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Are minority spaces the key to making wellness more inclusive?


TextSalma Haidrani

With PoC, Muslim and LGBTQ led wellness spaces disrupting the industry, Salma Haidrani questions the pros and cons of segregation in wellness

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

Wellness spaces. They’re supposedly for everyone, and yet with their one-size-fits-all approach and often prohibitive prices, for many people they can feel inaccessible and unwelcoming. This is particularly the case for marginalised groups who don’t feel represented within the industry. In response to this, these groups are beginning to carve out separate spaces for their respective communities in the capital and beyond.

OYA Retreats is the UK’s first yoga retreat for women of colour. The retreats have been held across the UK and beyond, including Oxford, Somerset, Morocco and the Netherlands. The brainchild of Stacie CC Graham, a Florida-born certified hatha yoga instructor, OYA provides a safe space for WoC to explore yoga, mindfulness and meditation. “I’ve had many negative experiences, from micro-aggressions to being verbally attacked by a therapist,” Graham says of the reasons which led her to found her own space. “A teacher with whom I used to practice asana always made remarks about my hair (‘will you be able to do headstand?’ was one). Other times teachers tend to assume I'm in the wrong class. If I attend an 'advanced' class, they target me from the beginning asking me a lot of questions in front of everyone, and coming over to me during the class.”

OYA Retreats are significantly more financially accessible than mainstream retreats, too, not least so that its target audience might feel that wellness can be within their reach. A recent report found that the 1.7 million workers in insecure jobs in the UK are disproportionately black or Asian while Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees have been found to lose out on £3.2bn a year in wages compared to white colleagues doing identical work, perhaps a contributing factor to the invisibility of people of colour within wellness spaces. This is something Graham wanted to address. “Many of the women who’ve attended one of our retreats have said that they didn’t think wellness was for them. It’s not an affordable endeavour to practice yoga or receive treatments in yoga studies,” Graham tells me. It’s this that she credits for ensuring her retreats are some of the lowest in the market. OYA’s upcoming retreat currently charges between £290 - £475 – undoubtedly still a luxury but a fraction of the price of other offerings on the market.

Even with this reduction in price, however, Graham knows that not everyone can afford to spend hundreds of pounds on a retreat. This led her to recently launch a series of one-day urban retreats in London that are free to the public and are largely geared to accommodate WoC on lower incomes who might want to learn more about the practice. “There are also many women who can’t leave for an entire weekend due to caring responsibilities or childcare,” Graham says. “So the urban retreats give them an opportunity to be part of something anyway.”

Then there’s hip hop yoga class Gyal Flex, which is held on a monthly basis in Shoreditch, and was founded by yoga teacher Sanchia Legister who sought to create a relatable space where people of diverse backgrounds could find yoga, feel at home and listen to Legister’s “fiyah playlists”. Legister was inspired to launch the class after attending a yoga session in Washington DC in 2016, where she took comfort in “being in a room filled with largely black women and being taught yoga by two male black instructors.” It was a “moving experience” which she wanted to recreate.

But it’s not merely PoC that are creating spaces for themselves within wellness. Non-judgmental, body positive studios are increasingly being set up. Eve & Grace Wellness Studio, for example, is a Battersea-based fitness and wellness studio that caters to all bodies. “We’re not about perfection,” founder Marsha Powell tells me. “We’re about supporting everybody on their fitness journey... those who don’t fit into what’s considered to be ‘trendy’ will feel excluded because they’ll feel too big, too old or their skin tone is the wrong shade.”

For people from faith groups, wellness settings can also seem exclusionary. At a time of heightened Islamophobia Muslim women, like myself, deserve a space to recuperate when public settings can leave us feeling vulnerable. Muslim women are also significantly more likely to be absent from wellness practices where the unisex settings can often serve as a barrier, particularly for those that wear the hijab.

Thankfully, Amaliah, a media platform for Muslim women co-founded by sisters Nafisa and Selina Bakkar, has established ‘Soul Sessions’ to help us grieve and heal, and experience a sense of sisterhood. In Soul Sessions, “women can speak freely without fear of repercussions in the way they might feel in their workplaces or amongst friends,” Nafisa tells me. She stresses that Muslim women might be more inclined to attend Soul Sessions than a mainstream meditation class not least because they’re not required to explain themselves. “When you’re a visible Muslim woman, you feel like you to have to constantly explain yourself and have to be ‘on guard’. We’re constantly questioning our interactions [with other people]. I think sometimes we underplay how taxing that is. You want to be able to be yourself,” she says. “It’s revolutionary to be in those sort of spaces.” Sixty women attended the second session in March.

Wellness classes can also pose a challenge to those in the LGBTQ+ community who routinely experience discomfort in mainstream spaces. “Most clients tell me how they’ve felt stared at and about incidents of hostility and verbal discrimination,” says ashtanga yoga teacher Josetta Malcolm who identifies as non-binary. Motivated by these experiences and their own, Malcolm established LGBTQ+ classes in Brighton and London, as well as a trans yoga class at Soho’s ClinIQ, ensuring each class is low-cost and donation-based.

“Mainstream yoga teachers don’t always realise the harmful impact of trans and queer people getting policed as to how they present and which toilet and changing room they should use. Some cis people aren’t comfortable sharing changing areas with queer and trans people and there are many reports of them being told to leave or to use a different toilet. This is deeply traumatic for people who’ve experienced so much discrimination and rejection already.” With Malcolm as teacher, however, these people can practice yoga away from gender policing and with someone who can make them feel at ease.

With Stonewall reporting that 70% of trans people avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted, safe spaces are both welcome and necessary. LGBTQ+ people are also significantly more likely to struggle with mental illness, which is why Malcolm is keen to stress the importance of yoga, a practice shown to be helpful in reducing anxiety. “[Yoga] gives us resilience, health and wellbeing and tools to cope with life’s challenges,” they say. “I know from my own experience, and from years of teaching, how it helps people who have experienced all kinds of trauma, how it helps us reconnect with our bodies, to feel joy in our bodies and to feel like we’re stronger, fitter and more flexible.”

Wellness – and its myriad benefits – was intended for the many (as its ancient traditions can attest to), it’s only since the movement was co-opted by capitalism and commodified into a $4.2 trillion industry in 2018, a jump from $3.72 trillion in 2016, that it’s largely become the preserve of the few, exclusionary to those who need and can benefit from safe spaces the most. But while the likes of OYA Retreats and trans yoga classes provide places where marginalised groups can benefit from wellness in the short term, are they really the way forward? Must the onus be on marginalised communities to set up their own spaces so they can have a stake in wellness? Are segregated, specialised classes and spaces the only option?

Some people I speak to have wildly differing opinions on what the future of wellness should be. Stacie CC Graham is adamant that marginalised communities can only thrive under wellness if they continue to self-segregate. “The only way to change [wellness] is to see more projects, products and brands be founded by us with us in mind,” she maintains. “My goal isn’t to see black and brown bodies infiltrate white spaces. It’s to see us creating spaces that centre around our diverse community and see them thrive.”

Conversely, Josetta Malcolm believes the answer lies in an industry-wide shift and radical overhaul of the existing system, including more low cost, donation-based classes as an alternative to segregated spaces, more queer and trans teachers, and gender neutral toilets and private changing areas. Sanchia Legister echoes Malcolm's sentiments, adding that mainstream spaces’ marketing should accommodate minority groups. “It needs to show a variety of people and practitioners,” she says. “People feel connected when they see a person that looks like them or there’s a shared experience...they’re more likely to feel comfortable, safe and inspired.”

Though Graham might insist that self-segregating remains necessary, it’s only until the mainstream movement makes adequate strides to ensure wellness becomes more inclusive that the likes of OYA will no longer be needed. But for now, it’s possible for both to seamlessly co-exist and offer their distinct communities a stake in wellness and its many benefits. Omm to that.

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