treated like employees. There were no contracts, and no negotiation of benefits. FYI, independent contractors should by definition not be a permanent, integral part of a yoga business - yet almost all the teachers at this studio were independent contractors, and put up on the yoga studio's website as if they were permanent employees.
As Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel so eloquently explain on their podcast Yoga is Dead, yoga studios don't sell yoga; they sell yoga teachers. Students faithfully attended their favourite teacher's classes, with the best teachers placed in charge of teaching the most popular times slots.
You could say that the teachers were an integral part of the yoga studio staying open. Yet classes could be taken away from teachers at any time. Payment was on an attendance basis with a very low base rate. So if for any reason (including those outside your control, such as holidays or State of Origin football nights when many people stay home with their partners) you didn't get many people turn up to your class, you barely got paid.
Exploiting people who come to yoga because they believe in it and asking them to do stuff for free is not ethical. It is not "yogic" - but it makes for good business.
Barely paying teachers running charity or donation based classes, and expecting them to do free marketing, admin, or promotion work, is not ethical. But it is asked of them, all with a smile and a sweet lilt to the voice. And an undertone of "if you don't do what I ask, there are a hundred other yoga teachers who will."
We were disposable, and because we were independent contractors, we had no employee rights.
We were told we should be grateful for working there, that it was a "privilege", with the insinuated message that we should turn up for unpaid meetings (to be told such things), buy our own uniforms, and say "yes" to whatever additional unpaid tasks were asked of us...
...even though many of the teachers were already living below the poverty line and could not afford to lose their classes, were time poor students, and/or were young females desperately trying to break out into the yoga/wellness sphere (and willing to do whatever it took to do so).
This is all oppression of marginalised people, (specifically people further removed from power than the employer or studio owner), and that is a facet of white supremacy.
The culture at this studio was shaming and/or dismissive of anyone who spoke up, as I did. I was pulled up for not buying (and therefore not wearing nor promoting) the overpriced slashed and woven yoga tops made by likely underpaid women in Indonesia (that I could easily make myself for a hundredth of the price). I was pulled up for not OMMing at the end of class because "some students don't feel right without it". Spiritual gaslighting and cultural appropriation were rampant.
Unfortunately this studio is far from alone in participating in this kind of behaviour. The podcast Yoga Is Dead does a fantastic job of highlighting the culture of racism, classism and cultural appropriation created by white, wealthy, able-bodied yoga studio owners and big time wellness influencers.
In this article Rachael Rice describes white lady sisterhood as:
"[ White lady sisterhood is ] a slurry of cultural appropriation, spiritual bypassing, neoliberalism, multilevel marketing, and random woo punctuated by various signals of authority, virtue and performative vulnerability from their leaders."
- Rachael Rice
In my experience, when the social media feed of a yoga studio reeks of spiritual capitalism, spiritual bypassing, and feigned activism, it very likely carries over in real life to the studio culture and is reflective of the attitudes and beliefs of the business owner.
Tactics of defence and Dismissal
Things will not change if these people are allowed to stay comfortable. And they have been comfortable for. So. Long.
Beyond doing our own work, I think that it is important and reasonable for us to speak up and let these folks know that we want them to de-centre themselves, to amplify BIPOC voices, and actually walk their talk.
Unfortunately upon being called in or called out for their overt exclusivity, or challenged on their intentions, many white studio owners and wellness entrepreneurs become defensive. Or they shut down the conversation using one or more of the following tools:
- Centering - This is perhaps the most common tactic used by white wellness women. “I’m not racist. It hurts me when people who don't know me attack me and make out that I am racist.” Unable to allow POC to express their pain at the hurt they've caused, many white female influencers will redirect the conversation to themselves and their feelings. We may not consider ourselves racist, especially if we have not unpacked this stuff in a meaningful, private way. But that doesn't mean that we are not harming others. Saying "I'm not racist" shuts down any accountability, introspection, or acknowledgement that we may be complicit. It flies in the face of the niyama of self-study, svadhaya.
- Tone policing - When people of colour express their pain, sorrow, and anger with the systems and individuals who continue to exclude and dismiss them, we are told that we should try to be nicer, more mindful, or more evolved if we want to be respected and heard.
- Spiritual bypassing - When confronted with the ways we have, through our words or actions, harmed marginalised people, some white female yoga influencers attempt to "love and light" it away by regurgitating dog whistle terms like "we are all one" or "I just want peace". They simultaneously insinuate that those they have harmed are aggressive, divisive, unconscious or not yet at their own lofty level of consciousness by throwing out phrases like "we are all at different stages of our healing journey", "we are all going through something", or "not everyone will get me; those aren't my people."
While silence might mean complicity, feigned anti-racism without making any meaningful changes to dismantle white supremacy is possibly worse. It's deceptive. It sure ain't love and light.
Feigned anti-racism is especially poignant when your business model arguably hinges on the very same systems of oppression you claim to be opposed to, in order to remain "successful" as I discuss in this article.
If you're quoting "only love is real" and "be kind to all" alongside BLM or inclusivity posts - and you're not taking action to dismantle racism nor to elevate the voices of BIPOC on your platform - you're not walking your talk.
Let's end this on a happy note: there are a growing number of yoga teachers, holistic health practitioners, and wellness influencers who are doing really excellent work in allyship, de-centering themselves, raising the voices of BIPOC, and/or speaking out as BIPOC wellness and yoga influencers themselves. Here are just a few, please follow and support them:
Lokah Samastah Sukinho Bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free.
Click here for the Non-Diet Yogi podcast episode accompanying this article.