Om, Sweet Om

Some blacks still claim they're too stressed to destress. One woman's slow release.

Tuesday mornings, after the children are delivered to school, I lose the business-casual attire of a working, suburban mommy, in favor of:

— Sweat pants. (Pale yellow, loose-fitting.)

— A short sleeved T-shirt. (Either the black-and-gold Parliament Funkadelic throwback or one of the many I own that are emblazoned with school or sport-team logos.)

— A large canvas bag, with water, keys, wallet, cell phone and eyeglasses case inside, tossed over my right shoulder.

— Beat up leather clogs.

By 10 a.m., I am at a brick-front strip mall anchored by a Trader Joe’s, where, in a second-floor studio, I roll out one of the “house” mats and sit cross-legged. If I am late (which sometimes happens: I never know when my preschooler will decide to do the leg cling at drop-off time), I tip toe in, grab a mat from the waist-high cubbies beneath the window and find a spot. Usually, there are anywhere from six to 12 women in place for the 80-minute “mixed” yoga class. I haven’t officially surveyed the group, but my guess is we range in age from mid-30s to late 50s.

By now, seven months after I first signed up for the class, I have gotten over feeling shy and awkward: At least one other woman in the class is black, like me, and sometimes, there are three of us. Make that four: The instructor-an easy-going-but-firm, glamorous-but-down-to-earth journalist (on sabbatical)-is also African-American. Where once I scoffed at “yoga zombies” and took my exercise in heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, thrice-weekly, solo workouts at the gym, I now require a more meditative constitutional. This evolution intrigues me, in no small part because I grew up in a household where self-reflection was rare.

Exercise, yes, but only because one needed to be physically strong, and have stamina, to withstand the rigors of life-including the unpredictable, often-absurdist psychic challenges of being black in America. Honesty, hard-work, self-confidence, too, were imbued in us, but there was no purchase seen in “centering” oneself in regular, silent meditation. We lived as good Methodists among the pot-smokin’, alternative-livin’ freaks in Northern California during the ’60s and ’70s, which meant that all that foreign-sounding mumbo jumbo and body-contorting hoo-ha was best left to white folks.

Yet in recent years, growing numbers of black Americans have taken up yoga, and there is even an International Association of Black Yoga Teachers. The organization has hundreds of members around the world, and the group’s mission is, in part, to “serve the African Diaspora by spreading the teachings of the ancient art and science of yoga.” Some news publications, too, have recently outlined the growing popularity of yoga among some African Americans, although, I have not yet read a detailed, statistical analysis of why it is primarily educated, upper-middle class blacks who have come to recognize the potential long-term health benefits of yoga. It also would be helpful if more high-profile black lifestyle gurus (see Donna Joyner, Oprah, et al,) would address the topic now and then.