For decades, white women have been the face of yoga across the nation. But inside a yoga studio in Old North St. Louis, the atmosphere is worlds apart.
At the Collective STL, yoga is taught by black instructors and the floor is filled with black educators and other professionals, community activists and students — many of whom are there to release the stress of trauma, family struggles and depression.
Since the studio opened in 2017, it has focused on improving the wellness of African Americans in St. Louis.
“You love your people so much that you want to see your people do well,” co-founder Terry Harris said. "So we're all responsible for the health and well-being of black people in north St. Louis.”
It is the kind of place that Harris longed for when he began practicing yoga years ago, only to find that often he was the only black person in a studio, that there were no black instructors and people did not talk to each other before or after sessions.
That uncomfortable feeling led Harris to earn a certificate to teach yoga. He opened nonprofit the Collective STL with three other African American instructors: his wife Ericka Harris, Alonzo Nelson Jr. and Melinda Oliver.
The black-owned studio sits at 1400 N. Market St. in Old North St. Louis, a long-neglected neighborhood roughly bounded by Palm Street, Cass Avenue, Howard Street and North Florissant Avenue. The area has vacant lots and homes, few grocery stores that offer fresh produce, and residents have limited access to health care.
Besides area parks, there are few places where people can exercise for free.
The Collective STL is about healing people through yoga one breath at time. It offers yoga four days a week through community building classes called “Yoga for the People” and “Neo-Soul Yoga.” Outside of the weekly courses, the instructors also host mindfulness and self-care workshops throughout the month. All are welcome. The group does not charge an entry fee but accepts donations.
Instructors know that some people who enter the studio may be unemployed, troubled by a health issue or suffering from depression. That’s why they have created a culturally sensitive space where neo-soul music carries throughout the two rooms, cedar incense burns and miniature glass African American yoga statues are strategically placed on tabletops and yoga cubicles.
To promote rest, they keep the studio simple. White LED lights line the baseboards, and against a pale-pink wall is the studio’s symbol — the body of a black woman whose hair is shaped as leaves that depict people in yoga positions.
Traditionally, yoga can be expensive, and affordable studios are seldom in predominantly black neighborhoods. Terry said people told him that the Collective STL’s grant-funded business model made no sense, but while looking at north St. Louis’ health and financial data, he said it made perfect sense to give people who may have never experienced yoga access to it.
Because the interest in yoga among African Americans is so new, there is little data on their participation in yoga, said Jana Long, founder and executive director of Black Yoga Teachers Alliance.
Terry said he wants the studio to be a space where black people can feel seen and validated.
“I'm pretty sure an image of like a skinny white girl is what they visualize, so that is one part of yoga, but [African Americans] are also a part of yoga,” Terry said. “I think that when you see a black person doing yoga, that makes it OK for you to try at least to do yoga.”
Nelson, another of the studio’s founders, said he has practiced yoga for nearly 20 years and has never had a black yoga teacher.
Inside the studio, Nelson wants his students to feel as if they are among family. Even though the studio provides child care, on some days children participate with their family members. The group wants its participants to expose their children to yoga so they can begin practicing wellness at an early age.
He said his favorite part of teaching is interacting with the clients, like an elderly deaf woman who he learned some sign language to communicate with.
Ericka Harris said all the instructors draw on their teaching backgrounds to connect with their participants.
“You have to be reading the room, seeing who is in the room, what their abilities look like, even their disposition,” she said. “When you're a classroom teacher, you have to pay attention to how kids appear to be feeling. You need to do the same thing here.”
They keep that in mind every time someone walks through the door. Each instructor knows their clients names, they genuinely ask about their well-being and they even find ways to support and accommodate yogis with disabilities.
“People come for different reasons, and they want you to make sure as much as you can that they leave with what they came for,” Ericka Harris said.
In her sessions, she emphasizes breathing during her fused restorative and vinyasa yoga classes.
“You can breathe your way through anything. And I don't know that we are always taught that as black people, and we go through tons of stress and trauma every single day,” she said. “And so your breathing can be a tool of coping and making it through those moments.”
Spenser Gaines, 27, found out about the group through a shared Instagram post. The Ferguson Middle School art teacher said by coming to the Collective STL has helped her heal. Now when she is faced with chaotic situations, she focuses on her breathing to keep calm.
“When I found yoga two years ago, I was in my third year of teaching and that was when I was really coming to a point where I was frustrated,” Gaines said. “I was honestly ready to walk away, and [with] finding yoga, I was able to find peace in the classroom.
“I am so blessed to be in a position to where I can be this person for all these kids and I could show them a way or give them a tool to breathe through class,” she said.
Gaines has also created a yoga community at her school. She teaches yoga after school once a week and incorporates yoga practices like Ahimsa — non-harming and nonviolence yoga.
Practicing yoga on a routinely basis has a variety of health benefits. According to the American Osteopathic Association, yoga can lower blood pressure, help people protect themselves from injuries, boost the cardiovascular system, increase energy levels and promote weight loss. Through meditation and breathing practices, yoga can also help manage stress, alleviate sleeping issues and give mental clarity.
If people of color do not have access to affordable physical activities, then health disparities will persist, said Diana Parra, an assistant professor of physical therapy at Washington University.
“Talking about the black community or the immigrant population, there’s a lot of those ancestral wounds that have been carried and sometimes even ingrained in your genes, and it affects your capacity to respond to stress,” said Parra, who also teaches yoga in St. Louis. “That is why yoga is a good way to start at least helping with the healing of that.”
The Collective STL aims to do its part by providing wellness classes for black St. Louisans.
“We are conscious enough to understand that black people have a hard time accessing a healthy flow of breath because of racial injustices, economic injustices and health care injustices,” Terry said. “Black people in north St. Louis, because of these structural inequities and injustices that exist, need to rest.”
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