Published: Monday 18th July 2016 6:40AM
Updated: Monday 18th July 2016 9:03AM
Black women have always been seen as a token in yoga, until now…
The first time I did an online search for “yoga for people of colour + UK”, all of the results were from the United States. There were a number of articles addressing the cultural appropriation and whiteness of mainstream yoga practices, studios and classes on larger platforms such as Elle.com, The Atlantic, and Yoga Journal, as well as several blog posts written by both white people and people of colour on the subject of cultural appropriation. As an American who has lived outside of the US for half of her life, it was really important for me to find literature from communities within the the UK. But I did not.
About four months later, I repeated the same search and was excited to find a Meetup group; London yoga for people of colour, founded by Danielle Bastian of Essex. Immediately I reached out to Danielle, who goes by Danni, and we arranged to meet in person. In her response she wrote that my message was “a refreshing change from the ‘this group is racist’ emails I’ve been receiving recently”. In February of this year, Danni travelled to Rishikesh, one of the holy cities in India and a centre for yoga in the country, to complete her teacher training in ashtanga-vinyasa yoga.
She was motivated to found the group because, on the one hand, after trying yoga for the first time while still at university, she fell in love with it immediately and encouraged all of her friends to try it as well. On the other hand, she also noticed the lack of diverse representation of yoga practitioners on social media, and she wanted to help change that.
After meeting Danni, I knew that it would be important to build a network of yoga teachers with similar intentions throughout the UK. The resistance she described was not unique to her or her group. If these initiatives are to thrive, the people behind them will need to support and uplift each other during the good times, and remind one another of the importance of their mission when obstacles and confrontation persist.
Around the same time I was introduced to Dionne Elizabeth, who is currently based in Brighton. Dionne has been teaching yoga since 2010. Upon moving back from Norway, where she lived for a couple of years, Dionne felt compelled to start a Women of Colour Wellness Group.“ After hearing friends tell me about their experience of being in a black body in white yoga spaces, the objectification, the tokenism, the unwanted and often inappropriate attention, and the obvious feeling of being the only person of colour in the room, I related to every word,” she explained when I asked her about her motivation to start the group. She went on to say that “I was used to being the only person of colour in a yoga space, even when being overseas on yoga tours to Morocco and the US, and it was often exhausting, so I understood why people would be put off going to classes. But why should they not have access to tools and techniques to feel better? All of this fed my yearning to create a space for women of colour in the city, and it was met with an outpouring of support.”
Unfortunately, it was also met with a great deal of resistance. While Brighton, a provincial seaside town, is often perceived as progressive, many members of the yoga community were unwilling to support her project. In her search for an appropriate venue, Dionne was told by some that creating a space specifically for women of colour was divisive. I introduced her to a friend and person of colour, who runs his own space and just recently felt galvanised that he wanted “to cement [the venue] as a positive destination for queer people of colour and women of colour”. The first Women of Colour Wellness session took place on the 27th of June.
If you search the terms “yoga”, “yogis”, or “yoginis” on a social media platform, such as Instagram, you will be inundated with pictures of white, skinny women wearing lycra leggings and illustrating their suppleness. However, yoga, as practiced in the West, does not only have a race problem. The buzzword intersectionality, as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, has gained mainstream attention, but in practice it is still impeded by an unwillingness of the unaffected to fully understand its implications. This lack of awareness can become especially relevant in a yoga class. Race, gender presentation and orientation, sexuality and sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, mental health, and other factors can act as hurdles to finding a yoga class that does not alienate, intimidate or exclude.
Josetta Malcolm, who has been teaching yoga for eight years, is an expert at facilitating classes that value and exemplify inclusivity. While her classes are not specifically for people of colour, she often finds that the majority of the participants in her classes are people of colour. She offers a range of classes for people who identify as queer and/or trans, and she is trained in mental health and thus runs several classes in mental health facilities as well as prisons.
There is a program in the UK that has brought yoga to prisons and has illuminated how yoga can positively impact the lives of those in prison. When Josetta took part in the training program for this project, she was the only black woman in her group. She utilised the opportunity to embark on discussions around the institutional, systemic and systematic oppressions of people of colour and how they culminate into a prison-industrial-complex that perpetuates these cycles of oppression.
Since beginning to build a network, I have been made aware of more people in northern England pursuing similar projects. I hope to be able to connect with them soon. In the current post-Brexit vote atmosphere, it is important that people have spaces of refuge and it is equally as important to honour those taking on the responsibility to create such spaces. It feels like the UK is on the cusp of its own movement, and I feel very honoured to be a part of it.
By Dr Stacie CC Graham – Founder of Oya Retreats
Oya Retreats is dedicated to providing holistic movement and mindfulness training to Black women and women of colour in the UK