“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.