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Yoga IS For Black Women. We're Just Not Showing Up.

Studies show that only 1.9% of black women in the U.S. practice yoga. That means out of the 16 million women who practice yoga in America, an abysmal 30,400 of them are black. What’s up with that? Why are we so underrepresented in yoga?

As a black woman who attended a predominately white college in Harrisonburg, VA; and who now works in Centreville, VA – a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. – I am both used to and comfortable with being the only brown face, bushy haired soul in a classroom or boardroom. It’s not something I lament. In fact, I love being the “different” one. It’s empowering. I get the opportunity to represent a large segment of black women who are underrepresented in mainstream media. I know I’m not alone. There are plenty of yogis of color; but where the heck are they? 

Don’t get me wrong. I love all my fellow Vegheads, runners and yogis immensely; and their racial backgrounds have zero impact on the depth of respect and appreciation that I feel for them. That said, when I walk into the studio, unroll my mat and sit patiently awaiting the start of class, I can’t help but hope to see more brown faces joining in. I’m not disappointed that I don’t. I just wonder why I don’t.

I’ve thought a lot about this. I even went so far as to conduct my own informal survey. I asked a group of black women these five simple questions:

  • Have you ever practiced yoga?
  • If yes, will you practice again?
  • Where did you practice?
  • Do you feel yoga is for you?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word yoga?

Their responses were pretty obvious; yet still very thought provoking. 15% said they had tried yoga once in a gym. Among them, 58% said they weren’t interested in practicing again. 85% said they had never tried yoga and were not interested because they did not feel yoga was for them. Nearly 80% of the woman who had never tried yoga cited religious conflict as their reason for not practicing; and 60% said they didn’t feel “stretching” would help them lose weight.

Again, I wasn’t necessarily surprised by these responses. They suggested not a lack of interest in yoga; but confusion about the culture of yoga and how they fit into it.

I did some more soul searching after gathering and analyzing all of my data. I still wanted to understand the why behind these responses. In the end, I extrapolated three sentiments that could possibly be the root cause of our absence from yoga.

1. Strong Focus on Weight, Not Wellness

The tides are changing. Black women everywhere are making healthy changes in their diets and lifestyles in an effort to combat many of the diseases plaguing the black community like, type-2 diabetes and heart disease. These changes include a greater emphasis on healthy food choices and exercise. But the idea that holding poses, breathing deeply and engaging in a dance of slow, controlled movement can also be an effective form of weight loss hasn’t caught on yet. Nor have the mental and physical benefits of stillness and meditation.

47% of black people in the U.S. have high blood pressure, 20% have type-2 diabetes. Both are conditions brought on by stress and inflammation. Over the last few years, our community has rallied behind fitness like never before. Running, cycling, lifting weights and zumba have become a daily mainstay for many of us in an effort to stave off or reverse the aforementioned diseases. But can these activities be doing us more harm than good?

We all know that we should minimize stress. When we think of stress, we tend to focus on external factors – bosses, family, children, finances, etc. But exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise is also a form of stress. It taxes the body and signals a release of the fat-storing hormone cortisol. That’s why people can do an extreme amount of cardio, lose weight, yet still have an unhealthy body fat percentage. Yoga is the perfect complement to vigorous cardiovascular activities. It requires a degree of focus that stimulates brain function, challenges small muscle groups and calms the spirit.

2. Religious Dogma

This is the area that I see as the biggest challenge. Religion is deeply rooted in our community; and most of us tend to shun anything that appears to contradict our religious philosophies. Yoga is certainly a form of worship; but it is all about intent. Yoga practitioners know that whatever is in your heart to praise during ones practice is what gets exalted. There is no default deity in yoga that is glorified by virtue of doing a pose or chanting an Om. Yoga certainly challenged my religious dogma. That’s why I shied away from it for so many years. It wasn’t until I took a chance and went to a class that I realized that the mat could be anything that I wanted it to be – a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a dance floor, even a place of worship.

3. The Face of Yoga

Most of the time, the image of a yogi is someone who is slim, female, and well…white. So it’s understandable that we’d feel yoga is not for us. Sure, there are some superstar black yogis on Facebook and Instagram; but on a mass level, diverse representations of yogis are few and far between.

Just pop into any yoga store, either online or brick and mortar and the images used clearly infer who they are targeting. I mean, I get it. Businesses target the people who buy from them. It’s marketing 101. But sometimes a little diversity can go a long way in making a product, or in this case a culture more accessible to a wider range of people. It kind of conjures the chicken and egg debate. We can’t get represented until we represent. But we won’t represent because we’re not represented.

I don’t think the answer is to create more Facebook and Instagram accounts of people doing advanced poses that are seemingly impossible to novice yogis or those who have never practiced. Those images are incredibly motivational for many; but severely intimidating for most.

Perhaps the answer is for me to continue doing what I do. Keep practicing faithfully and exemplifying the change I’d like to see. And if I never see black women flocking into yoga studios or standing beside me in class; I will still remain eternally grateful for everything yoga has taught me; and humbled by the people yoga has brought into my life. For me, yoga is beyond necessary; and I could never let a little thing like being the only brown faced, bushy haired girl in class keep me away.

Are you representing black women on the mat? What keeps you motivated to practice? If you haven’t gotten out there, what’s keeping you from trying?

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