Modern Yoga Diversifies for Inclusion
Many credit the “first lady of yoga,” Indra Devi, as making the practice more publicly accessible to women. Devi was a film actress who in 1937 convinced Sri Krishnamacharya to take her on as his first female and first western student. She eventually brought her yoga practice to the United States.
Society is finding, through both anecdotal and medical evidence, that yoga benefits whomever practices it. It no longer belongs to a single group. From Hip Hop Yoga, to Laughter Yoga, to rooms full of recovering bodies with random commonalities, it seems there is mat space for everyone.
Where Tupac Meets Deepak
Jaimee Ratliff teaches Hip-Hop Yoga in pop up classes in and around Atlanta, designed to reach more people across all races, genders, sizes, shapes and socioeconomic status. Her goal is to make yoga accessible to everyone in both creative and unconventional spaces.
She poured herself into her yoga practice to heal from physical trauma and later PTSD. Teacher training brought a deepening of her practice. The yoga community stated that “yoga is for everyone,” but Ratliff says that when she looked at her fellow yogis, it didn’t look like yoga was for everyone.
“I was always that token black girl that had a pretty strong practice. People were often shocked,” says Ratliff. “When I was through with training I decided I wanted to share the benefits that I was experiencing mentally and physically with people who look like me, to make it more of an inclusive practice.”
To attract those she relates closest to, she decided to include music from Tupac, from Biggie, and some of the newer music that people of all ages could get into.
“It is a new experience for most. It is still traditional poses, with more community building, and loosening up. It’s really fun,” says Ratliff. “I am very intentional about the songs that I play. A lot of hip hop, especially from back in the nineties, has really good messages. I deliberately choose songs with a good message.”
What Ratliff wants people to take away from class is that yoga is for everybody, and every body type as well.
Some people tell Ratliff they can’t come to class because they aren’t strong or flexible enough to do yoga. She reminds them that “you don’t avoid the grocery store if you are out of groceries. You go to the store to get food. You come to yoga to get strength and flexibility.”
This month, Ratliff will be at Nirvana Yoga Studio, and on September 23, Ratliff will host Hip Hop Yoga Warriors and Mimosas at City Winery.
“It is my job to meet people where they are”
Laura Mirando, founder of Balanced Studios & Soulful Yoga, offers SUP (Stand Up Paddle) + Yoga on Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee River, and in other area bodies of water.
Mirando started her yoga teaching career in Miami, serving groups in detention centers, women fleeing domestic violence, populations in inner city schools, people in recovery, in girls homes, and anywhere she could find to serve.
“In the space of holding space for them to heal, it healed me as well,” Mirando says.
Relocating to Atlanta, she had to consider working from a studio. But she wasn’t interested in teaching just for physical benefits.
“Everybody has some sort of pain. Everybody has something that they are working through. I realized in that it is my job to meet people where they are, and give them the tools to be able to heal and be able to move through whatever it is,” Mirando says.
While on vacation, Mirando tried paddleboarding with a friend. She started trying some yoga poses, and discovered it was fun. She went to a SUP training and brought paddleboard yoga to Atlanta. The classes filled quickly.
“I would watch women and men come out onto the water, and be kind of intimidated and fearful. Stepping into something unknown, it’s kind of like walking on water,” says Mirando.
Mirando found that being on the water brought people peace. They were getting physically and mentally stronger just knowing they could overcome challenges.
“It is an amazing feeling to be out there in nature, and just stand up on this floating platform, and paddle out on a quiet morning, when there’s just the sounds of birds, and watch the sunrise,” Mirando says. “It brings you close to your true nature.”
Making yoga accessible and fun for everyone
Sarah Alderson, also of Soulful Yoga, teaches aerial yoga, which uses hammocks to support the body, taking yoga practice off the mat and into the air.
“A lot of people think aerial yoga is like something from Cirque du Soleil. At our studio, not so much,” says Alderson. “You can do some of the fun things. You can also use it just to support you. Some people are scared of being in the air, but it ends up being a safe place.”
For people who are working through injury, aerial yoga is a more supportive practice. Difficult to reach poses become more accessible with the hammock.
“I may have a sore knee, but when I go into pigeon pose in aerial swing, I don’t feel it as much, and I can get much deeper into the pose,” says Alderson.
Aerial yoga also makes the practice accessible to people in wheelchairs. The teachers are there to help students into the hammocks, so students experience the ability to do yoga out of the chair. Having that accessible for them has the potential to change someone’s life.
“They experience flying,” Alderson says.
Soulful Yoga studio in Sandy Springs also provides classes for yogis of all ages and levels, including Family and Kids Yoga, Accessible Yoga, and Trauma Sensitive Yoga.
Spreading Yoga Through Laughter
Laughter Yoga is a practice created in Mumbai, India by Dr. Madan Kataria and his wife, Madhuri Kataria, in the 1990s as a response to the doctor’s curiosity about merging the scientific research of laughter medicine with the tradition of yoga.
Tiffany Brown found Laughter Yoga at a Unity World Day of Prayer in Gainesville, Georgia. After her first experience, she says she was filled with joy. She continued her practice and became a certified teacher.
The next year, her friend, Sarah Bee, became certified, and together they are spreading joy through laughter.
Physiologically, laughter works with breath and the cardiopulmonary system rather than bending and stretching. Laughter can be created without a stimulus.
“You fake it till you make it. The health benefits of laughter come without comedy,” Brown says. “You tap into your inner laughter to bring it out.”
According to Brown, traditional yoga may cause the student to go inward. Laughter yoga pulls the student outward.
“Laughing together builds community. It brings joy into the community. It forces you to not take life so seriously,” Brown says. “Laughter makes you aware of different aspects of self. It can lead to peace and awakening by learning to bring joy out from within.”
Brown’s observation is that Laughter Yoga is a bridge for those who are intimidated by or unable to practice traditional yoga. Laughter Yoga isn’t physically hard work, it is about the breath. It is important to have a bridge for aging people with limited mobility, and for people who are scared.
Brown teaches all ages from children to seniors. She is also a licensed massage therapist. She travels in and around Atlanta to teach Laughter Yoga, and provides her services to groups and individuals on location.
Respect for Tradition
Julia Gibran, a Toronto yoga teacher of Indian descent, says that much of western yoga can be boiled down to cultural appropriation.
“But western yogis can reduce the harm of their behavior by being aware of the roots of the practice, and by giving credit where credit is due,” says Gibran. “Things shift and change, and the study of asana does help the western population in terms of anxiety and stress, so it’s been such a gift.”
Finding one’s way to the mat may mean finding new methods of practice off the mat.
“If you want to make yoga more accessible, and you want to get more people on the mat, and if you want to raise awareness, and you want to provide the space for mindfulness and for healing, and allow people the opportunity for people to come back to themselves, you’ve got to reach them,” Mirando says. “You’ve got to meet people where they are, and have fun doing it.”