Yoga Is My Self-Care: More Black Men Need to Breathe

Photo: Courtesy Terrell J. Starr

As soon as I walk into my yoga studio in Brooklyn, I leave every societal hang-up on how black men are supposed to act and feel at the door. I can be free. I can be me, at peace with my mind and body. I exist unjudged by the people practicing with me because they, too, are seeking what I want: inner peace.

That starts with allowing myself to give in to the movements the instructor calls us to perform on a given day. Like, warming my body into a cat-cow stretch to move the stress out of my back, opening up my chest to release the tension constraining my spirit. Or when I rest a block under my shoulder blades to fall into the reclined goddess pose, bringing the soles of my feet together and letting my knees fall to the sides as far as they want to go. Or when I’m doing aerial yoga, the feeling I get from hanging in an inverted butterfly allows me to trust my body in ways I never imagined.

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My body is getting into ease with itself, but it is also resisting everything that wants to obstruct its comfort or its peace. None of that happens by holding onto inhibitions and preconceived notions of masculinity. There is no such thing as a “girly way” to move your body. I used to think yoga was for women, but not just any type of woman, namely white, gentrifying women with their parents’ money to spend on expensive studio fees most black people can’t afford. I used to think yoga was a feminine activity in which you had to be a particular type of man to truly enjoy. I hate to say it, but I thought yoga was for gay dudes. Fucked up, right? My understanding of yoga was predicated on a sexist, hyper-masculine understanding of how the body is supposed to move and feel. Boy, was I wrong.

(Here is an ironic fact: Though yoga is practiced by mostly women today, it was very much a man-only practice in India.)

That was before I went to therapy for two years and deconstructed all of that bullshit thinking out of my mind and allowed myself to be open to experiences that truly make me happy. I have written about my mental health experiences here at The Root, as well as in a well-received essay for BuzzFeed. Since my last therapy session back in 2015, I have been looking for a new form of self-care that did not require a mental health professional or anything that reminded me of life’s problems. I searched for something that helped me to relax, yet challenged me to grow mentally and physically.

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I had always had a passing interest in yoga—even after I was able to rid my mind of those negative stereotypes— but I never tried it. Back in August, I asked my followers on Twitter about their experiences with yoga and decided to give it a try after hearing some positive responses. My first go at it was at a hot yoga studio here in Brooklyn. I was hooked from day one. My first reaction was that yoga isn’t as easy as it looks. Many of the poses require you to have a very strong core, which, admittedly, was lacking in my case. My arms ached, and my shoulders were slightly fatigued after my first class, but I knew I wanted to try it again. After class, I went to Amazon and bought my first yoga mat and bag (a stylish one, I might add) and signed up for a year-long membership.

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I’ve since moved onto And Yoga Studios in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a semi-private, black-owned studio. I go at least four times a week and adjust my workday around making sure I am able to make my classes on time. Yoga is an extension of my mental health journey that helps me to be at peace with myself and who I am. Long after my therapist helped me to heal from all of the traumas of my childhood, yoga has been that healing agent that my mind yearns for, just as it did those two-a-week therapy sessions some four-and-a-half years ago. Instead of reflecting on my pain, yoga helps me feel good about myself and calms me. I used to take small dosages of Escitalopram (Lexapro) every day to fend off depression. Now, I do daily vinyasa flows.

However, there is only one disconcerting observation I have made about about my yoga journey so far: I rarely see black men in my classes. At my new studio, I have yet to see a black man practicing with me, and we are located in Bed-Stuy, not too far from Crown Heights—a neighborhood full of Caribbean peoples. (Though one of the teachers at my studio is a black man!) It can’t be the expense because my studio and others in the neighborhood have community options for those who can’t pay or some form of work-study where a person can clock in hours in the studio in exchange for free lessons. Yoga isn’t inaccessible—at least in price.

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It is hard to find data on the racial breakdown of who does yoga, but it seems like it is a white-female dominated profession. That said, I follow plenty of black yogis on Instagram, so there are black folk practicing. It’s mostly women, though. I did find an article on black men in Baltimore encouraging black boys to practice yoga, which is promising but I just want to see one brotha actually practice with me. So many black men could benefit from the healing properties of yoga—especially the mental components that require you to shut out the world and its constraints and binaries.

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I’ve never felt freer in my life since I’ve begun my practice, and I am looking forward to the journey ahead where I can enjoy my mind, body and spirit unencumbered by society’s constrained views of masculinity. Hopefully, I can bring more black men with me on my journey so that can feel as free as me.

Namaste.

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About the author

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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