Black Yoga Collectives Aim to Make Space for Healing

DENVER — Beverly Grant spent years juggling many roles before yoga helped her restore her balance.

When not raising her three children, she hosted a public affairs talk radio show, attended community meetings and handed out free cups of juice at her roving Mo’ Betta Green MarketPlace farmer’s market, which has brought fresh produce to this city’s food deserts for a decade.

Her busy schedule came to an abrupt and prolonged halt on July 1, 2018, when her youngest son, Reese, 17, was fatally stabbed outside a Denver restaurant. He had just graduated from high school and was weeks from starting college.

“It’s literally a shock to your system,” said Ms. Grant, 58, of the grief that flooded her. “You feel physical pain and it affects your conscious and unconscious functioning. Your ability to breathe is impaired. Focus and concentration are sporadic at best. You are not the same person that you were before.”

Beverly Grant teaches at a yoga cooperative in Denver called Satya, which aims to be a healing space by and for people of color.

In the midst of debilitating loss, it was practicing yoga and meditation that provided some semblance of peace and balance.

Yoga then continued to be a grounding force through the isolation of the pandemic, her long days at home (Ms. Grant is the sole caregiver for her special-needs daughter and father), and the death of her mother in April. “I’ve been doing the best that I can with facing my new reality,” Ms. Grant said.

As a Black woman, she believes yoga can help other people of color, who she said disproportionately share her experiences with debilitating trauma and grief, now exacerbated by the stark racial disparities in who is contracting the coronavirus.

In particular, she recommends yoga classes that are specifically offered as an outlet to diverse communities. Satya Yoga Cooperative, the Denver-based group where Ms. Grant teaches, is operated by people of color and was founded in June 2019 in part as a response to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.

The co-op’s overarching mission: Offer yoga as an outlet to diverse communities so that individuals may better process trauma and grief before it shows up in their bodies as mental health conditions, pain or chronic disease. Many Satya classes are offered on a “pay what you can” model, with a $10 suggested donation for each session.

“When I think about racism, I think about stress and how much stress causes illness in the body,” said Lakshmi Nair, the founder of Satya, who grew up in a Hindu family in Aurora, Colo. “We believe that yoga is medicine that has the power to heal.”

Satya’s efforts are part of a growing movement to diversify yoga nationwide. The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, which became a nonprofit in 2016, provides scholarships, training and teaching opportunities for Black instructors. The Yoga Green Book, an online directory that lists Black yoga teachers, Black-owned studios and Black-led trainings nationwide, has also provided resources and a network since 2016.

According to National Health Interview Survey data, the percentage of non-Hispanic Black adults who reported practicing yoga climbed from 2.5 percent in 2002 to 9.3 percent in 2017.

A growing body of research shows that racism and discrimination may be playing a larger role in people’s health than previously thought. An Auburn University study published in January, for example, concluded that Black people experience higher levels of stress as a result of racism, which can lead to accelerated aging and premature death. Another study, from the American Heart Association, found a link between Black people experiencing discrimination and developing increased risk for hypertension.

Yoga is obviously not a panacea for racism, but it has shown positive results in helping people manage high levels of stress and as a complement to therapeutic work on trauma.

Sarah Naomi Jones, who did yoga teacher training at Satya, said the co-op provides a safe space to bond, vent and heal — a very different vibe from predominately white yoga spaces where many people of color feel, once again, out of place or unwelcome. Ms. Jones, 37, said she felt that an icy reception when, as a Black yoga newbie, she attended an intensive yoga class that was mostly filled with white attendees.

“When I walked in, it was kind of like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Ms. Jones said. “The spiritual component was totally missing. It wasn’t about healing. It felt like everyone was there just to show off how much more stretchier they were than another person.”

Tyrone Beverly, 39, a Black yogi living in Denver, said the growth of yoga among people of color is a sign of yearning. Before the pandemic, his nonprofit, Im’Unique, regularly hosted “Breakin’ Bread, Breakin’ Barriers,” yoga sessions followed by a meal and discussion exploring topics such as police brutality, racism and mass incarceration.

“We believe that yoga is a great unifier that brings people together,” Mr. Beverly said.

Ms. Grant said that during the pandemic, even online classes — and smaller, in-person classes held outdoors — could make a difference for individuals.

“That’s the beauty of yoga,” she said. “It can be done in a group. It can be done individually. It can be done virtually and, most importantly, it can be done at your own your pace.”