Thick, glossy copies of LA Yoga, Yoga Journal, and Yoga Magazine cover the rickety folding table in the lobby of Green Tree Yoga and Meditation. The magazines share tales from Malibu, Santa Monica, and Pasadena. Nearly every spread features a thin woman, usually in slim yoga pants and a tight tank, stretching her arms toward the sky or closing her eyes in meditation. Nearly all of these women are white.
But in South Los Angeles, where Green Tree opened last year, fewer than one percent of residents look like the people in those pictures.
“You can look at all those journals and you'll not see one woman of color,” said Raja Michelle, herself a white woman, who founded the studio. “We associate yoga with being skinny, white, and even upper class.”
“You go to classes and you’re the only black person, or there are very few,” said Robin Rollan, who practices yoga in New York and D.C. and runs the popular blog Black Yogis. “People who find my blog say, ‘I thought I was the only one.’”
The magazine images may seem like stereotypes, but they’re grounded in reality: About one in every 15 Americans practices yoga, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal study, and more than four-fifths of them are white.
“Racism is so implicit that you never even notice that it’s a white girl on the cover every single time,” added Amy Champ, a PhD from the University of California, Davis, who wrote her dissertation on American yoga. “But when you begin to ask yourself, ‘What does yoga have to do with my community?’, then you begin to question all these inequities.”
L.A. yoga studios are heavily concentrated in wealthy white neighborhoods. In a corner storefront beside a tattoo parlor and across from a used car dealership, Green Tree recognizes that religious, economic and social divisions underlie yoga’s racial divide. Its neighborhood is about 80 percent black and 20 percent Latino. Household incomes hover around L.A’s average, but crime rates are high and college diplomas are rare.
When students arrive for Green Tree’s ten weekly classes, they borrow mats and drop donations (the studio recommends $5) into a basket in the back. There are no mirrors, no candles, and there is strictly no preaching, because there are 12 churches less than a mile away. Yoga’s cultural divide begins with its fluid status as both sport and spiritual exercise.
For Americans unaffiliated with a faith tradition, Champ said, yoga often becomes a spiritual activity. But in religious communities, it’s a little more awkward.
“This community is kind of steeped in Christian fundamentalism,” said J. Cole Thomas, one of Green Tree’s volunteer teachers. “You have to have an education about yoga. Otherwise people think it's some kind of devil-worship.”
A 2009 study in the Journal of Religion and Health found that 63 percent of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanic Americans pray to improve their health. Only 17 and 12 percent, respectively, reported relying on an alternative spiritual practice like meditation or yoga to stay healthy, and almost everyone in that group also prays. In contrast, twice as many white Americans identify with alternative spiritual practices and don’t pray at all.
“It’s easier for someone who’s not committed to anything to do yoga,” Champ said. “Ethnicity is connected to spiritual practice. Culturally, African-Americans and other ethnic Americans have their own [spiritual culture]. To get buy-in from those communities is pretty heavy lifting.”
Michelle said many local church leaders are friendly to their studio. Pastors have taken classes and asked to learn more about yoga, most regular students are members of local congregations, and Green Tree closes on Sundays. Some churches nationwide offer yoga in-house.
“I go to church, of course,” said Kris Williams, who practiced yoga in Santa Monica for three years before switching to Green Tree in 2013. “But yoga is my medication. I feel good—soul, mind, and spirit in clarity.”
Like Williams, more and more people have begun practicing yoga for physical health. The studio franchise Bikram has capitalized on the fad, to the point of patenting poses that “maintain optimum health and maximum function,” the company claims. In this part of L.A., though, access to any form of exercise is critical. 35 percent of adults and 30 percent of children are obese, compared to 22 and 23 percent, respectively, in L.A. County.
But often, yoga is a privilege of the upper class. An average one-hour yoga class in Los Angeles costs $17. Most require students to bring their own equipment. A mat costs around $20; lululemon yoga pants, $82.
“When people talk about money as a deterrent, I’m like, yes and no,” Rollan said. “People find money to buy thousand-dollar bags and shoes, and weaves, those cost hundreds of dollars to upkeep. But African Americans don’t have a great track record when it comes to preventative health. Wellness is not really valued.”
And all those white women on billboards and in advertisements don’t encourage that attitude to change. “That upscale white woman is the image of yoga,” Rollan said. “I think a lot of us see yoga as something that’s not for us, because of the lack of imagery [of people of color in yoga]. It is changing, but the image of a white, affluent, thin person is still very entrenched.”
“We're bridging a gap of people of color being certified teachers,” said Michelle. She hopes to offer the program annually, in part because the fees from 20 students would cover Green Tree’s rent for the year, but also to provide a fresh supply of teachers for L.A. studios. Rollan believes more teachers of color will help change that. Green Tree has six active teachers—two white, three black, and one Hispanic. The studio is offering its first teacher-training program this fall. Ordinarily, the 200-hour program required for certification costs about $3,000—much more prohibitive than the price of classes. Relying on volunteer leaders, Michelle will offer the program to Green Tree students for $500 and to outside students for $1,500.
“The black community has worked really hard to create empowerment and support each other, and the game is ultimately integration, not separation,” Michelle said. “There’s something really cool about seeing all these beautiful women, different sizes, different ages—what is it except for unifying?”