Iyengar yoga teachers Deidra Demens, Avery Kalapa, Heather Haxo Phillips

Fostering diversity: inspirational figures leading the way

Here at Iyengar Yoga London we are striving to foster greater diversity and make yoga more accessible – work being led by our Diversity Advisory Group. This determination to build a more inclusive yoga community is shared by Iyengar teachers and students around the world. Many Iyengar yoga teachers are exploring ways to make yoga more accessible and create welcoming spaces for underrepresented people in the Iyengar community.

Several inspirational teachers and some of the organisations they are involved with are helping lead the way, as they put new ideas and approaches into action. Here, we salute a selection of those at the forefront of this drive for change.

“Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through individual growth, society and community develop.”
BKS Iyengar from ‘The Tree Of Yoga’, 1988

Diedra Demens

Deidra Demens trained at the Iyengar Yoga Institutes of New York and became certified as a teacher in 2017. She is also known for her ongoing Black History x Yoga photo series, where she shares moving and inspiring black stories and interprets each as a yoga asana. Deidra started the series as a way to celebrate Black History Month by honoring black leaders in history including Josephine Baker, Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Shirley Chisholm and Fred Hampton. Every year the series has continued with a new focus. She has showcased black leaders of today, black women in history, and paid respect to black men who were victims of police brutality, violence, and racism

I think the first step to making studios more inclusive is clearing up the rumours and misinformation about Iyengar yoga. I am a member of the IYANUS next generation marketing committee that’s working to spread Iyengar yoga within local communities, including more young people and people from different backgrounds. We are working on ways to provide classes for underserved communities and introduce scholarship programs to foster diversity amongst Iyengar teachers. More programs and efforts like this will help cultivate inclusivity within individual studios and the general Iyengar community.

This quote is taken from a Teacher Spotlight interview with Deidra by the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. To hear more about Deidra’s perspective see her in conversation with Amita Yoga on racism, discrimination and Iyengar yoga here.

Avery Kalapa

Avery (they, them) describes themself as an Iyengar yoga teacher, community weaver, and queer and trans wellness advocate. Among the wide range of classes they offer are low cost and free speciality classes in gender affirming yoga to queer, non-binary and trans folks. Avery also offers inclusivity guidance and training for allies. In their own words:

Transformative healing within and collective change are inextricably connected. We know the old paradigms are destructive, but how to create something different, when oppressive social conditioning is woven into our nervous systems? Alignment based yoga asana practice empowers us to reorganize at the root level. Cultivating inner freedom transforms how we show up in the world. And when we explore this work together, we are affirmed in our inherent wholeness and belonging.

Watch this wide-ranging Instagram Live conversation between Avery and Farah Nousheen, who founded Yoga for People of Color in 2016. Avery and Farah cover themes including how yoga spaces by and for marginalised people are different and important.

For anyone with neck or lower back issues this video, featuring Avery and a skeleton, is an excellent primer in functional anatomy which explains how to deal with pain through a better understanding of alignment.

Heather Haxo Phillips & Adeline Yoga Studios

Heather Haxo Phillips is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher and has been teaching for nearly 15 years. In 2012, Heather became the director of Adeline Yoga, a community-based Iyengar yoga studio in South Berkeley, California.

Adeline Yoga’s public commitments to social justice and a more inclusive yoga community started in 2016. They are steered by a Social Justice & Inclusivity plan, implemented by a large group of people including Adeline staff, teachers and students.

The plan has several prongs related to education, accessibility and leadership. They started with forums led by students, and have hosted a wide variety of training and education for teachers, staff and students at Adeline Yoga. Much of the training has focused on uplifting the voices of people of colour and creating space for white students and teachers to acknowledge and understand the experiences of people of colour.

Iyengar Yoga National Association of the Unites States’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice Committee

In December 2020, the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the Unites States’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice Committee ran a symposium on access and inclusion in Iyengar yoga. Below is an extract from comments made by Heather Haxo Phillips on how the teachers and staff at Adeline Yoga made a commitment to addressing inclusivity and accessibility. Examples of the practical steps they took were to increase their scholarship programme, put up BLM signs and create opportunities for leadership. The work they did also included exploring their own stories and biases:

It is important to unpack our stories that keep us distanced from our students. We make these feelings conscious so we can work with them. Non-conscious feeling can’t be worked with. The starting place is to talk with each other and be deliberate so our students can feel seen without being watched. Opportunities for leadership our incredibly important. We white teachers and studio owners have to create opportunities for leadership. We need to create systems for people to step into roles and nurture when people don’t see themselves in that role. Exclusion is manifested when we don’t reach for people with potential. We have to be able to understand our own biases. Look for the patterns of your own behaviour in your teaching. Who are you most comfortable with and who are you not?” Heather Haxo Phillips

Iyengar Yoga in Action

In May 2020 prompted by the murder of George Floyd, a South London Iyengar Yoga teacher, Priscila Diniz, gathered together a group of teachers keen to do something to support the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’. Iyengar Yoga in Action (IYiA) was born. The group has expanded and now includes teachers and students from across the UK. IYiA has run three days of workshops, aimed at raising awareness of the Black Lives Matter statement and its relevance to Iyengar Yoga, and raised more than £10,000 for charities working with Black communities.

Other practitioners working to create a more inclusive yoga community

Building a more diverse community and making yoga accessible are ongoing challenges that we are committed to meeting at Iyengar Yoga London. Sharing ideas and learning from others is invaluable, and we take inspiration and encouragement from the people and ideas referenced in this post.

If you have suggestions of other practitioners doing good work in this space that we can learn from, please let us know – send any information or links to us at feedback@iyengaryogalondon.co.uk

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