upper waypoint

How the Yoga Industry Is Decentering Whiteness

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A woman in a blue top and shorts lies upside-down on a couch and the floor, her hips and leg on the couch and her shoulders and head on the ground.
Deidra Demens, Berkeley's Adeline Yoga instructor, demonstrates a yoga pose at home.  (Courtesy of Heather Haxo-Phillip)

Yoga in the Bay Area has evolved in many ways over the years — from more trendy practices such as goat yoga and hot yoga, to more well-known forms like vinyasa, often described as a flow-based practice. During the pandemic, yoga studios in the Bay Area and across the country were forced to adapt and change again. In doing so, many began offering classes online and reaching a wider audience than they might have in person.

Some say the history of white westerners co-opting yoga as a practice has created an elitist culture within the industry. Yet with the accessibility of online yoga classes, more people have been able to incorporate yoga into their lifestyles and daily rituals.

Yoga has roots in Hinduism in South Asia and was practiced as a way to unify the mind and body long before reemerging as what is now yoga in the U.S. — a mostly secular form of exercise popularized by a variety of yoga instructors. “Secularizing yoga made us abandon this concept of lineage,” Judith Carlisle, who is Black and a yoga studies instructor at Loyola Marymount University, said. “And at the same time, it legitimized white American and European teachers’ presence as yoga masters, becoming the yoga masters and the spokespeople for yoga.”

Heather Haxo Phillips, who is white, is the owner of Adeline Yoga in Berkeley. In the online classes she’s been teaching since the start of the pandemic, she’s noticed an increase in the number of attendees from all over the country.

“There are so many people living in communities that don’t have access to high-quality instruction, and we’ve been able to provide that in a much more comprehensive way,” Haxo Phillips said. She said she knows of students who live in remote areas and used to drive for hours to attend in-person weekly classes, but are now able to participate in their homes.

Woman perched upside-down on a bench with a cat sitting on her bottom.
Heather Haxo Phillips, owner of Adeline Yoga, teaches a yoga class on Zoom. Her cat Tinker sits on top of her while she demonstrates a pose.

The simplicity of logging into a session from home has created a new level of comfortability for many students, she said. And that has been an essential factor for welcoming students of color who often do not feel welcome in many western yoga spaces.


Renae Badruzzaman has been a student at Adeline Yoga for three years.

“Generally the yoga industry in the United States is pretty white dominated. And as someone who’s been doing yoga for some time, I recognize that,” said Badruzzaman, who is Black. She also recognizes that there are spaces cultivated by practitioners of color.

One way Adeline Yoga has reinforced engagement with students of color, like Badruzzaman, is by offering scholarships. In the Bay Area, as in many parts of the U.S., race and socioeconomic status often overlap.

Badruzzaman attends through a scholarship, and because of the studio’s inclusivity, she says she misses in-person classes.

“I still miss the community aspect of seeing people and being in community, although it’s not completely not there,” Badruzzaman said. “It may not be as palpable as being in the room, but there’s some of that.”

The studio is still operating primarily online, with only two in-person beginner classes a week.

Tejal Patel is a Michigan-based yoga instructor and founder of Tejal Yoga. She also has a podcast called Yoga Is Dead, which dives into the colonization of yoga. Patel and co-host Jesal Parikh, who both identify as South Asian American, explore topics of capitalism, diet culture and who is teaching and benefiting from yoga. They break down how the practice evolved in the U.S. into the westernized version of yoga that is seen today.

More Related Stories

“We had experiences with the culture of whiteness, essentially in yoga, showing up and dominating the space,” Patel said, reflecting on when she first began her yoga teacher training. “And also not just dominating the space, but falling into the typical class and race hierarchy, tropes of making power dynamics and racializing our identities in a way that felt really exclusionary and very harmful.”

This experience motivated Patel to bring the practice back to its cultural roots by recentering South Asian instructors. And with the flexibility of teaching online, she’s had the opportunity to invite a teacher from India to lead a South Asian LGBTQIA+ practice.

“These are things I never really dreamed of,” Patel said. “Because of the devastation of the pandemic, this little seed was able to flourish and grow into what it is now.”

Patel plans to continue teaching exclusively online. Her yoga community has expanded over the last few years and half of the instructors at her studio are now based in California — garnering a huge following on the West Coast.

With this growth of interest in virtual classes, Judith Carlisle, the yoga studies instructor, points out that these online platforms can help bring more attention to BIPOC instructors, and especially South Asian instructors.

“You can almost think of this as a type of digital activism, because by pursuing these things, you make them more available to other people, just like any other market economy,” Carlisle said. “We have to remember that yoga is a product that is commoditized and commercialized within a market economy.”

As a result of the pandemic, yoga will continue to exist in a hybrid space — both online and offline. But, regardless of where a class is being held, Haxo Phillips said it’s still possible to cultivate a comfortable atmosphere for all identities.


“Whether it’s injuries or whether it’s body size or whether it’s cultural or ethnicity, race … just the ability to have your camera on or off, the ability to practice at home or wherever you may be … yoga can and should be done by anybody who wants to do it wherever they want to do it,” she said.

lower waypoint
next waypoint