Imagine the stereotypical student of yoga in America: white, thin, female, middle class, Oprah-loving … you get the picture. But the roots of yoga tell a more diverse story. Most popularly, the history of yoga has been tied to ancient India along with Buddhist, Hindu, and Jainism practices. It crosses many religions, but at the core remains a spiritual discipline that promotes the strengthening of the mind and body. But ancient India isn’t the only civilization that incorporated yoga into its society. Kemet, an ancient kingdom of Egypt, had a similar practice, which indicates that yoga has historic roots in Egypt as well as India.
In 1994, Dr. Muata Ashby began researching the history of Sema Tawi, more popularly known as Egyptian Yoga. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in religion, and works as an independent researcher and practitioner of Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese Yoga. As the leading voice on the history of Egyptian Yoga, Dr. Ashby has studied the yogic practices of Kemet, noticing similar characteristics to the practice we’ve known so well to come from India. Egyptian Yoga includes a series of bodily postures, meditations, spiritual teachings, and chants to realign the spirit with the Creator. Many of the bodily postures can be found in the temple remains of Kemet in hieroglyphics, which solidifies the importance of this spiritual practice in ancient Egyptian society.
But primarily, Dr. Ashby’s research is discussed amongst those who study the African Diaspora. Rarely, do you hear Egyptian Yoga mentioned or acknowledged by mainstream media. Should it matter? If the practices are similar and students are still gaining spiritual and physical strength, why is it important to acknowledge yoga’s diverse origins?
Perhaps, it might promote inclusion in a primarily white-stereotyped exercise field, and inspire more descendents of the African Diaspora to use yoga as a fitness and spiritual tool.
Yoga offers numerous health benefits, including stress relief, balancing the nervous system, strengthening muscles, and improving illnesses, such as high blood pressure, arthritis, and heart problems. African-Americans continue to struggle with all of these diseases, and as a result of numerous economic obstacles, carry an abundance of stress. In addition, African-Americans were 1.5 times as likely to be obese as Non-Hispanic whites in 2009, a statistic that reinforces the community’s vulnerability to obesity-related diseases and need for a stronger fitness culture.
While some African-Americans identify with their African roots and others choose a different formation of cultural identity, it’s powerful to know the history of Kemet and its influence on one of the most popular exercise regimens across the world. With dark brown skin and broad noses, the people of Kemet provide a reflection for African-Americans, and thus, in practicing yoga, reaffirm the wealth of fitness and spiritual practices that stem from the African Diaspora. It’s easy to feel ostracized from a practice when you can’t see anyone that looks like you within it, particularly in terms of the contemporary yoga community. And while African-American culture has its differences from Kemet, it certainly could benefit from incorporating Egyptian Yoga into its cultural norm.