“What does it take to be the first female anything? It takes grit, and it takes grace.” - Meryl Streep
My Black History Moment
This is me claiming my Black History Moment as the 1st Black woman to open a yoga studio (yoga/pilates & juice bar) in the world! For 12+ years of the 16 I've been in business, 7 days a week local Brooklynites would see a young Black woman stationed in the window of a Brooklyn, storefront yoga studio, something that was very rare.
Almost every studio located in NYC in the 2000's was located on a second floor or higher or tucked away inside an exclusive gym. Understandable given the cost of commercial rents and proximity to street noise. The average person had to cross a series of obstacles in order to get into a class.
This Is The Part Where I Honor My Elders & Teachers
Now let's be clear. I absolutely was NOT the first to practice yoga or teach a yoga class, lol. Let's get that straight! I've had mentors of various races but here are the three that stand out during my study of yoga and movement. One of my teachers Yirser has been practicing and teaching yoga in Chicago and globally since the 70's. I found Amma, a Black woman, my elder and guru (RIP) at the Crunch
gym in Fort Greene. Once I found her, I was rollerblading to her 7am class 3 days a week during rain, sleet and snow from my first apartment in deep in Bed- Stuy. My martial arts teacher Mr. Preston Riddick has been guiding locals at the top of Fort Greene Park for 50 years. There is clear evidence of yoga in Africa, for example The Egyptian statues and sciences depicting meditation and postures. My multicultural Guyanese-West Indian heritage is a mixture of Indian people, culture, religion and Afro-centric traditions.
However there was a time, as late as 2006 when Black yoga teachers were an anomaly and regarded as outsiders; unfit to lead a yoga class. Post college I was living a "frugal" simple buddhist life and the looks of judgement for wearing my loose t-shirt and sweats at the popular studios never deterred me. I was a new yorker afterall; I was a vegan and into the D.I.Y. punk rock scene and could care less about what people thought about my clothes. Going to classes despite being completely ignored or treated poorly saved my life because I was raised to care about my life.
Meanwhile my sister Karen was expanding her own business, tackling her own struggles as a pioneer in the natural hair industry. She acted as my mentor in business, supplying olive oil lotion, honey-oatmeal body butter and white tea scented conditioners that I brought to my job at 1515 Broadway to bring brand awareness to Karen's Body Beautiful and sell products up and down the tower. When she expanded her store/kitchen to a 2000sq ft store ON the thoroughfare of Myrtle Avenue, I got to know Myrtle avenue locals and characters. I got the see the excitement on the face of customers meeting Karen for the first time who were transitioning from chemical straighteners to embracing their natural textures.
The 2000's Were Still A Minor Struggle
Luckily I was overwhelmingly well received by the vast majority of my clientele but when I opened I remember the looks of shock I would get when students realized the dark skinned woman sweeping the sidewalk, disinfecting mats and checking them in for class was the Grace of Move With Grace. Then the feeling of surprise when sed woman taught a compassionate and effective yoga class. I've had more than one student apologize for being rude at the check-in desk only to realize I was their scheduled teacher. I felt the weight of normalizing something that people were not used to seeing in their day to day lives.
From 2008 to 2012 I made the choice to teach "at-risk" and incarcerated youth. Despite my training I...didn't know what I was getting into. The thing is that yoga and meditation can bring someone into a state of "bliss" aka a condition known as head-in-cloud syndrome. Symptoms are feelings of unwavering optimism, idealism, blind-trust, extreme faith & compassion, stretching in inappropriate places, enhanced listening and extreme patience, etc.
It turns out that my experience being a target of violence and/or harassment like many a New Yorker made me want to reach back to troubled youth who were themselves victims, vulnerable children or perpetrators and bullies that needed an outlet. Knowing that my family was one of the last of the middle class, I knew from a very young age that the privileged people and situations I was exposed to and friends with were exclusive and sheltered. I would never have known a life outside of inner city Brooklyn if not for my mother and sister holding a place for me to travel the city and learn outside of my neighborhood. Teaching with the Lineage Project brought me back to the reality of city life and healed my need to find my own answers and contribute something to the (younger) youth of my city.
Through the single-paned glass at my first location, Brooklyn girls would walk by and say "Oooh maybe I should try yoga?!" This is when I knew that I had an additional purpose. To hold a peaceful space for reflection and self-care practices for people that see themselves in my likeness whether they were a girl, woman, black or an "outsider". To say to oneself, maybe I can be a yoga teacher or *gasp* start a program or wellness business!
We also offered pilates, children's classes, martial arts & various styles of dance and meditation over the years from South African dance to OSHO meditation techniques. For a few weeks we rented space so that travelers could take a nap. My only job was to infuse the physical space with loving energy and it was the best job ever. We literally offered it all and I people were coming from all over the world, drawn in by the romance of an authentic NYC experience!
As humans we have a tendency to simplify things and push away the experiences that are not aligned with homeostasis. NYC life is partially about survival and we certainly don't need a yoga class to make it to the next day. Yet my unintended goal was for Black people to see themselves as apart of the yoga INDUSTRY and to know that yoga was not an exclusive "White thing". We actually deserve to slow down our pace, smell the honeysuckle trees and enjoy a moments without the hustle.
The Future Looks Bright
By now yoga has been embraced by almost everyone. Either you're love it or you don't. I'm not sure if this is correlated but yoga is fully normalized. It's apart of the NYC lifestyle. Now if we can normalize yoga as a means to unite communities, raise self esteem and develop a direct connection from our minds to our bodies at the cellular level.
Since then a recurring commercial came out around 2012 where a Black man (actor) said that he called the California psychic network and she told him that he was going to open his own yoga studio. I wonder where he is now? A girl wonders...