Earlier this week, a quote from actor and goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow made the rounds on social media. In an interview with WSJ Magazine, Paltrow shared an anecdote in which an attendant at a yoga studio asked her if she had ever taken yoga before. Paltrow said that she replied, “You have this job because I’ve done yoga before.” The comment sparked backlash across the internet: Many people interpreted Paltrow's quote to mean that she was taking credit for a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice that was, in fact, brought to the West over a hundred years ago by Indian practitioners. (For what it's worth, Paltrow prefaced her statement by saying, "Forgive me if this comes out wrong.")
While it's important to look at how yoga has been appropriated and reappropriated as wellness has become a significant component of modern American culture, what struck a particular chord among commenters was the statement's seeming lack of awareness of class privilege. Is it more problematic that American yoga culture is an evolution of a millennia-old tradition — one that was already in a state of flux when it was brought to the United States in the mid-20th century — or that modern western yoga is almost universally seen as financially inaccessible, especially to people of color, and the primary domain of thin, rich, white, cisgender women?
Bustle reached out to Shauny Lamba and Corinne Wainer, the founders of SHAKTIBARRE, a yoga-barre organization currently with two locations in Brooklyn and Harlem, New York City, that prioritizes accessibility in its classes, for their thoughts. Their conversation looks at how modern, western yoga is evolving in necessary ways, but a yoga practice that's inaccessible is inherently at odds with yogic principles.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Shauny Lamba: I actually grew up dancing, and when I was in high school, I took my first yoga class. The reason why I loved it so much was because I got the same feeling, the sensations I did when I was in a dance class, where I felt just so connected with myself, with moving and breathing. I wanted more and more of it, especially the vinyasa style of yoga.
When I left for college, I found a studio near me that I started practicing at regularly. It gave me that same sense of release and I just got to be present. While I was in college, I did an intensive training to become certified as a teacher. I love the aspect of yoga that connected to feeling good in my body and being healthy. I wanted to be able to share that with people who hadn't experienced it yet, which is sort of how it led me to teaching yoga. Corinne, you said I took you to your first yoga class, right?
Corinne Wainer: Yes. It was a pretty homogeneous class in an affluent location in New York. And I am a white girl, and though my family doesn’t come from a very strong socioeconomic background, I thought, “Here I am, someone coming to do yoga who does not come from that lineage,” and going into this space where I felt uncomfortable given my newborn knowledge of yoga at the time. I wondered, “Why do all these women look like me?” and “Why does this cost so much money?” I witnessed all the westernized, commoditized thoughts about yoga in my very first class. But it comforted me to be there with a friend who I felt could authentically show yoga to me. I would just glance up at Shauny’s practice, and I resonated with how she was teaching through her being a student much more than with the teacher in that space.
I am not subject to quite as many cultural lenses as other people who do yoga, but I can understand how gross it felt to witness the divide between that kind of studio, and then doing yoga with somebody who affiliates so deeply with the practice. I made sure that my teaching and our studio is about creating a space where people can come and take yoga and yoga-barre and afford it, but it’s not a space that would ever say, “We’re the best place for yoga,” “We’re the best place for barre,” or “We invented yoga.” I’m really thankful to the studios that came before us because we couldn’t have done it without them. I don’t teach yoga as much as I teach barre, but that experience formulated my thoughts on how to teach barre in a yogic way.
SL: There are all these traditions of the mind and the spiritual aspects of yoga that can get completely lost in translation in classes, but when they’re brought in, they’re brought in beautifully, especially when they’re applied to the modern world. The traditions of yoga were created so long ago, and where the practice of yoga happens now — whether it’s in India, in the U.S., or any country — it’s adapting to a different time, a different environment, and to people who are in a different place in the world than they were 5,000 years ago.
It’s really beautiful when we’re able to translate that into the modern day. What Corinne was saying about how we’re able to teach classes where we can integrate people of all different backgrounds — that’s not something that happened 5,000 years ago when this was being practiced only in India.
CW: With the discussion of reappropriation, you can’t deny that it’s happening and we’re certainly not saying it’s OK. It’s more like, how are you doing it and why are you doing it? When it comes to what Paltrow said, [it seemed like] she wasn’t going into the how and why behind her comment. We’re conscious of who we credit our learning to, and how and why we then assimilate those learnings into these modern practices. We’ve had a couple people call us out like, “Why are you putting yoga into barre?” We sit down with those people and go into the how and why behind our thinking.
What yoga orthodoxy has taught me is that it’s more about the how and why. More about your Karma, your Dharma, your intention, your integrity or presence, than it is about what you're winning. We expect to be called on things. But we prepare to have the conversation.
It’s worth noting that today’s yoga market is 75 percent or more women. What are you going to do with that responsibility, with a market that’s so uniquely majority women? It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and many people come to it thinking they’re going to sell $5 coconut waters, or become Insta-famous. But around 80 percent of those women are white, according to The Atlantic, and 48 percent of them make over $65,000 a year. It was in light of those statistics that we built our studio’s model. That's why we have sliding scale prices. That's why our classes don't have mirrors. That's why the students face each other. That's why the dialogue in class talks about the body in conjunction with physiology, psychology, our chakras, and more.
SL: There’s already been so much evolution in yoga, right? The eight limbs of yoga were created as a tool to move up that journey of consciousness so that we're more connected to this higher state of being, connected to a higher truth. It was a guide to living our life in a more complete and meaningful way. The asana [pose] practice is one of those eight limbs, and pranayama [breathing] is another. Now, there's all these different lineages of yoga, and these lineages still serve that same purpose of having a healthy body, mind, and spirit, and strengthening the connection between all three.
When Iyengar brought yoga to the West in the mid-20th century, following the teachings of Jois and Krishnamacharya, there were lots of different teachers who developed yoga as we know it today and spread it across the world. I think those lineages will continue to develop based on people’s experiences, and the tools that they learn and integrate into their practices, and then pass on to others.
CW: My background is in educational psychology, and when I help out with yoga teacher training, I apply my background in research. Everyone at the beginning of the class is like, "Oh my God, I want to get the top level of consciousness," and I’ll say, "Listen, there is no better or worse," which is something I learned from Dr. Robert Kegan. We can only make the effort to notice when we might be shifting out of a certain state of consciousness that's more helpful to the situation, but there really is no better.
What I believe is happening with the commoditization of yoga is that people are saying that consciousness is comparative or competitive. They’re saying there’s a winner. They start to sell consciousness, as if you can actually change someone's mind. And that’s like what Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, called philanthropic colonialism — brands saying, let me do good by telling you what good means for you. Which is ultimately a kind of oppression. I would think that yoga is the furthest thing from oppression as possible.
When you drill down the psychology behind what’s happening, it’s crazy because we’ve lost the essence of yoga. Though you might not expect it given her background and understanding of yoga, I love that Shauny said it’s cool that yoga is evolving. You recognize that you have to speak about it in consciousness, and be open to these dialogues.
As told to Melanie Mignucci.