Yoga, whose name is derived from a Sanskrit word for “unite,” has done quite a bit of dividing in the U.S. A typical class can cost anywhere from $5 to $20, or more, and monthly studio memberships regularly run between $100 and $200—roughly the cost of the average American’s food spending for a week. In the U.S., these costs have made yoga largely the province of women who can afford expensive yoga pants and designer accessories. Comprehensive current data is hard to come by, but a 2002 survey of just over 31,000 yoga practitioners published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that they tend to be female, college-educated, and white. Forty-eight percent of respondents made $65,000 a year or more.
In response to that pattern, a handful of organizations, such as Street Yoga, in Portland, and Yoga 4 Change, in Jacksonville, are aiming to bring yoga and mindfulness practice to populations that can’t afford them.
Yoga may be priced for a privileged few, but it appears to carry benefits that apply to everyone. There’s reason to be skeptical of the research into yoga's upsides, but individual studies have indicated specific perks to practicing yoga, such as an enhanced ability to focus and calm oneself down, a higher pain tolerance, and lower blood pressure. (And, in general, physical activity consistently brings many positive results.) Mindfulness practice, too, is regarded by many as a means of reducing stress.
And no one may need the benefits of physical activity more than those living at the lower end of American’s income distribution. A 2011 CDC report, “Health Disparities and Inequalities,” found that people who live in households with incomes below $15,000 experience significantly more health problems due to inactivity, and are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes or asthma and to be obese than those from households with incomes above $50,000. There are often fewer parks, gyms, and recreational facilities in poorer neighborhoods, which reduces the likelihood that people in these communities will exercise at all.
While no one is arguing that practicing yoga has the power to lift people out of poverty, some believe that whatever benefits it does confer shouldn’t be available only to the well-off. That’s part of the vision of Street Yoga, a non-profit founded in 2002 that leads yoga and mindfulness classes in Portland and Seattle. “The people we teach would otherwise have zero access,” says Mark Lilly, the founder of Street Yoga. “Yoga is limited to those who have financial access, cultural access, sartorial access.”
Lilly volunteered for years at the Berkeley Free Clinic in California. Simple breathing exercises, and what he calls the “grounding in the body” of meditation and yoga, had had a profound impact on him, and he came to think they could benefit the homeless he worked with, too. “To learn how to ground and relax and breathe slowly is a basic need, as fundamental as any. It’s a huge disservice to think of these skills as … [a] bonus, or only for privileged people,” Lilly says. “Breathing helps you sleep better, be steadier on your feet, more aware of your surroundings. … If you can help highly traumatized people feel safe and reduce being hypervigilant all the time, that has to be good.”
Yoga 4 Change, founded by Kathryn Thomas, a former Navy pilot from Jacksonville, is another organization committed to bringing yoga to low-income communities. After an accident on deployment forced her into an early retirement from the Navy, Thomas took up yoga to heal her body, and found that it also helped calm her. “I realized this was a way to heal people,” she says. Yoga 4 Change trains teachers to bring yoga into places where people don’t usually have access to it, including schools, veterans’ facilities, public housing, and substance-abuse treatment centers. “When we come in, this is the first time that 90 percent of our students have experienced yoga,” she says. Since April of last year, her instructors have led classes for over 7,500 people.
Some, though, question whether yoga should be prioritized when low-income people have so many other, more pressing, needs. Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in social-welfare policy, says that existing studies on the benefits of yoga and mindfulness are of “low quality and dubious rigor.”
That said, she doesn’t see any harm in it, if there’s momentum from private funders to support such programs. “If individuals want to [fund yoga programs] on their own initiative through private charity in the spirit of helpfulness on a smaller scale from the bottom up, I can’t imagine there would be anything wrong with it,” she says. “On the private side, it’s beneficial to recognize that poor people aren’t just defined by their material needs.”
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