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.
Lately though, there have been efforts by the IABYT and other black yoga adherents, to promulgate this particular gospel among blacks in the "inner city," too. In the new novel, Love's Troubadours, by the gloriously-named Ananda Kiamsha Madelyn Leeke, the book's heroine, Karma Francois, is, "a thirty-something California-born BoHo BAP (Bohemian Black American Princess) with Louisiana roots and urban-debutante flair…[who] uses therapy, yoga, meditation, art, music, poetry and support from family and friends to confront the effects of her poor life choices and embrace a spiritual journey of healing and love," according to the publicity packet.
The book also seeks, through its panoply of characters, to demonstrate the historic, social and cultural "commonalities" between blacks and Latin Americans.
In generational terms, I suppose it was inevitable that black Americans would find our way to yoga. Our earlier preferred methods of self-soothing, self-preservation (or self-medicating), have begun to work against us: Eating the rich, fatty food that sustained and comforted our grandparents and their grandparents, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and yes, bottling up the racism-inspired rage that we often felt; or exercising our bodies only fitfully, and without allowing for regular doses of quiet time, clearly has not worked for us. And do I have to point out that a lot of black athletes-with beautiful, high-performing bodies that reap, at the pro level,, extremely lucrative compensation-obviously require emotional and mental health "workouts" along with physical conditioning?
Moreover, you've read the awful morbidity statistics, and I have, too. Blacks have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, early infant mortality, cancer, etc., ad nauseum, than the general population. When I first began investigating blacks and mental health, in the mid-1990s, I learned that African Americans also experience negative symptoms from emotional and psychological stress-depression, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and homicide-much more acutely than just about any other ethnic group. Only Native Americans, unfortunately, have poorer rates than blacks in all these categories, raising the question of whether they, too, might benefit from a yoga intervention at the grassroots level. But I don't want to presume…
A well-known black medical doctor (who is also a psychiatrist), once told me: All the political and economic advances made by African Americans during the past 50 years will not ensure the success of our future generations-taking charge of our mental and physical health care, in that order, is the true key to our historic longevity. Plus, the pursuit of such, in and of itself, is spiritual.
Of course, for so many of us, getting the light bill paid, keeping the children in schools (and physically safe), making sure the job is secure, doesn't usually leave much time for "taking charge" of one's mental or even physical health. That those of us who have attained relatively comfortable income levels have begun seeking "alternative" methods of exercise and self-preservation perhaps points to a level of assimilation that is positive (as opposed to some of the more destructive varieties such as social isolation and the "crabs-in-a-barrel" syndrome outlined by Frantz Fanon and other black thinkers over the decades).
Ten years ago, I silently resisted the idea of yoga. But now I-and my former tennis-playing knees-am getting into it. I like being in a group where hardly anyone speaks but everyone manages to communicate how they are experiencing the "work;" where no one judges my stumbles and exhortations-or raises an eyebrow at my choice to not buy all the gear.
Seriously, I can't yet see myself striding along with one of those hippy-patterned, yoga mat bags that I often spy around my circuit in suburban Washington, D.C., slung over the shoulders of stay-at-home moms at the supermarket or occupying rear seats of the mini-vans or SUVs that they drive. The rubber mats provided by the center where I take classes are swell for my purposes.
At least, that is what I tell myself, at this point in time. The daily swirl of managing my life only allows for a once a week period of "centering," and the surprisingly strenuous, muscle-elongating contortions of yoga.
Right now, I'm simply enjoying familiarizing myself with the process, with learning that is self-perpetuating: The more you engage in yoga, the more insight you gain about how you make decisions. This is a rare opportunity in this era of mindless consuming and hyper-kinetic networking.
Anyway, apart from the much-needed relaxation I get from my weekly yoga class, I also see it as a metaphor, a way of kick-starting a vision I have of myself in the years to come, and for my children: In the moment, no matter your age, education, or income, you can stretch and extend yourself long enough, carefully enough and far enough. Repeat, until your fingertips connect to the future and the baton is safely passed.
Amy Alexander, the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is writing a book about race and media.
Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor in Silver Spring, Md., is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention. She has produced stories for the National Journal/Atlantic, NPR, The Nation, The Root and other outlets.