Bringing yoga to the Black community

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

Jennifer Pope and Stephanie Pope Caffey are certified Bikram yoga teachers and the owners of Bikram Yoga East Harlem (4 E. 116th St., (212) 369-1830, www.bikramyogaeastharlem.com). After finding different paths to yoga, the sisters decided to join forces and open a studio in 2008 just around the corner from their childhood home. The sisters have since taught hundreds of students from various backgrounds and ethnicities.

According to Pope, they were raised with a strong Catholic upbringing and never saw yoga as a religion. She said, "The spiritual part of yoga is a natural progression. Yoga is not religious or a cult, it's just about you and what you get out of it."

"The yoga community in Harlem is alive and growing, and the camaraderie and community healing that it fosters is great," added Caffey.

Pope said that throughout their practice, they "noticed that many times, [they] were the only people of color in the class and almost no people of color were teaching classes."

When the sisters decided to open the studio in East Harlem almost four years ago, their teacher, Bikram Choudhury, was delighted and echoed their sentiment that "Harlem needs yoga more than Beverly Hills does." Several other yoga studios of various lineages have since popped up in the area, following the Pope sisters' trail.

"Harlem is changing; these are the people of the community and it's old Harlem and new Harlem coming together...yoga blends into this growth," said Pope.

"[Yoga helps] build self-esteem and influences you to make better choices to think clearer and value yourself, it gives you ownership of your own body, and when you own something, you tend to take better care of it," said Caffey. "Too many people are walking around like they are renting their bodies, and that needs to change."

Caffey also pointed out, "Aesthetically, there is a somewhat limiting factor for Black people, and that is that they don't want to sweat out their hair...[but I] always tell people not to compromise their health for their hair. Yoga allows you to train your body to care for itself and for it to be in control, and that is precious."

Yoga is a practice that centers the body and relaxes the mind. It's a stress reliever and has a calming effect on overall mood. It is a simple practice that helps create a healthy response to daily stress, which naturally promotes positive choices in behavior and lifestyle. Its benefits should be accessed and available to all, regardless of social norms, ethnicity or class status.