When you think of yoga what are the images that come to mind? Is it some Instagram photo of thin white woman with a foot behind her head? Maybe it's some lengthy post about how yoga transformed someone's fitness routine (while standing on their head in expensive leggings). We often think of yoga as a way to get fit or to become "zen." But that isn't the only thing that yoga can teach you. In fact, yoga's roots date back centuries and have little to do with it being the trendy, culturally dismissive exercise we know today.
For women of color, yoga can allow even just a half hour to positively impact your self care regiment and even help with trauma. In America, anxiety disorders are the most common and affect 40 million adults aged 18 or older. If you zoom in a little closer, mental illness disproportionately affects women of color; according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, black women are 20 percent more likely to deal with mental illness. If you zoom in a little closer, a survey showed that Asian women are the least likely to seek out treatment options in 2015.
But the studies regarding health and women of color don't all paint a negative picture.Just last year, a Northwestern Medicine study found that mindfulness practices such as yoga, while not an alternative to medical help, have a positive impact on alleviating symptoms of depression. After 40 plus days of practicing yoga — and no, you certainly don't have to commit to a #yogachallenge — I have discovered a few other gems for women who encounter the throes of being a woman and a person of color, and how yoga can benefit them.
1. You can own your own space.
Can we be real for a moment? Minimizing your space is a survival tactic that can be emotionally taxing and takes a heck of a lot of time to unlearn! With each pose, regardless of intensity, any good instructor or instructional video will encourage you to stretch out and take up space because you deserve it.
2. You do not have to work twice as hard.
The saying goes that the same people who experience the challenges of settle and overt discrimination must "work twice as hard" in life to get what they want. While different experiences offer eye opening perspective on the idea, it comes with an immense pressure. Whether in a studio or in your living room, yoga is about you going at your pace.
3. You realize comparison is a waste of time.
So what if the girl next to you can touch her toes or fold her legs over her shoulders? There, I said it! Even if it looks cool, or you wish you were just a bit more flexible, it is a process. The pressure to be superwoman at everything is real! When you step on that mat, acknowledge and celebrate where you are.
4. You learn to be gentle with yourself.
While in some poses, you will also learn to position your body to reduce the chance of injuring your joints or lower back. On your yoga mat and in life, being aware of how you feel allows you to take care of yourself. Being hard on yourself just like forcing a pose can do more harm than good.
5. You see persistence is not about perfection.
If you enjoy Vinyasa power yoga, you're familiar with the "flow," or a series of movements to reset your body for the next pose. I was ashamed when I walked into my first class. I felt after repeatedly attempting this flow, it should've been close to perfect. But remember, the fact that you got up on day two to try it again after your first class is the real victory — and both in the present and over time, is well worth the effort.
6. You're reminded that vulnerability is not a weakness.
Yoga has an interesting way of humbling your body and sharing — sometimes glaringly — how far you have to go on your path. If it's awkwardly trying to stay in a downward dog or opening up about a past experience, with enough practice opening up can become second nature. It's good for you!
7. Your journey, your rules.
Don't beat yourself up for skipping that class to stay a little later at work or grabbing ice cream after. Things happen, life happens! Knowing you're in control is empowering, but owning that it's all about you means that getting that frappuccino post yoga class didn't ruin it.
8. You realize balance is about embracing your mess.
Embrace the wobbling, the sweat messing up your bun and sometimes things getting a little intense in a chair pose. Ann Shoket explained it best in her book The Big Life — embracing the mess is better than trying to ignore it or create an ideal version of perfect.
9. You learn to listen to your breath (or rather, your gut).
This is not only about being gentle with yourself (see number four), but also how to deal with uncomfortable situations. As a WOC, these are sometimes frequent and have a lot to do with who you are. This can feel overwhelming and even maddening. Breathing through a difficult pose or just taking a moment to check in with yourself is active self-care. Use it!
10. You come first, always.
You can't save everyone. You've certainly tried, and maybe there are quite a few people depending on your to live up to their expectations. But knowing when to say no is a also a valuable skill. Making the decision to step back from a project, stay in instead of hanging out or even use your platform for a cause is your choice.
11. You don't owe anyone an explanation.
As a WOC, you can often feel like you have to explain things like privilege or why it isn't OK to touch your hair without asking. You're explaining and educating so much that it becomes more about them than you receiving the respect and appreciation you deserve. Even if it's as little as deciding not to wear a bra to yoga, you don't always have to share why.
12. You learn not to apologize for resting.
Keeping up with the rest of the class or revisiting a difficult pose can be tempting. But if your body needs a moment, listen to it. You don't always have to breathe through every difficult situation, or force yourself to engage. Sometimes, you just need rest.