Yoga in mainstream America has a color problem. But if you scratch the surface of yoga’s glossy, well-hydrated veneer, you will find that there are Black yoga teachers trumpeting the value of yoga’s mental and physical benefits — and according to some, yoga can be a powerful tool to help turn around some of our most challenged young people.
For New York yoga teacher Leslie Booker, a typical batch of yoga "students" is composed of adolescent youth of color who are serving time in a juvenile detention center or are attending an alternative school after expulsion from a traditional, public school.
“Some of our kids have committed murder. Some of them have committed rape or have been the victim of rape, things that you just cannot imagine that kids go through,” Booker told BET.com.
She works with the youth on behalf of the Lineage Project, an organization focused on teaching yoga and mindfulness techniques to “at risk” youth.
While Booker always respected the work of Lineage Project, it took a while for her to sign up for the role because she felt that with her comfortable Northern Virginia upbringing, she wouldn’t be able to relate to her students, many of whom are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and facing long prison sentences.
However, after giving herself some time to get comfortable with teaching the students, Booker says she now understands what it’s all about.
“Kids don’t want you to come in and be their peer. They want you to come in and be a grounded, mature adult that they can rely on,” she said. “So it’s not about you having the same experience or knowing exactly what they have, but it’s about you listening, paying attention and being consistent.”
Across the city, in a sleepy brownstone on Striver’s Row in Harlem, Ghylian Bell is fully immersed in the business of running Harlem’s Urban Yoga Foundation, a holistic health organization set on bringing yoga and awareness to urban communities.
“The teachers in my yoga center all donate an hour of their time to plant a seed in the underserved community, to change something,” Bell told BET.com. "These are busy people … but they take an hour of their time each week to come to Harlem and teach a yoga class for free for a community that they might not even know. We’re sharing knowledge and sharing hope and empowering individuals and educating individuals. That’s important to me.”
Bell uses revenue from public yoga classes to fund the organization’s efforts in teaching yoga in public schools around the city. She said her decision to teach children yoga was initially inspired by her desire to teach her daughter but has now grown into a program that she plans to share with others through a teacher training program.
“The first seven years, a child is a blank disk. They’re sponges," Bell said. "So, get your first seven years in and teach them something amazing. Teach them about food, about taking care of themselves, about calming themself down, and about having access to the tools that they need to go through the next stage in their life, which becomes a lot more challenging.”
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(Photo: Courtesy of The Lineage Project)