The Benefits of Yoga for Women of Color

Photo of Jean Marie Moore, Co-founder of Anasa Yoga. Photo taken in front of Anasa Yoga Studio in Oakland, California

The Benefits of Yoga for Women of Color:

15 Reasons Why I Practice Yoga

The practice of yoga originated in India with the intention of preparing the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. Yoga is a system that is much more than practicing asanas or yoga postures. The physical postures are just a small part of the practice. It is a way of living designed to heighten our awareness of how we move through the world, how we interact with others, and to deepen our experience of oneness of mind, body and soul. Yoga teaches us how to live skillfully in the world. You practice the skills to not just survive, but thrive and live fully in the now. Through the practice of yoga, you may begin to deeply heal and transform your life. As you attain deeper states of awareness, you may experience a kind of freedom or wholeness called samadhi or liberation.

Anxiety is the leading psychological challenge for black women in the United States. Many Black women have turned to yoga to improve their over-all health. The practice is used to reduce illness from cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke that plague Black women. International Journal of Yoga and PubMed journals routinely conclude that yoga's health benefits include a decrease in several types of anxiety and depressive conditions. Sisters, Sadie and Bessie Delany, both lived over 100 years; they credited four decades of daily yoga as a main variable in their longevity.

Practicing yoga and mindfulness can help improve emotional and physical well-being. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your full attention on the present moment and surrendering or accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness has been found to be a key element in stress reduction and being fully present and awake in your life, according to The Harvard Gazette.

The following are positive practices and strategies to increase yoga's psychological and physical impact on marginalized communities:

1. Being fully present in your body and taking up space. The intergenerational trauma of racism and the everyday occurrences of racial microagressions take a toll on Black women’s mind and body. As a defense or coping mechanism, one will often escape or leave their body, but liberation from suffering comes from being fully present in the body. A safe space is needed to turn within, practicing yoga postures and alignment, becoming fully present with every sensation and every feeling; this allows the body to become a gateway to freedom and allows the integration of wholeness. This mind-body integration can lead to experiencing a greater sense of vibrancy, well-being and joy. 

2. Improved posture. Pain and depression takes a toll on your posture. When you are depressed or in pain you tend to slump and round your shoulders forward. In contrast, when you are well, you tend to stand upright and with an open heart. Great posture helps your muscles and joints work more efficiently, increases energy levels and helps promote full and complete breaths.

3. Full and complete, easy, rhythmic breathing. The body needs to expand in order to make space for the breath. Practicing breathing techniques allows us to purify body and mind. Practice yogic breathing, meditation and mindfulness to cleanse your mind of negative thoughts and emotions. Fear is a constant emotion in the lives of women of color. Fear causes anxiety, stress, and restricted breathing due to increased tension in the muscles. As women of color we live with an incredible amount of fear everyday for the safety of our fathers, sons, partners, mothers, daughters, and our own bodies. Yoga is a space where we can process these emotions, face them with courage, and release toxic stress hormones, daily. Your feelings are energy and they shape who you are. Feeling your emotions makes you stronger. Slowly, your emotions will lose a considerable amount of power over you. Allow yourself a full breath, a good cry, a deep meditation, full sensations of joy or fear, movement with heightened awareness, all improve your over-all health.

4. Practice smarter not harder - go at your pace. Life is fluid, it changes. More effort does not always bring greater results. Smarter strategies bring greater results. Think of an area in your life where you are trying and fighting without making any progress. What would letting go look like? Can you surrender to your anxiety, worry, fear or depression? Can you let go of the need to always be achieving? Can you be content with s-l-o-w-i-n-g down. Arriving fully in the moment, just as it is. Live in the present moment and empower yourself to move at your pace. Begin to move slow and steady with authenticity, wisdom and love. 

5. Recognize that comparison is the thief of joy. The pressure to be a superwoman is real. Acknowledge and celebrate where you are right now. Life is challenging enough, learn to make the compassionate choice of not comparing yourself to others. Begin genuinely complimenting and praising other people. It does not take away from who you are, your beauty, your talent or your ability, to outwardly compliment others. You will most likely see them smile and appreciate your kindness. It will lift you up to lift others up. Practicing self compassion will prevent you from cultivating a critical spirit and help you begin to cultivate a loving kind spirit toward yourself and others. Hold yourself and others accountable from a place of love.

6. Learn to surrender. There’s an art and skill to surrender. Surrender means to stop fighting, stop controlling, and stop getting in the way of what’s flowing to you. Surrender is all about living in the moment. There is a rhythmic way of breathing and moving and living. You are not fighting the in-hale or resisting the ex-hale, you are inviting each breath, just as it is. When you are in alignment, body and breath, you can experience pure joy, bliss and surrender. You still have to put in the work, but from a place of surrender or non attachment. Pause if you find yourself trying to control an outcome and consciously shift your energy to surrender. Go slowly, connect to the pulse of your heart, follow your intuition and surrender.

7. Practice and persistence, not perfection. In yoga, a daily disciplined practice is called sadhana. It is a tool used to study yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is a routine spiritual practice to achieve the ultimate goal of union with the Divine or alignment with the Source. Be unattached to the end goal and dive into the wonder of your practice. Fall in love with your practice. Motivation and inspiration will come and go, but your practice will always be there for you.

8. Find balance and your center. Yoga builds your physical and mental strength. It helps you find the balance between ease and effort. Yoga is where strength and flexibility meet and so is life. In yoga there is a saying, sthira sukha or steadiness and ease. You practice to find that sweet, sacred balance on your mat and beyond. Learn to find the balance of being strong and standing up for what you believe in, while being graceful and fluid to flow with the rhythm of life. As life twists, turns and challenges, can you remain strong and fluid?

9. Learn to get through discomfort. Challenge yourself to be uncomfortable, that is where growth happens. Be willing to go through and expand in difficult times. As women of color, being overwhelmed and drained by emotions endured as a result of racism are frequent occurrences in our day to day lives. The feelings that result from being oppressed can be both paralyzing and maddening. Learn to breathe through challenging yoga postures and through all of the challenges in your life. Avoid hiding or denying your feelings of discomfort. Learning to breathe through discomfort has the power to heal your body and mind. Breathing through discomfort is a powerful way to enhance your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  

10. Meditate. By meditating, you are practicing your ability to witness. When you meditate, you learn to watch your thoughts and not attach. You learn to become a witness to your breath, your body sensations, and your thoughts. It is a process of making the darkness conscious. As you witness your outer body and the many layers you have wrapped yourself in, you use breath as a bridge to connect to your inner being, your subtle body or your soul. Once you discover and understand each layer you are wrapped in, only then will you move closer to oneness with your True Self. The layers you are wrapped in are informed by your race, nationality, culture, gender, ancestors, family history, education, society and personal experience. There is no coming to consciousness without this awareness or without moving through any pain, suffering or trauma. Embrace and acknowledge your many identities. Then remember who you are at your core, Divine. 

11. Remember you come first ALWAYS. Make truly knowing yourself a priority. Free up time to do the inner work of yoga, meditation, healing and connecting to your spirit. Remember you cannot save everyone. Establish and maintain boundaries. Learn to say NO. It’s an invaluable skill. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and don’t bring you down. Distancing yourself from harmful people does not mean you hate them, it means you actively love and respect yourself.

12. Listen to your body. Don’t apologize for taking a break or resting. You don’t need to engage in every situation (or posture). Rest when you need to, or lie in savasana (corpse pose) the entire yoga class. Rest is vital for energizing and recharging your ability to show up fully for your colleagues, your partner, your children and yourself. It is impossible to be present and connected when you are exhausted. Rest. Reconnect. Recharge. 

13. Detox. Releasing toxicity means taking care of your body through proper nutrition, plenty of sleep, exercise and yoga. It means surrounding yourself with people who vibrate on a high frequency. It also means finding a way to heal oppressive experiences that you have endured as a child or presently. Healing oppressive or traumatic experiences your inner child went through is a profound way to release toxicity. Internalized racism affects the inner lives of people of color, disrupting our ability to realize our full humanity and inner wisdom. However seemingly small, these experiences have shaped you. Use the practice as way to help you release and let go, again and again. 

14. Start and end your day or yoga practice with a prayer of gratitude. Gratitude makes you more open hearted, giving, and generous, not for rewards, for “unattached giving.” Say this prayer, two simple words, “Thank you.” Practice gratitude daily and you will improve your emotional health and wellbeing. Express gratitude and appreciation for the abundance in your life. Ask for guidance and support from a higher power or whatever you truly believe in. Practice gratitude to stay rooted in it. The moment is what it is. Complete. Accept and surrender to what is with a grateful heart. 

15. Radically love yourself. Self-love is a journey. It is the pathway to freedom, it requires deep healing, truth telling, and self-reflection. Examine, reflect, accept and radically love yourself, so you will have the capacity to unconditionally love others. Deeply know your Self and awaken to your Truth. 

Through the practice of yoga, there is an opportunity to cultivate deep healing and liberation. Practice listening to your breath, your body, your inner voice, and your intuition.

The media has engrained in our minds that the practice of yoga is exclusive to those that fit a certain description. There is not much representation of black and brown women or men, plus size women, or people with disabilities.  

Yoga and meditation can help people of color heal from intergenerational trauma and oppression. It’s a revolutionary act to create a community of spiritual healing and wellbeing for each other. Anasa Yoga in Oakland, California, is a beautiful yoga studio committed to quality instruction, inclusivity and diversity.

Diversifying the yoga community can only help us learn and increase compassion and acceptance for one another. Yoga is more than a personal practice, yoga is a bridge to equity and inclusivity.

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