This Yoga History Book Chronicles Black Women’s Journey to Inner Peace
It was the picture of Rosa Parks that started it. Not one of the “Black history” photos we’ve seen of her in a neat coat and prim hat, looking more like a church deaconess (which she was) than a revolutionary (which she also was). No, this picture showed her wearing a black leotard, kneeling on a Mexican blanket. Rosa was doing yoga.
The unexpected image became the touchstone for Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace by Stephanie Y. Evans, Ph.D. In this book, just out in paperback, Evans explores the ways that Black women have used yoga to find peace and balance in a world that has not been kind or easy.
“This work traces how Black women learned to breathe (expressed in popular culture as “woosah”), despite conditions that were painfully breathtaking,” she says. “Specifically, I investigate the inner peace practices that elder Black women have used to try to bring their lives into balance.” Her research found evidence of African-American women using meditation, postures, and other forms of contemplative practice as far back as slavery.
As director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, Evans scoured archives, contemporary literature, and historical documents looking for references to yoga and mindful practices—and found some unexpected yoga devotees. Here, some of the well-known women who have practiced yoga for physical health, mental wellness, and emotional balance.
Rosa Parks would answer the door in yoga pants
“Parks practiced yoga for more than 30 years and taught yoga in her community. She documents her own mother leading her and her brother in daily ‘stretching exercises,’” writes Evans. Parks started learning yoga in earnest in 1965, when she was already in her 50s.
At the time she practiced, many notable African-Americans were embracing the yogic lifestyle. After the heat of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power Movement pushed into the ’70s with the mantra “Black is Beautiful” and with a focus on Black health through self care and community involvement.
Younger family members recall Parks accompanying them to yoga classes; they say she cultivated a home practice as well. A devout church-going woman by all accounts, Parks was open minded about incorporating yoga into her life as an activist. Records show her demonstrating yoga at events in Detroit where she lived, and she included yoga in the programs she designed for the youth development institute that was founded in her name.
“The exercises help clear her mind, the stretches keep her body limber,” her younger relatives said. “Inner peace and clarity have always been important to her.”
Angela Davis did headstands in a prison cell
In 1970, scholar and Black Panther activist Angela Davis was falsely charged with aiding another Black activist in an escape attempt. She landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and was eventually tried, sentenced, and incarcerated for 16 months before being acquitted. Yoga and mindfulness helped her through the ordeal.
A doctor recommended these practices to help relieve migraines from the stress of the trial. She continued an asana practice to deal with the physical and emotional stress of prison—and to maintain some control of her experience. While absurd prison rules restricted her movement and activity, she said, “They could do nothing to prevent me from doing…headstands when I felt like it.”
“Davis certainly recognizes the power of yoga to assist in creating mental stability for enduring the horrors of prison,” Evans writes. “However she is clear that the goal of yoga is not to make prison more tolerable, but, instead, the goal of yoga is to find the strength to fight against the dehumanization of the prison-industrial complex.”
“Meditation and yoga enabled her to heal herself, claim herself, and resist (at least in part) her jailers’ capacity to dehumanize her,” Evans says.
Film star Pam Grier practiced yoga on set
Pam Grier, queen of ’70s Blaxploitation films, starred in over 50 movies. Almost all of them—From Foxy Brown in 1973 to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1997, cast her as a sexy, gun-toting badass with a huge afro and an even bigger attitude.