Often, it's not that individuals mean to be deliberately hurtful towards those disadvantaged by the status quo, whether by means of sex, race, gender, age, physical or mental capacity. But many are thoughtless. If it doesn't personally affect us in the struggle of our day-to-day lives, it often doesn't make much of a blip on our internal radar. So it's great that policies on inclusivity wheeled out on a macro scale to ensure public bodies avoid lawsuits are having such a strong, positive effect on raising awareness and genuine kindness at the micro level.
Sadly, in the world of yoga the ethos of inclusivity is fast becoming weaponised. We all know that yoga practitioners can be guilty of spectacular virtue-signalling. We're human. We can confuse acting with compassion with being seen to act with compassion. One goes unnoticed, the other gets applause and Facebook likes. So there's the danger of treating inclusivity as the latest fashion must-have. Like something off the catwalk that only very few have access to and even fewer appreciate or understand. Like something, well, exclusive.
Recently, a yoga event has been promoted on Facebook to much fanfare from the organisers. It goes under the name of the Scottish Yoga Conference, and for a weekend in September brings together a number of international yogis known primarily for their strong asana practice.
I've heard of the participants but not experienced their teaching, but I'm sure there's more about them than asana. However, the organisers – probably pinching themselves at their good fortune in getting so many well-known yogis in once place and so therefore not thinking straight – have promoted the event using typical Instagram fodder: perfect poses, perfect bodies, perfect hair and teeth; everyone young, carefree, white and subsisting entirely on avo toast.
As far as the yoga community on Facebook was concerned, we had a full-on goat versus T-Rex situation.
Perhaps because "Scottish Yoga Conference" carries an implication that it's organised by a national body on behalf of the country (rather than being the private labour of love of a couple of yoga teachers) the Scottish yoga massif has felt the right to voice their opinion. Robustly. We McYogis have been slamming down our yogic trump card and calling the organisers out, and calling them out hard.
Our students won't feel comfortable attending, there doesn't appear to be anything for elderly practitioners or those with larger bodies, those with disabilities, this could damage body confidence and self-esteem, is detrimental to mental health. This doesn't reflect "true" yoga, yoga is for everybody and every body, et cetera.
One yoga studio, under the guise of sparking genuine debate, sought its followers' opinions on the issue. As Facebook is nothing but an echo chamber in which to hear our own views and values bounced comfortingly back at us, this gave rise to the yogic version of a mob with pitchforks. Flaming accusations of "unyogic" representation rained down upon the organisers.
At first glance, yeah, fair point. There is a distinct lack of representation in the promotional material. It isn't immediately clear from the literature the level of practice and ability required for each workshop. The defensive tone of the organisers in response to the criticism came across as snippy and petulant. Disappointing, but they'd launched their event bursting with excited joy and Facebook promptly pissed all over their chips.
Knowing of the main organiser and the kind of practice he demonstrates across the breadth of social media – strong, athletic, heavy on dazzling asana –I'm not surprised that this is the type of event he would be inspired to organise. He is associated with the more visible third Limb of yoga, that's been his strategy in developing his "brand". (And let's not get distracted here by the empire-building imperative that now drives many yogis – another subject, another day.)
Are we now saying that yoga teachers shouldn't organise events which appeal to their passion and inspiration, not if it it means that somebody might feel left out? That we have to please everyone, all of the time? More, we have to be seen to please everyone, all of the time, or risk the wrath of those seeking membership of that, ahem, elitist club of "Most Yogic"?
And further, by being critical of events such as these are we not also criticising those who attend, are they guilty of being unyogic by association? Are we happy making them feel a little bit shitty and shallow – even though they may need a strong physical practice – in order that we can feel elevated and more "woke"?
Until it weaves its magic to move students deeper into the arms of the other seven Limbs, throwing shapes is often the draw for new yogis. Yet here we stand, self-appointed bouncers dressed in Lycra and a superior attitude, talking about accessibility while refusing entry to the wider practice because we're pissed about flashy ill-conceived marketing which appears to be exclusive but we don't yet know is actually exclusive.
It would be funny if it wasn't so damn sad.
Yoga, the Bhagavad Gita tells us, is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self. It is an internal practice, not one played to a larger audience. We are tasked with examining our habits, patterns and reactions in an attempt to discard those that don't serve us or those around us, and to acquire and develop new qualities that would improve our communities and, by extension, our own lives.
Practising yoga doesn't invest us with the right to criticise or restrict how someone else chooses to practise. We come to the path at different stages and walk it at a different pace, sometimes back-tracking or taking a diversion, sometimes missing a bit by tripping over our own feet. Yoga is a personal, experiential journey so the correct etiquette when faced with someone's contrasting practice is to butt out. Really. Back off. Nothing to see here.
Because when we criticize another's practice, what we're hearing is our ego's knee-jerk reaction to the baggage we all carry, something that threatens our sense of self. Sure, we can pretty it up and justify our righteous ire until the cows come home, and making accusations of failing to be inclusive not only hits the right note of public moral worthiness but also provides private shielding against our own insecurities and fears.
On the surface, teaching yoga shifts it from an individual to a collective experience as teachers become "disseminators of knowledge". As a teacher, there is a duty of care and responsibility to ensure that those choosing to practise with us feel included, valued and welcome. But we still come together on our mats as equals; we are not divided along the lines of guru and follower, guardian or ward asking for protection.
To assume otherwise is arrogant and patronising. We cannot walk anyone's path for them. We cannot:
a) assume what's best for them
b) know the best way of achieving that
c) do it for them.
As teachers, we need to shelve our sometime self-identification as saviours walking a higher path, and instead focus on seeking to instill the truth of, and the confidence in, our students' own perfection so that they can sit with ease, grace and a glorious right-to-be no matter the intensity of asana going on around them, the perceived perfection of other people's bodies, their contrasting youth and/or differing skin colour or gender.
The purpose of yoga isn't to remove obstacles and injustices to smooth the way through life. Yoga is a tool which, when mastered, allows us to accept limitations and obstacles with equanimity, to weather them with good grace and humour. This is where true peace lies.
The denouncement of events like the Scottish Yoga Conference as lacking inclusivity and diversity can be a helpful reminder to organisers to check privilege and intention, but accusers must also guard against bullying event holders into the reductive excercise of box-ticking and tokenism. No one can be all things to all people. While, yes, we need to encourage accessibility as far as possible, as yogis we need to equally promote acceptance of limitations.
Creating a more equitable world is a laudable and welcome goal, but let's recognise that setting about it by fostering distance, comparison, right and wrong, them and us, atma and anatama, is not the way to go about it.
Yoga is union. Oneness.