Six years ago, when I was scraping my way through graduate school, I found a free yoga class that I desperately needed. I learned how to stretch, breathe, strengthen, and how to let go; yoga gave me an education better than Harvard. I fell to my mat with a list of traumas, most of which I didn’t even know the words for, let alone how to cultivate self-awareness around them. The list was long: Divorced parents, gum disease, insomnia, adrenal fatigue, exercise addiction, abusive romances, binge eating disorder, a handful of my English students lost to gang violence, amenorrhea, and a severely dislocated shoulder—yet from my mat I saw them all as opportunities. It was during those private moments, when I exchanged a few work-study hours for vinyasa classes, that changing my life became both accessible and sustainable.
There’s a lot of chatter in the yoga world about how modern practice emphasizes the physical component, resulting in the loss of yoga’s purpose to unite ourselves with our highest nature. The Yoga Service Council, CNNMoney, The Huffington Post, Yoga Dork, The Atlantic, Elephant Journal, and The New York Times have all pointed this out. Other publications have noted that it’s also an activity that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy. The majority of practitioners are female, and 76.4 percent of them are white. A majority of these women make over $75,000 annually.
And yet the purpose of yoga, at its root, is a mission that can be undertaken by all people. Uniting ourselves with our highest nature is just an eloquent way of saying “to educate.” The word education comes from the root e from ex (out) and duco (I lead). It means a leading out. As Muriel Spark writes, “To me, education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”
Educating women and girls equals closing gender gaps, which leads to an increase in life expectancy, the fostering of academic achievement, broader access to economic opportunity, and equality in household and societal voice. With so many women practicing yoga, or involved in the yoga lifestyle, it seems intuitive that yoga should be a part of an accessible education. By making classes affordable and creating more than just headstand workshops as a way to educate our women, we impact the local—and eventually global—community.
The question then is how to make studios inexpensive and pedagogic without compromising success. From a business perspective, rent is pricey so your classes cannot be the only revenue stream. My own yoga teacher (and Wanderlust presenter), Elena Brower, takes yoga and education up several gorgeous, powerful notches both live and online with Art of Attention. I, too, am working on innovating the classic yoga studio model with SHAKTIBARRE—the yoga-café-empowerment collective with sliding-scale prices.
The yoga industry’s possibility—and responsibility—to further women’s development may just be another well-intentioned idea that you forget after reading this article. But think of how many women have initiated profound changes when yoga was made available. I recall Kathy, a high school student of mine back in Miami who, after learning about Eastern texts and the potential for inner healing, wrote her very first poem as a confession that she was raped at age 4. By her own father. Kathy’s painfully tragic story is also one of hope, because she represents the 39 percent of yogis that practice at home because studios are too socioeconomically and culturally exclusive.
What if Kathy had started sooner? What if her sister, mother, and now two children could come to the same yoga studio you attend? There is still controversy over who invented yoga but this much is true—the yoga industry is 82.2 percent female. “Women have been gurus, healers, yoginis, and Goddesses since the beginning of time,” says Ramesh Bjonnes.
As such, we have much more potential together as an empowered sisterhood than the exclusive consumer classism of yoga today. Let’s start changing the world.
Corinne Wainer is an educational psychologist and registered yoga teacher in New York. As director of YoGirls Program and CEO of SHAKTIBARRE Women’s Collective, Corinne works actively and purposefully to empower women’s wellness education.