diversity in yoga: what do studies say?

Why is it that most people embracing yoga in North America seem to come from a fairly narrow part of the population? Why don't we see greater diversity of culture and social background in the yoga community?

There are probably many reasons. Courtney Bender, a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, points to the way religion, class, and popular images of India have historically influenced yoga in the West. Early images portrayed only the most extreme aspects of Indian culture, such that "ordinary people couldn't possibly see themselves doing yoga because it seemed so foreign and non-Christian. Meanwhile in highly educated classes, right back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, India was still exoticized but there was an embrace of 'the other,'" Bender says. "This fascination started to normalize the idea of India. This trend carried through from the hyper educated classes into the middle classes and, I think, into yoga today."

Bender has conducted one of the first qualitative studies that looks at yoga in its contemporary socio-economic context. She focused her case study on a large city in the northeastern US, trying to find out where yoga is accessible, who is teaching and how it is practiced. "I think it's right to say that the people who typically take yoga are white, with disposable income and more importantly with disposable time," Bender says. "That is, they're in jobs and professions that allow them enough time to take classes. So there aren't a lot of working class people for example."

While Bender is a keen observer of the social phenomenon of yoga throughout North America, she acknowledges that her research so far is specific to one place. And she says it may be a while yet before social scientists can produce a thorough analysis of just who and how the "the yoga community" is comprised.

yoga demographics
At the same time, we can get a few hints about demographic trends in the "yoga market" from the handful of industry surveys published recently. In a 2001 study, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that the typical yoga or tai chi practitioner has an annual household income of $67 000. Yoga Journal's 2003 study discovered that at least 15 million people practice yoga in the US, with over 30% of them earning an annual household income of $75 000 or more, and 15% making over $100 000. The same research found that nearly 50% of people doing yoga have completed a college education and an additional 40% have some college education or hold an associate degree. A few years ago, All About Women Consumers, which provides demographic information to the marketing industry, described the average American yoga practitioner as a "younger, affluent, educated single woman." So far no researchers seem to have included race or ethnicity as a factor.

At ascent, in our 2003 reader survey, we found similar statistics. Nearly 60% of our readers earn a household income of at least $50 000, and a full 22% make over $100 000. ascent readers are also highly educated; 60% have earned a university degree, and nearly half of those have earned a Master's degree or higher.

increasing access & diversity
So how can we make yoga available to a greater diversity of people? One way, says Vandita Kate Marchesiello, a director of the Kripalu Yoga Teachers Association (KYTA), is for yoga teachers to reach out to underserved populations in their local area. Marchesiello has witnessed many of these small-scale initiatives through her work with Kripalu's Teaching for Diversity program, which gives stipends and support to teachers doing outreach.

"So far we've helped fund classes for Asian, Latino and African American communities, low income people, survivors of domestic violence, non-English speakers, people with disabilities, the homeless. Our goal is to create opportunities for students who wouldn't normally get the chance to enjoy the benefits of yoga," she says.

60 teachers and hundreds of students across North America have been involved in the program's two year history. While is Kripalu currently seeking funding to keep the program going, Marchesiello is already thinking about expansion. To date only teachers registered with KYTA or the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers could apply, but Marchesiello hopes that eventually teachers from many yoga traditions will participate.

"Yoga teachers themselves are the people that really have to be proactive." she says. "Many have already been reaching out to the community on their own. In fact, I've found that many people are drawn to become yoga teachers because they want to give back to their communities. They want to share the essence of what they love about yoga."

Kripalu is planning to post testimonials from teachers and students in the Teaching for Diversity Program on their website in autumn 2004. Visit www.kripalu.org or email kyta@kripalu.org for information.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life