I recently came across a blog post entitled Yoga IS for black women. We’re just not showing up, and I thought, “How very true!” As a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga yoga, I am well aware of the underrepresentation of people of color in yoga. And much like Larissa Postell, the author of the post, I too, am familiar with being the only brown-skinned-afro-puffy-yogini on the mat. Maybe one out of two, at best.
Let me be clear on one thing though. I am a Kenyan-American living in Finland, so the demographic context is rather different than, say, Washington D.C. However, irrespective of this, when I lived in Chicago, I remember attending the free community clases on Sunday afternoons at Moksha Yoga Studio and I was still pretty much the only nonwhite in the class. That never kept me away though. Being a graduate student on a monthly stipend, the thing which did limit my yoga practice (before Ashtanga yoga and the discipline of a solo home practice) where the monthly studio fees!
I do think it’s safe to say that yoga has been marketed to a predominantly white, educated, upper-middle class audience. Nothing wrong with that at all. No matter how yoga is marketed, and to whom, the fact of the matter remains that yoga works. On a fundamental level, yoga is a practical and philosophical system which promotes Self-awareness. Needless to say, this goes far deeper than anything skin color, nationality, gender and age can touch upon. Yoga literally IS for everyone. Or can be. If you make up your mind that, yes, this truly is of benefit.
I was always one of the only students of color in middle and high school. It didn’t matter that my mother is an English woman, kids asked if I was adopted anyway (I’m not). At that time, in my social environment, one could only be black or white, not black and white. Thanks to my background, I have always been surrounded by both black and white family members and therefore, apart from being called on to represent an entire race of people in class discussions, I feel equally comfortable around large groups of white people and large groups of black people. I do wonder though what it would take to attract more people of color to yoga. Postell claims that most black women wish to focus on weight loss rather than wellness, and many feel that ‘stretching’ won’t help with losing weight; furthermore, there seems to be a general misunderstanding when it comes to yoga and religion, that there is a conflict of interest between the two. The last pattern had to do with white representation and the marketing of yoga. How black women don’t go to yoga since they are not represented, and how they are not represented since they don’t go.
When I came into my own as an Ashtangi, I was living in the United Arab Emirates, far away from the United States and its ubiquitous racial context. When I started with Ashtanga, I couldn’t have cared less if the teacher and my fellow students were green with purple dots. I had reached a time in my life when I needed yoga with all my heart. So when my first teachers, a lovely Canadian couple, spoke of living a life with more peace, happiness, clarity and self-acceptance, I clung to the practice like a lifebuoy, with the desperation of a person drowning. Because I was drowning, in my own heavy, dark, confused mind. On my own, I didn’t know how to navigate myself through life and the world. Yoga showed me how, and when something shows you how to transform yourself and your life entirely, then placing the racial dichotomy into a radically different context is a piece of cake; not to mention the argument of religious dogma, as to why folks cannot practice yoga and attend church or pray five times a day. But I’ll save that for another day!
My first Ashtanga yoga teachers, Jeff and Harmony. Forever grateful for introducing me to the practice!
Getting the hang of lotus pose while balancing on a Royal Enfield in Mysore, India…