Rainbow of Yoga - Offering a safe space for LGBTQIA+ studentsApr 05, 2023
By Laura Gilmore
One experience really brought home to me that I needed a lot more awareness around LGBTQIA+ issues; a student came to the yoga studio who appeared physically to be male - the receptionist directed them to the male changing area, and in doing so really upset our yoga student who felt misgendered and understandably not recognised for who they are.
Of course we apologised in person and formally as a yoga studio, but it also made me realise I had some homework to do. We sought advice from Stonewall, a charity working in education and support of LGBTQIA+, to help us create a space to teach yoga that felt more safe and inclusive to everyone.
As a yoga teacher and instructor who wants to be open and accepting, it’s so important to reflect on our unconscious biases and try to understand what things might be like for others. The Bristol School of Yoga graduate Bex Lloydd who has also helped further my understanding, described this in her closing essay:
“It simply isn’t enough to say that our ‘yoga is for everyone’ unless we have done the deeper work to understand more about the experiences of ‘everyone’ in society and of those in marginalised communities that sit outside of the ‘norm’.
Allies can bridge gaps between those within/without minority communities:
“the more we learn about LGBTQ+ individuals and communities, the better we become at changing hearts and minds outside those communities” (Gainsburg).
Allyship, standing alongside others in a supportive and open manner, is an ongoing process of learning and of humility. We won’t always get it right but it’s better to try than to be too afraid to look. It helps when we accept our privilege, if we have not had to deal with the specific difficulties around non-heterosexuality in any form.
Yoga philosophy has always acknowledged suffering as an inherent quality of life, it offers ways to transform our suffering into compassionate wisdom & understanding. To inspire us to accept & support each other, whatever our differences or difficulties. Allyship here & in all its forms is so integral to our yoga practice.
Here the layout of what I cover this blog:
Some ideas for creating an inclusive physical space for teaching and practicing yoga
The language of teaching yoga - inclusive & trauma sensitive
Our marketing is the first place where we express our message. For the message to be received by the antenna of our ideal yoga students, we want to be clear visually and verbally on who the yoga class is for.
If we are a cis white, slim, bendy yoga instructor for example, how are students going to know they don’t have to comply to the “perfect” conformist student image.
Whether the website/ leaflets/ social media, it’s a good idea to include images of more diverse yoga students, or language that describes clearly who the yoga class is for. Or both ideally.
To offer and show yoga practices that are more accessible to more students.
To include testimonials from those who have said they feel welcome at your yoga class or course.
To acknowledge and celebrate diversity in any way - words, images, acknowledging festivals or pride etc.
The rainbow is a much recognised symbol so including this, suggests allyship with all students, however they chose to express their sexuality, or not.
Being welcoming is such a great skill! I learnt from other yoga teachers the powerful effect of a big smile and a warm “welcome”, “well done for coming” or “you made it”. This greeting given to each & every yoga practicing student as they arrive is reassuring - hopefully they realise- “whatever I bring today- my anxiety/ my perceived failures in life/ or my sexuality, I am welcome”.
We can also express this in writing on websites, for example:
“I believe the practice of yoga is not compatible with discrimination of any sort. My yoga classes are for everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion. If you have specific needs please let me know”.
If you ask your students to complete a form, include a space for pronouns. As students arrive at your yoga class you can offer your own pronouns, so that others know they are welcome to offer their pronouns or ask for specific pronouns. This tends to feel a bit gentler than simply asking someone their pronouns. We can also do this within the group- if there is a discussion time, or simply an opportunity to let everyone know they are welcome.
If you are not sure you can veer towards using “they, them” for everyone, in place of “he/ she, his/ her” this way we do not immediately assume that everyone identities as male or female, but we allow those who do not feel they suit either category well to be acknowledged also. This is usually described as non-binary, living beyond the simplified categories of man/ woman. The only problem is that others might take offence at being “them-ed”.
I often think so long as we are willing to apologise if we “get it wrong” e.g. use someone’s previous name or wrong pronoun then that is all we can do. There’s no need to panic, just to say “Oh I think I mis-referenced there. I’m sorry.” Or whatever works for you!
With bathrooms/changing spaces include an area that is “all genders”, or “for everyone”. Students may appreciate you bringing your own signs to a rented space that has not done this already.
A useful practice for any trauma-sensitive teaching is to let students know what to expect in the space, for example if you going to dim the lights let students know in advance, for example:
“I’ll dim the lights now but it won't be totally dark, so you can still see once your eyes adjust”.
For anyone who has had a difficult time feeling accepted, anxiety is common so this sort of trauma-sensitive approach is useful and helps to create a more inclusive yoga class.
Another factor here is seeing that students feel included in the yoga poses and yoga practices, not leaving the “stiff person” to last with your suggestions, but progressing the poses or practices systematically so they know exactly where they are meant to be.
This is demonstrated in the video “Teaching a Mixed Level Class” (in the Teaching Inclusive Yoga Course)
The Language of Teaching
Use non-gendered language e.g. “OK folks/ everyone/ you lovely people!” instead of ladies & gents/ boys/ girls/ men/ women.
Use affirmative language e.g. keeping the standing leg as straight and stable as you can, lift the left leg… rather than “don’t bend the knee.”
Being positive and kind in our language around the body can be a balm to anyone who has struggled with body image in any way.
If you want to offer specific practices around periods remember that there may be those who identify as male but have periods.
If you forget and use the wrong pronoun or if you forget and use gendered language, that’s fine! It's not an assessment, or judgement on you, just do your best to be inclusive and that will be appreciated.
Yoga has always existed and been defined within specific historical and cultural contexts, it’s SO common to say it means “unity” or it’s all about everyone being equal. But for the most part the contexts within which yoga has evolved have favoured the elite - Brahmins (high caste) & males in the past. Nowadays the capitalist context has redefined yoga for many, as a physical practice, devoid of the depth of teaching which lets us know its a personal, empowering practice. It’s so easy to think it’s for those who can afford the leggings and who “look good” in them; reinforcing ideas around “beauty” as being physical.
If we want to take part in sharing yoga to its full potential - our dreams the yoga of ahimsa (non-harm) and loving-kindness, it takes work. But it is possible and we can find such fantastic guides nowadays, not least amongst our LGBTQIA+ friends who have spent their lives working out how to express their truth with courage and a depth of self-expression we can all learn from.
If you are interested further in this topic, I run an intensive on 'Teaching Trauma-sensitive yoga' which may be useful to feel more confident in teaching students who may have experienced trauma. You can find more details of that course here. I have also put together a 5-page free download that covers support for anxiety through the teaching of the Koshas. You can download this from here.
I also run an online course for teaching Inclusive Yoga explores an inclusive and trauma aware framework for yoga. Including those living in larger bodies, neurodiversity & prevalent mental health concerns. Please find more details of that course here.
Useful Definitions from Stonewall
● AFAB: assigned female at birth
● AMAB: assigned male at birth
● Binary: relating to, composed of, or involving only two things; commonly how gender is regarded (i.e. male/female, man/woman)
● Cis or Cisgender: Latin in origin, meaning “on the side of;” in this case, cis refers to being “on the side of” the gender spectrum you were assigned at birth
● LGBTQ+: The acronym for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, asexual and other gender/sexual minorities
● Trans or transgender: Latin in origin, meaning “on the other side of.” Trans refers to not identifying with the sex you were assigned at birth; a person might be a trans man or trans woman
● Non-binary, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or genderfluid: identifying outside of the male-female binary. Some non-binary people also identify as trans—trans is often considered to be an “umbrella” term for various trans and non-binary identities.
● Heteronormativity: The assumption that everyone is heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is superior. An emphasis on heterosexual being ‘the norm’.
‘The Savvy Ally: a guide for becoming a skilled LGBTQ+ advocate’ by Jeannie Gainsburg
@flexwithbex_ on Instagram (Bex Lloydd, yoga teacher)
Further Reading & Resources
Stonewall website & reseach: Research from Stonewall (LGBTQA+ advocacy)
Book: ‘Yoga Revolution’ by Jivana Heyman
Book: 'Accessible Yoga' by Jivana Heyman
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