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Before I share my writing with the world, I always tighten up with nervousness.
Writing is how I make sense of the world I see. It is how I send out what I cannot hold in. Nadine McNeil provided me in all of her transformational wisdom a remindful offering a friend shared with The Toni Morrison:
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
I nearly burst into tears. Flesh under my skin felt like sheaths of tingling light. I took in more air, said thank you to the Universal Empress, and got to work.
Hi, I’m looking at you, yoga community—the predominately white-centered yoga community.
Now, in this movement for Black lives to matter, while we are amplifying Black voices and intentionally honoring space for people who aren’t always heard yet have plenty of insight, wisdom, experience, and compassion to share, are you asking yourself why white yoga instructors are at the center of yoga instruction and highly visible?
Our modern-day practice is rooted in the multi-millennia lineage and tradition in India. Yet, in this country, my screen is inundated with images of instructors who are neither reflective of yoga’s South Asian origin nor of the diverse community of practitioners.
Modern western studio yoga can do better. We can create and grow yogic communities that do not displace cultural practices seeded by folk who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Christine Rose, who identifies as Black and a third-generation Cape Verdean, along with Karuna O’Donnell, who identifies as white, cofounded 4 Corners Yoga + Wellness in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Dorchester in Boston, Massachusetts. The duo act with intention and in alignment with their values that guide the way they make moves with and in partnership with the community who have been there before them.
“We have this yoga studio model, which is a Main Street small business. When people would say Oh! you know, yoga is coming to Dorchester [it is important] to have cultural humility and say yoga is in Dorchester. There are a lot of grassroots, amazing POC spaces like The Guild and Kemetic Yoga Egyptian practices that are happening. They just might not have gotten an official Main Street sign and opened an LLC. So not invisibilizing everything that’s happening there, partnering with who’s already there, doing this for decades. Okay. Of course, we’re so grateful to be welcomed with yoga is coming to Dorchester. [But] there are tons of people and families who are doing yoga every day with their whole family. So just being humble, like we’re joining, we’re not starting.
And to really acknowledge that yoga practice comes from people of color.”
We are here. We exist. We practice. We teach.
I began my yoga practice 10 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. I was an overworked and tired 23-year-old middle school teacher in the city’s schools. Megan, one of my oldest friends, suggested that I try a yoga class during a community yoga night. I could afford it at $5. I remember walking in and feeling lost. Where do I put my shoes? Oh, shoot, I left my socks on. Ugh. Why did I wear bell-bottom spandex? Am I doing this right? But, where do I put my hand? Where am I supposed to look? All the uncertain questions many beginning yogis flounder through at the outset of their yoga journey.
At the end of class, I loved feeling a sense of release. Surrender. My mind was cleared of its anxious pacing. I began to seek out more of this feeling. The problem was that I had trouble finding community classes that were offered more than twice a week. Then, I started to notice that I was often the only Black person in the entire studio. The studios I tried out were almost entirely frequented by white womxn. It felt like no one showed an interest in my growth as a student.
Even though I was a beginner, I rarely received assists. Often people would look past me or even push me aside and out of their way rushing to the changing room. I didn’t exist. It came down to me choosing to not be seen in exchange for a place to practice.
I had almost given up until I found a donation-based studio offering the most physically demanding yoga I had ever experienced and wanted to practice more of—power vinyasa. The studio, now 4Warriors studio in Towson, Maryland, was and remains Black-owned. Walking into that studio felt like I had found a home I didn’t know I could return to. The owner and the teachers on staff looked me in each of my eyes and welcomed me like they missed me. I wasn’t the only Black person in the entire place, either. We were there. Teaching, practicing, working, struggling, releasing side by side on our mats, doing our work together, and no longer alone.
I had found, in that studio, my first yoga community amongst people who didn’t push me to the margins. That feeling of belonging in a public space had eluded me for my entire adult life.
I was encouraged to join the 200-hour teacher training led by Sid McNairy and earn my certification. During the training, my yoga practice deepened and brought me through a gut-wrenchingly turbulent time in my life. It was the love and support of that community that held me to see something more in myself.
Yoga accompanied me on my medical journey at that time. My consistent and disciplined practice moved dis-ease through my body and helped me heal from two benign tumor surgeries and an eye stroke that caused a central retinal vein occlusion that impaired my left eye’s vision. To this day, doctors do not have a reason for why my body began to tumor, clot, and hemorrhage. Nor do they know why I healed and recovered with little to no persistent damage. Along the way, my mother’s bone cancer went into remission, and I let go of 17 pounds of extra weight, left a marriage that no longer served my highest intentions, and applied to a doctoral program at Harvard. I did not know that it would take the permanent distortion of my vision and body for me to ultimately see life and value the wellness of it differently.
I felt less alone in my skin because the teacher training was led by a Black person. Jean-Jacques Gabriel, a self-identified Haitian-born Black man living in America, father, artist, and yoga instructor at Studio34 in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, shares what is possible when a teacher training is majority BIPOC:
“In our [yoga teacher training] the first year I co-taught it, I looked around and as everyone came in, I was like, wow, we’re 60 percent Black in here and in a yoga teacher training! When we have majority, we don’t feel like we’re under white gaze. We feel like it’s ours and that changes the space completely. So it was a couple months into it and I learned that the white folk in the room greatly benefited too, they learned how to have authentic relationships with Black folk and POC.
So all of the, you know, white people trying to blacken up their speech and trying to get too chummy and friendly faded away, some super long-lasting relationships have been formed with people who would’ve never got close. I know for sure that wouldn’t happen in the same way if it was a majority white space. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen at all. I’m saying it wouldn’t happen in the same way. Not as quickly, not as thoroughly.”
Outside of the United States, Black yoga instructors toil to create inclusive, healing, and protective yogic spaces for and with other Black yogis. Catherine Nyambura is one of 200-hour yoga teacher training facilitators with the Africa Yoga Project. She shares:
“In Kenya, we have more Black yoga teachers. Maybe 90 percent are Black yoga teachers. Young people from the poor backgrounds are at risk of police harassment and injustice. This is why we offer free scholarships for them to take our yoga teacher training. Personally, I work with these youths to develop their yoga careers by holding weekly workshops and acting as a mentor. I also [offer] paid private and group classes in Kenya [and] other African countries to expand employability for vulnerable Black youths in Africa.”
I moved to the Boston area for school and realized what I was fortunate to escape in Baltimore: there are far more yoga studios in the United States where people who look like me continue to be unseen. And, it seems that the studios are almost entirely owned and led by white people. I write “seems” because we do not know the numbers.
Yoga Alliance does not track data about our demographics as members. Nor do they provide an option for members to offer that information. We have no idea how many registered Yoga Alliance teachers identify as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color. We have no idea how many yoga studios/schools that are granted permission to host 200/300-hour teacher trainings are owned and led by people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or of Color. To not prioritize gathering diversity demographic data is to bury our responsibility of identifying and addressing the problem. Without data, we are left with individual experiences and expressions, which have been ignored for hundreds of years.
Organizations will often push back, suggesting their employees or partners would not feel comfortable divulging this kind of information. If you (the being reading this very sentence) are feeling resistance to unearthing this information, you are deciding for us all and denying us the opportunity to share and opt-in.
Just like our yoga and meditation practices support us to sit with what is and gain clarity, we need this data to see clearly what many of us BIPOC yoga practitioners in this country see. The impact of having this data within the yoga community will be unavoidable.
Erick DuPree, who identifies as Queer and white, is the Chief Operations Officer of Three Queens Yoga. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania studio leads yoga teacher trainings that do not hide realities of discrimination and anti-Black racism. He says to yoga studio owners who want to do better and shift to first:
“Read Layla F. Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy, you know, just read the book amongst your leadership, your own teaching leadership. I think the second one is to take a book like Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World by Michelle Cassandra Johnson and make it required reading in your teacher training. You’re doing the work just as your own leadership group, you’re then taking the work and you’re putting it into your training.
And I’ll be brutally honest. If 20 people are doing your teacher training for $3,500 a pop give or take, you can afford to hire a race educator for a weekend. We can all take a break from sun salutations and whatever to talk about race, diversity, inclusion, in our trainings. We do it in ours, and it has dramatically changed the quality of our teachers and community.”
We are in a window of time that, depending on the actions we take, can and will shift lifetimes for generations of people who come after us. It is essential that we balance action with reflection and rest. We need spaces to restore, recover, rest, and cry before we have to get up and face the rest of the world and its unrelenting need to fill our days with Zoom calls.
A reflective Nadine McNeil returns to share:
“Sadly, we live in a commercial environment, and yoga, as we know it today, became overcommercialized at the cost of the social-political issues where it could play a greater role. You know, one of the things I remember very early on is when I started to see, no, I’m not African American, I’m off of Jamaican extraction. While we share a skin color and a kinship, there’s a cultural difference just in terms of how we were raised coming from the Caribbean. Many of us are heavily influenced by colonialism, whereas in the United States, our Brothers and Sisters are impacted by civil war, really. You know? So, that in and of itself, the foundation is very different.
But one of the things I saw early on, and I confess I had some resistance to, it was, you know, yoga for People of Color, because what came up for me is if we’re creating this divide within the yoga community, the one real place where we can actually break down these barriers, are we not perpetuating the same environment in which we’re living? With that said, I also understand that there’s a real desire for a safe place for people of color in the United States to gather, and to be able to speak freely and be vulnerable and have a level of understanding.”
For many yogis who are Black and embody suffering at the knee of state-sanctioned police brutality, we need additional restorative and healing yogic spaces for only Black people— right now, until we don’t.
Without a doubt, I can tell you that I would not have accessed the depths of growth I experienced as a practitioner and teacher if I were in a predominantly white yoga studio and with studio owners who had not started the internal reflective work to unearth how their conscious and unconscious actions perpetuate anti-Black racism. I have had to wade through too many microaggressions and gaslit spiritual bypassing waters while practicing yoga in this Black body with tightly coiled hair.
Like the time I unknowingly walked into a yoga class marketed as a mix of primal movement and tribal dance. Twenty minutes into the workout, I hear djembe drumming. I have no idea what is happening and am confusingly surrounded by 30 or so white womxn beating their chests, piercingly yelping “AHOOOWP!” while in the Goddess asana. Shortly thereafter, the instructor leads the group through a labored variation of Sinte-styled movement.
Oh F. This is the sunken place. And. I. Need. To. Get. Out. I immediately wrote the studio and corporate headquarters, asked about the origins of tribal dance in their workouts, and why they do not explicitly say from where culturally the movements derive, instead of monolithically marketing them as tribal and derogatorily labeling the movements as primal—i.e. primitive? The brief response over the phone from whom I found out was the Office Manager was a nasaled, high-pitched “Why?!”—minutes before she hung up. I contemplated writing about my experience and titling the piece, Monetizing Racial Tropes: How I Inadvertently Found Myself in the Sunken Place When I Was Just Trying to Exercise.
Jean-Jacques Gabriel returns to speak to the need for Black or majority people of color wellness spaces. Thank goodness he offers:
“In a world that is so organized by racism and capitalism, a lot of the things that I’ve put energy toward have been to create economic access to yoga and to nourish Black folk. Whether it’s teaching in spaces that are the most affordable, offering free classes, and teaching specifically Black and if not specifically, Black and POC offerings. You have to build up Black and POC things separate from white folk. I’m a firm believer in that because all those places that we go for health and wellness will be mired in those valuations around wealth and race that will not support us unless we have a majority in those spaces.”
Ask yourself how many times you have said or overheard someone say to the one Black person in the studio who is signing people in: “Oh…are you the teacher? How long have you been certified to teach?” How about: “Can I touch your hair? I like how you have it knotted in the back…It’s so cool that you wrap it up in that thing.” Then there’s the: “You need to come out more. Be more bright and cheery. You look angry.” Or the exclamation eerily reminiscent of the premise of the movie “Get Out“: “I wish I could jump into your body. It’s so petite, athletic, and flexible.”
Ask yourself how many times you’ve witnessed the next yogi intentionally move their mats away from the one other Black person in the studio. Or assume that the two Black people in the studio know each other and came together. How often have you heard, “English first? Or, no Sanskrit—it will scare off students.” Oh, and there’s the: “You teach trap yoga right?” I mean I might but why are you assuming that’s what I am teaching right now?
These instances in totality cannot be easily explained away and avoided given multiple Black yogis have expressed the recurrence of these incidents across studios in multiple cities around the globe. I know because I am in the middle of a project examining the yoga experience for Black practitioners and instructors in the United States and beyond. I am listening and hearing of the same painful experiences.
During dharma talks, teacher trainings, week-long intensives, and continuing education workshops, I have noticed a growing number of white yoga instructors quick to bypass and not acknowledge traumatic experiences Black yogis face living in a world with others who practice anti-Black racism. Instead, these non-Black yoga instructors encourage us to meditate more, sit with our discomfort, ask how we can see ourselves in the other person, and be kind, not follow the story in our head [insert more variations of the same, please].
I ask Andre Coles, the Community Programs Director for Roots2Rise, about this spiritual bypassing. Andre, who identifies as Black, remarks:
“I’m not telling myself that story. I’m not making that up. That is happening. And no matter how I believe that I’m strong and I’m powerful and that I can change the world, that doesn’t mitigate the fact that if I get pulled over by a cop, I have to put my hands on the dash. I have to put everything on the dash, you know? I can believe whatever I want to, but when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun, it’s different. Because you can’t really free yourself from that because it’s external. You can do all the work, internally. But, it doesn’t stop that from happening.”
Expressing our very real experiences is not low vibrational, judgmental, or negative. We are courageously sharing what clearly is with no room to look away.
See and stay with the truth.
I am tired of this. We are tired of this. We practice yoga to be well—not to be retraumatized.
Anti-Black racism does not rain on all my days in yoga studios. Some days are sunny, filled with light and love. Those are the ones when I can practice in alignment and peace, no one taxing me to smile or open my hair up to the white gaze and touch. However, those days do not take away from the days racism reigns. Just like Seattle averages 155 days of precipitation and 152 days of sun, do we dare say it is not a rainy city?
Anjali Sunita, who identifies as a biracial person of color, Founder and Director of Baltimore Yoga Village and Village Life Wellness reminds us to:
“Remember that yoga is about humility. Please, please remember that yoga is about humility. It’s not a performance and so anything we do, including work in the world, if mentioning it publicly, it’s not to perform. It is only to grow support for that work. I mean, I’m seeing that so much right now. I’m so frustrated by the emails I’m suddenly getting [from] all these places that are like, we support. Where’ve you been all this time?! It is not a performance!”
While we are taking this humbling moment to pause and reflect on how this world has come to be, how your actions—conscious and unconscious—have contributed to a society that centers white people and accepts anti-Black racism as the default, I request that you too look inward at your yogic community and your studio.
And, no—you cannot absolve yourself from this inquiry by declaring that you do your part to create an inclusive, diverse Black yoga community because you teach yoga in the prison system, in under-financially resourced cities, or with famous athletes. You know why? Because Black people are not only within those spaces. We should not have to be athletic geniuses, people with a legal system record, nor residents in a disinvested city for you to see us. And what does that say about how you see Black people in this country, anyway?
Questions to consider:
Whose classes are you choosing to take?
How are you structurally upholding barriers to inclusion in your studio? The current wealth gap amongst Black and white households is a function of the United States of America’s federal and state-sanctioned racially discriminatory policies. The financial impact of these policies continues to hurl itself through our communities.
Are you removing barriers that would dissuade the next person who identifies as Black, Indigenous, and of Color from enrolling in your classes, enrolling in your teacher training, applying to teach at your studio?
Do you offer sliding scale payments? How about scholarships? Karma yoga/work exchange is not the entire answer either. (I think we have to get away from making people who are not able to pay $20 per class pay with their time. What does that say? Because we don’t have the money, we definitely have the time to work for free? That’s not true either. Some of us are filling our time working multiple jobs that still don’t pay us livable wages. So, no, we don’t have the time to exchange cleaning up the studio for yoga. We are busy trying to make a living, too.)
Do you intentionally mentor developing teachers who are not white womxn?
Do you partner with organizations that center wellness in the Black, Indigenous, and POC community?
Do you play music created by Black artists and not have a single Black person on the floor teaching?
Does the music frequently have the N-word in it?
Are you tokenizing that one teacher who identifies as BIPOC in your marketing materials? Are they the only one on staff?
Are you sharing the foundational texts and philosophy of yoga?
Are you offering access to meditation and pranayama practices?
Susanna Barkataki is a yoga guide who provides anti-racism training for yogis. She identifies as a mixed Desi and writes:
“Ahimsa: (A)—not (himsa)—harm. The first yama or ethical code of yoga—translated as non-harm—ahimsa is often used to mean nonviolence. I hear this word thrown around a lot.
My dears, let’s be clear—inside a system of structural violence, being nonviolent actually looks like standing up to harm. So no telling folks to “be nice, be kind, be more yogic as you struggle for justice.” We need to call gaslighting BS on that framing of ahimsa. Let me break this down. Ahimsa is not:
1. Tone policing Black folks and folks of color and saying to use Ahimsa and show up “nicely.”
2. Policing the way Black folks and folks of color express emotion.
3. Being vegetarian or vegan and thinking you are done with your practice of ahimsa.
4. Simply being a “kind, good person.”
It’s not enough to be nice.
In a system that violently suppresses and attacks Black life, standing up to that system in many ways (including ways that may make you feel uncomfortable) is part of ahimsa.
This is a moment to look inward, to look at how you are practicing ahimsa in creating an inclusive, diverse yoga space that does not center white yoga instructors and practitioners.”
And, yet before you move to action, I leave you with words from several Black yoga instructors who are actively creating and nurturing yogic communities of color. I asked them to share what actions and practices they recommend a white yoga instructor and studio owner take, given they want to have a more diverse community of practitioners and teachers who are identifiably Black, Indigenous, and of color.
I request that you listen to them. Because right now, that’s what we’ve committed to do, yes? Listen and amplify Black voices.
“Honestly, I would recommend first off, they need to look in the mirror and do some reflective work on themselves. And really that starts with the anti-racism work, which I would definitely recommend they start with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and with Rachel Cargle’s The Great Unlearn. Because it’s so embedded into our minds that whiteness is inherently good. It’s inherently softer. It’s inherently more intelligent.
I would say like start there and start reflecting on what your space looks like. And if you’re all about community, why are there people missing from your community? What’s like that inherent underlying belief that makes you think that only white people should be in that space? What makes you uncomfortable about having Black people in that space or making a comfortable and safe space for Black people to come to that space and continue to come to that space?
So it really starts with owners taking a look at themselves and taking a look at their own deep-seated beliefs and seeing how that is manifesting within their yoga studio and within the wellness center. What is the representation?”
~ Deboneé Bruce, Founder of Afro Yogis Unite
“So you need to first educate yourself and understand all the different aspects to this, all the different layers, to unpeel all the different layers, because we don’t just want you jumping on top of what everybody is saying, like being inclusive. And then you get one yoga teacher, or you put one image on your websites.
Don’t do it if you do not know how to peel off the different layers. You need to understand, so you can catch yourself. I want you to catch yourself. I have a marketing and communications background. So I still understand the whole thing about marketing, the whole thing about target markets: the people that you’re talking to, the people that you are trying to bring forward.
If you do not understand that, then you need to get someone that understands how to market to a diverse group of people, how to, you know, do your part without the white savior complex.”
~ Michael Ernest Nwah, Founder of Meditate.Africa
“There’s a lot of very concrete tips but right now I’m saying, don’t ask me, don’t ask me. I’m very busy. I’m supporting my community. I’m in the streets. My people are in the streets. Please don’t ask me to do more emotional labor for you at this moment. There are actually some great white allies who are showing leadership, even in our city, in Boston, there’ve been some great statements put out.
I actually don’t have it in me right now to be supporting my community in the streets and catching you up to speed at the same time. In addition to running Hive Soul, I cofounded a scholarship program called the Yoga Diversity Initiative. We’ve been running that for six years. That program provides full scholarships to yoga teacher trainings to people of color in Boston. We pair them with a mentor who is a current yoga teacher of color. We are able to support them after their yoga teacher training and help them get high impact, well-paying jobs in the field.
And so that’s one area where we’ve been able to really model and promote some of the practices we like to see, which is to provide scholarships for your students of color.”
~ Chanelle John, Founder of Hive Soul Yoga
“I would be looking for a welcoming and supportive environment and don’t treat me any different than you would treat any, any student in the space. You don’t make any assumptions about my capabilities, my understanding of the practice, none of that. I ended up at a studio. And I went in feeling like I had a lot of my own issues.
Oh, I’m going to be the only one and I get so tired of that. No, no, no. But I go in. There was one other Black woman. And, the teacher was very welcoming. I loved that. I didn’t feel like she was treating me any different because I was a Black student. I thought she was treating me differently because I was new. She used my name several times, you know, she said, Hello. I felt welcome in the space.
Whereas I had gone in walking up the steps saying, I’m not going to like this at all. But it was just the way that she presented and held space that I really appreciated. I mean, because the flip side of that is I was practicing recently in New Orleans, at a studio where I’ve gone several times, I was the only Black student there and I was completely ignored.
And then man! You want to do crazy things like Headstand, you know, when I should be in Child’s pose because ego was kicking in. Like me needing to prove that I get to be in this space. I’m as good as anybody in here. I’m probably even better than you. And I’m like, Whoa, where is your yoga? You know? But that’s what it enlisted because I didn’t feel welcome.”
~ Courtenay Brown, Founder of Shabach Yoga
Oh, and take our classes. Room to Breath Yoga in Chicago, Illinois has curated a list of Black-owned Yoga Studios with livestream classes. Check them out.
And, come practice with me here. Roll out your mat; let’s get to work.
Watch an anti-racism hour with Jane Elliott talking with Waylon Lewis of Elephant here.