Students attend an outdoor BK Yoga Club class in Brooklyn's Herbert Von King Park on August 11, 2021.
Embracing inclusion in the fitness industry
02:36 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

More than a decade into her yoga practice, Paris Alexandra kept experiencing the same situation: being the only one in the room who looked like her.

“I was in so many different yoga spaces where I was the only Black woman or the only plus size woman,” Alexandra recalls. “So it was always different navigating those spaces.”

That sense of isolation and anxiety prevents many from ever entering a gym or studio. Research on the fitness industry suggests factors such as race, ethnicity, weight, and body image influence whether someone feels welcome and comfortable enough to work out in certain environments.

“A lot of marginalized communities feel stigmatized because they don’t feel understood in fitness spaces,” says Carlos Davila, a sports psychologist and diversity and inclusion officer at the New York City boutique fitness studio Fhitting Room. Not fitting in comes with a lot of pressure, he says, so “it becomes this very different energy when you’re in a space where you don’t feel like you belong there.”

Sports psychologist and fitness instructor Carlos Davila says holding classes in public spaces is one way gyms and studios can connect with new clients from diverse communities.

Making space

During yoga teacher training, Alexandra met Alicia Ferguson, one of two fellow women of color in the program. With Ferguson’s marketing background and Alexandra’s community organizing experience, they co-founded their own body-positive yoga studio, BK Yoga Club, in Brooklyn.

From the start, the pair consciously created BK Yoga Club to be safe, inclusive, and nonjudgmental – a place where they could show up as their authentic selves and empower others to do the same.

“Really, in the foundations of our DNA, how we built BK Yoga Club was on body inclusivity,” Ferguson says. “We really focus on not being physically fit, but more so being mentally fit, spiritually fit, and things that feel good in your body as opposed to how you’re looking in your body.”

Since opening in early 2019, the studio’s message and mission have attracted a clientele base that’s approximately 80 percent women of color – a notable contrast to the overall yoga industry in the US, which recent federal data indicates is still majority White. In addition to racial diversity, Ferguson says BK Yoga Club has a number of queer and gender-nonconforming clients as well.

BK Yoga Club co-founder Alicia Ferguson says the studio's addition of a café was intentional: "There's not a lot of Black woman-owned wellness coffee shops or coffee shops in general. And so we really get to be that representation in our community."

Building community

Over the summer, the studio moved into an expanded location in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. With room for a new backyard and café, Ferguson and Alexandra designed the new space to help clients and community members connect with one another on and off the mat.

As a multiracial Latinx woman, Yelitza Leon says attending other yoga classes in the past made her feel self-conscious about her presence and practice. But from the moment she first walked into BK Yoga Club, she says she immediately felt at home.

“It was a space that felt safe to just be myself,” she says. “All the instructors were very skilled, and there was an understanding of the depths of the collective need to heal, so it was a space that felt right.”

It’s crucial for historically underserved communities to have such spaces, Davila says, especially to help cope after such a traumatic year. “We tend to be the communities that are dealing with more health issues or dealing with food deserts or fitness deserts where we don’t have access to the resources that would mitigate a lot of the stress that our communities have,” he adds.

Davila says the business case for inclusion in fitness is clear: "If you're looking at the research, Millennials and Gen Zers aren't spending money in spaces that aren't talking about these issues. They're just not."

What fitness professionals can do

Cultural awareness – Awareness stemming from cultural literacy is key, says Davila, whose academic research specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion in fitness. As a group exercise instructor, he’s found that understanding intersectionality and an ability to read the room are essential skills.

“One of the easiest ways for fitness pros to create a more inclusive and welcoming space is to be aware of what’s going on in your space, to be aware of the energy in the room, to be aware of the gaps and communications that may be happening around marginalized communities,” he adds.

Ongoing education – Earning a fitness certification is the first step, but Davila says professionals should always keep learning to better serve their clients.

Instructors should learn how to tailor modifications for a wide range of abilities, body shapes and sizes. Davila says fitness professionals should be prepared for any body that comes into their space, adding he underwent extra training to modify his classes for pregnant clients.

BK Yoga Club’s co-founders say they continually call on their network of DEI experts and specialists to support them in areas where they are still learning and growing.

“I’ve been in this space for quite a long time, and I’m still learning new things,” concurs Davila.

Hiring – As a diversity executive, Davila acknowledges sometimes it can be challenging to find a mix of candidates due to cultural norms about fitness as an occupation. But ultimately, he says, it comes down to leadership’s commitment to the cause. Mirroring their client base, BK Yoga Club’s teaching staff includes queer and gender-nonconforming instructors and is majority Black and brown women – conscious decisions on the part of the founders.

Marketing – Davila says if a marketing plan highlights only a certain sliver of the population, anyone who isn’t a part of that group won’t feel wanted in that space. “If your message is inclusivity, if your message is body diversity, then all of that has to be representative in your advertising,” he adds.

Merchandise – Businesses that sell apparel should also be mindful of the sizes available. Davila’s research has found sizing exclusivity or inclusivity has a “significant” impact on clients’ image of that space and whether they stay. As Davila’s focus groups told him, “if you’re not showing me that you’re different, if you’re not showing me that you want me here, I’m not going to spend my money here.”

Language – Language also matters, from how instructors address their students to the music played in class. Since fitness spaces have historically used gendered language, Davila says it takes some work to unlearn and practice using the right alternatives. BK Yoga Club’s founders say they consciously use empowering, gender-neutral language in class and don’t teach chanting out of respect for yoga’s roots in a culture different from their own.

Accessibility – The rise of online classes in the pandemic has opened a new world of opportunities for gyms and studios as well as customers. Through their digital platforms, BK Yoga Club’s reach has expanded across the country and parts of Europe, South America, and the Pacific islands. Virtual options can be more convenient for clients who don’t feel comfortable attending in-person, need more flexibility in their schedule, or live too far away. Online options may also be offered at lower price points than in-studio classes, where the cost can be a deterrent for many.

“I think the fitness industry is actually in an ideal position right now to be more inclusive because you have a lot more digital platforms,” Davila says. “If spaces are smart then online classes are going to remain after the pandemic, whenever that is.”