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Yoga & The Black Experience

By Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy, 500-Hour DYRT

“We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile; with torn and bleeding hearts we smile…”

Son of freed slaves, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote those words 127 years ago as the opening to We Wear The Mask, and the sentiment is still relevant today. We all wear a mask. The goal of yoga is self-realization – going beyond the illusion (maya), beyond labels and form to recognize we are One, seeking Divine Union. We each, though, are at different points on that journey and society often adds to the suffering for people of color.

In honor of Black History Month, I was delighted to offer “Yoga & The Black Experience” for the Dharma Yoga Center with the person who introduced me to yoga when I was four years old – my mother, journalist and actress Janie Sykes-Kennedy. My father, Dr. James Scott Kennedy, was a renowned professor of communications and theatre arts. Together, they worked for over five decades using the arts as a tool for learning and cross-cultural connection. It was fitting, therefore, for mom and me to use a mix of conversation and poetic performances for our program.

Deep Karma In the Black Experience

“I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers…”

In the opening of The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes, we feel the deep karma embedded in people of African descent. The piece traces our history from the beginning of human civilization to now. There is greatness in our contributions to this world that we don’t often acknowledge like “raising the pyramids.” In fact, images of yogic postures can be found in the ancient hieroglyphics.

I was born in Ghana, West Africa where my family lived in the late 1960s. One day, after returning to New York, my mother was walking down the street and a young Black man asked her why she was wearing an African dress declaring she “wasn’t Black.”  He apparently made certain assumptions because she was light-skinned. My mom’s response was, “Black is not a color. Black is an experience based on color.” 

Part of that experience is the fight for equality. When we lived in Australia in the early 1970s, the Aborigines had their first land rights march inspired by my parents. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam invited them to introduce African American and African culture to the continent through media and academia. We have pictures of young Aborigines carrying signs like “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Even though they looked different than us, they identified with our experience and struggle for civil rights.

Various Paths To Yoga

“Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…

But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on…”

As ancestors of those who survived the Middle Passage, people of the African diaspora have an innate strength and resilience. Langston Hughes painted that picture in Mother to Son. Despite obstacles, we find a way forward. 

In 1972, after almost dying from a pregnancy, my mother started taking yoga at the YMCA and meditation at Queens College. My early memories of her were doing “weird” breathing and being upside down in Shoulder Stand. She would say, “Honey, I’m resting my heart.” Since the 1950s, my father used movement and breathing techniques in his communication training for actors and executives. After he died, I discovered copies of The Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads in his library. He was a yogi and I didn’t realize it.

In 2002, I founded the first yoga studio in Harlem. In one meditation program I did at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a woman raised her hand after the session and said, “Honey, the breathing wasn’t Christian.” Thank goodness First Lady Patricia Butts, who had invited me, said something because I was speechless. Surprisingly, she invited me back. The next time, I quoted verses in the Bible including Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Within that context, “the breathing was Christian” and they loved it. 

Don’t Hate; Meditate

“Every man is my brother, though he may not wish to be.

Next of kin, twice removed or distant, he is very much like me…”

We closed the program with two of my father’s pieces, Why Do You Hate Me? and Every Man Is My Brother. Then, I led a breath meditation to emphasize our sameness. Yoga is an invaluable practice for people of all ages, ethnicities, religions and conditions. To make it accessible, here are a few insights I learned from teaching over the past twenty years around the world and in communities of color:

  1. Tailor the practice to the participants and context. If it is a corporate program, emphasize stress management and focus. If it’s in a church, reference scripture.
  2. Provide the experience with minimal labels and Sanskrit terms. OM may be the only chant you do and even that needs to be explained to new participants. 
  3. Offer various options for different body types and levels. Allow everyone to feel they are a part of the collective class consciousness regardless of expertise.
  4. Give space for questions before or after class. Be prepared to answer, “Is yoga a religion?” My answer is “No, it is a tool to help you ‘be still and know’ deepening your own faith and self-knowledge.”

Even though the face of yoga in America has traditionally been white, there has been an underground movement of Black yogis practicing in their homes or community centers like my mother. It’s time we open the doors more widely to embrace this diversity. With the ethical principles of yamas and niyamas at the core, we can model a way of being that is inclusive, loving, and compassionate. As Sri Dharma says, “Treat everyone you meet as The Beloved.” In this way, we each will come closer to Bliss-Absolute.

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is CEO of Power Living Enterprises, Inc., and has done the 200-hour and 500-hour Teacher Trainings at Dharma Yoga. Trained initially at Integral Yoga, she is the biographer and protégé of yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch. In addition, she served six years on the Board of Yoga Alliance and was their first African American Chair. She was also one of the first Blacks to be featured on the cover of Yoga Journal. Find out more about her work at IAmPowerLiving.