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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Yoga Equity Project aims to increase BIPOC access at Otter Creek Yoga

The Yoga Equity Project encourages and financially supports BIPOC in attending yoga classes at the Otter Creek Yoga Studio. Joanna Colwell, director and instructor, left, and Sasha Finnell, an instructor, right.
The Yoga Equity Project encourages and financially supports BIPOC in attending yoga classes at the Otter Creek Yoga Studio. Joanna Colwell, director and instructor, left, and Sasha Finnell, an instructor, right.

A local yoga studio launched a Yoga Equity Project in an effort to address the disparities in access to yoga education. The program actively encourages and financially supports Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in attending yoga classes at the Otter Creek Yoga Studio.  

Otter Creek Yoga has been sharing the art of meditation and healing with the Addison County community since 2001, according to its website. California native Joanna Colwell, director and instructor at Otter Creek Yoga, founded the studio after noticing a lack of places to practice yoga in the Middlebury community. 

Colwell initially began teaching lessons wherever space was available, often in places like church basements and elementary school gymnasiums. As her base of students grew over time, Colwell opened her first yoga studio at a space in the Marble Works.

With a deep interest in social justice, Colwell aims to lead her studio with a focus on equity, inclusion and justice. Beginning in the fall of 2019, Colwell and fellow Otter Creek Yoga instructor Natasha Chang began developing ideas as to how they could diversify their studio and share the art of yoga with different demographics, Colwell explained. 

The pair worked to create the Yoga Equity Project, which launched in 2020 and attempts to make yoga more accessible to communities that have historically faced obstacles to participating in the practice. Classes that are a part of the Yoga Equity Project are taught by BIPOC instructors and open to BIPOC participants in an effort to foster a comfortable environment. 

As a part of the Yoga Equity Project, the studio provides paid opportunities for BIPOC students to participate in their yoga classes. BIPOC students are able to receive a $20 stipend for each yoga class they attend, as the project recognizes the need for diversity in yoga spaces and the historical challenges faced by BIPOC communities in accessing wellness programs, according to the Addison Independent.

“You know there is a great big population of humans who can all benefit from postures and breathing practices,” Colwell told the Addison Independent in September. “And then you see who actually makes their way into the studios: oftentimes economically comfortable, older, white people.”  

The studio received an anonymous $25,000 donation during the Covid-19 pandemic through the Vermont Community Foundation, which gave them the initial funding to pay both the instructors and student stipends for the Equity Project, Colwell said. The studio began distributing the stipends for zoom BIPOC yoga sessions during the pandemic, and then transitioned back to in-person instruction when Covid-19 guidelines loosened. 

“This amazing person—I have no idea who they are—they got in touch with me during Covid through the Vermont Community Foundation, and they gave us that $25,000 grant,” Colwell said. 

The following fall, the same anonymous donor provided an additional grant of $40,000, which funded the entirety of the program in 2022. The studio used additional money following the second grant to support the design of a website showcasing the Yoga Equity Project. The website is expected to launch soon, Colwell said. 

This past fall, the studio hosted its BIPOC classes every Sunday at 3 p.m., taught by local yoga instructor and massage therapist Sasha Finnell. During the month of January, the studio is hosting a BIPOC class on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. as well as a class open to all on Tuesdays 5:30 p.m.

These classes provide BIPOC students with the opportunity to practice yoga in various forms, from Vinyasa techniques to restorative practices. Some of the classes wrap up with snacks and tea as a final treat, Colwell said. 

“The dream is for everyone to have access to these practices,” Colwell told The Campus. 

She added that the project has been successful in drawing in new students from different backgrounds to the studio. “That works for people to come and bring a friend and come to a different class. And that’s really helped our yoga studio too. You know, change the demographic of all of our classes, which is really, really nice,” she said. 

Laughing River Yoga, a yoga studio located in Burlington, took inspiration from Colwell’s Yoga Equity Project to develop a similar program at their studio. Finnell, who often teaches the BIPOC yoga sessions at the Otter Creek Studio also teaches classes at Laughing River Yoga, and has fostered collaboration between the two studios on the equity projects. 

Finnell started teaching the BIPOC classes at Otter Creek Yoga two years ago and has taught yoga throughout the state of Vermont for six years. 

“As a Black woman who grew up in southern Vermont, I wish these Yoga Equity Projects existed when I was younger,” Finnell told The Campus. “The BIPOC affinity spaces have been a great space of healing and connection.”

Aparajita Banik ’27 has been attending the BIPOC yoga classes at Otter Creek Yoga during the fall semester and J-Term.  

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“They don’t whitewash yoga, they make sure to respect the cultural and religious traditions and acknowledge the Sanskrit,” Banik said.  

Other students too have found the environment at the classes welcoming and relaxing. Shloka Raghavan ’27, recounted the peace she found while practicing.

“During a stressful semester, I found going to yoga very grounding. The instructor’s connection with yoga made it very easy to relax and find my own balance,” Raghavan said.

Colwell said she hopes to see the Equity Project program continuing for as long as she can find the funding. Her favorite part of this project is seeing students find relaxation through the classes. 

“You see people come in and they’re kind of tight, and one hour later they come down the hallway after class and it’s just like this wave of bliss and peace and giggling coming down the hallway and it’s so lovely,” Colwell said. “This is the best part of my week, seeing this joy.” 

Maggie Reynolds

Maggie Reynolds '24 (she/her) is the Editor in Chief.  

Maggie previously served as the Senior Local Editor, a Local Section Editor, and a Staff Writer. She spent this past J-term interning for VTDigger, covering topics from affordable housing in Addison County to town government scandals. She also interned for Seven Days VT as an arts & culture reporter summer 2022 and as a news reporter for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY summer 2021.   

Maggie is majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and Spanish. She was a three-year member of the Women's Swimming and Diving team. Maggie enjoys running, hiking, and iced maple lattes.