When I took my first yoga class seven years ago, I was a college freshman who had been convinced that it was an exercise only geared toward the double-jointed and the spiritually aligned. But then I fell in love with it. I mean, in what other exercise class is laying down and not pushing yourself encouraged? But corpse pose aside, yoga can be an outlet for healing the body and the mind — especially for brown and Black people who are simply trying to exist in a world where their skin color is criminalized. And yet, there is often no one who looks like me in a standard yoga class. How many yoga classes do you see in the hood?
These spaces, full of burned sage, essential oils, and sun salutations, tend to be in quaint gentrified corners of cities led by white instructors and filled with the same lithe bodies — despite yoga’s Indian origins.
When I have been able to pause life long enough to hit the yoga mat, it has been a small comfort to see at least one other brown body in a class. Bonus points if that other brown body had rolls and thick thighs. Beyond Western yoga’s frequent inaccessibility and lack of inclusivity (of diverse body shapes and races), cultural appropriation is present in this practice actually rooted in Hindu traditions.
If you have never heard of Kemetic yoga, it is a philosophy and movement practice said to have originated within the Kemet civilization in ancient Egypt. Kemetic yoga practice places emphasis on deep breathing, meditation, and alignment of the nervous system. Also, a Kemetic practice celebrates blackness. The yoga studio where I first experienced Kemetic yoga had a more inviting energy than any other studio I had been to before. The class consisted of only three students, so there was no one performing a downward facing dog right in my line of sight. There was no fighting to wedge my mat in between 10 other people.
Before we began any actual movement, the instructor, a Black woman who was also the studio owner, gave a short talk on how Kemetic yoga is different from Western yoga. She pointed out that many Western yoga instructors neglect to study the philosophies behind the Indian yoga that they practice.
I had never met this particular instructor before, but if there is such thing as a kindred spirit, she was mine. In that studio, I felt the most authentic connection to yoga I’d ever experienced. I felt more present than ever before while twisting my body to awaken my Kundalini energy.
More than anything, I felt seen. The focus on meditative breathing and stillness during poses may be similar to other forms of yoga, but other classes often felt like a race to see who could contort their body faster. This felt like a genuine detox of mind, body, and spirit. But, for me, the most healing aspect of the Kemetic yoga class had nothing to do with movements. After class, I remained on my mat for almost two hours while the instructor sat with each of us, talking about her experiences as the only Black woman business owner on one of those gentrified corners in my city.
Whatever higher frequency she vibrated on, it helped me open up about my feelings as an artist and my doubts regarding my career. It was hella scary and unfamiliar, but also necessary. I left her studio with a rose (she gave one to each student) and one of the most insightful moments I’d had in a long time.
Of course, this may not be every brown or Black person’s experience with Kemetic yoga. But it is definitely a reminder of how important it is to seek out spaces that reaffirm our existence and our experiences, even if you just want to get in a good full-body stretch without feeling like an anomaly.