Is local yoga too affluent, white and cliquish?

Yoga Journal's 2012 "Yoga in America" study estimated that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. Of those, 82 percent are women and 63 percent fall between the ages of 18 and 44.

In the past decade, it's been amazing to watch the yoga community in Charleston grow and evolve, offering an array of studios, styles and instructors.

I've watched it both as a journalist and a sporadic practitioner. My one-foot-in, one-foot-out gives me, I think, a bit of an interesting perspective.

I see both the good and the sometimes offensive parts of the local yoga scene.

So I was struck by a blog post shared by a Facebook acquaintance of mine who leans toward acro yoga. Its response caught my attention about a month ago and made me ponder how much it applied to our local community.

The post "Why I left yoga" by blogger "Earth Energy Reader," generated a range of reactions by local yogis, from longtime instructors to beginners.

Greedy, classist & cultish?

In a nutshell, the blogger talked about how he joined the "yoga bandwagon" eight years ago.

"I fell in love with how yoga made my body feel after a particularly tough workout," he says. "I, too, fell into the pseudo-spiritual aspects of the practice."

"And, finally I, too, got burned out by the practice, disillusioned and, at times, even disgusted at the people who I thought should be setting an example to the rest of us but turns out that they are even more messed up than you realize and the yoga was just an effective cloak to hide their true nature and personalities."

He became disenchanted with the business of yoga, such as workshops and retreats, and with the fact that most people practicing it were generally affluent whites. The blogger describes himself as "brown" and of Indian heritage.

"By and large, and I'm generalizing since it's not always the case, but yoga in the West is increasingly becoming a trendy diversion for the affluent and bored or those who are obsessed with the body beautiful and the cult of hedonism which follows that ...

"Yoga can become cultic very quickly and the levels of self-absorption and narcissism can skyrocket easily if you don't watch it, so keep your radar tuned in."

Local black yogis

Three African-American locals who I know practice yoga generally agreed with the blogger's sentiments and agree that blacks are basically absent from the local yoga scene. Yet they still like doing yoga.

"It's very cliquish. It's white. And it's all about making money," says Jermain Singleton, 31, of Mount Pleasant.

Singleton, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and played football for Wando High School, has always enjoyed a range of physical fitness activities, including body-building, martial arts and more recently running. He's been practicing yoga for about two years, starting with Bikram hot yoga and more recently power yoga.

But he says yoga has not been an entirely welcoming experience. He has experienced stares, although, he adds, it may be because of his tendency of going into long handstands. He often hears side comments about his race. And after classes, he often feels isolated from many practitioners, especially females.

"That probably goes for most guys because they (females) think if a guy comes to yoga, it's to pick up a date," says Singleton, who works in information technology.

Blacks are not joining the local yoga scene, Singleton says, for several reasons. First and foremost, class fees that typically range from $12 to $20 are too costly. But Singleton is frank about the second reason.

"It's also a general thing that black people aren't into fitness at all, especially in the South."

Color & curves

In the West, yoga isn't the only fitness activity with a reputation for being an activity for well-off whites. Tennis, golf and even road racing have that reputation, though all are showing positive signs for more inclusion.

Doretha Walker and Georgette Mayo have done much to improve participation in running by their involvement and promotion of Black Girls Run, a social media-organized support group for African-American female runners and walkers in the area.

Walker and Mayo also do yoga and have had similar observations and experiences as Singleton.

Walker, 53, of Mount Pleasant, started with Bikram but at nearly $20 a class, it became too expensive for her. She also has taken yoga at Charleston Power Yoga and Charleston Community Yoga.

Besides the cost of classes, the assistant professor says the air of affluence is part of the local yoga scene, from Lululemon outfits that cost $150 to $200 to the luxury and sports cars that pull into studio parking lots.

Walker adds she feels physically different from many who practice as well.

"People who do it tend to be super skinny, have no curves and are bendy (flexible). I'm just not that bendy."

Mayo, who is 57 and works as an archivist at the Avery Research Center, has been doing yoga at The Yoga House of Charleston for two years primarily as a "counterbalance to my running." While she enjoys the yoga, she, too, feels isolated at times.

"People will look at you and smile and then go off to their cliques, but honestly, I don't take a lot of initiative to interact either," says the James Island resident. "I'm really there for the yoga.

Like Walker, Mayo says she's become accustomed to being the only black in a white-dominated fitness setting, whether it's a gym, at races or in a yoga studio.

"It's sort of lonely being the only one. I'm used to it, but I don't like it."

A local yogi's reaction

I know most of the veteran yoga instructors in Charleston and wanted to hear what they thought about the post and whether there was truth in it via a discussion on Facebook. Some were willing, others were not.

While Thomas Glenn, owner of The Yoga House of Charleston, thought a column would be "damaging," he was among the most open with his thoughts.

While he didn't disagree with many of the "generalizations" of the blog post, he took issue with the blogger's beef with Westernized yoga being, to a degree, so different from the more stripped-down version in the East.

"First, this is not India. Just as the author stated, we have a wholly different (Western) value system. This is reality. Unfortunately, in order to pierce the 'hedonistic' and materialistic, instant-gratification culture that we collectively have here in the West, yoga has to be made accessible," says Glenn.

Glenn admits he struggles with the "elitism" of yoga and "hates charging for yoga."

"I wish we didn't have to. But at the end of the day, teachers have to make a living ... and the studio has to pay its rent. Believe me, keeping a studio open is no cakewalk, and 99.9999 percent of us are not practicing on diamond-studded yoga mats like certain people mentioned in this article."

"That said, every studio in this town offers some level of 'community' class for free or donation, and outside of studios, there are multiple ways to get your yoga in. The studio experience adds in services and amenities and comforts that unfortunately cost money."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.

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