Getting Black Women Engaged in Yoga

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

It’s been awhile since my last post and I wanted to start by saying hello and thanks for reading. These past few months have been perilous, emotionally taxing, divisive, stressful, and so many other things. Issues of race have resurfaced for some while others have been mindful of them all along. Being a minority oftentimes doesn't afford you the privilege of not being aware. Despite overt racism still existing, much of the problem nowadays lies in subtle, covert, insidious racial biases that have been ingrained into the psyches of many. In watching a reality show this week where past show participants watched the current season, I couldn’t help but notice the use of the word "wholesome" to describe a white male character. When it was revealed he had a criminal record, viewers expressed their shock because to them, he didn't look like he would ever commit a crime. Terms like “wholesome” are often used to propagate subtle, inherent biases toward all things Eurocentric as being morally superior.

Defining good and worthy versus bad and undeserving based on physical attributes pervades our society and is the underlying pathology that leads to racial inequities. I believe this mentality also leads to the justification of unfair, criminal treatment of black males and females. I’ve not suffered from physical police brutality but have certainly had encounters with the police in which I was treated harshly or like a criminal when surrounded by cops for over an hour because a nearby gas station worker who happened to be a young white woman around my age reported that a couple of black girls wearing jeans just attacked her. I guess no other description was needed like eye color, hair length, height, overall build, etc. This occurred my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, in the predominantly black neighborhood I grew up in so naturally, there were lots of black people in that area.

The friend I was with was so upset she wept and begged them to let us go assuring them of the truth that we hadn’t done what we’d been accused of and were college students on our way to a movie. My reaction was one of shock, disbelief, then laughter at how ridiculous it all was. We were surrounded by multiple cop cars until finally, they decided to let us go because the accuser decided not to press charges. After this, and this is admittedly not smart, but because my disbelief had turned into anger, I went to the gas station to confront the worker whose report led to our detainment. She called the cops again when I entered because she was either so traumatized she wasn’t thinking clearly or maybe she just thought we all looked alike so I had to be the person she saw earlier. Either way, the same cops came and said to me “weren’t you just here?” Finally, my fate being in her hands, the woman declared that I wasn’t the person who attacked her earlier. The cops left again with no apology while one black cop (one of the officers was black while all others were white) stayed behind and told my mother who had now arrived he hoped this didn’t cause me to view cops in a negative way. This experience wasn’t nearly as severe as others resulting in physical harm and sometimes fatality; however, it has marked my life in a significant way and the emotional scars have contributed to my own distrusts and biases. There is a corruption and a stealing of innocence and optimism in these moments that lead to lifelong consequences.

While I have heard of black people’s experiences with prejudice and racism within the yoga community, I’ve not been faced with overtly racist or prejudiced treatment myself in this setting. I’ve also never gotten the impression that instructors or fellow practitioners were treating me as if I didn’t belong because I didn’t embody the yoga practitioner stereotype of a white woman. However, in these spaces, my experiences were likely overshadowed by the fact that I had a platform as a yoga researcher and oftentimes, people knew who I was because I’ve presented at many yoga studios across the country.

I attended a conference months ago and heard an attendee pose an interesting question about how to “decolonize” the practice of yoga after prefacing it with the fact that despite yoga originating in a community of color, in the U.S., it’s mostly practiced by white women. I admired his scrutiny of this widely accepted image of mostly or all-white yoga classes with two or three participants of color. I'm also currently disturbed by the fact that, in light of recent rising awareness, some yoga studios haven't even attempted to address this issue. This makes me, a longtime practitioner, want to withhold my dollars and practice at home.

A study conducted focus groups to find out why more black women don’t practice yoga and reasons will likely be no surprise to most black women; however, I do think this will help enlighten those who may not have considered these things. Common barriers reported by black women in Chicago were the cost of the classes and the “fashion-show” like environment of a yoga studio where practitioners are typically wearing expensive, yoga clothes. The latter could make those who don't possess the means to afford them feel like they don't belong. The women were asked for their suggestions on how yoga can be made more accessible to black communities and among those suggestions were to incorporate black women in the imagery used to promote yoga, acknowledge the (Christian) faith traditions within the black community and be mindful of the implications of this, and use a peer-to-peer model where black instructors teach yoga to their black peers.

Another more recent study conducted in a group of black women in Madison, Wisconsin discovered similar themes with women suggesting the need for black yoga teachers, the need to highlight the role of black people in the development of community-based mind-body interventions, using terminology familiar in black culture, providing culturally appropriate resources and other great suggestions. Women expressed needing someone they could relate to teaching them and even explained that receiving commands from voices of white yoga instructors on the materials given for their home practices reminded them of “feelings of subjugation” reminiscent of the workplace where authority figures delivering commands were also white.

Women also reported hesitation levied by the use of the word “meditation” as it suggested opening themselves up to anti-Christ elements and suggested the use of words like “relaxation”, “mindful,” and “awareness” instead. This is certainly one of the implications of long held faith traditions in the black community that should be considered particularly in community yoga programs. To the other emerging theme about the dearth of black yoga teachers, while there seem to be some black yoga and meditation teachers featured in the media, I’ve practiced yoga for 12 years and have only ever met two black yoga instructors one of which was also a studio owner who invited me to present in Detroit. I’ve still only taken a class from one black instructor in 12 years so I believe we have a ways to go before this is no longer an issue.

I know this is a longer blog, but I do hope it incites consideration and tolerance for the discomfort that might arise from it. Progress can't be made on this issue in the absence of empathy and humility. I'm hoping we can attempt this together.

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