A week after thousands of Philadelphians flooded the streets in June in a massive protest over George Floyd’s death, Adriana Adelé led a free outdoor yoga class at Logan Circle for the city’s Black community. Dozens showed up for the session, which was part of Spirits Up!, a six-day wellness series that focused on healing for protesters and people who had experienced racial traumas.
“During my class, on one side you could see the Art Museum, and on the other side you could see City Hall,” said Adelé, an instructor at Three Queens Yoga in Queen Village and Maha Yoga in Center City. “In that moment, it felt like a manifested symbol of being a Black practitioner of yoga … having to find your center and your breath amidst the chaos of a bustling city.”
While yoga is not a cure-all, studies have shown that survivors of intimate partner violence, people who suffer from depressive symptoms, and those who deal with high levels of stress benefit from the practice. An increasing body of research also shows that racism and discrimination has an effect on people’s health — a 2018 study published by the American Heart Association found that in Black women, chronic low-grade inflammation, which can damage healthy cells over time and increase the risk of heart diseases, is associated with the stress of dealing with frequent racial discrimination.
“Yoga is about cultivating a sense of presence with what is,” said Adrienne Dolberry, co-owner of Studio 34 Yoga in West Philadelphia. “That is the time for you to get still and listen in a deeper way about what’s going on, and with trauma recovery, that’s part of it.
Robbin Alston, a psychologist and the owner of Àse Yoga Studio and Tea Room in East Falls, said yoga can help people who have experienced trauma because it’s a space where they don’t have to worry about feeling different from others.
“It’s not based on this diagnosis or that,” she said. “You just focus on breathing, inhaling and exhaling, and that calms your nervous system.”
Alston said it’s impossible to separate systemic racism and stress. In fact, recent research shows that stress can be passed down genetically, she said.
“We’re not dealing with past-traumatic stress disorder, but present-traumatic stress disorder,” Alston said. “It’s current. It’s not like it happened and it’s over. We have to see that what happened in the 1960s was not that long ago.”
Adelé said yoga gives people hope when they’re trying to process racial trauma by providing a safe space to learn how to heal.
“COVID and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter has made a lot of Black people tired,” she said. “There’s an exhaustion that comes with chronic racial trauma.”
At Studio 34, yoga instructors are mindful of people who might be recovering from trauma during classes. They do not make hands-on corrections without consent given through a yellow card participants can put at the front of their mats, Dolberry said.
“We want to give people the opportunity to work in an environment that offers choices and options, since there isn’t a choice involved in trauma,” she said.
Although the practice of yoga has roots in India and Africa, the industry more often caters to white people in the West, Adelé said.
She pointed out that if someone is the only Black person in a yoga class, it can be hard for them to relax and feel rejuvenated from a session. That’s why Adelé began teaching a weekly yoga class via Zoom centered on breathing and resting for Black practitioners after Floyd’s death in June. She announces the class times on Instagram, and each class has raised donations for different Black-led or Black-centered community initiatives.
Latifah McMullin, a Realtor who completed her yoga teacher training last year, has been attending Adelé‘s Zoom classes to relax following so much civil unrest.
“When Adriana first put together the Breathe and Rest class in June, a few of us were starting to get used to the new normal,” she said. “And then all the racial tensions came to light, and it was like, ‘Where are we? What’s going on? Why is this happening?’ Everything felt like it had just gone to hell.”
McMullin teaches a free yoga class at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia on Sunday mornings but she also sets aside time to focus on her own practice. She said Adelé‘s class, in a space full of mostly Black people and taught by a Black teacher, helps her decompress. She’s even fallen asleep a couple of times during the class, McMullin said.
“A lot of Black folks were looking for a space to be in [the yoga community],” Adelé said. “A lot of people didn’t know how much rest they needed until they slowed down. There’s a lot of emotional processing that happens on a deeper level when we give ourselves the time to slow down and breathe.”
Dolberry said that to be welcoming to all kinds of people as a yoga studio, it’s not enough to post a Black Lives Matter message on Instagram, develop a quarterly event series for diversity, or hire “some Black folks.” The real work for inclusion can often be harder, like creating an internal accountability group for white employees or having conversations about blind spots, she said.