For many years, Calia Marshall participated in countless yoga classes, all with one thing in common—a lack of people of color in attendance. “I moved to New York in 2000 and started taking Yoga classes wherever I could,” said Marshall. “I was often the only person of color in a class. I just really wanted to practice yoga with a more diverse community that represented humanity. So I developed a once-a-month yoga class called Brown Sugar: Yoga for Folks of Color and pitched my idea to Sarah Schuman, the owner of the Shambhala Yoga & Dance Studio in Brooklyn, New York.”
Do we really need a yoga class specifically for folks of color? As with many things, it depends on your perspective. Think, for a moment, about what yoga represents—it’s an ancient practice, originating in India, connecting our body, mind, and spirit. Other popular yoga terms, such as “Namaste” (pronounced, nah’-mah’-stay), means “the divine light within me salutes the divine light within you.” In a nutshell, the term implies a sense of union, yet several people of color report feeling like an “outsider” while participating in yoga classes that are typically filled with Caucasian participants.
Though Marshall fell in love with movement—in the form of dance—at an early age, her love affair with yoga had a rockier start. “My first introduction to dance occurred while I was growing up,” said Marshall. “I would dance with my mom in our living room. Then I did high school musicals and went on to college to study modern dance. During my senior year, I took yoga as a gym credit and I absolutely hated it. But one day, I went to class and we had a substitute teacher who had us a sit in a circle. We chanted, focused on our breathing, and connecting with the community. That’s when I realized there was something deeper to the yoga practice than just doing these awkward poses with my body that made me feel uncomfortable.”
“Through teaching the class, it’s been really affirming to me about the important of this space for people of color. Every time I have a class, there’s always people who have either never practiced yoga or they’ve practiced and decided they didn’t want to practice anymore because they felt very “othered.” I strive to make my class very open to different races, body types, sexual orientation, and genders so that everyone feels like they have a place to call home. To feel like you are part of something is really important. ‘Yoga’ means union, so I try to incorporate all of who we are in the practice.”
Recently, Black Enterprise had the opportunity to participate in Marshall’s 2-hour Yoga for Folks of Color class. The class represented a diverse group of mostly women who identified as Bangladeshi, African American, and Indian, and focused on basic Asanas (yoga poses). The class starts with all participants seated in a circle, and Marshall begins with a warm welcome and a few questions for each participant: “What’s your name? Why are you here? What is your intention?” Within the first 5 minutes, the message was clear—“yoga for people of color” is about promoting a sense of community.
Midway through the session, beyond classic postures, breathing, and chanting, Marshall asked participants to stand, rejoin the circle, and participate in a freestyle dance to the tunes of Mariah Carey’s hit song, “Shake it off.” A further sense of camaraderie is demonstrated when Marshall asks students to help each other form the “Wheel Pose,” a back bending position with the help of yoga straps. The class comes to an end with students returning to the circle, seated and sharing with the group the one word that comes to their mind. Marshall, while encouraging conversation amongst the group, then shares a few pieces of fruit and delectable dark chocolates.
Marshall also teaches multiple styles of dance and music to New York City public school children. In 2002, she received her yoga teaching certification from Laughing Lotus Yoga Center and has done a study with Cathy Calderon, Jonathan FitzGordon, Alison West, and Kevin and Erin Maile O’Keefe in Circus Yoga.
Surprisingly, “yoga for people of color” is not a new concept. Across the country, there are quite a few black-owned yoga studios and practicing professional yogis providing classes for people of color. For instance, there’sMaya Breuer, who offers a yoga retreat for women of color, Leslie Salmon Jones, founder of Afro Flow Yoga,offering a creative fusion of yoga, the dances of the African Diaspora, and live music, and Black Girl in Om, an online publication promoting holistic wellness and inner beauty for women of color.