Encouraging Racial Diversity in Yoga

Alexander Shelton and Jasmine Humphries are out to make yoga more inviting for people of color

click to enlarge Alexander Shelton leads a Namastay Woke yoga class. - PHOTO: Katie Griffith
PHOTO: Katie Griffith
Alexander Shelton leads a Namastay Woke yoga class.

Common portrayals and some local classes may have you picturing the typical yoga practitioner as someone of a specific economic class or even skin color. But a young social enterprise called Heal ’n Build is challenging these notions and fostering community development by offering yoga and mindfulness practices aimed at the people mainstream yoga forgets.

The number of yoga participants in America has increased by 80 percent since 2012, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study. While this statistic might seem like an overall triumph for yogis, Heal ’n Build co-founders Alexander Shelton and Jasmine Humphries are less concerned with the numbers and more concerned with the demographic. 

“Westernized yoga is whitewashed,” Shelton says. “And it does attract predominately white women and, now, white men that have the access and the money to pay for the practice and to sustain the practice.”

In order to get people of color involved in yoga, Shelton says, it is important for them to see they would not be racially isolated in a class and that the practice space is comfortable and approachable.

Shelton defines the term “violence” in a way that includes passive acts of omission. “The people that you exclude, the people that you don’t even think about, (are victims of) a form of violence,” he says. “So I think a lot of those (yoga) spaces are violent for people of color because they don’t see themselves reflected in the teacher or in the room. For white people, that’s not something they go into the class with. They don’t think of themselves as their race, they think of themselves as the individual.”

Shelton employs Heal ’n Build’s flagship yoga class, Namastay Woke, to recruit people of color and create an accessible environment for people to practice. It is a weekly installment in the church of Gabriel’s Place, an Avondale community center. Classes are open to everyone, although geared toward the black community. 

“ ‘Namaste’ means the light within me salutes the light that’s within you. And then ‘stay woke’ is a black conscious movement,” Shelton says. “And so we can try to achieve spiritual enlightenment and still be conscious of the social structures that we are trying to dismantle.”

Inspired by the idea of social justice, wellness and self-care, the Saturday class begins with a writing prompt while the room is cleansed with sage and incense. 

“What are you grateful for?” Shelton asks, placing emphasis on the difference between material and spiritual wealth. In the church, light through the numerous stained glass windows floods the room with shades of red and blue as smoke from the sage settles mid-air. Shelton chooses music to play while some write silently and others sway, conjuring peace and gratitude. 

Since its inception this past spring, Heal ’n Build has used “non-traditional” spaces in various neighborhoods to facilitate its purpose of diversifying yoga and mindfulness practices. Shelton, Humphries and other teachers host pop-up and scheduled classes for adults and children. Plans for headquarters are in the making, but Shelton says their movement will always be in motion. 

“We like non-traditional spaces for non-traditional yoga bodies,” Humphries says. “I really like to use community spaces where people already are, like rec centers or old church sanctuaries that maybe aren’t traditional yoga studios.”

Local nonprofits and charities allow Heal ’n Build to provide pay-what-you-can programs and offer props such as yoga mats through grants and donations. Most recently, Heal ’n Build was awarded a $1,500 grant by Interact for Health, a local foundation that strives to improve Cincinnatians’ health. “Alexander is a great fit as he is a black male,” says Meriden Peters, the foundation’s mental/emotional well-being program officer. “But additionally his passion and skill set came highly recommended.” 

Shelton’s plan for the grant is to sponsor a yearlong class dedicated to healing, a broad theme that can be applied to many individual’s needs.

“What I would hope to do is put myself out of business one day,” he says. “Because people take these mindfulness tools into their heart and they practice and share with other people.”

Find more information about Heal ’n Build and upcoming classes at facebook.com/healnbuild.

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