The first yoga class that I took turned out to be my last. It was the ’80s and I was a young mother of two elementary school children, juggling the stress of work and home life. I was doing everything that the articles said I should be doing except taking care of myself – and that made me feel like a loser.
Determined to get my priorities in order, I decided to take yoga. I signed up for a class during my lunch hour so that I wouldn’t have to worry about child care. I arrived at my first class late (of course) and plopped my mat down in a sea of whiteness. For the next 20 minutes, I huffed and groaned as I tried to keep up – and then the class was over. At least that’s the way it seemed when I woke up and everyone was leaving.
I laughed it off, but deep down, the experience was defeating. I couldn’t hold the poses like the younger, whiter participants. And I couldn’t even be quiet for a moment without falling asleep. I went back and tried harder. But entering into a yoga competition didn’t feel like my idea of “self-care.” I quit and never tried yoga again.
Decades later, I talked to my friend Dr. Gail Parker and realized that my feelings of alienation while taking yoga weren’t unusual. Parker, who is also African American, spent much of her career as a renowned psychologist, once a staple on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But several years ago, she shuttered her suburban Detroit practice to become a certified yoga therapist and yoga therapist educator.
She now uses yoga to help people heal from racial trauma. The idea began years ago when Parker was the only person of color in her yoga class. “The environment was comfortable and inclusive,” Parker says. She added that often the teacher would touch students supportively to offer postural adjustments during class.
“At the end of class, during the final pose of rest, when the instructor would touch our heads and massage our necks, all the issues around trauma and hair came up for me,” she says. “Even though she didn’t mean anything by her touch, the pain(ful) memory of past insults around texturized hair came to mind. It was hard for me.”
These microaggressions happen all the time for those taking yoga while black, from the location of studios, to the pressure to wear Lululemon fashions, to the perplexed look on an instructor’s face when she asks, “Are you here for yoga?” Couple that with the “perfection pressure” that many people of color carry with them in public and what should be the path to peace can become the road to turmoil.
Certainly, yoga in the United States bears little resemblance to its sacred roots in India where it is a lifestyle, not a weekly class. But even as our version of yoga becomes more diverse, Parker says that instructors need to be more culturally competent so that racial trauma is not exacerbated.
“For example, African Americans have been raised to understand that to get half as far, we do twice as much,” Parker says. “When a yoga instructor tells you to push hard to ‘find your edge,’ we’ll go over it because we will do everything 200 percent. That’s when physical injury occurs. People of color have a Ph.D. in going too far.”
For yoga to be instrumental in healing racism, it can’t be a space where people of color remain on high alert. It must not only be both culturally sensitive but also restorative, says Parker, whose book about healing racial trauma through yoga will be published next summer.
Restorative yoga emphasizes deep-muscle relaxation, allowing the body to release the fight or flight tension that racism engenders. The pace of restorative yoga is slow, and pillows, bolsters and blankets can be used to help people sustain a pose long enough for the body to relax.
“People who are traumatized do not feel safe being relaxed and still,” Parker says. “Your nervous system is keyed up; you’re always looking for a way out, just in case. We need a place where we can lower our defenses and know that we’re safe in doing so. Restorative yoga can be that place.”
Imagine, all these years I thought that I wasn’t good enough for yoga, when it was yoga that wasn’t good for me. No. 1 on my list of New Year’s resolutions: Find a restorative yoga class that holds me up instead of stresses me out.
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.