MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So spring is often seen as a time of renewal, right? Not just in nature, but in our homes. Think spring cleaning. And in our bodies, think spring training. You'll see a bunch of Washingtonians out and about these days, all walking and jogging and biking to get and stay fit. You'll also see a bunch of them shedding their shoes, and unrolling their mats, to engage in a little bit of yoga. Thing is, though, the geography of yoga in this region, if you will, is sort of, kind of, limited. But as Jacob Fenston tells us, local yogis are working to change that.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
If you Google "yoga studio Washington, D.C.," the pins drop in clusters across the city's posh neighborhoods.
MS. SARIANE LEIGH
Can you guys in the back come up to the front?
But here east of the Anacostia River, yoga studios are non-existent. So these yogis are gathered in a church, mats laid out on the linoleum tiles. The class, as usual, is packed.
Take a deep inhale through the nose, and just kind of bring yourself into class.
Sariane Leigh has been teaching yoga in southeast D.C. since 2005, under the name Anacostia Yogi.
Back then, she says she was the only teacher east of the river, and still she's one of just a handful holding regular classes here.
While yoga's popularity has been growing across the country for the past two decades, it's still a relatively narrow slice of the population that practices. Seven in ten yogis have higher ed degrees, three quarters are white. That's according to recent studies by Yoga Journal.
Inhaling new beginnings.
But in this yoga class, I am the only white student. It's the first time in my ten years of practicing I've ever been the minority in a yoga class.
I have always been in a situation where I've been the minority.
Leigh says growing up, going to college, going to grad school, she was used to sometimes being the only black woman in the room.
So for me, the interesting thing wasn't being a minority, it was how I felt in a yoga space.
When she started going to yoga classes in Northwest D.C., she expected to feel welcomed, warm, and fuzzy. But that's not how she felt.
I've had some very uncomfortable experiences in yoga studios, where I couldn't believe that this was a healing space, a sacred space, but I could feel and sense, and even hear comments from people, that were, to me, racist.
So she started teaching classes in southeast, where she lived.
The message that I'm sending out to people is not about, I'm black, you're black, let's practice yoga. It's about, I understand being discriminated against, I understand someone judging your body. I know what that feels like, so I can help unpeel that, I can help undo it.
Part of the yoga disparity is of course related to wealth and poverty. More white people, more people in Northwest D.C. have more disposable income to spend on things like yoga. But that's just part of the story. Dana Smith runs a studio in upper Marlboro, where 98 percent of her students are black.
MS. DANA SMITH
There are very wealthy people here, they just, they don't know how yoga can be relevant. And that's where I come in.
She opened the studio back in 2003, because when she'd tried to get friends and family to go to yoga, they wouldn't do it.
A lot of them look at things like Yoga Journal, and they look at the studios in D.C., and they don't see representation.
These days, Smith has a steady business going, and she's looking to expand the studio. But she says she still has to dispel myths people have about yoga.
They think that yoga is a religion, that if they are Christian, that they have to lose a part of that in order to practice yoga. And I tell them, no that's not true, yoga is a health system. It works with whatever you believe in.
Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word that means, "to unite." But that's not always what happens when a yoga studio opens up in a divided neighborhood.
MS. JASMINE CHEHRAZI
I know it looks bad sometimes for us to pop up in a neighborhood, that it might be a sign of things changing.
Jasmine Chehrazi is the founder of Yoga District, which runs four studios in Northwest, and one on H Street Northeast.
But I'm really hoping that instead, it's a symbol of integration, that we can all do this practice.
Three of the Yoga District studios opened in neighborhoods that were in transition, but at early stages of that transition. For example, when a studio opened in Bloomingdale in 2009, it was still a rough area, where staff would get robbed after class. Now it's a totally different place.
We definitely probably were part of that change. I read Craigslist ads for apartments in Bloomingdale, where they say, one block from the Yoga District studio, one bedroom for $1800.
Chehrazi tries to make her studios as inclusive as possible, and initially she was very idealistic about bringing people together, rich and poor, black and white, through yoga. In Bloomingdale, she tried to get the guys who hung out in front of a corner store to come to class.
You know, I was like, come on, guys, come on, come on, it's $10 or less, nobody turned away for lack of funds. Just come, please come. But they were like, no, no, no. They wouldn't come.
Sense then, Chehrazi has decided that if people won't come to her, she'll go to them, doing yoga outreach and free classes all over the city. Meanwhile, back in Southeast, Sariane Leigh is finishing up class.
In the front row, Said Chesnut is rolling up a baby blue yoga mat. He's been practicing for about two years, and he says it actually doesn't really matter if the teacher looks like you, or who's on the mat next to you, or what your friends think.
MR. SAID CHESTNUT
First thing you get is, oh, you just go for the girls, and that sort of thing. And I tell them, you know, really, once you really get into the class and really get focused, you forget about who's in the room.
I'm Jacob Fenston.
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