These Black Yoga Leaders Are On A Mission To Bring Diversity To The Industry

They’re making moves.

Despite its ancient origins in India and parts of Africa, the modern practice of yoga is a notoriously non-diverse space. A November 2023 study by Yoga Journal found that of the 11,000 individuals surveyed who practiced yoga a vast majority identified as white. Some of the BIPOC respondents of the study reported being “keenly aware” that they were the only person of color in the class. Which raises the question of why a practice, in which the concept of unity is actually embedded in its title, has come to exclude so many, particularly those in the Black community.

“Colonization definitely has its [hand] in it,” says Ro Nwosu, an Ontario-based yoga teacher, digital creator, and founder of digital wellness platform Wild Roga. “Community support is big [with yoga], whereas I feel that [with the current] demographic, it's about going into class and leaving. It's like there's no association with anyone else. It really promotes, or I feel like the commercialism of it, has promoted individualism for sure.”

Tie Simpson, an Atlanta-based yoga coach and founder of wellness community Sisters of Yoga, seconds this notion, pointing to capitalism and a culture of “taking” for stripping the yoga space of its all-inclusive message that it has been rooted in for thousands of years. “It's [now] about what I want or what's going to work for me as opposed to what's going to work for the community, what's going to work for the collective of the people,” she says.

Sisters of Yoga

A Less-Than-Ideal Studio Experience

Both women’s journey with yoga began with at-home trainings offered via DVD and digital platforms. When Simpson finally made the leap to pursue in-person training some 10 years ago, she explains that her first yoga teacher was actually a Black woman, but she is well aware that this is not the case for others. After becoming certified as an instructor, Simpson took her show on the road and toured around the country, teaching yoga and its principles of harmony, mindfulness, and inside-out health. “When I was on tour, people were like, ‘You're the first Black yoga teacher I've ever experienced,’ and [I saw] how impactful that was for them,” she explains.

The yoga pro says she understands how isolating it can feel to not have anybody who looks like you in a class for such an intimate and vulnerable practice. “You have to trust the person that's leading you and when you can't feel comfortable in that space, it's impossible to really get what you're needing out of the practice,” she says.

This sentiment also rang true for Jacquitta Boone, yoga instructor and founder of online yoga platform Mindfully Kiki. For her first studio experience, the Greenville, North Carolina, native claims that while she didn’t feel unwelcome in the space, a self-consciousness about her body crept in as she started her practice. “Everybody kind of looked the same, they were more athletic, they were more capable of doing things,” says Boone. “Now, I haven't had too many bad experiences with just being in a bigger body or being the only person of color in class, but it always feels better to see someone else that looks like you in class or teaching class.”

Nwosu recalls being a mother of a young child searching for a studio in Ontario’s Ottawa region and feeling uncomfortable in many of the spaces she tested out. Between the questions and reactions she was met with as well as the general feel of the atmosphere, she simply was not happy with her options. “Thinking back, a lot of it was language for sure,” she says. “[I got] ‘What are you doing here?’ Or, ‘We've never really seen someone like you practice yoga before.’ Which, at the time, I’m like, ‘What do you mean someone like me? A mom?’ I said, ‘Do moms not practice yoga?’ A lot of things like that or being in the room and just feeling judged or feeling looked at. That was very stressful. You just didn't feel seen or felt like you could be there.”


The Limits Of Modern Yoga Culture

In addition to the environment within many of these high-end boutique studios, the structure in which yoga is packaged and marketed in the Western world creates a variety of barriers for the Black community and those of color.

First and foremost, there’s the high cost of entry, a common factor among buzzy fitness trends and movements. Memberships at yoga studios can be upwards of $200 a month in certain parts of the U.S., with private sessions ranging anywhere from $50 to $150 each. That’s quite a price to pay for a little mind and body care. “Yoga is very expensive, and so the wage gap and income gap is a huge barrier to people practicing yoga and it not being accessible in terms of, again, them seeing themselves in the person that's teaching the class or being able to relate to what they're saying,” says Simpson.

This lack of accessibility also bleeds into the ideas around seeing yoga as a lifelong stable career as opposed to a hobby or part-time gig. Nwosu explains that a job in yoga is often not seen as secure, and many of the instructors she employs have existing full-time positions that they have to work around. “For Black women, for Black people, teaching something like yoga isn't considered a real career or it's not considered something that you actually do,” says Nwosu. “You should be in sciences, math. And I think those things are really great too still, but we sometimes have to remember that we're able to do anything.”

Simpson also notes a long-standing “taboo” around yoga in the Black community, stemming in large part from a strong Christian-based belief system. “I think religion had a lot to do with it for a lot of Black people ... and has been a substantial barrier to people practicing yoga,” says Simpson. “Even now, I still hear it from people, which is very interesting to me, that yoga is the devil's work. You would hear some very strange things from people that are religious.”

Boone says in her part of the U.S., this fear around yoga is particularly prevalent, but she’s quick to explain to an open ear that it is not a religion, but a sacred practice. “But it's not like a demonic practice — we're not calling any demons,” she says. “We're not doing anything out of the ordinary. You don't have to come to a class where we're chanting and all these things, because every class isn't like that.”

Simpson says these sentiments could be changing as more Black women step to the forefront of the industry, a shift she’s happily observed over the past five years. “When I first started, I could count on my one hand how many Black women I saw just on Instagram practicing yoga,” she says. “And now there are insurmountable women. And so I can definitely say it's changed drastically. I think it's been a slow process, but it's actually been a domino effect. And I feel like just more people sharing their practice outwardly, makes it less taboo to practice yoga as a Black woman.”

Moving For Change

It’s because of the aforementioned experiences and state of the industry that Nwosu, Simpson, and Boone (and countless other Black women) not only entered the space, but founded their respective movements within it. In addition to Wild Roga, Nwosu built her own physical studio to create a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life could feel safe and comfortable practicing. “For people who were told that they're weird, this is the place and that really took off,” she says of her first studio. Although she closed the business during the pandemic, she’s since purchased a new studio in early 2023, Union 108.

“Our tagline is community in motion, but also we really focus on belonging,” explains Nwosu. “Everything that we do is geared towards marginalized communities first because it does help everyone else.”

Simpson found her calling in the digital space, starting Sisters Of Yoga as a 30-day Instagram challenge, which involved eight of the “bigger names” in the space. The instructor was surprised by the enthusiastic response from the IG community. “So we were all talking, [saying] ‘Did you see that? Did you see how this happened? Can we do this in real life?’” recalls Simpson. “At the time I was actually in New York visiting. And I was like, ‘We should do a pop-up while I'm here in New York.’ I put it online and like 30 women showed up the next day.”

From here, the Sisters Of Yoga community and platform was born. The organization’s offerings currently include “corporate wellness experiences” at business conferences, retreats, and seminars, private one-on-one and group sessions, yoga retreats and national tours, and brand partnership and content creation services. “I'm learning a lot from hearing things, and it also helped me shape my offering, shape things that I was creating for the community,” says Simpson.

For Boone, her practice and business are simply about bringing more mindfulness into people’s lives, no matter their race, body type, or skill level. Whether that is through yoga, meditation, or self-care practices, the yoga expert is on a mission to make people “feel more welcome in their bodies” and achieve whatever goals they want to achieve. “We go from meditations to yoga movements, but also moving into functional movements and doing things that people actually need for the rest of their life,” she explains. “So if you're kind of iffy about coming into the yoga space, let's talk about functional movement and how it helps you throughout your life. This is how we age gracefully. This is how we recover well from different injuries or whatever you're going through in your life.”