The Seattle yoga scene’s diversity problem

Yoga instructor Sweta Saraogi shows one of her moves in the yoga studio she teaches out of in her condo in Seattle. (Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Yoga instructor Sweta Saraogi shows one of her moves in the yoga studio she teaches out of in her condo in Seattle. (Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“You have an Indian yoga teacher?” My friend asked with surprise when I mentioned Sweta Saraogi’s name in conversation, “I’ve never met an Indian yoga teacher before.”

If you’re not into the Seattle yoga scene that statement might come as a shock given yoga’s spiritual, historical and cultural roots in India. But if you’ve practiced yoga in this city for as long as I have (almost eight years) you know what my friend is talking about. Not only are yoga teachers rarely Indian, they’re most often white.

“That’s the face of yoga,” says Saraogi, sitting in the fitness studio of her apartment building where she teaches private sessions, “A thin, white, blonde…American teacher who can do crazy pretzel moves and pass for a super model.”

Saraogi, who grew up in Mumbai and studied yoga in India, says that a lack of diversity in American yoga culture is only part of her critique. She also struggles with how exercise-oriented yoga has become in America — a “hardcore fitness” and “sweat it out” attitude that she says commercializes an inherently spiritual practice.

She trained as an instructor in the Midwest and says when she tried to include elements like chanting or philosophy into her classes she was often told it was intimidating — especially coming from an Indian woman who may be perceived as too serious or too religious in her approach.

“In Chicago, most of the time I was pushed back even if I tried to chant ‘Om [a common Hindu mantra],’” says Saraogi who is quick to add that she was raised Hindu but identifies as spiritual, not as religious, “Indirectly I was told ‘you need to back off…We don’t want to scare people with your chanting and your [skin] color.’

It’s always complicated to practice or teach yoga as an Indian or Indian American in the United States says Gita Mehrotra, who has practiced yoga for years and recently finished a teacher training. Mehrotra feels alienated by yoga that ignores cultural and spiritual elements of the practice. But she’s also offended by the use of Hindu religious symbols and religious chanting by yoga studios full of non-Indians.

You would never ask a room full of people to recite the Lord’s Prayer without context, or giving [people] a choice of whether or not they’d like to participate,” says Mehrotra — who was raised Hindu but doesn’t practice the religion— referencing the Sanskrit chants and prayers often incorporated into yoga classes “Especially in Seattle a lot of yoga studios take a kind of uncritical approach to using…Hinduism as part of their yoga studio and what they are selling.”

In response to this and other examples of a yoga culture that felt unwelcoming, Mehrotra helped co-found POC Yoga, an organization in Seattle that provides weekly classes and regular teacher workshops for People Of Color while also contextualizing yoga’s Indian roots.

Saraogi has forged her own path as well. Tired of fighting to fit into the existing scene, she’s started teaching private classes to clients (I’ve taken three myself). She says many of her clients feel uncomfortable in standard yoga classes — whether because of their body type, gender, race or culture — and prefer taking private lessons with her.

Yoga has long been a positive part of my life but I’ll fess up: I’ve chanted a lot of Sanskrit words I didn’t understand and have been to only a few classes taught by a Person Of Color. So how can the practice be more authentic and inclusive in a city where yoga studios are becoming almost as common as coffee shops?

Saraogi and Mehrotra both say it isn’t about excluding anyone, but instead about finding ways to include different types of people in yoga culture. Oh, and taking the time to notice that you’re engaging in an ancient practice that took a long and, sometimes strange, journey to your neighborhood studio.

“I don’t feel like it’s an easy fix and I don’t have an answer about it,” says Mehrotra, “But I think there’s something about acknowledging that it’s complicated that would go a long way.

I know it just got more complicated for me.

If you identify as a person of color and are interested in taking classes or trainings from POC Yoga please email: POCYoga@gmail.com

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

7 Comments

  1. Hello Sarah!
    Thanks much for such a greatly written article “Something is Being Lost in Seattle Yoga Craze.” [ref. The Seattle Times, 11/28/2014]
    I completely empathize, sympathize, and concur with everything Ms. Sweta Mehrotia says with respect to her practice and profession.
    Although I’m far from being a student or practitioner of yoga, I identify completely with the ingrained, exclusionary, and discrediting behavior to which she refers being very paramount not only in the city of Seattle but in the world.
    It’s the present nature and design which dominates internationally through multimedia sources which cater to the image of caucasionpreferential preeminence and patronage. However, what your article does is mirror a facet of that for others to see and/or to be reminded of relative to this realm (yoga instruction) to proactively work against such false perceptions and unjust inclinations. We do this by exercising individual fairness and judgment premised on the strength of an instructor’s offerings, skills, character, and, of course, rates.
    Thanks for keeping the sentiment alive towards fairness towards all irrespective of race or ethnicity.

  2. white people should quit marketing off our yoga ,we don’t like white devils go misappropriate Christianity again after you left paganism and stay out of OUR indian religious and cultural heritage

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I really appreciate this article, especially the excerpt:

    “You would never ask a room full of people to recite the Lord’s Prayer without context, or giving [people] a choice of whether or not they’d like to participate,” says Mehrotra — who was raised Hindu but doesn’t practice the religion— referencing the Sanskrit chants and prayers often incorporated into yoga classes “Especially in Seattle a lot of yoga studios take a kind of uncritical approach to using…Hinduism as part of their yoga studio and what they are selling.”

    I am a yoga practitioner and instructor myself here in Wisconsin, and after reading this, I’m struggling with the question, “How do I teach a class in the US, while keeping the Yoga both authentic to its Indian roots and incorporating spirituality, and at the same time, not objectifying the Hindu religion?” I personally identify myself as a spiritual, not religious person, although I deeply identify with the Hindu religion, just like I deeply identify with Native American Indian spirituality, and certain aspects of Christianity. I do want to mention that I don’t believe it is anyone’s intention to objectify Hinduism, as it certainly isn’t mine, but I also believe (in response to Sanghita) that Hinduism is open to all races. All religions are open to all races. I definitely don’t stand for anyone objectifying anyone else’s religion, but I also don’t stand for racism — including the racism that has been targeted towards Sweta Saraogi that was mentioned in this article.

    I do also want to mention that I am looking to study Yoga with Surinder Singh in India, and I really appreciate what he mentioned in an interview on Youtube that relates to this article. This is not an exact quote, but he did mention that yes, he believes in the West, we are taking a very physical Asana-based approach to Yoga. He also mentioned that although this approach might lead to a very slow spiritual progression, it is inevitable that everyone practicing Yoga, even physically based Yoga, will eventually progress and “get there.” He also mentioned that he believes that people in the West are starting to understand that there is more, a next step to take in Yoga, and that next step is their mental practice, and then their spiritual practice.

    I really appreciate this article, and I am so glad that Yoga is available to all people, regardless of religion, race, sex, sexual identity, or what country they live in. I hope that the practice of Yoga continues to spread, and I know that even a physically based approach to Yoga will eventually lead to mental and spiritual growth. I also hope that Yoga studios continue to try to become more inviting to people of all races, religions, race, and sex.

    Thanks to anyone who took the time to read this and respect my opinion, regardless of if your opinion differs.

  4. Hi Rajesh,

    I am an Indian, too. Using fowl language is not a good culture. There is nothing wrong in feeling proud for such great inventions like Yoga and Ayurveda took place in our country. However, we must admit that Indians have recognized the significance of Yoga only after it was popularized in western countries. Very few people in India would heard of Yoga, just thirty years ago.

    Because Newton invented the force of gravitaion, we can not say it belongs to Newton. Dont forget that we are using English language, western outfits, western medicine and much more. Yoga belongs to the whole universe, now. I am more concerned about the wrong methods which are being practiced in the name of Yoga.

  5. Dont mind rajesh. he is a troll..as a Indian hindu I think its great for yoga and dharma to spread in the west.

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