Body Image

Can Janelle Monae Help Break Down Yoga’s Race Barrier?


Skinny White women aren't the only ones in lotus position—but it can appear that way. This yogi hopes the singer's new track will inspire other Black women to lay out their mats.



On Monday, Janelle Monáe dropped the video for her new single “Yoga,” and to me, it felt like redemption. The video opens with Monae in half-lotus pose while perched in mid-air as she sings “Let yo’ booty do that yoga.” With the singer setting the example, Black women are, for the first time, being personally invited to a practice that has for years in this country been presumed the sole territory of White women. As someone who has come to love yoga, I’m eager to see more Black women get inspired to lay out their mats and be, in the words of Janelle, “flexing like a yogi, dropping it down with your hands up.”

For the past 18 months, before sunrise, I have been burrowing my way out of my cozy down comforter, trundling out of bed, and after a quick birdbath, getting ready for my class: I pull on my yoga pants, strap on my sports bra, throw on a tank top, and scrunch up my hair. I am not a morning person, and I don’t drink coffee. This is me, raw and unfiltered, at 6:30 a.m. at yoga. I love it.

Most folks, of all hues, are surprised to find out that I do yoga since I’m neither White nor thin. I’m a Black woman who looks like she knows a thing or two about a bacon cheeseburger. According to BMI charts, I’m even considered overweight. But I’m very much in shape, strong, from practicing Ashtanga yoga several days a week for close to two years. Okay, so I still snap, crackle, and pop with the first downward dog of the day. But I never leave class regretting that I came.

When I have tried to encourage other Black women I know to try it, I have heard a number of objections. “Yoga is for skinny White women,” or Westernized, commercialized yoga celebrates super-slim, bend-y folks. My yoga classes are nearly all White, but they include men and women who range from petite to big and tall. Just as you see differently sized people at a globo-gym, there are lots of different body types in any yoga class. It’s just that you won’t see them on the cover of health and fitness magazines. Last year, in xojane, a controversy erupted over an essay written by a White woman with a self-described “skinny White girl body,” who projected her body issues onto the sole Black woman in her class, which brought to light the ways in which yoga may not feel welcoming to some.

Groups like Black Yoga Superstars and Black Yogis however work to support greater diversity within yoga and to provide more images of Black yogis of all shapes and sizes. For instance, Black Yoga Superstars has a podcast on issues relating to yoga and offer assistance on beginning a daily yoga practice. Black Yogis celebrates both beginners and experienced practitioners by posting images of yogis in basic and advanced postures. Both groups are active on social media and promote the benefits of yoga.

Black women have also told me, “Yoga is against my religion.” This view may be due in part to fear that yogis are worshipping statues or paintings of the Hindu god Shiva which are often prominently displayed in yoga studios. Also, some Christians may be concerned that meditation, in contrast to Christian prayer, makes one susceptible to negative or even demonic forces. While it may be an element of religious practice for some, in most instances in the U.S., yoga is taught in a secular form—including in some public schools. I am a Christian, and nothing in my yoga practice goes counter to my beliefs. In fact, yoga has only strengthened my values by helping me to be more compassionate toward myself.

“Do a handstand, bend it back, put your legs up”

As a relative newcomer to yoga, I still need to modify some—well, most poses. In some poses, you’re supposed to look like a pretzel—and I admittedly look more like a Lincoln Log. That’s okay. I put the effort into my practice, but I try to detach from the result. I don’t berate myself for not being able to get into a particular position even if I was able to do it the day before. Sometimes the progress shows up in the pose; other times it shows up in more conscious breathing. I practice for today. I may be unable to lift my feet off of the floor, while the human Twizzler next to me has levitated off the ground and gently tucked her feet behind her slender neck. This is where I am, and I accept that. I am enough. Part of the practice is the discipline of just getting my butt to class.

The lessons that I have learned in yoga I take with me outside of the studio. This shows up in being more self-aware. I pay attention to my breathing. I catch myself when my breaths are shallower in meetings, at the dentist, or in other stressful situations. I practice breathing, and I’m able to calm down and regroup. If I start my day off with yoga, I feel good about already doing something nice for myself, and it makes me want to keep up the momentum. I tend to make healthier food choices and be in a better mood on days that I practice, too.

My yoga practice has also made me more compassionate toward others. Everyone in the room is working hard, but we are working with different bodies and different experiences. We work with what we have. We are not competing against one another. Someone may have an advanced practice, while another person may be a total beginner. You don’t know what someone’s life is like off the mat or what brought him or her to the mat. In the dressing room after class, sometimes you find out who had knee surgery or is pregnant or is in recovery. People sneeze, cough, fart, cry, and even fall asleep on the mat. I’ve become less judgmental of others and more grateful for the community of people who show up to practice with me.

“I ain’t got no worries/I’m my own private dancer”

Other Black women tell me that they won’t go to yoga because they already work out. Yoga is not a workout like Zumba or Spinning. Yoga means “to join” or “to yoke.” It’s a practice that connects body, mind, and breath, and it can complement your workouts. In yoga, it’s not just the physical action that’s important but also the focus and the breathing that accompanies it. Unlike CrossFit or running, there is no yelling “3-2-1-go” or recording of a personal best. Yoga helps you to live in the present and to breathe through it.

I practice yoga mainly because it helps to calm the mind chatter or what some call “the monkey mind.” This “monkey mind” refers to the ways that your thoughts jump around the way that a monkey swings from tree to tree. I have a lot of thoughts going at once with a full-time job, a part-time blog, and an active social life on Twitter. Plus, I’m an introvert. So, I spend a lot of time in my head. I’m always thinking, writing, tweeting, planning, mulling, and murmuring. A swift current of stuff, mostly garbage, floats around in my head, but yoga helps to calm the waters.

The most frequent argument that I hear against yoga is that it is expensive. Some studios may have pricey per-class costs, but they may offer a discount for purchasing a multi-class or monthly card. Also, some studios have community classes that accept only a pay-what-you-wish donation. You don’t need to travel to India for a yoga retreat or buy an imported organic recycled bamboo mat or fancy, NASA-technology inspired workout wear. I know that you have some ratty yoga pants. Throw on a T-shirt and a headband and go to class. There are lots of different forms of yoga, and you are sure to be able to find a studio and an instructor that you like. You can even start with borrowing a DVD from the public library. Just get on the mat.

“Even when I’m sleeping/I got one eye open”

Black women are prime candidates for yoga as they face racism, sexism, and other forces that affect their overall health. In addition, many Black women struggle with the myth of the Strong Black Woman, which treats Black women as superhumans who labor continuously without the need for rest, nurture, or care. This stereotype has a physical and psychological toll on overburdened Black women who themselves tend to buy into this myth. Yoga has proven health benefits and may serve to relieve some stress and anxiety. If you can breathe, you can do yoga. My favorite pose is savasana or “corpse pose.” It’s the last pose of the practice. After a strenuous practice, you rest on your back, cover up with a blanket, and place an eye pillow on your face. It is blissful. When was the last time that anyone told a Black woman to rest? I may not be able to fold my limbs like an origami swan, but I can savasana with the best of them.

“You cannot police me/so get off my areola”

This spring, lots of Black women are sure to be singing “Baby bend over/Let me see you do that yoga.” “Yoga” features a party-time class, the likes of which I’ve never experienced. But Monae and her crew are enjoying themselves, and their bodies, while pre-gaming, in yoga class, and at the club. Follow her example. Take the next step, roll out of bed, and get to your mat. You don’t need to shave your pits or polish your toes. Come as you are. Black girls rock! Black girls golf! Black girls do yoga!

Namaste!

 

Note: This information is not provided as medical advice. See your health-care provider before beginning any new exercise regimen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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