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Understanding the experiences of people from minority groups when accessing and participating in yoga

PhD Spotlight | Sally SJ Brown, MA, B Soc Sci, Doctor of Philosophy student 

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My Masters degree is in religious studies from York St John University and my undergraduate degree is in sociology and social anthropology from the University of Hull. I am a qualified yoga teacher and former communications professional. My interests include health promotion, social care, equality and diversity, and autism.

My PhD research investigates the experiences of people from minority groups when accessing and participating in yoga. Yoga has been demonstrated to offer a broad range of health and wellbeing benefits. However, in the UK and global north, yoga’s participants and teachers are predominantly from a small, privileged subset of the population (white, well-educated women). This suggests a lack of access to yoga for members from other, minority groups which warrants investigation as a potential health inequality.

  • PhD Title: Investigating the yoga access and participation experiences of minority groups in regional UK cities
  • Supervisors: ProfessorAnne-Marie Bagnall and Dr Louise Warwick-Booth

Tell us a bit about yourself and your path to your research

For many years I worked in journalism and then in communications in the NHS. I was involved in health promotion, older people’s health and social care, disability rights, and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). On a personal level I have a hidden disability myself, receiving an autism diagnosis 10 years ago and identifying as neurodiverse.

In my late 40s, I decided to train as a yoga teacher, choosing to focus on community yoga and accessible yoga, developing my long-standing interests in health and equality. I now teach Hatha and other slower yoga styles to groups including older people, disabled people and people on low incomes.

For the last two years, I have taught a community yoga class in a diverse, disadvantaged inner-city area of Leeds. It was through this class that I first began to ask the questions that have gone on to form my PhD thesis topic. The class is free, thanks to funding, and takes place in a local authority building at the heart of the community. The people who attend are from a broad range of cultures, classes, ages and ethnicities. There are few classes like this, and I began to wonder how easy it is for people from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds to access or participate in yoga.

Two years ago, one of my community yoga class students, who worked in the NHS, mentioned an opportunity they’d seen for a funded PhD research at Leeds Beckett. I jumped at the chance to apply and was enormously excited and privileged to be successful.

What is your research about and what makes you passionate about it?

As a community yoga teacher, a neurodiverse person and someone who has benefited physically and mentally from yoga myself, I feel passionately about making yoga accessible to as many different kinds of people as possible.

Studies show that yoga students and teachers in the UK and global north are almost exclusively well-educated, white women. My research aims to shed light on why so few people from minority, or marginalised, groups are participating in yoga. I am asking diverse people themselves about their experiences of accessing and participating in yoga and what factors influence this.

My study participants are adults who have done some yoga and are self-identifying members of groups that are a minority within British society and / or underrepresented in British yoga. These comprise people who are from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background, disabled (including mental, physical or long-term conditions), LGBTQ+, trans or non-binary, from a disadvantaged background or lower than average income or level of education, aged over 65, from a religious or cultural community or of a larger body type. Men are not included as a specific group as their experience is not typically one of minority. However, several study participants from other minority groups are men, and so the male experience is still captured.

The issue of minority access to health and wellbeing benefiting activities, such as yoga, is more important than ever in the light of the health inequality highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the initiative to ‘build back fairer’ to combat this.

Why did you choose Leeds Beckett?

When one of my community yoga class students, who worked in the NHS, mentioned an opportunity they’d seen for a funded PhD research at Leeds Beckett. I had been using the library at Headingly Campus to study for many years as a guest and felt so comfortable there that LBU was already my academic ‘home’. I have also always admired LBU’s approach to such important issues as health promotion and health inequality, which has felt to me to be more ‘real world’ and down to earth than other universities.

How have you applied what you’ve learned from your work at the School of Health?

I am in the second year of my research studies and so have not, as yet, had the opportunity to apply what I am in the process of learning. However, I have been fortunate enough to speak recently about my early emerging findings at the Manchester International Festival of Public Health and at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) Yoga Studies postgraduate conference.

What has been your favourite experience at Leeds Beckett?

I have been enormously lucky to benefit from a team of incredibly supportive and knowledgeable PhD supervisors. One of my favourite experiences has been my monthly online supervision meetings. Not only have they helped me keep on track academically with my research during some very difficult times, but they’ve kept me going personally too. Moving to a cottage by the north Northumberland coast with my dog during an international pandemic was great in many ways, but the monthly Zoom meetings became all-important opportunities to connect and see friendly faces.

I am enjoying my precious time as a PhD researcher like nothing else I have ever done in my life. It’s truly an enormous privilege and even bigger pleasure to contribute in any small way to the knowledge of humanity. And, for me as an autistic person, to be working independently and flexibly, and no longer in what can be an extremely oppressive office culture, is a source of joy every single day. I have a strong hope to continue in some way to work in academia, and at LBU, after my PhD is completed.

Sally SJ Brown

My Masters degree is in religious studies from York St John University and my undergraduate degree is in sociology and social anthropology from the University of Hull. I am a qualified yoga teacher and former communications professional. My interests include health promotion, social care, equality and diversity, and autism.

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