Yoga – an alternative spiritual route for women of colour

Think yoga and more often than not images of Indian gurus sat in the lotus position, or lanky leotard-clad females able to touch their head with their toes are not too far behind. But one company is keen to position Black women firmly within that space and has launched of a yoga retreat that caters specifically for women of colour.

Founded by certified Hatha yoga instructor Dr Stacie CC Graham in January 2016, OYA Body-Mind-Spirit

Yoga for women of colour with Dr Stacie CC Graham founder of Oya Retreats © Dan Harley Photography

Retreats aim to create a nurturing space where Black women can meet, share their experiences as women as colour and learn about the ancient philosophy of yoga.

The OYA name is derived from the deities or orishas in the traditional Yoruba religion. Oya is one of the many manifestations of God linked to winds and tempests, but also death and rebirth.

The OYA Retreats come at a time when many people are struggling to strike the right balance between work and their personal lives and see mindfulness and wellbeing programmes as a way to achieving that.

OYA was set up to provide a safer space in which Black women and women of colour feel supported and empowered to practice meditation, yoga, and other forms of movement and to bring yoga to often underserved communities, the company said.

Yoga and body shape

For Stacie, creating a safe space for women like herself came from her personal experiences of practising yoga.

Stacie, who hails from Miami, Florida, was an athlete throughout her adolescence. But she discovered that mixing sporting activities, such as weight-lifting, with long periods of academic learning led to her muscles becoming hard.

She also developed some mild sporting injuries. It was her physical therapist who suggested she try something else and let weight training go.

“I came across yoga without knowing too much about it and it spoke to me. I’m a dancer and played soccer, and it somehow felt like I was bringing these two worlds together,” she said.

But her muscular body shape was not always accepted by some in the yoga profession. “Some of these teachers could not relate to my body structure or help me get into a pose,” she said. “So it wasn’t until I found some amazing teachers who didn’t just look at me and say: ‘oh you won’t be able to do this,’ that I understood that it was perfectly fine to have muscle. You just have to enter the pose from a different perspective.”

African roots?

This focus on yoga from a Black perspective appears to a growing trend, particularly in the UK where the very roots of the practice and its mode of delivery are being challenged.

Some of you may have heard of Afrikan or Kemetic yoga – a form of the ancient practise that employs drums to add a rhythmic element to poses. It is claimed by some that yoga originated from ancient Egypt long before it was found in India… although the jury is still out on this one.

“I know that in some of the literature I have seen Kemetic yoga and traditional yoga are positioned as opposing each other,” said Stacie. “I don’t know that it is necessary to do this or if its source has any bearing on how it [yoga] is taught. What is important to me is that my chosen route is derived from India, and it is important to me to honour that tradition.”

Stacie, who works alongside five other Black female instructors, is dedicated to the lineages of Iyengar (intellectual and spiritual practices) and Kundalini (meditation and chanting) yoga and visits India biannually to continue her training.

Yoga for women of colour

Yogic philosophies

“I was always really interested in South Asia and when I was working on my PhD, I had the opportunity to go to India. That’s when I became aware of an annual international yoga festival, which takes place in an ashram (Hindu temple) and started my path to training.”

Yoga is one of six essential philosophies practised in India. The others are Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Within yoga, eight limbs exist, which cover areas such as breathing and pose practices, ethical standards and self-discipline. “There is a whole work of literature that we need to rely on but because most people in the West see it just as ‘fitness’, it is very hard to bring up the other things.”

But the OYA retreats aim to strike a balance between sharing the tenets of yogic philosophy without overwhelming participants. The retreats are in a countryside setting and are designed to allow participants to deepen their learning by offering an immersive experience over the course of the weekend. Daily classes can be between six and eight hours long, with up to half of that spent on meditation.

By the end of July, Stacie plans to launch shorter classes or “urban retreats” as she puts it for women who don’t have much time, money or who are unable to travel far. “The financial aspect can make retreats inaccessible to certain people,” said Stacie. “But there are also people who are working and taking care of households on their own – so there are implications about childcare and travel costs to consider.

“Another motivation has come from talking to our Muslim sisters that can’t always travel, especially if they are travelling unaccompanied. They need spaces where they can practise yoga in London without the necessity of travelling far. So our next steps are developing a schedule that will be held in London and Brighton over one or two days maximum.”

To learn more about OYA Retreats and to sign up for their upcoming retreat on Friday 8 July, click here for more information.

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