I’m the only Black woman in my yoga class but…

Hmmmm.  The recent media fallout over the essay published on xojane.com, “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” has me feeling some kind of way.  Jen Caron (actually a pseudonym used by writer Jen Polachek to conveniently protect her identity), self-described as a “skinny white girl,” writes about how she becomes uncomfortable watching a “young, fairly heavy black woman,” a new and unfamiliar student in her regular yoga class, “struggle” in a space that is “unable to accommodate her body.”  She writes,

Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.

Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.

At first, I had to stop reading right here–really!  This is all about you now?!  But, I read the entire essay, and you should too.  And, read all of the responses weighing in on how problematic and dangerous this confessional is (“Black Woman in Yoga Class Gives White Woman Race Angst” is on point).  Suddenly, in a yoga class, the heavy, black body threatens the safe, comfortable zone that belongs to this white woman.  She went home and cried because the presence of this one Black woman presented her with a moral crisis and interrupted her flow.  She questions, what should she have done?  How could she help this heavy, Black woman who couldn’t do yoga?  For an answer to these questions, read “It Happened to Me:  I’m a Big Black Girl Around Small White People & I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.”

But, let me keep it all the way real here.  I am always the only Black woman in my yoga classes.  Is this because Black women don’t practice yoga?  No.  Is this because Black women struggle with yoga?  No.  Is this because heavy Black women are not comfortable with their bodies in the presence of “skinny white bodies”?  No.  Let me offer another perspective, Ms. “Jen Caron”.  After reading this essay, I reflected on the number of times I have gone into a studio and other students coincidentally avoid placing their yoga mats next to mine.  I thought about times when the instructor does not acknowledge my presence, nod or say “hello,” or even make eye contact with me.  I remembered all the times that I have wanted to stay in child’s pose because this is my practice and that is what my body needed in that moment.  And, if in that moment we had been in the same yoga class, would I too have been a threat to you?

So, why do I continue to go to yoga classes, “shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women” as Ms. Caron writes, where I am the “only one” (which is not unlike other experiences in my everyday life)?  Why do so many women of color continue to practice yoga despite narratives like the one Ms. Caron confesses?  Because, as Sweet Brown would say, ain’t nobody got time for that.  Ain’t nobody got time to worry about your prejudice, your guilt, or your fear when it comes to taking care of her own body and health.  When I practice yoga, I carve out my own space and focus on my flow.  Ain’t nobody thinking about you.  And, health and wellness do not belong to you.

As I complete my yoga teacher training, my friends are like, “girl, when are you going to start teaching your classes?  I’m waiting for your class.”  I have sistafriends who don’t feel like being the “only one” in a yoga class taught by the “skinny white girl” who might possess the same attitude as Ms. Caron.  And, I don’t blame them.  For that reason, I am pursuing this training because one, I want to deepen my own practice and two, I want to create yoga spaces where women (and men) of color know that they are welcomed and expected.  What is most problematic to me about Ms. Caron’s sudden realization is that it is only occurring because of the presence of a Black woman who may have been new to this yoga class.  It happens because what is familiar is disrupted by the unfamiliar.  Instead, I would want yoga teachers and students to pose these questions and experience this discomfort because these spaces are homogeneous and occupied with people like them.  Not when “diversity” appears on the mat behind them.

In the meantime, I will continue to show up in yoga classes and settle in on my mat.  And, if you find me in child’s pose, don’t worry.  I’m OK.  And, I’m sure that you will be OK too.

2 thoughts on “I’m the only Black woman in my yoga class but…

  1. Mary says:

    Ha! I’ve read some of the responses to the original condescending essay. Yours is probably the most powerful of the lot in that directly, without satire, humor, anger, you simply state from a position of agency your reasons for practicing yoga — reasons that never could have occurred to someone who reduces another human being to a “sad thing”.

  2. Prof. Peach says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. My practice is about me. It’s as personal as prayer and more soothing than therapy. When I see you on the mat, I’ll gladly come next to you. Namaste, my friend.

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