Yoga, like many spaces that tend to default to whiteness whether through legitimate means or appropriation, has a diversity and inclusion problem. The entire wellness industry seems to have a very particular face, one that excludes the majority of us.
Black women elders, those before us, may not have had a term like self-care to describe the act of actively caring for one’s body, mind and heart. One thing they did understand is that healing happens within a community and as the sufferers of some of the combative forces still thrown at us — misogyny, racism, violence, poverty — they have always turned to each other for solace. These same combative forces can push up cortisol (stress hormone) production levels, triggering the fight or flight mode which has become normalised in many Black communities. Cortisol also regulates our metabolism, immune responses and can trigger inflammation, which is linked to just about any physical ailment one can think of.
It is difficult to describe the sense of feeling unseen, unwelcome or othered to someone who has never experienced it. Oppression tackles both the mind and the body and while the mind may forget, the body always keeps score. The trauma that gets stored in our bodies is real energy, which can manifest into many different conditions later in life. Exercise or movement is an effective way to shift energy around the body and literally sweat it out, releasing it. Breathwork works similarly, without the sweat. When we practise conscious, deep breathing, we reset parts of our nervous system lowering our heart rate, blood pressure, reducing stress levels. Yoga is brilliant for both.
While historians have estimated that yoga originated in the Indus Valley around 3300 BCE, images portraying stretching and meditation poses (asanas) which were found in Egypt are alleged to have predated this time period. This Egyptian yoga is what we have come to know as Kemetic yoga, which focuses on breath and imitates poses prescribed for attaining enlightenment and the highest spiritual level. It is a reminder that the struggle and disease many of us face is a mental and spiritual one more than the physical. The real power lies in our hearts and minds.
How wonderful is it then, that at a time when the world seeks a new dawn, yoga comes back home in the form of black women becoming yoga teachers, opening up studios and grabbing their mats to attend black-taught yoga classes. “My work as a yoga professional allows me to access freedom in my body, breath, and being. Freedom that many of my ancestors didn’t know. I do all of my work—retreats, mentoring, leadership training — in honour of all my people who were denied the taste of their own labour,” says Octavia Raheem, a black yoga teacher based in Atlanta, US. Fikile Moeti, a former radio presenter who is now a qualified yoga instructor says about her journey with the practice, “In order for me to go deeper into my Xhosa roots, I've had to go into yoga. I feel closer to myself when I do yoga. Spiritually, I don't get it from church, even though my family is Catholic- I get it through affirmations and movement of the body, breathing and going into stillness of body and mind."
When I first heard of yoga, it was the late 1990s or early 2000s, when Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow were the biggest advocates and Hollywood’s faces of the practice. Back then, yoga was sold to us as a fitness tool, promising Madonna’s buff arms and Gwyneth’s endless lean legs. Every image we saw was of a white woman in long leggings, a rolled-up mat, cropped exercise top, flat abs, lushed cheeks, a flat behind with a Starbucks cup in hand.
I ask Natalie Noels, who has been practising yoga for 15 years now, if this is still the picture in a yoga class, “Yes, the classes are still pretty white, especially with hot yoga. For me to be a Black woman in some Constantia studio wearing my red, backless catsuit and taking up space in the front row — I do it, I don’t care! Hey man, I belong where I say I belong. But it’s not like that for everyone. For those youngsters back home in the townships of Cape Town, things are so different. Those children normally feel like those spaces don’t belong to them.”
Natalie wants to take yoga back home where she says children in the Cape Flats hold so much trauma in their little bodies because of what they’ve witnessed in their short lives. This is a concept Nomzamo Mji and her sister Nosizwe Mji know very well. It is, after all, what prompted them to open their yoga studio, The Toolbox, in Musgrave, KwaZulu-Natal. (classes currently on pause as the sisters transition out of the physical space into developing programmes that will be available online and in person).
“We both grew so richly from embracing holistic health and we wanted to make it accessible to more people. We had a teacher who taught us when you have the right tools you can do anything. For us, yoga has been that toolbox. It has also opened us up to the rich and diverse world of healing.”
The theme of healing seems to be prominent. Nosizwe says, “I come from a history of mistreating myself — eating disorders, limited ideas of who I thought I needed to be and generally taking myself for granted. I found yoga and slowly this has changed. Yoga has given me the tools to create an ecosystem of health, wellness and love in my life. I have decreased the violence in my own body and mind and throughout my life.”
In an Ebony magazine article, US political activist, author and academic Angela Davis shares how Hatha yoga helped her gain a sense of peace after her 1970 arrest: “I have never used yoga as an end in itself, but merely as a means for preparing myself for a more effective struggle. As a result of yoga I am more energetic, I am able to appeal to people and to organise them to do the kinds of things that are vital to our freedom.”
Women of colour have shared stories of the relief they feel walking into a yoga class taught by a teacher of colour: “I got tired of being told I’m not getting the poses correctly just because my body is shaped differently,” says 38 year old Nomthi, who was happy to discover The Nest Space, a black-female-owned yoga studio in Greenside, Johannesburg.
Her words triggered my memory. When I was nine years old, I had a ballet instructor named Mrs Germique. She was the wife of Father Ted, the reverend in our church and theirs was one of three white families in our town. Our entire ballet class was made up of black children, except Mrs Germique’s daughter, Lily. “Tuck in your bum!” Mrs Germique would sing to the tune of the piano she was tinkling on as we all glided across the gymnasium, our tutus following behind our small, bulbous-despite-being-“tucked in”-bums. Her bum was perfectly flat and as I child I wondered how she sat without hurting. I never could get my bum to go flat for ballet and I am grateful black women are realising they don’t have to tuck it in for yoga. We’re done tucking ourselves in. Thank goodness our daughters have Misty Copeland.