When she walked into the yoga studio, she gave me “the look” as I welcomed her.
The woman appeared to be in her late 20’s, but I’ve seen “the look” on white faces young and old. It’s the, “I didn’t know you were black” look. It’s a look that’s not easily veiled. The smiles are always polite, but nervous. She tiptoed between mats as if she were walking on hot coals and looked around the room for a space. I could tell the moment she noticed she was the only white person in the room. I watched her shoulders slowly lift toward her ears. She looked anxious and undecided.
Should she find a place to lay her mat or should she turn and run out the door?
If she had come on another day, the student group may have been equally mixed. I have a diverse clientele. She just happened to come on a day when she was warmly greeted by all black and brown faces. Once she settled into a space and I guided the class through a brief centering exercise, she seemed to relax, to forget that she was in a place that was outside of her comfort zone. At the end of the class, she rushed to the front of the room to thank me, “Oh my God! That was so great!”, she said excitedly. I never saw her again. I knew I wouldn’t.
Students come and go all the time as most yoga teachers know.
For all I know, the look may have simply been the anticipation of a new student. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it enough times to know that for some whites, being the minority in a group is an untenable situation. For me, it’s a way of life. I was one of the first children to integrate the Union, New Jersey school system over 50 years ago. Since then I’ve been the only one more times than I can count: in schools, jobs, yoga classes and workshops.
Just as I have dealt with whites who doubt my credibility as a black female yoga instructor, I know many others who may have given me the look initially, but have returned time after time… students who have followed me from my days teaching at the local community center to opening my own studio.
While on this journey, I also face the unspoken expectations of what a yoga teacher should look like.
According to covers of Yoga Journal, I should be thin, white, 20-something, and amazingly flexible. Instead, I am a size 12, middle-aged African American woman who’s somewhat flexible.
Related: Click here to read Stephanie’s post “The Nasayers”
There’s another look I have received many times, mainly from African Americans who enter my studio for the first time.
It’s a look of relief, followed by a sigh.
They’ve found a place where there are people in the room who look like them, where they are not conscious of their size or color. They can simply come and practice in a studio where yoga truly is for every body.