Stories from Yoga

I’m a Black Yoga Instructor in Appalachia—And Here’s What I’ve Learned

Kristin Booker

Kristin BookerJuly 10, 2020

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Photo: Kristin Booker / W+G Creative

There are times in our lives where we find ourselves in unexpected places. Maybe we turn off the GPS to see where the road leads, or we relocate to the other side of the country for a job. I’ve done both of those things, but nothing has surprised me more than moving home to Charleston, West Virginia, to teach yoga.

I should mention that I’m a Black woman. I left West Virginia at 18 years old, determined to experience the world. I spent 30 years building two successful careers, living and traveling extensively, putting thousands of miles between my birthplace and myself, closing the miles long enough to come home for holidays. Residing in San Francisco, Boston, Charlotte, and, inevitably, New York City, I bathed in the diversity I craved growing up. Not to say being Black wasn’t problematic elsewhere; when melanin is unwelcome, it is unwelcome. But in larger cities, I was one of many. In these metropolises, I saw myself becoming pretty much anything I wanted to become. And I took the opportunity to do just that.

So last year, when I decided to move home to be close to my aging mother, I knew life would be different than it had been in New York. Gone are the cacophony and skyscrapers of Manhattan, replaced by the streams and mountains of West Virginia. The polyglot nature of the five boroughs, with its countless dialects, has been replaced by the variety of Appalachian accents. Even wellness looks different! Vegan takeout and sound baths have given way to a focus on physical fitness and weight management.

I didn’t know how much I would miss diversity until it was gone.

But I miss diversity. I didn’t know how much I needed it until I had it. I didn’t know how much I would miss it until it was gone.

Returning home, I’m faced with realities my 18-year-old self had no experience to comprehend. The media is intensely unflattering of Black people here in a massively media-driven culture. Add antiquated tropes, a staunch hold to “good old-fashioned values,” and a resistance to change or outsiders, and it can be extremely tough for people of color. I’m also Black in a city where we comprise 15.4 percent of the population; there are evidently only 60,000 of us in the state. All of this makes it hard for anyone to come in from the outside (even if we were born on the inside) to add value.

And I do want to add value to this community. In yoga instructor training, my teacher Ali Cramer explained the concept of “GOD” as “go on duty.” For me, that means showing up in brown skin and natural curls to teach yoga in a place where my appearance is not the norm. Black women in wellness aren’t widely seen here (or too many other places, which is something the wellness industry needs to address overall) so our presence is needed. Our experience, our skills, our heritage—all of that is needed.

At the studio where I teach, I’m the only Black woman teaching on the regular schedule, and I’m among only a handful of brown teachers for hundreds of miles. It can feel isolating when it comes to engaging with other teachers, like a perceived language or cultural barrier. Everyone in the teaching community has established connections here, which feels like arriving on a college campus to discover there’s one sorority… and everyone else has already pledged. This means I spend a lot of time alone, which is nice, but also lonely. Still, I show up to teach yoga in the skin I’m in, brown and proud. All we do as yoga teachers is share our own practice; my story comes through in the way I teach.

I’ve only had a handful of overtly racist experiences here in West Virginia. Most of the racism I experience is subtle, as it is in most of America. I remember one woman who was entirely dismayed that a Black woman was teaching the class. She seethed, refusing to acknowledge me until almost the end of the class. When she finally looked into my eyes, she was at a full boil. You know the look when you see it; racism has an energy all its own. Unsurprisingly, she never came back to my class. But I came back, and I do so every day, determined to use the yoga mat to create possibilities here.

Whatever I can do to ensure our skin is welcome in wellness spaces—and any other space—I will.

My hope, my great love, are the students. I believe these yogis are the future. As I bring my truth into the studio, the students bring theirs: death, addiction, relationship issues, money problems. We meet where we are. More and more, students of color come into class. Some have established practices, while others have no prior yoga experience. We see each other so clearly.

The word “yoga” means “to yoke” or “to join together.” In the midst of social change, there is no better time for us to come together and really see each other in order to accept, love, and build upon our differences. Wellness is where all of this should begin. Brown bodies deserve the same access to health and wellness as others, and brown voices should have just as much prominence in the space. We need to see ourselves, brown and beautiful, in health and mind-body connection. Whatever I can do to ensure our skin is welcome in wellness spaces—and any other space—I will.

Brown bodies deserve the same access to health and wellness as others, and brown voices should have just as much prominence in the space.

My teenage self would be surprised by my return to West Virginia. But it’s not the same West Virginia of my youth. This wild, wonderful, beautiful place is in the midst of much-needed change, like everywhere else in the country. (Yes, that goes for New York City, too.) As I’ve come to discover through this move, our geographical surroundings matter less than the choices we make and the connections we forge. Right now, we are bearing witness to a massive outcry for change that is hundreds of years in coming for people of color. And to effect that change, all of us need to start where we are, to hear and see each other clearly. Maybe yoga can help West Virginia, like so many other places, imagine something different: a future in which there are no outsiders, where differences are celebrated, and where all of us may—one day, finally—live in our skin in peace.

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