How Melissa Shah Is Creating a More Inclusive Yoga Practice One Flow at a Time

The founder of Find Your Breath is on a mission to bring yoga closer to its Indian roots and establish a more inclusive practice overall. 

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Shah

As a child growing up in an Indian household in New York City, Melissa Shah, was first introduced to yoga at age 10 by her mother, who implemented pranayama (yoga breathing exercises) to manage Shah's asthma symptoms.

By middle school her asthma had still not improved, so Shah, now 34, began practicing yoga more seriously. "We would just go to a family friend's house two or three days a weekand do two-hour classes with a bunch of adults," Shah tells Shape in a phone interview earlier this month."I don't know if kids' yoga really existed then — there was no concept of fun, playful, colorful kids' yoga — you just went and you practiced."

Shah says she watched as Americans latched on to the practice of yoga and it became mainstream in the '90s — only the version celebrated in the U.S. didn't always align with her own experience with yoga.

For one thing, the concept of the group yoga studio was unfamiliar to Shah, who grew up practicing in more intimate household settings. "This idea of treating yoga more like a gym, that was brand new for me," she explains. "[That's] neither good nor bad; it's what peoples' relationship to the practice is. But to me, it was like 'oh, people actually go to [yoga] as they go to, say, Zumba or Pilates.' It's another fitness class they're doing."

How She Got Started

In her early 20s, Shah received her yoga teaching certification and eventually decided to quit her full-time job in public health to pursue teaching about eight years ago. But it wasn't until 2016 that she founded Find Your Breath, a yoga education brand with a mission to make the practice more accessible while helping to simultaneously increase the representation of minorities within the wellness industry.

Now, as a yoga therapist (for both groups and individual clients), Shah says she focuses on adjusting the practice to each student's needs. Sometimes that means adapting yogic tools — such as asanas (postures), pranayama, meditation, and more — to accommodate someone's physical, mental, and emotional capacity. Other times — especially during times of particular political or cultural heaviness — that means starting a session by asking a lighthearted question to intentionally create community through introspection and connections.

Today, Find Your Breath works to create an inclusive space for people who have been underrepresented in the wellness industry as well as to decolonize the ancient practice of yoga — a task that "involves thinking about yoga's current image in society and transforming it into one that's closer to its roots," according to the Tubman Center for Health and Freedom.

One way in which Shah and her organization do this is by offering the types of classes you might not commonly find in more westernized yoga studios, such as mantra classes focused on chanting. Shah also says she makes a conscientious effort to work with practitioners and students on the pronunciation of traditional yoga terms and to educate them on the history and roots of yoga.

Still, Shah says a large part of her commitment to decolonizing yoga comes down to her own representation as an Indian woman in a time when images of thin white women doing 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 angry I was [about this whitewashing]" says Shah. "I didn't really have as much agency on how to speak about these things, and I didn't really feel as confident as a teacher because I didn't fit into this prototype [of what a yoga teacher] was supposed to look like [at least according to modern American society]."

While she was fighting against this westernized "norm," Shah admits she was still privileged in a lot of ways. "In terms of having a straight-size body [and] being really able-bodied, there was a part of me that could sort of navigate those spaces and sort of move in and out of them in a way," that many others can't.

Melissa Shah
Courtesy of Melissa Shah

Finding Her Flow and Her Focus

Even as she began to notice things within the wellness industry — yoga teachers mispronouncing Sanskrit terms or classes composed almost exclusively of white practitioners — Shah says she held onto yoga for a sense of community and a deep love for the practice.

Still, over time, she says she felt increasingly certain she needed to do something to create a more inclusive space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) yoga practitioners, such as herself.

"Seeing how there was this huge ripple effect in Black communities [following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020] and other communities of color to feel empowered [to claim their space within the wellness industry and beyond], I realized there are people who want to participate in this work," she says. "That inspired me to be more innovative."

So, Find Your Breath became the intersection between yoga and social justice — a place to tune into your true 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 one-on-one sessions to ensure she can make yoga more adaptable for a variety 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 people of color looking to attend. You can contribute to those efforts by way of a "solidarity gift" here.)

Maintaining Momentum

Due to the pandemic, Shah does most of her teaching virtually now — something she says has allowed her to connect with students in really creative ways. "A lot of people are more comfortable in their homes," says Shah. "They're more relaxed, and they're more willing to share [their feelings about the practice]."

These more individualized experiences also allow her to reclaim yoga's image as a practice that can and should be inclusive of all body types, she adds. As yoga became more mainstream in the U.S., it also started to become more exclusive; it morphed into a workout for people with specific body types (i.e. thin, strong, flexible) or for people looking to achieve this body type.

But that's simply not an accurate representation of yoga — and Shah is set on dismantling that perspective. And she's noticing real progress. Not just within yoga culture, but throughout the wellness industry — more and more people and entrepreneurs (e.g. Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel, just to name two) are stepping up to make the wellness and fitness industries more inclusive and inviting.

"A year or two ago, there was pretty much just one prototype [of a person who was shown within the wellness industry]," says Shah. "But I think there [were] pockets within the wellness industry that actually are [inclusive] and just haven't had the visibility. Now, that's changing."

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