At 8 Limbs Yoga, founder Anne Phyfe Palmer sees too many classes filled with mostly white people of privilege. She’s setting out to change that, starting with cultural training for instructors.
This story has been edited to clarify the role the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga had in a controversy surrounding People of Color Yoga classes.
Last fall, the owner of Rainier Beach Yoga and the organizer of People of Color Yoga became the center of a storm when the studio donated space for a monthly class called “POC Yoga.”
On the social media site Nextdoor, the studio owner posted POC’s language inviting “people of color, and of all sexualities, ages, body sizes, abilities, genders and experience with yoga” to join what is mostly — at least in Seattle — a white person’s practice.
The Nextdoor post also stated “white friends, allies and partners are respectfully asked not to attend.”
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The blowback was so fierce that the Rainier Beach owner apologized for her “discriminatory language,” shut down her studio for a week and went into hiding.
Anne Phyfe Palmer, the owner of 8 Limbs Yoga, understood the teachers’ intent.
For 20 years, her classes have been filled with mostly white people — instructors and students both.
“Many people have said that’s because we’re Seattle,” Palmer said the other day. “But that’s not a valid answer. We need a knockdown of the liberal construct and to revisit the conversation on race.”
So Palmer, 46, has launched what she’s calling “cultural competency trainings” open to yoga teachers, staff and studio owners in the hopes of making Seattle’s yoga community “more versed in unconscious bias.”
“I want to create the training and space for conversation aimed at an awareness of white privilege,” Palmer said, “and how it affects where we are.”
The first training, held last month, was similar to corporate sensitivity training, but from now on it will be more yoga-studio-centric, Palmer said. Discussions could go anywhere but could certainly touch on the appropriation of yoga — which started in India — by white American women.
“Yoga instructors will be able to unpack their unconscious ways of seeing other people,” Palmer said. “White people working out their white stuff.”
Palmer wanted to be clear: She doesn’t have any personal experience with race-based slights or trauma.
But she has been haunted by recent, racially charged events around the country. And she has made sure to read the work of writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”), Kevin Powell and local writer Ijeoma Oluo.
Put simply, Palmer is trying to understand and make change at her studios and in the Seattle yoga community so that more people can stretch, breathe and feel calm.
“I’m not talking to you as an expert,” Palmer said. “I’m just becoming aware of my white privilege and my own way of seeing the world.”
It’s a brave and groundbreaking way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 8 Limbs, which was started on Capitol Hill and has expanded to Wedgwood, West Seattle and Phinney Ridge. The studios employ more than 60 and have hundreds of students.
Palmer grew up in New Orleans, wanting to be a poet.
“But I was too practical,” she said. “I needed to make money and I let my creativity get squeezed.”
She attended the University of Vermont and in 1993 took a cross-country trip to Seattle to visit her uncle, who ran Common Ground, a holistic health monthly. She never left.
Palmer started teaching aerobics at a Green Lake studio called Physical Culture, which hosted movement classes of all kinds — including yoga.
Two years later, she opened 8 Limbs, inspired by Smith & Hawken co-founder Paul Hawken’s book “Growing a Business.”
“He said the idea that will work will be the one you have a feeling about, but can’t even really explain to anyone,” Palmer said. “And that was my experience with 8 Limbs. I had this idea to open a place where all the different styles of yoga would be welcomed.”
It isn’t just a “pose place,” she said. Nor is yoga at 8 Limbs just a workout.
“Some people see me as a workout teacher,” Palmer said. “But I feel like I’m someone who is trying to help people become more at ease through their body.”
That seems to be more important now, as the city grows, open spaces shrink and more people fill the streets — and the offices — of Seattle.
“Lives are busier and have more pulls on them,” Palmer said.
She lives in Madison Valley with her husband, graphic artist Bez Palmer, and their two children, Lily, 15 and Coco, 10.
At home, Palmer is working on a memoir about yoga and ambition, and how grief — she and her husband lost a child in 2004 — brought the two into alignment for her.
And while Palmer doesn’t want to open more studios, she does want to make those she has feel more open. To everyone.
“We, as white people, don’t realize how easy it is,” she said. “We have a ‘welcome’ card. There’s much more of a door open.
“A person of color might have to do 200 percent to be seen in the same light.”
With this new training, and an intentional expansion of the community she has built, Palmer is hoping to teach not just yoga, but inclusion.
“This is something I can do to feel I am taking some action,” she said. “And not supporting the status quo.”