Photo: James Demaria

The wellness industry has an inclusivity problem. This yogi wants to change that

As with any good meet-cute, 28-year-old Kajuan Douglas, fell in love with yoga by chance. Almost a decade ago, after watching one too many episodes of So You Think You Can Dance, Douglas was inspired to sign up for a dance class. When he arrived, ready to fouette his way to greatness, one thing soon became clear. “I wasn’t flexible at all,” Douglas tells Mic, laughing.

His body’s refusal to bend the way it needed to was such a problem the instructor suggested he start off with yoga as pre-dance prep — it’d improve his flexibility and balance. Douglas found a $5 yoga class near Union Square and was immediately taken with the practice. “I went to a class that was really physically challenging, so I was hooked after the first time,” he says. “I was working at a restaurant back then and it got to a point I was calculating my tips by how many yoga classes I could afford.”

While Douglas never returned to dance, he did go on to become a certified yoga instructor, an advocate for body positivity, and the founder of Merge, a inclusivity-centered yoga and fitness studio in Manhattan.

Photo: James Demaria

Even if you aren’t particularly focused on your health, it’s virtually impossible to escape the “wellness” boom. With a never-ending slew of self-appointed health gurus and fitness influencers on social media comes the unsettling reality that however well-intentioned the mass cultural movement toward “radical self-care” is, it breeds elitism. Within this context, the phrase “health is wealth” takes on a sinister new undertone.

The wellness industrial complex encompasses everything from nutritional supplements with murky and minimal scientific efficacy to overpriced and unsustainable fitness schemes. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience playground, Goop, to Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle brand POOSH, celeb-helmed wellness juggernauts bring in millions of dollars of revenue per year. These brands fail to take into account how wellness should, in theory, be nuanced. They instead present living well through an uncomfortably white and exclusive lens.

Ironically, while wellness practices created by people of color (e.g: yoga, Chinese medicine, Indigenous ayahuasca sessions) are worshipped in the West, the industry itself is not inclusive, Douglas asserts. A cursory scroll through most wellness-adjacent hashtags — and even a look inside popular health publications — reveals a large-scale erasure of a variety of Black and brown people. Those who doesn’t fit the mainstream image associated with Western ideas of health, many of which egregiously culturally appropriate elements of Asian cultural practices, are exiled to the sidelines. These includes differently abled, LGBTQ, and bigger-bodied people.

The discrimination both Douglas and his non-white peers faced during their journey in yoga instruction inspired him to open Merge; the primary goal of the space is to respect the practice while acknowledging that wellness looks and will inevitably feel different for every individual. And that's okay — good, even.

However well-intentioned the mass cultural movement toward “radical self-care” is, it breeds elitism. Within this context, the phrase “health is wealth” takes on a sinister new undertone.

“The idea of health has become so classist and monetized it’s difficult to find genuine spaces that empower every kind of person,” says Douglas, adding that many yoga brands in particular, are out here trying to sharpen their "brand” instead of concentrating on how that studio can best serve their community. Making money isn’t wrong by any means, but prioritizing image — especially if it’s not an inclusive one — is a practice Douglas found unacceptable.

During the past few years in particular, Douglas has encountered yoga studios that elevate influencers and models as representatives of the space, which creates the impression that anyone who doesn’t fit the that physical prototype isn’t welcome. Instead of going in that direction, he wanted to focus on being a source of emotional support to his students, as well as creating a warm, welcoming studio for them to escape to for their practice. Douglas found a barebones space and went to work repainting, cleaning, repairing the floors, and building out changing spaces himself — the entire renovation budget came from his savings.

Photo: James Demaria

He wanted to create a beautiful studio for his students without making them feel pressured to conform to “fancy” yoga culture. “I wanted to build the antithesis of that,” Douglas says. “We have rough corners and we’ve got texture and grit. That means come as you are.”

As Douglas details in his podcast, The Dark Side of Yoga, the prioritization of a flawless image over skills and education contributes to the whitewashing of the wellness industry, and to the oppressive structures of racism and classism that hurt those who are already fighting erasure.

“A lot of us were feeling like it didn’t matter how hard we worked because it was so much about how you look,” says Douglas, whose podcast was inspired by the untold stories of his peers who were (and are still) struggling. “During the last five or six years, all of a sudden, these teachers I’d really admired started to give up. A lot of them said they weren’t being paid enough, or even as much as their younger, white counterparts.”

The aim was to both teach and learn about how to better support each other and avoid reinforcing harmful standards.

In one of Douglas’s podcasts discussions in the fall, he and a co-host discussed the sexual abuse some yoga students experienced through the guise of an adjustment — a hands-on correction ordinarily used to enhance a pose. “I’ve been preaching that this was an issue for years,” Douglas said. “I’ve emailed editors and writers pleading desperately to listen to the stories I had.”

For the most part, Douglas was met with dismissal, something he can’t help but feel had more to do with the subjects of many of his stories being people of color than a lack of interest in the topic. He was so troubled by the stories he’d gathered over the years that he made it a point to teach instructors-in-training what embodying professionalism should look like — starting with consensual touch.

Mental health is also a priority for Douglas, who is acutely aware of how being a marginalized person — he is a gay Black man — in the wellness space can be challenging and sometimes demoralizing. This past March, he organized a therapist-led discussion with some of his peers and friends who had experienced mistreatment due to their race, age, or body type. The aim was to both teach and learn about how to better support each other and avoid reinforcing harmful standards.

From developing more intuitive teaching practices to changing the narrative to make wellness truly feel like it’s for everyone, Douglas sees Merge as a hub of potential for yoga. He's modeled it after what feels like an authentic tribute to the practice's intentions: to energize and heal the body and mind. “I’m tired of seeing one light-skinned black person thrown in a wellness campaign,” he says. “I’m tired of barely seeing Asian or Latinx people. It’s bullshit. We don’t need the wellness industry to pander. We need it to actually be inclusive and that’s what I’m trying to build.”