Say Yes to Yoga
African Americans in Detroit embrace an ancient Indian path to wellness
Photos by Robert Deane
Imagine—your muscles are tingling, your mind is clear and you’re bursting with energy.
With this comes healing and relief from pain and disease, freeing you from medication and physical restrictions. And you’re filled with passion, purpose and peace in relationships, work and community.
You can feel this way with yoga, and help your community at the same time, say a growing number of African Americans who are learning and teaching the ancient Indian practice of breathing, moving into poses and meditating.
Why do African Americans have higher rates of so many diseases, asks Yvette Cobb, a registered nurse and holistic health practitioner who has studied yoga in India. “Detroit needs a prescription for healing, and yoga is that prescription,” she says. Cobb owns YC Yoga for Life Center, with a studio in Detroit and another in Birmingham.
Because being of service is a major tenet of yoga, many African-American yogis strive to uplift their local communities and the world. “My goal is to heal the universe, one body at a time,” says Cobb. Yoga heals, she adds, by releasing negative energy through deep breathing, massaging organs through bending and strengthening muscles through movement.
A new movie titled “YogaWoman,” narrated by actress Annette Bening, underscores this mission by showcasing the Off the Mat, Into the World program, for which American yoga teachers raised a half million dollars to build a birthing hospital for HIV-positive women in Uganda.
Local yoga enthusiasts say improving their own health and lives automatically helps the community.
“I’ve inspired many of my clients and their children to take yoga because it has improved my body, my brain and my spirit in a beautiful way,” says Rochelle Dudley, who owns Wholly Hands salon in Detroit. “I feel like I’ve been given a precious secret and I want to shout it to the world.”
According to Dudley, an acquaintance at her gym encouraged her to try yoga nearly two years ago.
“After one week of classes, I felt amazing. Now after I close the shop, I make a beeline for the Yoga Shelter in Royal Oak. By the end of class, I’m drenched, and so relaxed, like I’ve left all my stress on that mat.”
Best of all, Dudley says yoga has alleviated painful arthritis in her neck and back after years of bending to give manicures and pedicures. “It’s better than any medication—like a one-stop shop for feeling phenomenal.”
She admits that, like many African Americans, she once viewed yoga as a leisurely pursuit for wealthy people. “Growing up, I saw it on TV, but nobody talked about it in the Black community. I felt that yoga wasn’t for us.”
She also believed the common misconception that yoga is anti-Christian.
“Once we understand what it’s about, and unveil all the mysteries, and realize it may take two or three classes to understand it, then we love it,” says Tim Clark, who for 10 years has taught yoga at a local gym, Detroit’s Salem Church, and now The Yoga Shelter in Grosse Pointe.
“A lot of us grew up in the church and there’s still a misconception that yoga is a religion, that you’re worshiping the sun or gods,” says Clark, 37, of Detroit, who began taking yoga as a musician in Los Angeles in 1998. “And it seemed very foreign to people, like it was not masculine enough.”
Lowell Perry, Jr., felt that way 12 years ago when his wife, Kathi, began studying yoga in their Southfield home, then teaching in local studios.
“I have been a life-long jock who was into weight lifting and doing spin classes,” says Perry. “Much to my surprise, nothing has ‘cut’ me better than a regular Ashtanga yoga practice. My muscles not only stayed strong, but got longer as well, helping to prevent injuries in the other sports I enjoyed. This is why you see many professional athletes practicing yoga as part of their workout regimen.”
Perry, whose family now lives near Nashville, Tenn., says yoga has improved his golf swing, his marriage and his health.
“I don’t look or feel 55,” adds Perry, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee. “Besides good genes, I give yoga a lot of credit for the youthful appearance as well.”
While yoga’s followers are 85 percent female, according to YogaWoman, Clark is committed to introducing the life-changing practice to men and boys—especially troubled youth in the city.
“I renamed it ‘Swag,’ so the teens would be more open to it,” he says. “I had all these troubled youth coming up to me after class to say they felt great and wanted to learn more.”
Providing the healing, soothing powers of yoga to people who need it most can help reduce crime and keep young people focused on school and positive lifestyles, Clark says.
“When you push through any discomfort or frustration during a pose or sequence on the mat, and stay calm by breathing deeply through it,” he says, “you carry that mental strength into the world.”
He cites a concept called “The Watcher” described by hip hop pioneer and yoga enthusiast Russell Simmons. It’s the idea of becoming calm and focused through meditation so that one is not distracted by whatever or whoever is in your environment. Clark speaks from experience: “Before yoga, I was mad at the world, carrying around my life’s baggage and getting angry or frustrated easily. Now, for example, if a driver cuts me off on the freeway, I stay calm. I am The Watcher of my life. I watch, then decide how to react, if at all. Yoga taught me to be grateful that the other driver did not cause an accident, and that everyone around us is safe.”
Clark says more metro Detroiters ascribing to this peaceful way of thinking and living will uplift the community. Two obstacles to yoga for African Americans in the city are cost and access. Most studios are in the suburbs and classes can be expensive.
That’s why Cobb recently volunteered to teach a class in a YogaThon at Karma Yoga studio in Bloomfield Township. The one-day event raised nearly $5,000 for teachers to offer classes for free or at reduced rates, says Lynn Medow, who created the Yoga By Design Foundation.
“It has always disturbed me that yoga in this area doesn’t seem accessible to all people,” says Medow. “The money raised at this YogaThon can make a tremendous difference.”
As she speaks, serene-faced people glistening with sweat stream from Cobb’s 90-minute Kundalini-style yoga class during which her soothing voice and enchanting music accompanied a vigorous physical routine followed by meditation to the deep vibration of a gong.
“Any teacher in metro Detroit can apply for the money,” says Karma Yoga owner Katherine Austin. “We know how healing
yoga can be, so we want to offer it to all souls.”
That mission of providing yoga for everyone—rich and poor, young and old, healthy and sick— inspired Cobb to leave California, where she lived for 20 years. “Spirit told me to take the power of yoga back home to Detroit,” she says, barefoot with waist-length locs, wearing all-white attire that contrasts with the jewel-toned walls of her studio.
She opened her Birmingham studio in 2006. In June of this year, she opened her Detroit studio beside the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.
“I offer a sliding fee scale for veterans,” says Cobb. “Yoga helps them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m also taking my classes to the elderly in senior citizens’ towers, the homeless in shelters, battered women, cancer patients, people with Multiple Sclerosis and teen girls at Northwestern High School.”
Venus Day, 33, says taking yoga for five years has made her a healthier, happier person who helps others as a certified nursing assistant.
“I’m no longer on Vicodin and muscle relaxants for back pain from a car accident,” Day says. “And I no longer have to take insulin three times a day for diabetes.”
Sporting black leggings and a fuchsia tank top, Day wipes sweat from her brow after an hour of vigorous moving and deep breathing in Clark’s class. His serene singing and guitar strumming of “Close Your Eyes,” which he composed, enhance the meditation that concludes the class for a dozen men and women.
“I’ve lost 30 pounds and yoga helps me keep it off,” she says. “Now when I go home, my fiancé will say, ‘You had one hour of exercise and you’re bouncing around like you had an energy drink.’ I have enough energy right now to go clean the whole house.”
Cobb advises anyone who’s interested in yoga to try a variety of yoga styles, instructors and studios, to find the best fit. She adds: “It is your birthright to be happy, healthy and whole. Yoga is the way to have all of that.”
Sherla Evans, who teaches at YC Yoga for Life, reflected on the happy, peaceful feelings that nearly 20 people expressed after Cobb’s class during the YogaThon.
“Imagine if everyone in the world had done this practice today,” Evans says. “We’d have peace around the globe. That is the power of yoga.”
ELIZABETH ATKINS IS A DETROIT JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR WHOSE LATEST BOOKS ARE “FAT FAMILY, FIT FAMILY” AND “MY BLUE SUEDE SHOES.”