Bringing yoga to the Black community

LATHA JAYAKUMAR Special to the AmNews | 4/12/2012, 3:36 p.m.

The health benefits of yoga are getting more and more attention in mainstream media, and the practice is quickly growing within many communities. But even with this rapid growth, yoga seems to be taking hold within African-American communities at a much slower rate.

This might seem puzzling at first, as there are many Black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Halle Berry, LeBron James, Russell Simmons and a variety of others who openly embrace and endorse yoga for its physical and calming positive effects.

Raquel Griffin, an African-American yoga teacher in New York City, believes, "Yoga still has a cultural stigma attached to it, in terms of it being considered the sole provenance of 'hippie white people,' but this is changing with increased accessibility of the practice."

In the United States, yoga is a common part of many fit lifestyles yet it is still perceived to be a predominately white practice. "Cultural stigmas and norms play a big role in this, but as yoga starts to become more prevalent, American culture as a whole will change," said Griffin.

Some people may feel limited; yoga, in its westernized form, frequently seems money-driven and primarily marketed to upper-class white women. As a result, individuals may feel that this healthy practice is not affordable for them. But many yoga studios offer low-cost, donation-based or even free community classes that are open to all levels.

Robin Downes, founder of Yoga Flava, turned to yoga in the '90s to relieve stress from her busy life as a Hollywood producer. She was certified in Hatha yoga in 1996 and has since created Yoga Flava, putting a hip-hop spin on yoga.

Downes said it was important to her to be able to "take the ancient practice of yoga and interpret it for modern people, so that it became a mix of the familiar with the different."

Downes is the first African-American female yoga instructor to have an internationally distributed yoga DVD through Walmart. She says it was purposely filmed using "different sized women, so people could see that yoga is for everyone."

She taught yoga one-on-one to Hollywood celebrities such as Simmons, John Salley from the NBA, Lisa Ray, Brandy and many more, and is now working on putting together a Yoga Flava TV show for the Live Well Network.

"Yoga Flava is not just about yoga, but the flava of life," Downes said. She is interested in showing people that yoga is accessible and that "education is the key to changing things. I want to get the word out there and make it understandable to the public that yoga can help you in so many ways."

Diabetes and high blood pressure are diseases that African-Americans are most at risk for. Yoga can actually help prevent these as well as other ailments. Some of the health benefits of yoga include stress reduction, weight loss, lowering of blood pressure and decreasing the risk of diabetes and stroke.

The difference in the numbers of people doing yoga from various communities is multifactorial. There is a widely held misconception regarding yoga: Some people believe it is a religion. Yoga is, in fact, not a religion but a physical and spiritual discipline that solely promotes physical and mental wellness while improving strength and flexibility and helping to reduce stress. Yoga can be an incredible workout that can help bring peace to an individual.