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Spring is the time of year to get fit, and for thousands of people in the D.C. area, that means unrolling a yoga mat. As popular as yoga is, it isn't popular everywhere, and yoga studios can sometimes feel like exclusive clubs. But a number of local yoga teachers are working to change that.
If you Google "yoga studio Washington, D.C.," the pins drop in clusters, across the city's posh neighborhoods. But there are no studios east of the Anacostia River. So on a recent Monday night, about 30 yogis are gathered in a church, mats lay out on the linoleum tiles.
The teacher is Sariane Leigh, who has been teaching yoga in southeast D.C. since 2005, under the name Anacostia Yogi. She says she was the only teacher east of the river back then, and to this day, she's one of just a handful holding regular classes in Wards 7 or 8.
Bringing yoga to the other side of the river
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 10 yogis have college degrees and three-quarters are white, according to recent studies by Yoga Journal.
"I've had some very uncomfortable experiences in yoga studios," says Leigh, who used to teach and practice at studios in northwest, where there were very few other people of color in class. "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."
At the same time she was frustrated with the studios she was going to, she was shocked by the health disparities she was seeing from one side of the river to the other.
"I feel like I've lived on both sides of the tracks," she says. "I used to teach in Glover Park and Georgetown. Now I teach on the complete opposite end of the city, and I see the women in Georgetown who are running with their kids, these women are in fantastic shape, they're happy, they're light. And then I come here, and I see women with their strollers, and there's obesity. I see the stereotypes, and it's unbelievable to me."
So, she started teaching classes in southeast, where she lived, unsure, at first, whether anyone would show up.
"The message 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. So, I know what that feels like, it runs through the fiber of my being, so I can help unpeel that, I can help undo it."
Part of the lack of diversity in yoga 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.
Uniting the divided
At Spiritual Essence Yoga in Upper Marlboro, 98 percent of students are black, according to studio owner Dana Smith. It's the only yoga studio for miles, despite the area's affluence.
"There are very wealthy people here," says Smith. "They just 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 were hesitant.
"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," she says. "They see very thin, very young women doing very bendy things."
These days Smith has a steady business, and is 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, 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.
"I know it looks bad sometimes for us to pop up in a neighborhood, that it might be a sign of things changing," says Jasmine Chehrazi, founder of Yoga District, which runs four studios in northwest, and one on H Street in 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, a studio opened in Bloomingdale in 2009, when it was still a rough neighborhood, where staff would get robbed after class.
"Things have really changed now. In Bloomingdale, you can walk any time of night and feel really, really safe," says Chehrazi. "We definitely probably were part of that change. I read Craigslist ads for apartments in Bloomingdale, where they say, you know, 'One block from the Yoga District studio, one bedroom for $1800.'"
Chehrazi tries to make yoga as inclusive as possible, with prices that are half what some other studios charge. Initially, she was very idealistic about bringing people together — rich and poor, black and white — in the yoga studio.
"When we opened up the Bloomingdale studio, there were these guys on the corner. I wanted them to come to yoga so bad. You know, I was like, come on guys, come on, come on, it's $10 or less, nobody turned away for lack of funds. But they were like, 'no, no, no.'"
Chehrazi has decided if people won't come to her, she'll go to them, doing yoga outreach in underserved communities, through an organization called Yoga Activist.
She is also exploring expanding into Ward 8, possibly partnering with THEARC, an arts and recreation center in southeast. But the first step would be recruiting and training local teachers so the studio would be a community venture, not an export from the other side of the river.
"If there's a studio in Anacostia, it's going to be run by people in Anacostia," says Chehrazi.
Meanwhile, Sariane Leigh is also looking into possibly opening a studio in southeast. So far, finding a viable space has been the biggest challenge. Leigh says landlords are looking for businesses they're familiar with, and don't want to take a chance on a yoga studio.
"One guy was like, 'Nope, I only want a hair salon here, I don't want anything like a yoga studio.' I found another space, the guy was very interested, but he was concerned that I wouldn't be able to pay the rent month to month."
But she says yoga is coming, one way or another.
"I think it's going to explode, because you have more black people realizing the importance of self-healing, and actually having more time to focus on ourselves."
But in the end, yoga isn't about race or ethnicity or gender. While most yogis in the Unites States are white women, the practice originated among brown men, in India.
In the front row of Leigh's Monday night class, Said Chesnut is practicing on 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, who's on the mat next to you, or what your friends think.
"First thing you get is, 'Oh, you just go for the girls,' and that sort of thing. And I tell them, once you really get into the class and really get focused, you forget about who's in the room."
[Music: "Spring is Here" by The Latin Jazz Quintet from Caribe ]
Photos: Yoga East of the River