This article was originally published in the Seattle Yoga News.
I can’t recall another time in my life where I’ve been so aware of my race while being uncomfortably unaware of its impact. Mounting racial tensions aggravated by a slew of shootings remind me that I’m black, and apparently a source of major conflict.
Growing up Nigerian American heavily surrounded by Nigerian culture, I didn’t experience grievous amounts of racism. As a result, I’ve always attracted people from diverse backgrounds. That continued into my 20s as I became desensitized by race—that is, until I decided to teach yoga last year.
Why Black Communities Need Yoga
With the heightened state of aggression towards men of color and the concealed bouts of mental illness plaguing women of color, one could argue our community would benefit from yoga the most. But it’s hard to convince a racial population to engage in an activity that vaguely represents them.
Yoga originated in northern India over 5,000 years ago, a place brimming with brown people. It came to the West by way of Swami Vivekananda in the early 1900s — a yoga master from India who wowed audiences with his enlightened views on the practice. It was later introduced to Hollywood in the 1940s by Indra Devi, a Russian disciple of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and so began yoga’s Western facelift.
The blatant stereotypes commonly associated with national yoga campaigns and magazines are consistent with reality. “In 2014, The Atlantic reported that of the one in 15 Americans who practice yoga, more than four-fifths are white, due at least in part to socioeconomic issues.”
Not only are there few yoga studios in urban areas, but most communities of color are unaware of the healing benefits of yoga. Religious, economic and social conditions act as underlying issues for yoga’s racial divide. Most urban neighborhoods are steeped in Christian fundamentalism and look upon the practice fearfully, while yoga’s Western refashion can be discouraging to newcomers.
This is where the need for yoga instructors and advocates of color come in, not only on a national level, but a grassroots one. Communities of color must be educated on the history of yoga and its wellness benefits in order to feel safe practicing it! Until we take ownership of the practice as black yoga instructors and begin to diversify the current picture, we will continue to perpetuate a problematic outlook of the practice.
We’ve seen some groups creating safe spaces for communities of color to experience yoga, most recently Rainier Beach Yoga. After hosting a people of color-only yoga class in 2015, death threats and widespread hysteria led to classes being disbanded. The backlash was so epic that the studio owner went into hiding!
Being Black in a Yoga Teacher Training
I was one out of three black students in my yoga teacher training, which surprised me. I’d become so accustomed to being the only black face in a white room that I hadn’t expected to see women of color at the training.
The process, on an educational level, was the same for each trainee. We all learned the same material, but interpreted our role as instructors differently. It was then that I realized that as a black yoga instructor, I would represent a disproportionate group, and with that would come unforeseen expectations.
Finding a Yoga Studio as a Black Yoga Teacher
When I started searching for yoga studios, I settled on a new space in the urban neighborhood of South Seattle. The studio owners were conscious of the ‘yogic racial rift’ and were looking to bring on instructors of color.
After my audition I started teaching immediately, but despite the studio’s efforts to encourage diversity, we attracted mostly white women and men. Some of which were awestruck to see me behind the counter.
What I’ve found as a black yoga instructor is that you’re under constant scrutiny by all of society. As if the racial qualifier in your title makes you different and subject to questioning.
Unfortunately, it’s not only white society making these judgments against blacks, but black communities doing so with one another. While one’s judgments are caused by a shift in what they perceive as the status quo, the others are fueled by feelings of inadequacy and competition. I’ve been privy to both types of attitudes, and despite who they’re coming from, they hurt equally.
Although I’d like to think of myself as unblemished in this area, I’m guilty of the same behavior. When it comes to other black yoga instructors, first I compare, then I compete — yes, I said it — as if there’s only room for one of us. Can you say systematic racism?
This is where the beauty of yoga comes in, as it provides a great opportunity for self awareness and healing that ultimately empowers our relationships with one another.
If my race draws out resistance and resentment within you, imagine what my classes can free you of? When I teach I see a great opportunity for restoration, not only for students but for myself. If I develop beyond my fears of inferiority, I am positioned to help others do the same. In order for this chain of events to take place, blacks and whites must relinquish the racial control.
Where I go from here
Because of my race my classes will appeal to a certain demographic, but because of my inherent identity as a human being, my classes will always be open to everyone.
Yes, I am a representative for a marginalized group of people in the world of yoga, but race is in my peripheral. Different communities have different needs and despite my race, I am committed to teaching in accordance to that need to whomever, whenever, wherever.