“I couldn’t care less if people color said we want to do a yoga class and we don’t want ‘whitey’ there, I have zero problem with that at all,” conservative radio host Dori Monson read in an email sent to him by listener. “Of course the difference is that this yoga class in Seattle is going to be celebrated because it’s so progressive to exclude white people.”
Monson’s listener had received an email from Rainier Beach Yoga, announcing the studio’s plans to host yoga for People of Color once a week.
After Monson’s segment condemning the class as racist, the instructor of POC Yoga and the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga have been harassed and received death threats. People of Color yoga, which has been running for five years, has been cancelled and all the other classes at Rainier Beach Yoga have been put on hold.
Because of the threats and harassment neither the instructors or students of POC yoga feel safe enough to continue their practice at this time.
“It is truly heartbreaking that POC yoga is in the limelight under these circumstances,” Teresa Wang, the co-founder of the class, said in an email responding to my questions. “We have [been] meeting for nearly five years without any incidents of participants feeling discriminated against or excluded. We have never advertised our classes. Any outreach has been limited to other private groups that have members who identify as people of color.”
“POC Yoga strongly believes that our group should have a space in our communities that is safe for people of color. Yes, the people in our group have asked that our white friends and allies respectfully not attend to allow people of color this space. We asked; we did not demand it, and we never turned anyone away.”
As a Rainier Beach resident who would have jumped at the chance to take the class if I’d known about it, I am deeply disappointed that it’s been cancelled. I’m also disturbed by Monson’s use of privilege to completely truncate the discussion on why such a class might be necessary.
For an analogy, I visited Rainier Health and Fitness (RHF), a community gym where they have instituted a practice of women’s only workout hours. The classes aim to address the reasons that women might otherwise avoid the gym.
“It’s just that, just really being intentional about who are instructing the classes, making sure that they are women creating an encouraging environment, not an intimidating environment,” said Alicia Haskin, operations manager at the gym. Childcare is also provided during those hours, she said.
Gym manager Patrick Otieno said other members have been understanding why a class specifically geared toward women is needed.
“I’ve never met any member who’s cancelled because of ladies night, but I think it’s because we do a good job of explaining it,” he said.
Many Muslim women and orthodox Jewish women feel more comfortable working out in single-sex environments because of their religious views.
The Rainier Beach Community Center also hosts women-only swimming hours that serve the needs of a community with a diverse set of cultural attitudes and values around exercise.
“It depends on the demographic you’re dealing with,” Otieno said. “For a typical Somali guy, he would really understand why you’re offering ladies night because they do understand in their culture that women cannot exercise where the men are. So if you offer a safe environment, it’s good.”
But can a white person like Monson understand why a person of color might want to practice yoga in a safe environment? Can there be an acknowledgement that daily injustices — from the trivial to the life-threatening — faced by people of color in this country has an effect how we define safety?
“The uproar that we have seen is exactly why POC’s seek safe spaces such as POC Yoga. In fact, the death threats that we have received are only a reminder of how unwelcome we are among many white people. How could we possibly want to practice yoga in a majority white yoga studio?” Wang said.
Though yoga is a practice from India, in Seattle the demographics of most yoga classes are predominantly white and female. There is no sign saying that someone that looks like me isn’t welcome. But ask me how welcome I feel when entering that environment ostensibly to engage in a practice where I will be vulnerable and in my body.
“Prior to the founding of POC Yoga, all yoga studios in the Seattle metropolitan area were overwhelmingly white spaces where people of color frequently felt uncomfortable. As a result, many people of color chose not to enter these studios and did not have access to the benefits of yoga, which have been well documented and are widely recognized,” said Wang. She and other yoga practitioners decided to address this by creating a safe environment to explore yoga for people of color and people identifying as queer.
Rainer Beach Yoga is being vilified for using discriminatory language for doing what every other gym in Rainier Beach seems to be doing — taking steps to address the needs of the community it serves.
But for now, that won’t be the case. After the uproar, the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga studio, Laura Humpf, posted an apology on the website.
“My intention in offering my space to POC Yoga was to offer a widely inclusive healing space where all people could receive the benefits of yoga,” explained Humpf. “I never intended to exclude anyone based on race or ethnicity. I have several classes on my schedule that are open to everyone, and my intention in bringing this class to Rainier Beach Yoga was to encourage more inclusivity within our diverse community in Seattle.”
What’s next after banning POC yoga? Should we ban prenatal yoga too? Women who aren’t able to get pregnant might feel excluded. The class also ignores men’s needs. What about yoga for people with disabilities or kids?
There are all kinds of yoga classes for all kinds of demographics of people. But because Monson doesn’t see the value in POC yoga, now I don’t get to practice self-care in a community where I might feel more comfortable.
“Yoga for me is a universal concept,” yoga instructor Sweta Saraogi said. Saraogi mostly teaches private classes because she prefers to share the tradition one on one. She is the yoga teacher I turned to for private lessons when I no longer felt comfortable doing group yoga. “I feel yoga should be open to everyone. And its not about just color, shape size, gender, even physical capabilities.”
When asked her view of POC yoga she didn’t view it as exclusionary. “The idea of creating a certain class is not to exclude somebody. The idea of creating a class is to make sure that they feel comfortable practicing. Its not about exclusion, it’s about giving opportunities in different ways so that people can practice yoga.”
UPDATE 10/23/15: Seattle Police say they’re conducting an investigation of “malicious harassment” based on threats to the studio. And the Seattle Office of Civil rights is pursuing a discrimination complaint against the studio for offering POC only classes. More details here from reporter Sarah Stuteville.