The Color Lines of Yoga

by — Nov 12, 2010

In eastern cultures, the practice of yoga has existed for over 3,000 years. It is only within the last two decades yoga has gained mainstream attention as a new-age trendy form of exercise. Only yoga is primarily marketed to affluent white women. So where do women of color fit in?

Clutch magazine featured an insightful article, “Yoga and the Black Community,” discussing some of the stigmas black people have surrounding yoga, the difficulties yoga instructors of color have in this predominantly white field and the article presented reasons the black community should embrace yoga.

It is not so much that women of color haven’t embraced yoga. The notion of yoga being stigmatized is only a small part of the problem. For many, working class and middle class black women, the problem may be one of access, exposure and cost.

Growing up with a middle-class suburban background in the south, I was never exposed to yoga firsthand. On a very basic level I knew what yoga was, but I didn’t know anyone who practiced yoga. The community of black people my family surrounded itself with never talked about yoga in casual conversations. If you wanted to exercise you either walked, jogged, worked out at the gym or owned a treadmill. College was not much different. Very few people raved about their love for yoga. It wasn’t until attending graduate school in a predominantly white town where this practice was even on my radar. The university offered yoga classes through its recreation center, but it was the only class that was not free. Therefore, the additional cost was not economically feasible, and I presumed yoga wouldn’t be either.

If I, as a middle-class black woman, had very little knowledge of or access to yoga, I imagine the women of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods have similar stories. Business owners are not leaping at the chance to open a yoga studio in black neighborhoods, whether they are lower or middle class black neighborhoods. There is a preconceived notion that black people don’t or won’t do yoga.

Well that is not exactly true. There are a number of women of color who swear by the practice and its benefits. But if one is never exposed to something, the chances of them venturing out try it are not likely.

In 2005, the Chicago chapter of International Association of Black Yoga Teachers started an initiative to bring yoga into black communities. Members of IABYT would teach a free yoga class weekly in their communities. Jamila Onyeali said, “The counselors were amazed. We have quite an effect and it’s working.” However, the mere fact that the instructors have to find a venue to hold free classes is proof that the access to yoga for people of color is limited.

Cost is another dilemma that may be keeping black women from the mat. In March, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development completed a study claiming the median net worth for single black women is $5. If those statistics hold any veracity, paying for a yoga class is certainly not at the top of the list of priorities. Whether or not yoga is truly expensive is irrelevant if a great deal of black women don’t have the means to pay for it either way. With yoga costing anywhere from $10-$25 per class, one could argue that is the equivalent to a movie ticket. But that does not take into consideration how costly it could become if one chooses to take more than one class per week. Cost is an important factor when choosing between yoga and gas.

With the stresses black women face daily, high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, it is my hope more black women are open to trying all forms of fitness that lead to healthier lives, including yoga.

Yoga focuses on three main components: spiritual, mental and physical that have been said to be life changing. One commenter on the Long Hair Care Forum, a forum for black women with natural hair, admitted, “I’ve done yoga on and on for more than eight years. When I am consistent I: sleep better, am calmer, more focused, and more mindful of what I eat. I feel more connected to the “Source” aka “God, Mother Nature, or the Universe”; and my body was at it best physically, strength, and endurance wise when I did a mix of yoga along with weights and cardio.”

In matters of health, we as black women don’t have the time to be misinformed and believers of misconception. The many black women who practice yoga would do a great service by spreading the word to others within their social networks, families, and communities, while also urging instructors to make yoga more accessible. Yoga could be the practice that ultimately enhances your lifestyle for the better. And longer and healthier lives are something we all should be striving for.

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5 Comments

  1. As a black woman, I have done yoga off and on since 80′s. I use magazine articles and VHS tapes to learn to poses. Now,I have a collecton of DVDs from Rodney Yee to Bob Harper, from The Biggest Loser,. I prefer the dvds to the classes because I can always find the time and make no excuses to do it at home.

  2. Yoga classes at studios and private clubs should be affordable for everyone and it’s a shame that it’s not. Fortunately there are ways around the price issue. Many places offer affordable classes including hospitals, senior centers, park districts and libraries.

  3. Yoga is definitely a tool to combat the challenges of modern day lifestyle. I have practiced on and off for the last 15 years but start to seriously incorporate into my life in the last 18 months after meeting Pablo Imani who founded his own contemporary practice called Afrikan Yoga based on the ancient principles of the first known yoga – Egyptian yoga. As a city worker, I know to well the imbalance that can be created in your healthstyle so having yoga as part of my healthstyle helps me to maintain a balanced outlook. It is a tool, i can pull out of my toolkit in any given situation to help me relieve stress from any part of my body that is in pain. Also finding a practice that speaks to me as a woman of African descent has demystified the practice and enabled me to culturally connect to my practice in a way I haven’t before. I agree that the pricing does make it unaffordable for some but I do think that culturally i have often seen that there is often an emphasis on spending money on material things to make you feel good on the outside rather investing on things that have longer term beneficial effects. I’m so passionate about the transformational effects of yoga that I know work with Pablo Imani (www.afrikanyoga.com) to raise awareness of his practice and the other African based yoga practices like Kemetic Yoga that exist. It was great to see Michelle Obama including a Yoga Gaen as part of the Easter Treasure Hunt at the White House. It is a misconception that yoga is just about contorting your body. It is so much more. I do yoga t work, onthe train to work, while brushing my teeth….it is everything i do. i would love to see more yoga teachers from the black community sharing the healing benefits of African based yoga as a tool to combat the rise of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc that affects our community. Once you learn some of the postures, principles, philosophy and increase an awareness of your body then with no cost you can incorporate the practice into your life. We have a lot to be thankful for to pioneers like Yirser Ra Hotep and others for bringing African based practices into the public domain. There is definitely a movement growing which I find very exciting and look forward to see more creative expressions of this phenomenal practice…

  4. i thought reading this article was, and is very positive,and very uplifting.we need to have more of this happening in our world,to make it a more positive,and hopeful place to share with others,and live.i want to say thank you.

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