If you're like me, you probably don't know many black Yogis. At first glance, it may seem that it is just now that more and more African-Americans are taking interest in this ancient eastern practice. Black History Month inspired me to do some research about if and what role Yoga has played in the African-American community throughout the years and I'm so thankful to tell you that my assumption was wrong! Black people actually have a rich history of doing Yoga in America dating all the way back to 1926! Not only the physical Hatha Yoga that most of us are familiar with but African-Americans have gone on to become prominent spiritual leaders in the non-physical Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana forms of Yoga as well. Representation matters and I personally have often felt very alone in my Yoga journey because I don't find too many people who look like me and can relate to me with not only the physical practice of Yoga, but also my beliefs in Yoga philosophy. That's why I'm so excited to share what I've found about Black Yogis of yore!
Pictured throughout is an article from the September 1975 edition of Ebony Magazine. The article is titled: "Yoga, Something For Everyone" and it blows my mind that over 40 years ago, there were efforts being made to get more black people to do Yoga. The article starts by highlighting Krishna Kaur, a black Kundalini Yoga pioneer here in the states. Kundalini Yoga is a school of Yoga that focuses on awakening Kundalini energy through meditation, pranayama (breath control), chanting, and physical asana (physical yoga). Kaur began her life as Thelma Oliver and was an actress before studying Yoga in 1970 under Yogi Bhajan whom introduced Kundalini Yoga to the U.S. Bhajan understood that the black community faced a different set of challenges in the U.S. around that time and believed that through Yoga, African-Americans could find inner peace and healing from the years of trauma they'd faced.
Also mentioned in the article is prominent Civil Rights leader Angela Davis. Davis began doing Yoga while awaiting trial in a California Prison. She wasn't allowed to leave her cell so she took up Yoga as a means of exercise. She says "Just the physical part was a help, in my case, because I couldn't leave the cell for regular exercise. I have never used Yoga as an end in itself but merely as a means to prepare myself for a more effective struggle." As time passed, Davis got deeper in her practice and continues to practice Yoga today. The article goes on to mention other prominent black Yogis of the time such as business manager Marc Mason who attributes Yoga to helping him find health, peace, and balance in his career. Other black celebrities such as singer Freda Payne and actress Madge Sinclair often practiced with Bikram Choudhury at the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills. Pro baseball players Willie Davis and Willie Stargell were also devoted Yogis in a time when there was much stigma around the practice.
The article goes on to mention other famous black yogis of the time such as Smokey Robinson, the members of Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Alice and John Coltrane. There are a ton more that I'll be mentioning in later parts of this series. I hope you learned a little and that you have been inspired to try Yoga yourself! Contrary to popular belief, black people have been practicing Yoga here in the United States as a means to transcend the often painful and chaotic day to day of our existence for decades! I believe Yoga still has the power to change any one that will give it a try and it is critical for healing from the trauma we've collectively faced as a people. I'll leave you with this quote from Krishna Kaur from this same article which I believe says it all "The revolution is really one of the mind. Blacks have got to realize where the power really is. The struggle is not on a physical level. It is on the level of the mind".
Do you have any older Black Yogis in your family? If so, I would love to hear about them! Feel free to drop me a note or leave a comment!
You can read the original Ebony article here starting at page 96.