In Search of ”Mind-Body” Justice


Is yoga – the ancient Hindu breathing and posture practice – relevant to African-

Americans? Not by the appearance of things. Anyone familiar with today’s yoga culture can’t

help but notice how skinny, white and middle class the movement seems. Glossy trade

magazines like Yoga Journal rarely feature African-American models in their pages. And look at

the yoga classes held in most local studios. Even those spreading to inner city, multi-ethnic

neighborhoods typically feature aspiring professionals that live elsewhere. It’s not that African-

American participation is actively discouraged; it’s just that most yoga marketing and branding

is still geared to upwardly mobile consumers with a certain lifestyle ethos. And according to the

latest market research studies, well over 80% of these consumers are white women.


Thirty-six year old Sariane Leigh is trying to change the face of yoga. Four years ago she

established Washington, DC’s first yoga studio devoted to serving low-income African-American

residents. The studio is located “across the river” in Anacostia, a large section of Southeast

Washington, DC that is predominantly Black, poor and underserved at every level. Leigh had

learned and taught yoga in more affluent areas of the city and was excited about the health and

spiritual benefits that the practice could offer. But as a politically conscious African-American

woman, she felt that the predominant yoga ethos — as well as the sheer cost of the classes —

placed it beyond the orbit of her community.


In 2009, when she struck out on her own, Leigh didn’t know what to expect. Now, more

than a decade later, her studio, Anacostia Yogi, is not only thriving, but Leigh herself is

becoming more visible as a local health activist and advocate. Her low-priced classes, most of

them taught in local community centers, go beyond teaching basic yoga postures to include

advice on better health, dieting, and nutrition — including poses designed to ameliorate

diabetes and hypertension and mental and emotional support for Black families experiencing

high levels of stress. Leigh also provides advice on where to purchase low-cost mats and stretch

pants at half the prices charged in posh yoga apparel stores like Lululemon that typically cater

to wealthy suburbanites.


Leigh views yoga as more than a personal health and fitness program. She describes

herself as a “wellness revolutionary” consciously linking the pursuit of greater inner peace to

the struggle for “mind-body justice,” which she defines as an ability to stay grounded and

strong in one’s interactions in the world. She co-sponsors with another African-American yogi,

Taheera Tucker, an annual “mind-body justice” retreat in rural Virginia where students not only

learn the basics of yoga practice but techniques for fully incorporating its energy and principles

into their daily lives. “If there is one thing my discovery of yoga has taught me, it is to confront

change,” Leigh says. “With yoga, I’ve realized that if I can manage change on the inside I can

face almost anything happening on the outside.”


And Leigh’s just getting started. Her next project is to take yoga to African-American

youngsters, especially girls, to help them build self-esteem and make better life choices earlier

in their lives. Leigh’s spirit of including yogis of every body type and background has even

rubbed off on a growing number of Washingtonians from other parts of the city who’ve begun

moving to Anacostia in recent years, part of an early wave of urban “homesteaders”. At a

recent yoga class, nearly half her students were White, and several were men.


Leigh, who once felt marginalized from mainstream yoga as a Black woman proud of her

ample curves, is bringing a fresh pioneering spirit to an age-old sacred spiritual practice. And it

all started, she says, with a “desire to live freely and to breathe the breath of life.” It’s an

example that other aspiring yogis anxious to promote the practice’s health benefits more

widely would do well to emulate.

©Stewart J. Lawrence. September 7, 2015

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