An Ancient Art in New Communities

Yoga instructors Maya Breuer and Jana Long have organized "Roots, Rhythm, and Soul" — a yoga retreat that's drawing instructors from across the country to teach the unique benefits of yoga for black communities. They talk about the gathering this weekend at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From modern high-tech to the ancient practice of yoga.

Over the last two decades, yoga has moved rapidly from the fringes to the mainstream. An estimated 15 million Americans do some form of yoga. Now, two yoga instructors are trying to bring more black people to the physical and spiritual art that's more than 5,000 years old.

Jana Long and Maya Breuer have organized Roots, Rhythm, and Soul. It's a retreat that's drawing instructors from across the country to teach the unique benefits of yoga for black communities. The gathering starts today at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.

And joining me now to talk about the event is Maya Breuer. She's a longtime yoga instructor and she currently teaches at the Santosha School of Yoga in Providence, Rhode Island. We also have Jana Long. She's instructor at Power of One Yoga in Baltimore.

Ladies, thanks for joining us.

Ms. JANA LONG (Yoga Instructor, Power of One Yoga): Thank you for having us, Farai.

Ms. MAYA BREUER (Yoga Instructor, Santosha School of Yoga): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Jana, how's the gathering - Roots, Rhythm, and Soul - taking yoga and applying it to some of the needs and interests of African-Americans specifically?

Ms. LONG: Well, this is a unique gathering that Maya and I have organized because we will, not only look at the potential that yoga has on black health, especially when you look at the glaring disparities that our community is facing when it comes to access to health care. But we're also looking at the potential impact that yoga can have on our state of mind, our emotions, and examining that as we live out in a culture where there is racism and there's politics of being black in this country that impact us. And what a fortuitous time with all of the activity going on around the Jena Six right now, so you can see exactly what we're talking about.

CHIDEYA: So Maya, you have been teaching yoga for more than 20 years. You probably have heard all the excuses in the book about why African-Americans don't want to do yoga. So what are some of those excuses? How do you answer them?

Ms. BREUER: Well, I guess the biggest excuse was that black people are not interested in yoga because it does not connect with their religion. And there was some truth to that because when I started teaching many people, my people could not get beyond the fact that yoga originated with the Hindu religion. But I think that barrier is now on its way out. And people are aware that yoga is about health and wellness, and feeling good.

CHIDEYA: So what are the other issues around this question of religion?

Ms. LONG: Well, one of the things that I've encountered living here in Baltimore where I mostly teach black people here. It's a very large black population in this city. And I've also taught yoga in Ghana, West Africa. And the question always is, is yoga a religion, or thinking that it's something for white people because that's what we see mainly depicted in the mainstream culture: in magazines, on television, et cetera. We don't see ourselves, but I think once people - black people see a black yoga teacher, which has been my experience, that opens the way for them to at least practice or try it out.

CHIDEYA: So let's talk a little bit about the practicalities and the physicalities of yoga. I've done it in the past. I found it very difficult because I'm not that flexible. My sister's done it, and she's pretty hardcore. I have a friend who has M.S., and she takes a class for people who have fairly serious mobility issues. Those are all three different experiences. But what if you go into a class for the first time - say, someone drags you along - and the next day, you're like, oh, my gosh, I can't walk.

Jana, what do you do in that case?

Ms. LONG: Well, the main thing about yoga is learning to relax and keeping in mind, especially in this culture, that yoga is not a competitive sport. It's an inner journey that the individual goes on to get in touch with themselves.

CHIDEYA: But, Maya, there are many cases where people who are fans of yoga are pushing certain disciplines, you know, Bikram, power yoga. And if someone's new, what do you do to make them welcomed, and just have realistic expectations about how they're going to do physically?

Ms. BREUER: Well, in my training, which is kripalu training, we really integrate the approach to body, mind and spirit. So I welcome people and then encourage them to listen to their bodies, and to move only to the level that they feel comfortable.

Now, every yoga class you might enter won't have the same focus, so it's important for people to try out a few classes and stick with the one that resonates with your body, mind and spirit. And I also think black people, once they get into it, realize that it's so close to our rhythmic, spiritual approach to living that it resonates with people once they can get beyond the barrier.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jana, let's talk a little bit more about the question of how people access this on just a practical level. Now, we just did a story about a Los Angeles councilwoman who wants to slow down the development of fast food restaurants in neighborhoods that are low-income - mostly black and Latino. And that's partly because those neighborhoods are dealing with a lot of the health issues we mentioned like diabetes. So what are you doing to get yoga into neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores, let alone yoga studios?

Ms. LONG: Well, one thing that was really important to me when I opened my studio here in Baltimore that - was that at the - in a black neighborhood because rarely does anything related to wellness and healing exist in those communities.

As a yoga teacher here, however, I find that I have to do as much as I can as to connect with different groups, organizations, bookstores, local community leaders, et cetera. And anytime I can get a group of people together and offer them yoga - and I do that for free, they don't have to pay - I'm just happy to bring the practice to them to expose them to it, so they can see if it's something that's useful or not.

CHIDEYA: Maya, how is this weekend retreat going to be different - because it's for African-Americans - than any other retreat?

Ms. BREUER: I think the main difference is that we're black - all of us; and secondly, because the focus has been on our health. We also are having one workshop that is focusing on stress - and the title of it is, Is It Because I'm Black - where we're going to really talk about how difficult it is to live and exist in a racist culture and how that impacts our health. And then we'll look at strategies and approaches to help ourselves manage better, to keep our hypertension down, and to control those diseases that are adversely impacting our lives.

CHIDEYA: Well, Maya and Jana, thank you so much.

Ms. LONG: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. BREUER: Thank you so much for having us.

CHIDEYA: Maya Breuer is a yoga instructor at the Santosha School of Yoga in Providence, Rhode Island. And Jana Long is an instructor at Power of One Yoga in Baltimore. They organized the Roots, Rhythm, and Soul yoga gathering this weekend at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.

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