By Pooja Salhotra
Houston: In response to calls for racial justice last summer, Hindus of Greater Houston (HGH) donated about $8,000 to fund yoga-teacher-training for four Black students, each of whom is, in their own way, spreading the mind and body practice to marginalized communities.
Last summer, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd died after police officers in Minneapolis handcuffed and then pinned Floyd to the ground. For nearly nine minutes, a white officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, even as Floyd called out repeatedly “I can’t breathe.” This act of racial violence — unfortunately only one of many such incidents against Black people in the United States — shocked the nation, inciting protests and a widespread movement for racial justice. The movement has influenced many, including Hindus of Greater Houston, to act.
“When the movement for justice for those racial minority members of our communities escalated last summer, my kids came to me and said, ‘We need to do something,’” says Vijay Pallod, who is on the Board of Hindus of Greater Houston. Pallod took his children’s calls for action to heart and brainstormed with others for ways to help. Funding training for Black yoga teachers is an idea Pallod came up with while in conversation with his friend Benny Tillman, the first African American president of the Vedic Friends Association, an international body that has embraced Vedic culture.
Tillman suggested that Pallod invest in Black people by helping them learn a marketable skill. Yoga was an obvious answer for Pallod, an avid practitioner.
HGH took on the project and, with the help of local yoga studios, identified Black yoga teachers in need of financial support. Two recipients of the sponsorship, Adryn Mari and Alex Kaufmann, completed their training online in November 2020 at the Melanin Yoga Project, a Houston-based organization whose mission is to make yoga more accessible.
“The [training] helped me to expand my teaching toolbox, especially when it came to diving into anatomy and cueing and the philosophy of yoga,” said Kaufmann, 29, who has been practicing yoga for about eight years. “It was also a great way to network with other yoga teachers.”
Mari and Kaufmann both completed a 300-hour program, an advanced training open to students who have already done a 200-hour level program. They said the HGH sponsorship made a tremendous difference in enabling them to participate in the program, which typically costs $2,999.
Kaufmann teaches both online for MYP as well as in person in the Bahamas, where she says people of color have historically not practiced yoga. Mari is not yet teaching, but she plans to do so in a post coronavirus world. She hopes to align her teaching philosophy with that of MYP, teaching populations that would not necessarily have access to yoga.
“I’m definitely working on finding an accessible way of sharing yoga,” said Mari. “My family is very much my guinea pigs and they are kind of my focus groups. I want people to come to me at their very baseline stage.”
The costs of yoga classes and teacher training is one factor that sometimes precludes marginalized groups from taking part in the spiritual practice. The lack of representation can in turn discourage people of color to practice, creating a feedback loop that is difficult to counteract.
Yoga has grown exponentially in the West over the past decade — nearly 37 million U.S. adults now practice yoga — but it remains significantly more popular among white people. While 11.2 percent of Non-Hispanic white adults practice yoga, only 5.6 percent of Non-Hispanic Black adults practice, according to a 2015 National Health Statistics Report.
“Being a person of color, I had never heard of yoga,” said Sharonda Hines, a scholarship recipient who is currently completing her yoga teacher training with SVYASA Houston. “From my background, there’s no yoga.”
Hines grew up in Lubbock, TX and served in the military for ten years from ages 17 to 27. She discovered yoga about seven years ago when she got a Groupon Coupon for a 30-day yoga program. The first day she attended, on Jan. 1, the class was doing 108 sun salutations, a rigorous exercise for anyone, especially a new student. Despite the challenge, Hines, now 49, felt empowered at the end of the class. She has stuck with yoga ever since.
“When I got out of the military, I had lost part of my identity,” said Hines. “I struggled with loss of identity and depression. These yoga practices, I know they help. I know they work.” Hines, who works as an ultrasound technician, hopes to share yoga with veteran populations.
What Hines and others learn in yoga teacher training is not just physical poses, or asanas, but also yoga philosophy. Jordan Dunn-Ridgill, an HGH scholarship recipient currently completing a 300-hour training with Pralaya Yoga, says The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have become a guide for his life.
“Yoga was physical [to me] at first,” he says. “I’ve played sports my whole life since I was young. Yoga was something new to try. And then getting into the study of the philosophy really interested me. I align with a lot of the principles of yoga, and I’ve been able to implement more of the spiritual practices of ahimsa, and the yamas and niyamas have become an important thing for me that I practice every day.”
Dunn-Ridgill, 24, teaches yoga full-time in Houston and hopes to teach around the world.