Boston Yoga Teachers Are Fighting to Make Yoga Available to Everyone

Local instructors are pushing for a more inclusive and diverse yoga community.

Hands to Heart

A Hands to Heart class/photo provided

In studios, community centers, churches, and schools around Boston, yoga is changing.

A small but determined group of local teachers are challenging ideas of who a yoga student is, and what a yoga body looks like. They’re guiding yoga away from stereotypes, and toward a future of acceptance, inclusivity, and diversity—toward some of the ideals preached by the practice itself.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, ‘I can’t do yoga, I’m not in shape, I don’t have a body like that, I don’t look like that,'” says Susan Lovett, founder of Hands to Heart Center, which brings yoga to people touched by poverty and trauma. “My passion is about increasing access to this very effective tool and getting it out of the yoga studios, where it’s only really being experienced by people who have privilege and resources.”

Lovett isn’t alone in that mission. Chanelle John teaches classes for people of color. Kris Manjapra, who typically teaches at Down Under School of Yoga, leads a donation-based, open-to-all Colorful Community class at Art & Soul. Rachel Estapa’s More to Love classes focus on larger bodies. Swet Studio is an LGBTQ-focused haven in the South End. Broga, yoga for men, is popping up at studios around town.

Each seeks to make yoga practitioners, called yogis, feel at home, and to broaden the practice beyond the overwhelmingly white, female, upper-class audience it has traditionally served.

Manjapra, who is a historian and professor of race and colonialism at Tufts as well as a yoga teacher, says yoga has been practiced by the upper caste dating back to its roots. The idea of taking time to relax, he says, is still seen as an upper-class luxury—as is joining a community dominated by $100 yoga pants and $20 classes.

“[Self care is] something that people who are not of means cannot do because they don’t have the funds, because they don’t have the time, they have to work,” he says. “Self care is often a privilege that the privileged can give themselves.”

Then, of course, there’s marketing and media. Lovett notes that nearly every yoga product is marketed using photos of lithe, pretty white women, and remembers Yoga Alliance telling her it didn’t have any stock photos of yogis of color. Those images, or lack thereof, stick, and become self-perpetuating. Groups that don’t feel welcome don’t go to classes. Studios, in turn, become more uniform, and the cycle continues.

“People [need to] feel secure, supported, welcomed, accepted to be able to show up to the mat and have the kind of transformative process that can come from yoga,” John says. “I know from experience it’s not possible to have that experience if you don’t feel comfortable in the class.”

Indeed, many teachers trying to break down barriers do so because they once felt excluded. John falls into that category. So does Estapa.

“I started More to Love because I was done feeling like I had to become a different body type to feel happier,” Estapa says. “I never saw body types like me, especially in yoga.”

More to Love yoga

Rachel Estapa/photo provided

Personally motivated teachers like her are integral to the movement’s success, but it’s hard to achieve lasting change without studios’ cooperation—and many mainstream studios are hesitant to offer niche classes, because it’s risky for the bottom line. If only one group of people can take a class, businesses risk losing customers who don’t fit that demographic. As such, boundary-pushing classes are often relegated to community centers, churches, or other less visible spaces.

Some studios, however, are pushing past that hesitation. Justin Bernold, who runs Cambridge’s the Breathing Room, says his “Airbnb for yoga teachers” model—in which teachers rent space, and are responsible for their own rates and programming—has made the studio a hub for community-building classes ranging from All Bodies Yoga to Yoga for Poets.

“It’s less about saying, ‘Let’s affirmatively go out and say, Here’s a space [for] a community that yoga isn’t really reaching,’ and more about saying, ‘Let’s just create a space where the teachers can teach their own way,'” he says.

Justine Wiltshire Cohen, director of Down Under, says more studios should shift priorities from profits to social responsibility. “It’s very easy for the pressure of paying the bills to become the major factor in your decision-making,” she says. “When you do that, as a studio owner, you’re kind of lost.”

Still, it’s not hard to see why some studios hesitate. Beyond financial concerns, there’s the risk of pushback. While inclusive classes are on the rise, and widely praised, there are some who see them as counterproductive, as further splintering the community and making divisions more pronounced.

Unsurprisingly, instructors say that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Manjapra says community-specific classes, especially those for people of color, are not only responding to today’s social and political environment, but also to that of the past. “What we cannot do is wish the history away, and we cannot wish the tensions intrinsic to our society away,” he says.

John makes a similar point. “If you’re unaware that the divisions are there, you’re in the majority group. Actively trying to rectify them is not the same as creating them,” she says. “Until these classes aren’t needed…people like myself and others are going to be doing this work.”

A world where these classes aren’t needed—where every yoga class feels welcoming to every student—is possible, many of the teachers say, but not without real change. Lovett says the mainstream media and high-profile brands need to step up. Bernold says more teachers could benefit from “opening [their] eyes beyond [their] own experience.” Manjapra says instructors need to find a way to reach marginalized communities without “missionizing,” without “parachuting in and saying, ‘This is how you have to do yoga.'”

Above all, they say, the community needs to keep evolving, until every person who wants to practice yoga truly feels that he or she can—and until people realize that yoga is available to all.

“It is very healing and very important for communities to form, especially among those that are marginalized—where they are no longer at the margins, but they become central,” Manjapra says. “That doesn’t have to be something that divides people up.”