While a mother of three children, Maya Breuer was dealing with a brother sick from AIDS, another brother with drug addiction, and her own health issues when she first found yoga 25 years ago.
“I remember lying on my belly and feeling waves of relaxation wash over my body and mind,” she says. “I had never known such peace.”
Breuer, now 62, says that back then she worked too hard and played too little. That’s when a friend gave her a pamphlet about yoga and a weekend retreat at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts that changed her life.
Something shifted in her that day, she says, and she returned as often as she could to practice and learn yoga.
Breuer now shares the peace she found with other women, by teaching classes — she has over 5,000 hours of teaching under her belt — and with her Yoga Retreat for Women of Color held in various cities.
Octavia Raheem, 30, who has participated in several of Breuer’s retreats, was over a decade younger, and a college senior living in Boston, when she was drawn to yoga.
“It was a particularly stressful, confusing and challenging time in my life; lots of new beginnings and endings,” she recalls. “I literally felt disconnected from myself — mind, body, heart, soul, voice and power.”
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She searched the Internet and found a Bikram hot yoga class — a type of yoga taught at room temperatures between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Raheem says when she left the class, she felt brand new.
“I felt like I was breathing through new nostrils, or better yet breathing for the first time,” she says. She no longer felt the desire to rush back to the train. Instead, she walked patiently, taking in everything around her.
“I went back the next day,” Raheem says. “And the next. Ten [consecutive] days became 20. Twenty straight days of yoga became 30. Thirty became 40.”
Raheem ultimately practiced yoga for 60 days straight, taking advantage of student discounts and cleaning the studio in exchange for free classes.
What attracted her most is that the studio owner didn’t try to sell the concept of yoga to her. He did, however, make sure that she could practice as much as she wanted. It worked.
Gayle Pollard-Terry’s experience, however, was not as pleasant.
“I was apprehensive the first time I tried yoga,” she says. “As the only black woman and the only plus-sized woman in the class, I felt out of place.”
She explains how she was turned off because the other students already knew the poses, yet the instructor provided no additional guidance.
That was 15 years ago. She stayed away from yoga for 12 years until she met a teacher she describes as “positive, patient and gentle.”
”[Both that teacher and my current teacher] help me and push me to master poses that I thought were beyond my abilities,” she says.
Raheem also wanted to share her experiences with others, repeatedly inviting friends to join her. But, she found resistance.
”[My friends] had excuses for days, or they thought it was a waste of time,” she says. “They would say, ‘What? You want me to spend money to lie around stretching?’”
Some black women aren’t interested in yoga because they assume they have to have a certain body type or have a certain level of athletic ability.
“Often, those pictured doing yoga are thin and athletic — not full and voluptuous and curvy as many black women are,” says Breuer.
Breuer adds that some black women also avoid yoga because they are fearful that it is an occult practice or a Hindu religion that conflicts with their own beliefs, usually Christianity.
“Eight years ago, when I started yoga, my very Southern and very Christian family thought I was finally going over the edge,” says Raheem. “Eight years later, when I can still fit into the clothes I wore in college, clear-eyed, clear skinned, but most importantly, clear minded, they are asking, ‘Okay, what’s this yoga stuff again?’”
In September, Breuer and Raheem co-coordinated a Yoga Retreat for Women of Color in Atlanta. Twenty women, ages 30 to 67, participated. One woman traveled from as far as London, England.
“The beauty of the retreat is that all of these women who are relative strangers show up, and we leave like family — having held one another’s hopes, fears, hearts and longings for a weekend,” says Raheem.
Breuer’s attendees describe her style of yoga as soul-infused, with music to match.
“She plays everything from Chaka Khan to the Isley Brothers to chants to tribal beats to India Arie,” says Raheem. “She plays music that feels like home, so we feel at home.”
And, she teaches them to “wobble” — a popular line dance created for the 2008 song by rapper V.I.C.
This past weekend, 15 women gathered at the Kripalu Center, including Pollard-Terry. She says it won’t be her last.
“I loved the retreat — the extra help when I couldn’t do a pose, the different forms of meditation, the lack of competition and the bonding.”
One of her favorite moments involved the Sacred Circle. “We trusted each other, opened up and told our personal truth,” she said.
”[One woman] stated that she felt she finally had an understanding of yoga and its benefits for women of color,” Breuer says about a Kripalu retreat attendee. “She added that she was happy that she was finally able to do yoga with a teacher of color — one with a lot of curves, too.”
The center sold out two weeks before the retreat, leaving many women without the chance to participate. Another retreat is planned for October 2012 in Detroit.
Despite the fact that black women are not the faces of popular yoga culture, Breuer doesn’t feel that racism in yoga is any different than the understood racism in America today.“Everyone who can pay is welcome to take a yoga class anywhere in this country,” she explains.
However, according to Breuer, black teachers are frequently not included in certain national conferences and other special events. When they are included, the conferences fail to address issues within the black community.
In addition, the changes that dictate yoga practices and concepts tend to be dictated without input from non-white practitioners.
A few years ago, Breuer addressed a letter to the editors of Vanity Fair Magazine, along with black yoga teacher Jana Long, about an article on the greatest yoga teachers in America. The letter informed the the magazine’s editors that several notable black yoga teachers were left off of the list, such as well-known mogul Russell Simmons.
Yoga’s Health Benefits
The reported health benefits of yoga range from increased physical strength and endurance to fixing ailments such as heart disease and high cholesterol. Yet, most of the current data are from non-U.S. studies.
A study out of England was published on Monday looking at the effects of yoga on 300 people with more than 10 years of chronic back pain.
Researchers found that those who had the 12-week yoga sessions showed an improvement in activities such as walking, standing for long periods of time and performing jobs around the house. Another study published last week showed similar results.
Yoga’s most widely publicized benefits include its calming effect on overall mood.
Pollard-Terry says her husband definitely notices when she skips yoga for a few weeks.
“I become edgy, less accepting, more negative and more reactive, instead of letting things roll off of my back,” she describes. “I also revert to my old habit of emotional eating and using food to calm down or as a soother.”
There are several types of yoga. Some focus on stretching, gentle poses, breathing or meditation. Other types are more vigorous, such as power yoga and Bikram hot yoga.
Some may not consider yoga as a tool for weight loss, yet many studies and anecdotal stories boast its success.
Breuer reflects on two 30-something-year-old women who attended last year’s retreat. Both of the women had children, both were living in difficult situations, and both were overweight.
“This year, they returned. One was 35 pounds lighter. The other was 40 pounds lighter. They were living changed lives and credited it to the freedom and yoga they learned,” Breuer says.
Yoga as a realistic financial option
On average, black Americans have lower incomes than those in white communities. This can potentially make yoga cost-prohibitive for those in the black community.
Yet, Raheem encourages women to research, because most studios offer free or reduced-pricing classes. Local community centers often offer yoga classes for free as well.
She explains that the yogic philosophy is one of service. And, for instructors and studio owners, that translates to a desire to overcome barriers such as financial ones that would deter someone from the practice of yoga.
Pollard-Terry is fortunate enough to have several yoga studios near her home in Los Angeles. Yet, she acknowledges the difficulties other women face in locating one.
This difficulty continues the divide between the practice of yoga and black women.
“How many black women are exposed to yoga?” Pollard-Terry asks. “How many have a positive experience when they try it?”
But, with the right teacher, Pollard-Terry says, yoga can be magical.
“It is not a religion or a cult. It is a positive way of living life,” she says. “It is so relaxing, and definitely relieves stress. Yoga is good for everybody — fat or thin, disabled or stressed out, old or young.”