Just step on the mat — my first day as a black yogi
I knew what to expect going in, but there was still that feeling in the pit of my stomach as the class filled up almost entirely with white women that told me I didn’t belong there. That a fat, black, female body like mine was in a hostile environment. I’m out of shape, sweat easily and profusely and get easily distracted. This makes starting any kind of exercise practice hard in general, but starting one as whitewashed as yoga added another layer of difficulty for me. The ultimate irony is that I was wearing a “Carefree Black Girl” tank top but was too caught up in body politics to live out that phrase.
Choosing to take up yoga in the first place was a hard choice for me. As a black woman who does social justice work, I’m aware of how appropriative and Westernized most yoga practices are. It almost added insult to injury that I felt so out of place in a practice that, at its core, was designed by and for people of color.
I still wrestle with that choice, even after starting the classes and making a dedicated schedule. There’s no clear answer to if I should be practicing yoga the way it’s taught in the west. Actually there might be, and it’s probably no. I’ll just have to live with the fact that everyone, even those of us who “do the work” are at least a little problematic in our own ways. It gives me some small amount of comfort to know that I recently became acquainted with a black female yoga instructor. After my class series is done at this studio I’ll probably join the one she is a part of, which seems to have more instructors of color.
The class wasn’t entirely white, but the few people of color there were all clustered together on the back row, leaving the front for the people who knew what they were doing (read: thin, young, white women). The instructor made me feel comfortable, which I’m grateful for because had she not been so nice I probably would have never gone back. I was sweating within seconds of starting and some residual lower back pain forced me to take a break, reinforcing the idea that this kind of exercise wasn’t for me. My chin pressed into my boobs when it wasn’t supposed to, my thighs a little too round to cross over one another the way we were told to. The thin white girls up front weren’t sweating as hard, but you can bet I secretly rejoiced when one of them had to chill out in child’s pose for a few minutes, the universal yoga sign that means “I’m out for the time being”.
I’m pretty sure I was the only person who was there for the first time and it showed. I was unsure of myself, too wrapped up in if my leggings were sliding down, how profusely I was sweating and keeping down my lunch (I had to take a 10 minute break to keep from barfing everywhere) to really ground and center myself. Trying to discipline yourself in a space that is so "other" is difficult, to the point that I probably could’ve gotten more out of the session if I had gotten out of my own head. I regret that, but chalk it up to first-time nerves and vow to do better next time.
I felt like I was taking up too much space, that the wobble of my forearms from holding a plank longer than any human ever should was an earthquake, telling everybody, “HEY LOOK, THERE’S A FAT GIRL IN HERE, LOOK AT HER AND SILENTLY JUDGE.” That probably wasn’t happening. In fact, people actually dedicated to their yoga practice are probably too busy focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing to worry about me. And I shouldn’t worry about them either.
My body, in all its chocolate juiciness, has just as much right to be in that space as anyone else, especially if I’m paying for it. So I’ll be back. And the next time will probably be just as hard and I’ll be just as sore — and the next time too — but eventually it won’t be so hard and I won’t hurt so much. That’s the benefit I notice already. Yes, I was intimidated. But I made it out alive, albeit worse for wear. It made me feel so good that I’m excited to go back, despite the soreness and missteps. And that’s what I have to keep telling myself when there are people who look "better" than me and can do the poses better than me — just step on the mat, hold the pose and breathe.
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