We're all taking a much-needed deep dive into the issue of inclusivity right now, uncovering some uncomfortable truths and tropes and challenging our held beliefs. In the wellbeing world, nowhere more so than in the yoga community, which for so long has held up images of slim white women as the paradigm of what a yoga practitioner or teacher looks like. Ironic in the extreme considering yoga's Eastern origins, not to mention the fact that the word yoga itself means to unite or yoke.
"In yoga we are yoking the individual 'me' to the universal," explains yoga teacher Mercedes Sieff who herself is of mixed heritage. “Universal has to include everyone – we are all connected. To think that we can thrive when half the population is suffering – that’s never going to happen. Everyone can do yoga there are so many styles, so many ways to approach it, we need to encourage more people of colour not just to attend it but to teach it as well."
Mercedes is now one of the UK’s most in-demand teachers and teacher trainers (I trained with her myself). But when she came to the UK from Canada more than a decade ago, doors were routinely closed. “I didn’t look or sound like your typical yogi at the time – I wasn’t a hippie, with no makeup and mala beads. I sounded American, my maiden name was Ngoh, which sounded ‘exotic’. I looked around there were no teachers of colour. No yoga studio was interested. They’d say, 'no we have plenty of teachers, thanks'. It was very snotty and exclusive.”
Things have changed since then, but not enough. So how can we all step up?
“Lobby your studio or gym to put more teachers of colour on the class and workshop schedule,” says Mercedes. “Otherwise you’re just going to go to the same-old, same-old and you are going to think, like everyone else, that yoga is a certain thing for certain types people.”
Studios shouldn’t be offended by this, she says “they should be open to listening.”
And when they offer classes by teachers of colour, support them, so they get invited back. Triyoga in London is hosting an online guest class with Canadian teacher and body-positive activist Dianne Bondy (see below) on 20 June for starters. Show up and join in. “Hearing different people’s stories and richness of experience is really important and that’s what’s so beautiful about yoga, you learn from about that, it’s not just poses. Hearing how people have navigated their life experience is also a really good reason to show up – diversity is what makes everything work and makes everything more interesting."
“You can also support organisations that bring yoga to places that aren’t seen typically as your yoga demographic such as inner cities,” adds Mercedes. Ourmala for example is a charity that brings yoga to refugees.
It’s important when choosing any class to find a teacher who’s style like and who you will enjoy practising with. “You have to look for people you vibe with who represent what yoga is for you and bring you onboard,” says Mercedes
With that in mind, we’re shining a light on these inspirational teachers representing a range of voices, ages and practice styles. Thanks to the rise of online yoga, it's now easier than ever to connect with yoga teachers from across the globe and vote with your mat. Here's how...
Playful flow with positive psychology: @ MercedesSieff
If you ever feel stuck in your life, doing a dynamic and creative flow with Mercedes will get your mojo firing. She’s known for her fun, athletic style woven through with positive psychology, in which she is also a coach. Classes will leave you smiling even after you’ve face-planted. She makes you feel as though anything is possible through cultivating a growth mindset.
Her style has unique inclusivity as it’s all about giving things a go, having a play and seeing where you land, rather than striving for yoga shapes that look good on Instagram. Having said that, as a former gymnast she’s pretty good at those bendy 'pretzel' poses too. But as she explains, challenging poses (for which she offers everyone accessible options) are there to help you create the habit of being able to stay calm in tricky situations, so that you develop the same habit of resilience off the mat too. And this is where the real yoga happens.
Find her at triyoga Chelsea and Camden as well as her Devon health retreat centre Yeotown.com which reopens on 15 July and online classes announced via her Instagram @mercedessieff .
It’s shocking to learn that people are still surprised that Dianne Bondy is a yoga practitioner. But it says something about the work still to be done around the perception as to who yoga is 'for' (as if anyone owned it).
"As an abundant-bodied yoga teacher of colour, people are still surprised to hear that I teach yoga. They often say to me, 'You do yoga?' and I say, 'Yes I do yoga, and yoga is for everyone even though we don’t always see everyone represented'," she tells triyoga , where she will be doing a remote workshop on 20 June in the afternoon UK time (details to be announced on triyoga.co.uk imminently).
Body positivity activist Dianne lives in Canada and is the author of Yoga for Everyone: 50 poses for every type of body £12.99 . She has a yoga subscription service which you can sample a 14-day free trial of. Her vinyasa-based videos show you how to use props such as yoga blocks to help you access poses you may have thought, "nah, not for me". Her ‘handless’ class, designed for the many who struggle to put weight on their wrists, is a good example of one of the simple ways to make yoga more accessible. There is tremendous variety in her offering including HIIT yoga, slow flow and therapy ball classes.
Meanwhile if you want to find more about the white bias in the yoga world, why representation and diversity matter and what to do next then listen to triyoga’s recent podcast with Dianne Bondy – as she says, "get your head out of your ass asana" and do the work.
Find her at dianebondyyoga.com.
Yoga for stress and burnout: Nahid de Belgonne @thehumanmethod
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of love for Nahid de Belgonne, from friends, colleagues and people I've interviewed. (I remember being given an eight-minute slot to interview actress Gemma Arterton and she spent a lot of that time talking about her daily sessions with Nahid). Jasmine Hemsley is a fan, as is GTG contributor Ateh Jewel who credits Nahid with helping her find her way back to health from type 2 diabetes .
For many years Nahid ran the successful Good Vibes yoga studio in Covent Garden and her practice has now evolved to become what she calls The Human Method. It's a slow flow breath and movement practice that will resonate with anyone who’s teetering on burnout or who has spent years pushing themselves in their yoga practice, as Nahid did herself.
"Like my students, I’ve spent years pushing my body through yoga. One day I looked around and realised that the modern interpretation of yoga was simply aping the hyper-competitive culture we are all trying to escape from, " she says. "Pushing a collapsed body and mind through a bunch of powerful yoga moves just didn’t feel right. That’s why I came up with The Human Method. I wanted to remind my students what it was to be in harmony with their bodies.’ She says.
Try her five-minute immune boost below and find her online schedule at thehumanmethod.co.uk
Yvonne teaches a variety of hatha-style classes, including for teens, but if you find it hard to switch off or go to sleep, you'll love the restorative yoga, which she specializes in. Yvonne’s regular Zoom classes will guide you to a deep state of rest. If you don’t have a bolster and blocks her she suggests household alternatives .
It's great to see an older woman holding the yoga space. Find her class via her Instagram @yvonnehenriettayoga
Yoga for spin bike fans: Dr Chelsea Jackson Roberts @chelsealovesyoga
With a PhD in educational studies and a passion for bringing yoga to communities, former school teacher Chelsea is the latest recruit to the instructor family at Peloton this month, becoming the fitness platform's first black yoga instructor . Chelsea has been on the US yoga scene for many years and at Peloton teaches a hatha flow yoga along with meditation. She is also a Lululemon ambassador for whom she teaches occasional workshops.
These days Peloton has quite an extensive yoga offering alongside the static bike classes it's known for. Chelsea's classes include beginners' classes, and you can try them for free as well as check out her uplifting playlists with Peloton’s 30-day free trial @onepeloton.co.uk
The badass body-positive yogi Jessamyn Stanley @mynameisjessamyn
Describing herself as ‘yoga enthusiast and fat femme’ Jessamyn Stanley is a whole lot more: the body positivity advocate, writer, podcaster, unapologetic weed smoker and author of Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body, £12.99 has legions of fans (430k on Instagram) . The North Carolina-based teacher uses an energetic vinyasa as a way to move past mental and emotional barriers, she says: all bodies, all abilities, all levels welcome. She is more likely to ask you how you feel when you practice rather than how you look, promoting self-acceptance and finding your power.
Find out more at jessamynstanley.com. Subscribe to her online classes for £9.29 per month with a 14-day free trial at www.theunderbelly.com
I first discovered Leila on the brilliant streaming platform Movement for Modern Life after my mum died and for weeks I couldn’t leave the house to get to a yoga studio. I chanced upon her sequence for 'Grief and Heartbreak' and her compassionate, straight-talking yet challenging practice helped me regain my strength by opening up the areas that become so tight when you are in mourning, particularly the throat and chest. She’s not one to shy away from the deeper issues and I later discovered that she’s also a healer - she describes herself as a 'practical mystic.'
Her recent Instagram post offers next steps to challenge the white bias in yoga studios. Find out more about Leila including her live-stream schedule at www.leilasadeghee.com
The boutique Zoom classes: Rachel Okimo @okimoyoga
Rachel teaches a flowing vinyasa style influenced by Jivamukti and Kundalini, both styles have a degree of spiritual intensity. Rachel has a passion for music and her monthly yoga playlists on Spotify are definitely worth a follow to add an extra dimension to a home practice.
She’s currently teaching online for London's triyoga centres as well as her own strong open level classes which are limited to 15 so she can give individual feedback. With so many Zoom classes groaning at the seams, this is a welcome USP. Find her schedule at rachelokimo.com
Yoga for sports performance: Amir Madison @amir_yogiathlete
A former athlete, Amir Madison’s football career was cut short by injury. Discovering how hot yoga helped him heal more rapidly than his doctors predicted, he trained as a yoga teacher and is on a mission to help not just athletes but everyone improve performance through yoga and plant-based nutrition. Based in LA he has strong social responsibility focus offering community yoga, meditation and plant-based eating education to communities who need it most.
Classes are going online this month (June) according to their recent Instagram post . Find out more at weareyogiathletes.com.
We mean one to watch, not as in up-and-coming but as in sit-back-and-have-a-cup-of-tulsi-tea. The American actor, dancer, acrobat is a moving work of art earning him 72k followers on Instagram. Watching his IGTV featuring futuristic yoga dances like the one above with Pola Rubis is almost a mediation in itself. You'll take a pleasant moment of pause when Lamont pops up on your feed, and who knows it might inspire you to get moving. Don’t try this at home, but rather be uplifted by the show.
Victoria Woodhall is Get the Gloss Editorial director and 200hr YTT yoga teacher. Follow her @victoriawoodhall