By Aswad Walker
For some, yoga is viewed as a “white thing.” But for a fast-growing number of African Americans, yoga is not only becoming a way of life, it’s touted as things originating from our ancestors.
The Defender spoke with some local yoga instructors about what makes the practice so powerful and potentially life-changing for Black people.
Marlon Hall, visual anthropologist (filmmaker) and founder of the Awakenings Movement, one of his films’ subjects, Dan Houston, opened the door..
“Dan Houston takes yoga to prisons. Before I begin filming or doing photography around any subject, I do life with them,” Hall said about his introduction to practicing yoga.
“In Dan’s class, I loved the way that they loved. I loved the way that they lived. We shot the film, we screened it. And after the film was done, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to transform my area of study (yoga) into an area of living because it was so beneficial to me.”
Before Jill Minard, who grew up extremely physically active, became a nationally revered yoga instructor, she was intrigued by the graceful, synchronous movements of an Asian couple she often saw practicing yoga in the park. Minard, however, doubted such a peaceful practice could provide her with much of a physical challenge.
Then, one winter day, with aching knees, Minard didn’t want to go running, so she rented a yoga video just to give it a try.
“I went into what was called the ‘downward dog,’ or pyramid position, and sweat just started to burst out of me,” said Minard. “It was really challenging just to create simple poses with your body. So, for me, the challenge was on.”
Minard moved from videos to a yoga studio and fell in love with the physical and spiritual energy she experienced practicing with a group.
Long before Aisha Shahid was conducting free yoga classes at Emancipation Park and Galveston Beach, she grew up a two-sport athlete (basketball and track), always willing to take on a challenge. When she saw an “interesting” yoga pose on social media Shahid made it a personal challenge to master it.
“At the time, I was a personal trainer, so my ego said I could surely do this pose,” she recalled. “And I could, but only for a little bit. That helped me to start researching ‘What is this yoga?’”
Shahid, a community activist and founder of the organization Neighborhood Pathways United, discovered yoga meant “to harness in and yoke within yourself.” She was hooked and recognized yoga was about more than muscles and flexibility, but mental and body awareness.
For Hall, yoga was transformative, to say the least.
“I was able, through my yoga practice, to become an anthropologist of my own life. Oftentimes, when we feel like our own bodies and experiences seem foreign, we need rituals and practices or traditions that allow us to lift above our experience as human beings. That gives us a 40,000-foot view and helps us gain more clarity, more perspective. My practice of yoga became a practice of personal anthropology.”
The result? Hall viewed practicing and teaching yoga as a vehicle for transforming lives—his and others.
“The word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit means ‘the choreography of mind, body and spirit as an offering to God.’ So, for me, the practice of yoga gives me a rhythm with which my mind can move with my heart and with which my heart moves with my soul. So, in those moments when I feel beat and rhythmless, it’s the practice of yoga that allows my mind, my body and my spirit to come together. Not just as an offering to good, meaning it’s a good thing to practice yoga, but as an offering to God, like it’s a God thing to practice yoga,” shared Hall.
Shahid added self-care as a benefit; taking time to improve your mental, emotional and physical health. She also said yoga helps you release what ails you.
“If you have a blockage in your body, tightness in your shoulders, or you carry a lot of stress in your upper body, do a lot of work on a computer or with your hands, yoga really helps you release those blockages.”
Minard sees so many yoga positives she breaks them down into three categories: physiological, biochemical and psychological.
“Regarding the psychological, when you practice yoga, basically hostility, anxiety, depression, all of that goes away, and self-actualization and self-acceptance come around.”
Biochemically, Minard says yoga helps regulate blood pressure and diabetes, and stabilizes glucose, cholesterol and oxygen levels.
“The physiological benefits, that’s usually what attracts people to yoga. Yoga normalizes weight, and your endurance and nervous system equilibrium stabilize.”
WHY BLACK PEOPLE NEED YOGA
For Minard, along with the three categories full of benefits, yoga’s appeal to Blacks rests on its accessibility for practitioners of all ages.
“Black people should definitely be running to practice yoga because we’re all getting older. You can practice yoga as a young person, definitely. But when you get older, the joints tend to wear down, and yoga is a soft type discipline. It’s very challenging, but you’re moving softly without pounding the pavement or putting extra stress on the joints.”
She also says yoga helps regulate health issues that hit us hardest: high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.
Hall sees yoga as an empowerment tool for Blacks.
“For us as Black people who are body intelligent folk by nature, this practice becomes a way for us to transform the world by just coming into our body with the breath. We’ve been taught that we don’t have ownership of our lives or of our bodies because of the vestiges of slavery. So, the practice of yoga is this freedom with which we can return to day after day, and the four corners of our yoga mat become like this cultural architecture in which we can shape a new world.”
For Shahid, the answers to the question “Why should Blacks practice yoga” is simple.
“Because it’s ours; we started it. It goes back to ancient Kemet (Egypt) and it’s in the pyramids, it’s in the hieroglyphics. A lot of these poses that we’re doing, the ‘downward dog’ or the ‘backbend,’ all these things are already in us and instilled in us. And because it was taken from us and westernized and now it’s become more commercialized, we’ve been disconnected from it.”
YOGA’S GROWTH WITH BLACKS
Shahid says there’s definitely a growing number of Blacks practicing yoga, and chalks that up in part to yoga being “trendy.” Still, she believes there’s more to yoga’s rising popularity.
“I believe it’s a movement as well. History repeats itself. We’re getting back to doing what we did before, but this time we’re going to do it on a grander scale. That’s definitely what we’re doing.”
She says Black people are talking more about healing, self-care and improved mental health, and are doing something about it.
“It might not always be going to counseling or therapy. It might just be getting some yoga.”
Minard believes the growth in Black people’s acceptance of yoga is more of a social media show than an actual reality, pointing to the numbers of Blacks she’s seen personally at different studios around the city. Still, she said that may just be her experience. And she adds that at national festivals, especially the annual Black yoga gathering in Chicago, and with online yoga sessions, you can find large numbers of Black yoga students and teachers.
Providing that exposure is what led Minard to open the Yoga House, which has been closed since the pandemic hit. But when open, Black people has a studio in the heart of Houston (3rd Ward) to practice with others that looked like them.
“I think at one point we thought yoga was a white thing or Indian thing. And just to have that representation to say, ‘Hey, this is our house. Come in and experience, feel and let’s take care of ourselves.’ We have our particular flavor to it.
Minard, like Shahid and Hall pointed to yoga’s roots as another draw for Blacks, and she credits the late Edward “Baba Fana” Vincent for opening her up to yoga’s African origins.
“When I initially started teaching, I was introduced to hot yoga, Ashtanga yoga, all the other yogas. Then one day, the late Reverend Fana mentioned when I was getting my studio together, ‘Why don’t you call it Egypt yoga?’ My thought was ‘Why Egypt?’ Then, a month later I was exposed to the yoga master who resurrected Kemetic yoga, and he did all the research to show how the hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt contained yoga poses. And with us, that resonates. There’s history that we can connect to. There’s energy behind that.”