As a child growing up in a New York City household of Indian heritage, Melissa Shah was initially introduced to yoga at the age of 10 by her mother, who incorporated pranayama (yoga breathing exercises) to manage Shah’s asthma symptoms.
During middle school, Shah’s asthma had not shown any improvement, so at the age of 34, she began taking yoga more seriously. “We would simply visit a family friend’s house two or three days a week and engage in two-hour classes with a group of adults,” Shah tells Shape in a phone interview earlier this month. “I’m not sure if children’s yoga really existed at that time – there was no notion of enjoyable, playful, colorful children’s yoga – you just went and practiced.”
Shah acknowledges that she observed how Americans embraced the practice of yoga, and it became popular in the ’90s. However, the version celebrated in the United States didn’t always align with her personal experience of yoga.
One notable difference was the unfamiliarity of the group yoga studio concept to Shah, who had grown up practicing in more intimate home settings. “This idea of treating yoga more like a gym, that was completely new to me,” she explains. “It’s neither positive nor negative; it’s just how people relate to the practice. But for me, it was like ‘oh, people actually go to yoga as they go to, for example, Zumba or Pilates.’ It’s another fitness class they’re participating in.”
How She Got Started
In her early twenties, Shah obtained her yoga teaching certification and eventually decided to leave her full-time job in public health to pursue teaching about eight years ago. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that she established Find Your Breath, a yoga education brand with the mission of making the practice more accessible while simultaneously increasing representation of marginalized groups within the wellness industry.
Now, as a yoga therapist for both groups and individual clients, Shah emphasizes tailoring the practice to each student’s specific needs. This might involve adapting yogic tools, such as postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, and more, to accommodate someone’s physical, mental, and emotional abilities. During times of heightened political or cultural intensity, it may mean starting a session by posing a lighthearted question, intentionally fostering introspection and connections to build a sense of community.
Today, Find Your Breath strives to create an inclusive environment for individuals who have been historically underrepresented in the wellness industry, while also working to decolonize the ancient practice of yoga. This undertaking involves contemplating yoga’s current image in society and transforming it into something closer to its original roots, as stated by the Tubman Center for Health and Freedom.
One method in which Shah and her organization accomplish this is by providing the sorts of classes you may not commonly come across in more westernized yoga studios, such as mantra classes focused on chanting. Shah also states that she actively makes an effort to collaborate with practitioners and students on the articulation of traditional yoga terms and to educate them about the history and origins of yoga.
Nevertheless, Shah states that a significant aspect of her commitment to decolonizing yoga boils down to her own representation as an Indian woman in a time when images of slim white women practicing yoga can dominate social media. (See more: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
“There was a part of me that didn’t know how furious I was [about this whitewashing],” states Shah. “I didn’t truly have as much agency on how to articulate these things, and I didn’t really feel as confident as an instructor because I didn’t fit into this prototype [of what a yoga instructor] was supposed to resemble [at least according to modern American society].”
While she was combating against this westernized “norm,” Shah confesses that she still possessed privileges in many ways. “In terms of having a straight-size body [and] being completely able-bodied, there was a part of me that could somewhat navigate those spaces and somewhat transition in and out of them in a manner,” that many others cannot.
Courtesy of Melissa Shah
Discovering Her Flow and Her Focus
Even as she began to observe things within the wellness industry — yoga instructors mispronouncing Sanskrit terms or classes composed almost exclusively of white participants — Shah says she clung to yoga for a sense of community and a profound adoration for the practice.
Still, over time, she states that she felt increasingly convinced that she needed to do something to create a more inclusive space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) yoga practitioners, such as herself.
“Noticing how there was this extensive ripple effect in Black communities [following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020] and other communities of color to feel empowered [to assert their presence within the wellness industry and beyond], I realized there are individuals who desire to engage in this work,” she says. “That motivated me to be more inventive.”
So, Find Your Breath became the convergence point between yoga and social justice — a place to tune into your authentic self and dharma (i.e. calling or purpose) to ultimately take action toward what you believe in, she explains. Find Your Breath also now offers classes exclusively for clients with marginalized identities, workshops with discounted rates for BIPOC attendees, and an increased number of personalized sessions to ensure she can make yoga more adaptable for a range of abilities. (Shah is leading a Deep Rest: Yoga and Mantra Retreat later this year at the Ojas Retreat Center in southern California, and is raising funds that will go directly to scholarship spots for queer and transgender individuals of color looking to attend. You can contribute to those efforts by way of a “solidarity gift” here.)
Because of the pandemic, Shah primarily conducts her instruction virtually now — something she states has enabled her to connect with students in exceptionally imaginative ways. “Numerous individuals feel more at ease in the comfort of their own homes,” expresses Shah. “They are more at ease, and they are more open to expressing [their sentiments about the practice].”
These more personalized encounters likewise enable her to reclaim yoga’s portrayal as a discipline that can and should be inclusive of all body types, she contributes. As yoga gained popularity in America, it also started to become more exclusive; it transformed into a workout for individuals with specific body types (i.e. slender, strong, flexible) or for individuals striving to achieve this physique.
However, that is simply not an accurate depiction of yoga — and Shah is determined to dismantle that perspective. Moreover, she is witnessing genuine progress. Not solely within yoga culture, but throughout the wellness industry — an increasing number of individuals and entrepreneurs (e.g. Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel, just to provide a few examples) are taking the initiative to make the wellness and fitness industries more inclusive and welcoming.
“A year or two ago, the wellness industry predominantly showcased just one type [of person],” explains Shah. “However, I believe there have always been segments within the wellness industry that are [inclusive], they just haven’t been prominently visible. Now, that paradigm is shifting.”
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