Black Yogis Exist and Yes, We Matter
PHOTO: DEUN IVORY
I attended my first yoga class in an attempt to “find myself”. My daughters were young, no more than five or six years old, and a friend warned me to begin to practice self care before I lost myself.
My body clenched as I arrived at a busy 24 Hour Fitness in mid-city Los Angeles. The size of the gym, the trendy workout attire, and the baffling equipment nearly sent me running back to my car. Finding myself would have to wait.
Then she walked past me. A black yogi.
I didn’t realize at the time that she was the instructor for the class I was planning to attend. I was struck by her posture, her confidence, and the effortless way she owned the space around her. I followed her like a pleasant scent. If self-care meant that I could walk like that, sign me up!
The classroom was full of other black yogis. Different shapes, sizes, and skin tones, but all with a hint of that confidence. That swag. And I needed some swag. Desperately.
After overcoming the standard gym anxieties of finding a place to lay my mat, not making too much noise, and praying that I did not stand out like a sore thumb, I followed her instructions to sit cross-legged on my mat, and proceeded to do something no other workout had ever asked of me: To be still, and to be present.
The rest of the class was a series of challenges coupled with encouragement, but always asking me to trust myself, to push myself, and to be intentional. I was asked to suspend disbelief and to transcend.
Following that class I attended multiple classes a week hoping to strengthen that small piece of self I’d found sitting on my yoga mat for the first time, and I did. My downward dog improved, my awareness of what was happening in my hips and my pinky toes increased, but with this development came another realization.
Why weren’t there more black people in these studios?
I began to pay closer attention to the dynamics surrounding these classes. The first and most obvious barrier was cost. Many of the families I knew, especially those who would benefit the most from the practice of yoga and meditation, viewed the cost of gym memberships, attire, and equipment as luxuries, and they are. Health is a lucrative industry, making it accessible to those who hold the most privilege. The problem is that the elements of stillness and mindfulness that are found in yoga are also key to everyone’s wellness, which makes this barrier a form of injustice.
The second barrier was the shortage of instructors who looked, spoke, and moved like them. Now that I was paying closer attention, I realized that I could attend nearly any yoga class for the physical exercise, but the classes where I made the mind-body-spirit connection were led by black women. Maybe there was something magical about the way they moved, or familiar about the way they spoke. It could’ve even been the validation of knowing that they had to surpass the same barriers that I did to get to their mat. Whatever the reason, to this day, nine years later, I find this to remain true. I no longer attend large gym setting yoga classes. I seek black instructors in small studios. By doing this I have found a tribe of black yogis, like me. We come to class with various shades of swag, each aspiring to do our personal best on that day. We share more than space, we share experiences, and we bring that with us as we chant in unison, as we help to align each other’s chakras, and as we disprove the notion that black people “do not do yoga.”
The third barrier is a lack of knowledge about the practice of yoga in Africa. Western civilization primarily focuses on the yoga practices found in India, disregarding evidence that supports that similar postures were used for meditation and spiritual practice in ancient and modern African civilizations. Through paintings, sculptures, and even current pictures of rituals that continue to be practiced in modern Africa, we see that plow pose, wheel pose, and other popular and well known yoga positions have been integral in the lives of African people since early civilization. Still, we are told that yoga is primarily a white practice.
In order to correct this myth, black yogis will have to expand their practice into a movement. Small, community based, and black owned yoga studios must be supported by the communities they serve in order to employ black yogis, and to reignite the practice of yoga and meditation in people of African descent, especially here in the United States. Practicing yogis will need to appeal to their family members and loved ones, challenging the myths they have heard about practicing yoga with the truth about our internal power. Cost can be creatively managed using the many technological tools at our disposal, making it possible for black families to sit in meditation in the sanctity of their own living rooms.
Looking back, I realize that I did not just find myself on that yoga mat nine years ago; I found my history and I found my tribe. I shudder to think about the turn I may have taken had that black yogi not crossed my path that day. Would I have returned to my car and struggled on in search of a self that I wasn’t convinced existed? Would I have believed that mindfulness and meditation were luxuries for white people?
Thankfully I will never have to answer those questions. Thankfully we have the opportunity to send millions of black yogis into the world.