Sign up Contact Support

Social Justice at Adeline Yoga: Part 1

The election of Donald Trump and the rise of extremism is driving many of us to a boiling point.  Many of us would say, “That’s Charlottesville, that’s not me, that’s not here.”  But the reality is that here in the East Bay racism and the threat of violence is daily and very real.  White nationalists are planning rallies in Berkeley this weekend.  Every single one of us needs to recognize the threats to our safety for ourselves and those around us, and recognize that we each have an opportunity to create positive change in our lives and the lives around us.

Our yoga studio is a sanctuary for self-transformation.  For those of who are at the studio regularly, Adeline is an important community that we depend on. It is our place to feel safe and yet learn important life lessons that are often challenging, a place to interact with people we care about deeply.  Adeline is a place to disconnect from the outside world and yet build a deeper connection with the world inside of us and around us.

Last weekend I received important communication from a student asking what Adeline is doing to address social justice both within Adeline and in our community.  I am sure that many of you are asking the same question. The answers are incredibly complex and personally unsatisfying.  I do think that the events of the last ten months demand an individual response from each one of us.   Today’s political climate cannot be ignored, it is not “business as usual.” There are so many ways we can respond, whether it is publicly demonstrating or posting on Facebook, personally making donations to organizations working for social change or writing your own personal statement as I am doing right now.  White people in particular need to take responsibility for understanding our own privilege, our own power.  And, we all need to use whatever power and privilege we do have to create a better world for all.

There is a connection between Adeline Yoga and the outside world that needs to be written about.  Sandwiched between the events in Charlottesville and local protest, I feel the need to write to our community.  It is, perhaps an important moment to bring our community up-to-speed on my thought process, to publically answer this student’s inquires and update you on Adeline activities.  I will warn you that this piece is long. So let me say at the outset:

Thank you for taking time to read. I am dividing this blog piece into several parts, this is part I, with part II coming next week.  It is long because the issues are incredibly complex, because they are personal to me and to so many Adeline yoga teachers and students and is a lot to report on.

I am going to do the best I can to write on a very complex subject.  I do not consider myself an expert in social justice, nor a spiritual teacher.  Publishing a piece like this a huge leap of faith. I write because it is my duty, as a leader of this studio and a leader within several different communities to speak up and speak out.  I know that there is a direct link between our work at Adeline Yoga and the work that is needed for our collective healing.  If any of my words are inaccurate or presumptuous, I apologize.  I look forward to dialogue and further learning.

For those who don’t know me, here is a brief introduction:  I was born and raised here in Oakland-Berkeley.  I became an activist as a young teenager, and later graduated with a degree in Women’s Studies.  In those high school and college days, I focused on race and gender, and how it played out in leadership capacities across American society.  I spent fifteen years working in the nonprofit sector, specifically working with organizations that empowered communities of color.

When I took over Adeline Yoga five years ago, I did not know how my commitments to social change would play out.  What kind of studio would Adeline be?  Would it reflect the generally white, middle-class, able-bodied clientele that I have experienced in yogaland generally?  Would students of color be attracted to our classes or would they stay away?  Would anyone, for that matter, want to come to our classes?

The first years of ownership were pretty much about survival.  I had my hands full learning the complexities of how to keep the doors open.  Our vision is and was that Adeline Yoga would be a thriving, diverse, friendly, compassionate community with a strong financial foundation.  It would provide a livelihood for dedicated sadhana and enrich the community that it lives in by offering the authentic teachings of Patanjali for future generations.

Students have responded very positively, giving their hearts, minds, and bodies in so many of our endeavors.  We have created community deliberately – learning how to hold space for all and how to be leaders in the yoga world where every teacher feels empowered to build their own base of students and teach in their own way.

I have always known that for many, especially within community of color, access to Iyengar Yoga was a big problem.  There were four programmatic elements I instituted immediately at Adeline in an attempt to address the issue of access:

Scholarships  The Yoga Blessings Fund is a unique scholarship program to support students who cannot afford yoga.  We give free or reduced rate classes to nearly everyone that asks.  Over the years, all sorts of people have taken part in the program.  Some are under employed or completely unemployed.  Others are in remission from cancer, escaping abusive relationships, or are elderly and on fixed incomes.  Many have been women of color.

When we launched the Sadhana Studies program, it opened with a significant scholarship opportunity specifically for students of color, those living with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ.  Two students took advantage of the opportunity this year.  One is set for next year, and we have scholarships available for our upcoming Yoga for Life program.  While we occasionally get direct donations from students to our scholarship funds, mostly all of this is self-funded, coming directly from studio and my own personal income.

I think that these scholarships are incredibly important.  I am clear that the actual face of yoga is very different than what we see in Yoga Journal.  And yet, the voice of Iyengar Yoga is still mostly white, middle and upper class and does not include for much neurodiversity either.  It is incredibly expensive and labor intensive to become an Iyengar Yoga student, much less a Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher (CIYT).  Training to become a CIYT takes at least 5 years and thousands of dollars.  Those that don’t have the free time or money are left out.  We all miss out on the opinions and experiences these students bring to us all.  The more scholarships we can give to passionate students of color and others with diverse backgrounds, the more dynamic our community will be.

Community classes.  They are low cost classes taught by our regular staff.  Money is not an issue for many people of color, but there is evidence that this classes are important because they are more diverse than our other classes – diverse not just in color but in age and ability.  Community classes aren’t unique at yoga studios, but how they manifest at our studio is unique.  Few studios offer as many as we offer – four of them every week.  And, our community classes are not set apart at off-peak times.  The price starts at a sliding scale of $10 and the classes are taught by our highly trained staff, often with assistants present in the class that help to make sure everyone gets personalized attention.

Work-study. Most studios have work-study, an opportunity to clean or be at the front desk.  Our program is different:  We offer leadership opportunities for those who want them, and we offer opportunities beyond cleaning and the front desk, so that students can build on their existing skills, develop new skills and help develop the voice that is Adeline Yoga.  Our work-study team includes social media specialists and organizational consultants that have been key to shaping what Adeline is today.

Unique programming We offer a wide variety of classes – they are born directly from teacher and student interest.  This is how the Yoga for Healthy Aging and Yoga for Parkinsons classes were born.  In the past, we have offered two workshops specifically for people of color.  I think classes for people of color are extremely important because they create a safe space for support on multiple levels. Not everyone agrees that such workshops are important or ethical.  However, I consider them to be incredibly important and I would like to offer them on a regular basis.

So yes, here at Adeline Yoga we are actively seeking to make yoga accessible to all.  Yet, access is only one part of inclusion – is Adeline Yoga safe?  Is it welcoming?

That is very much up for discussion. Some teachers and students feel that Adeline is an inclusive place, some feel it is not.  I feel we have a long way to go.  The offer of Iyengar Yoga is very complex. Many students of color, and white students, are attracted to Iyengar Yoga because we are an international community led by embodied, self-confident, ample-bodied Brown people.  Iyengar yogis teach and practice with conviction and passion – this is exciting to some, off putting to others.  Our lineage is unapologetically clear about our yoga-related beliefs and approach.  Now more than ever we need these strong practices and convictions in order to survive and thrive through the emotional and physical storms that we experience in everyday human life.

While Iyengar Yoga provides clear direction on how to practice the 8-limbs of yoga, we have not learned a model for inclusive language in all aspects of the yoga experience.  We don’t always have a grasp of the right language at the right time, especially in group situations where the needs of the individuals are complex.  And sometimes, we do something that is interpreted in way we didn’t intend.  For example, this weekend I got the feedback from a new student that stepping over her abdomen felt disrespectful.   It was an education to receive this feedback, and something I will internalize as I navigate teaching in complex class situations.

And Iyengar Yoga in America, indeed all of American yogaland, is still taught primarily by white people who have a lot of learning to do about how being white affects our approaches in the classroom (Myself included!). I believe we need forums to explore how to welcome, understand and teach to our unique differences and commonalities at our studio.  The upcoming Sadhana Studies training will include a workshop for current teachers and teachers-in-training on cultural humility as an embodied practice, led by our own Vivian Chavez.  This is just a start.  There is a lot to explore in how we teachers and leaders can be more skillful in organizing and delivering classes and examining at our student-teacher relationships.

If you are interested in delving into these topics on a personal level for yourself, I invite you to a special event we are having this Saturday. How do we establish a steady, compassionate approach to ourselves and others in times like these? Victoria Austin, Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and Zen Priest, will host a free workshop on “Establishing Steadiness when Things are Bad” this Saturday 8/26 1:00 – 3:30 p.m.  Details here:

In Part II of this blog piece, I will update our community on the social justice activities we have been working on since February, and provide more resources for educating yourself and getting involved.

Thank you for reading.  Please feel free to comment below or email me directly

Reader Interactions


  1. Joanie Mitchell says

    Thanks for your statement, so honest and heartfelt. I am very proud of you for the way you describe your concerns.

    I have a yoga teacher friend who is forever ranting about cultural appropriation and white privilege in American yoga practice. I often wonder how she would judge our studio. Her remarks are often biting, angry. This is not my style but her views do go straight to the issues you address. I now see from your words how much effort has been made, and far there is to go.

    As for race, I went to work for SNCC in Georgia in 1963, worked for a black social work agency in the 60’s poverty program, spent many years living and working in Africa, and now attend a new age predominantly African American church. Yet it is only in the last few years that I have come to understand and acknowledge my white privilege. What a long slow road I have travelled! With new insights comes new commitment to the work at hand. So glad to be part of Adeline as we go forward in this difficult but imperative task.

  2. Rogelio says

    Heather wonderful words and message to us all. The community at large, I’m in Vietnam.
    You and the teachers are doing a great job, yoga itself is about life the good and the bad and now ugliness. Yoga helps us to live a better life no matter what goes on in our external environments.
    Om nama shivaya

  3. Richard says

    It is an interesting challenge given that Yoga in our society does seem to be a privileged activity that few people outside our “bubble” are willing or able to participate in. I see it from another angle as well — I have a lot of buddies, men from various walks of life, a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds — most of these men view Yoga as an entirely alien (and intimidating) culture. They are suspicious of the whole enterprise — why would they want to put themselves in a situation where they’re surrounded by smart, fit, beautiful, upper-middle-class women, who they’re afraid would just look down their noses at lower-middle-class, fighting-to-make-ends-meet kind of guys? These men are more comfortable grunting as they pump iron at the gym, not quietly exploring the rhythm of the breath.

  4. Chris Collins says

    Thank you.

    Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend today’s workshop.

    A teacher, a long time ago, spoke of his abilities and strengths and that in times of tumult and turmoil his zen training and values had him go inward and redouble his effort at quiet and doing inner work. My roots in activism and action had me see this as a paradox. Even a cop out. I still struggle with that duality.

    I struggle with ahimsa. I devalue my yoga practice, I devalue my whiteness, I devalue my California birthplace, I devalue my ability to be part of a solution. I generate animus for who I am. This blog post describes the workshop as dealing with a “compassionate approach to ourselves.” I believe there is gold in that work.

    Learning from Heather, and reading Mr. Iyengar, this confounding idea of “practice, keep practicing” presents hope as a resolve to the paradox of inner work and activism. These two may simply be a logical roadblock, and paradoxical, a place my mind will not resolve . But I hope in holding myself in the place of “practice,” that working with the my community toward social justice and working with the eight-limbs of yoga, whatever resolve comes about, my practice will have contributed.

    I look to part II of this blog post.