A few years ago, a genderqueer friend of mine invited me to go to a yoga class with them to celebrate their healing from top surgery and their new sense of feeling at home in their body. In the moments before class started, they told me how empowered they felt to move through the world and not be perceived as a “woman.” Then the teacher walked in and greeted us with, “Hey ladies!” My friend was crushed. The teacher’s “ladies” had invalidated their identity. Too often trans* and genderqueer people are misgendered, stared at, and even harassed at yoga studios due to ignorance and, sometimes, bigotry.
The last few months have seen a marked increase in articles about yoga and diversity in the national media. Participating in these conversations has made me reflect on my own position as a queer yoga teacher in Madison. Over the past few years, I’ve worked to create safe, affirming yoga spaces for Madison’s LGBTQ community and to educate other yoga teachers and students about how to create pro-queer and pro-trans* yoga spaces.
I fell in love with yoga over a decade ago after taking my first class. Yoga taught me to love and nurture myself into wholeness after struggling for years with anxiety disorders and self-loathing. I learned to honor my needs and boundaries, hold space for my feelings, and care deeply about my own suffering and the suffering of others. For me, yoga is about getting really honest about how I feel and what I need. It’s about breaking out of the trance of unworthiness and old stories and lies about how I’m flawed, defective, and undeserving of love. It gave me the strength to realize that my need for people to accept me as I am is not “too much.”
Yoga helped me to deal with the chronic stress of being a queer woman in this world. That’s what motivated me to become a full-time yoga teacher who does outreach yoga and healing work specifically with queer and transgender people—because we are a community that desperately needs healing and messages about self-love and radical acceptance. Yoga can not only serve as a tool to cope with the anxiety inherent in moving through the world as an LGBTQ person, but it can also help us to manage our reactivity to the daily microaggressions we all face. When we are able to pause,
take a breath, and gather ourselves strongly, the weight of the world is less likely to crush us. But while queer and trans* folks are a population who benefit immensely from a yoga practice, most yoga studios do not feel like safe spaces for many in the LGBTQ community.
The response of many teachers and yoga studios to yoga’s diversity and inclusion problem is to claim, “We are open to everyone!” This is a beautiful intention, but there is a huge difference between saying that your classes are open to everyone and actually making that true. Participating in diversity initiatives is a powerful way to transform our noble intention of inclusion into mindful action. That’s why I am passionate about bringing awareness to issues of queer/trans* inclusion in yoga.
I do workshops on teaching LGBTQ-inclusive classes that train teachers and studio workers about everything from how to use gender-neutral language to the importance of creating gender-neutral changing rooms. I also teach yoga classes specifically for queer and trans* people so that folks who feel unwelcome at studios have a safe place to practice. I’ve taught queer/trans* yoga everywhere from feminist co-ops and dorm basements to my own living room!
Some in the yoga community question the necessity of these initiatives. They think that identity has no place in yoga, i.e., “Identity is a fantasy of the ego! We are all of the same heart!” and that fostering space for marginalized folks within yoga is somehow divisive. I disagree. I believe that we should honor and celebrate each part of who we are. As teachers, we have an important platform from which to model compassionate and authentic living. I cannot ask my students to open themselves up, to bring their whole selves to the mat, and to love every part of themselves unless I am doing the same. That’s why I’m committed to being a visible and vocal queer yoga teacher.
I hear a lot of beautiful statements from folks established in the Madison yoga community about the unity they feel on their mats. My quest is to foster inclusive spaces where everyone can feel this sense of unity, especially those people who fear yoga does not include them.
When you attend my classes I ask only one thing: that you open and honor your own heart. And I promise that I will show up and do the work that I was put here to do: hold space, create community, and let you know that you are perfect just as you are. Namaste.
Kelly Fox is a yoga instructor at Kula Yoga & Wellness, Inner Fire Yoga, and Bliss Flow Yoga.