My yoga journey began close to forty years ago. My mother was and is a professional ballet dancer so we, her children, were raised with a focus on the value of the human body as temple and were encouraged to take the best care of it as any young child could.
Mom was a constant vision of toning and stretching and pointing and flexing. She was never NOT dancing—or so it seemed to my young eyes. She and her good friend could be quite embarrassing, often breaking out in dance and song on a packed, rush-hour Staten Island Ferry. Crowds circled around to watch as we children slid under the benches, red faced and horrified by the attention.
We spent our weekends under Mom’s tutelage learning ballet forms, modern dance lineages and African dance steps. This was fun some of the time, but not so much when our friends were outdoors running around freely.
I continued to study ballet through college, but I never embraced the world of dance the way my mother did. Yoga, however, was a different story. It’s thanks to my mother, who introduced me to yoga many moons ago, that I continue to practice yoga today.
After I completed undergrad at Cornell, I landed a “dream” job, working in corporate banking on Park Avenue in New York City. Life was fast paced and crazy in the mid 1980s—especially in New York. I was only in my 20s, but I was stressed. I missed the beautiful gorges of Ithaca.
My mother suggested I take a yoga class with her at the Integral Yoga Ashram in Manhattan where she and several members of the New York City Ballet world would go to stretch and relax. Finding Integral Yoga was heaven sent! I became immersed in a daily practice, attended classes at least twice a week and participated in weekly retreats at the Integral Yoga Ashram in the Catskills. Within two years, I decided that a slower-paced life in the Pacific Northwest was better suited for me and my budding yoga practice. I moved to Seattle and continued to study Hatha yoga with an Iyengar teacher.
Later, as a young mother myself, I practiced yoga with my two young sons. They affectionately referred to yoga as “yogurt” and would follow along as I practiced seated, reclining and standing asana. They preferred downward-facing dog, head stands and balance challenges (especially the falling on the floor part).
As my sons grew into young men, I would remind them of the benefits of yoga practice to maintain their focus while they studied and to ease their anxiety while dealing with the facts of being Black and male in America. Both my sons continue to practice yoga today, preferring strong, energetic yoga styles like vinyasa and power flow. But both attend my classes when they come home to Maryland, and I love to show them off to my students!
Today, my virtual yoga classes include my mother, my sons and their respective partners. A few cousins have also learned to embrace the practice. I have even coaxed a couple of my aunties—now in their 80s—to attend a virtual chair yoga class I offer for students who are still shy about this thing called yoga.
As a teacher, I am grateful to be able to share this practice that I love. I’m especially grateful to share yoga with members of my own family and Black community. I’m grateful that they trust me as their daughter, mother, sister, cousin and confidant, and that they are willing to try the practice. In return, I am careful to align yoga with the spiritual practices and beliefs they hold dear.
What makes this yoga practice all the more meaningful is knowing that it honors our experience as African people living in the Diaspora—and that it gives my family the foundation of resilience we need in order to continue our sojourn as a mighty people and culture.
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Charlene Marie Muhammad is a traditional healing practitioner who supports clients toward optimal health by using the healing tools that she has grown to embrace in her own life: herbal medicine, nutrition and yoga. She is also an early childhood educator, a childbirth doula, an IYAT-certified yoga therapist, and a licensed dietitian with a master’s degree in Herbal Medicine from Maryland University of Integrative Health. Charlene serves as secretary to the Black Yoga Teachers’ Alliance Board of Directors