Yoga in the Black community still has barriers from decades ago – USA TODAY

Last week a story published about Black women historically turning to yoga to find peace
The story was for our Black History Month edition and featured one of the most notable woman in the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks. 
Hi, I am Asha Gilbert and I am a trending reporter at USA TODAY. Welcome to this week’s This is America, a newsletter centered around race, identity, culture and how they shape our lives.
I, and I’m sure a few others, had no previous knowledge that Parks began practicing  yoga in the 1960s and continued for 30 years. I have no recollection of learning this in grade school with the minute teachings of Black history then, and don’t remember hearing it while attending Savannah State University – a historically Black college and university. 
In January 2020, an Instagram account called @blkmktvintage posted photos of the woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus, practicing the Dhanurasana, or Bow Pose.
The photos were from March 1973 and were made public in December 2019 at the Library of Congress exhibit “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words.” 
Georgia State University professor Stephanie Y. Evans was credited with unearthing the previously unpublished photos during her research into the history of Black women practicing yoga.
She would later write a book called “Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace.” 
Jana Long, founder of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, told me she didn’t know Parks practiced yoga until Evans wrote her book. 
According to the Yoga Journal, Richard Hittleman was credited with bringing yoga to more Americans after returning from studying the practice in India. He began to teach yoga in New York in the 1950s.
He was a student of Ramana Maharshi, an Indian Hindu sage, and brought a non-religious approach to the practice.
Yoga, and its many American renditions, would grow over the next two decades; in the 1970s yoga hit the mainstream with shows such as “Lilias, Yoga, & You” that aired on PBS. 
For Black Americans, the experience has been slightly different.
Long began practicing yoga in 1972 and told me it would be 30 years before she met another Black person who practiced yoga.
“When I discovered this thing called yoga, I began to seek more information about yoga, and at the time there wasn’t a lot of books like there are now,” she said. 
And back then, she said people would look at you like a weirdo if you brought it up and many practiced yoga privately. That may be why few, besides Parks’ family, knew of her holistic approach to find inner peace.
Although some practiced in secret, there are some early publications showcasing efforts to get more Black people involved in the practice.
In 1975, an article from Ebony Magazine called “Yoga, Something For Everyone” featured famous Black celebrities such as Smokey Robinson, civil rights leader Angela Davis and members of Earth, Wind and Fire who practiced yoga. 
“Blacks have got to realize where the power really is. The struggle is not on a physical level. It is on the level of the mind,” said Krishna Kaur, a Black yoga teacher and former actress, said in the article. 
Davis told the publication she used yoga to retain her sanity in prison while awaiting her trial in California for conspiracy, murder and kidnapping charges. 
“Just the physical part was a help, in my case, because I couldn’t leave the cell for regular exercise,” she said. “I have never used yoga as an end in itself but merely as a means of preparing for a more effective struggle.”
Davis was acquitted in 1972 and has continued practicing yoga. There were no mentions of Parks in the article.
The practice of yoga is still taboo in some Black communities today and there could still be resistance because of strict religious beliefs. 
The lack of Black yoga teachers could make anyone, including myself, feel awkward or uncomfortable when entering a white yoga class. That feeling would be evident especially if there aren’t many people who look like you.
A 2002 study found that 84% of yoga users in the U.S. were white and 76% were women.
Yoga depictions on social media and advertisements often show skinny white women in acrobatic poses — imagery that suggests yoga is not for people of color.
It has long been classified as a rich white women’s activity with a lack of studios in predominantly Black communities. Classes also can be costly and some may find a lack of value in the practice.
However, practicing yoga is no longer a secret and some Black celebrities like Russell Simmons and Halle Berry have shared what yoga has done for them both physically and spiritually.
 “Whatever type of yoga I practice, focusing on my breath and really feeling my body as I flow through and hold poses really centers me. It’s like the stress just lifts right out of me,” Berry wrote in Women’s Health magazine.
A search on Instagram or TikTok provides numerous accounts dedicated to educating the Black community on yoga and its benefits. These scrolls have at times piqued my interest.
According to a 2015 National Statistics report, the practice of yoga among Black adults increased from 2.5% in 2002 to 5.6% in 2012. Not major increases, but a start.
In my experience growing up Black in America, there wasn’t much talk about “finding peace” or centering myself when I was thrashed with emotions. Most of the time I was sent to timeout or told to calm down.
The easy thing I could do is blame my teachers, caregivers and parents for not enlightening me on how to do yoga and cultivate peace. 
But, how can somebody teach something they didn’t know, especially on the outside looking in?
Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: [email protected]
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