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Yoga on the Mississippi

Memphis, Tennessee—named after the ancient Egyptian capital on the Nile—is the largest city on the Mississippi River. When it was founded in the 1800s, it was a transportation center that served to move the product of the cotton plantations in the area to markets all over the world. It was also one of the largest southern slave markets: A million or more enslaved Africans were brought into Memphis and forced to work on those grand plantations along the river.

When you view Memphis from the perspective of a city built on the foundation of the enslavement of Black people, it becomes undeniably apparent how our community could be traumatized by that history. Oppression is a thread originating in the 1800s that still spans economic, educational, social and environmental spectrums, resulting in dis-ease, dis-stress, dis-gust, and dis-respect for Black people. That trauma is the root of the varied health disparities that disproportionately impact Black people here.

We crave a healing that the mainstream culture is ill-equipped and disinterested in delivering. Yoga can provide some of that healing, but we have to be able to access it.

Today, Memphis is the tenth Blackest city in America. Descendants of those enslaved people and other Black people who found their way here, comprise 87 percent of the population. Most yoga classes in Memphis are located in the downtown area or the suburbs in the east—offered primarily in white-owned studios, with a few offered at fitness clubs, gyms and YMCA branches. Almost none of those studios, those classes nor those teachers reflect the culture of the city they are in.

In the past few years, however, two Black-owned studios were added to this landscape. First, Your Inner Yogi was created by Libby Campo, then Yolandrea Clark followed with Any Body Yoga Memphis. These became places where Black and brown people could come and practice yoga with people who looked like them.

My calling and responsibility as a Black yoga teacher and healer is to create and nurture a supportive space that is responsive to the mental, physical and spiritual needs of the Black community. Over the past nine years my classes have evolved into spaces for resources, heart-to-heart connection and culturally competent conversations on issues unique to our Black experience. I believe that my core values of acceptance, inclusivity and non-judgement attract diverse individuals to the classes I teach at Your Inner Yogi—not just the physical trappings or the location of the studio.

As a result of COVID, these studios and many others have pivoted to virtual classes, so gathering together is not an option. But physical distance can’t suppress the energy of places like these. It’s the energy and flavor of the classes that provide a a “sacred space” and a therapeutic environment for Black people to experience yoga.

Given the staggering reality of how Black lives are devalued, my non-negotiable priority is forging a shift in consciousness that helps people of color know that they are worthy, invaluable and vital to the overall well-being and existence of the greater community. That is the space we need now…a healing space.

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Jacqueline E. Oselen is a health and wellness coach, holistic health practitioner and certified yoga teacher specializing in spirit, mind & body wellness. @jackieo_1

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