Soulful Stretching: African Americans Embrace Yoga Scene

Ben Koconis | 9/23/2009, 11:25 a.m.

September marks national Yoga Awareness month, and an increasing number of African Americans are reaping the benefits of this ancient discipline, which promotes health and relaxation.

The District€s yoga scene has flourished in recent years as a new generation of health-conscious enthusiasts have rolled out their mats to build strength and flexibility. The Black community appears to be a driving force behind this trend €" not only as students but as instructors and studio owners, as well.

€I have seen an increase in the number of African Americans who are showing interest in yoga for various health reasons,€ said Debra Agostni, co-owner of the Maruka School for Yoga, Healing Arts and Retail Boutique in Northwest.

Agostni and her husband, Keith Kaye, opened their studio two years ago. The couple offer yoga classes along with various meditation sessions. The program, based on the Ashtanga or the eight limbs of yoga are classified as gentle, moderate or vigorous and newcomers are encouraged to find what works best for them. For Blacks, health plays an integral role.

€Not only are youth interested, but many middle-aged men and women have come [to us] under their doctors€ recommendations for various ailments,€ Agostni said.

Yoga, an ancient form of physical movement has its roots and philosophy grounded in the Indian culture. Yoga is not a religion. Rather, it has developed over centuries as a means of strengthing and energizing the body.

Tony Harvin, an assistant dean at George Washington University in Northwest, said that he has practiced yoga in the D.C., area for about a year. Yoga helps to keep him centered.

€Yoga is an extension of my meditation practice that has helped me become more mindful and present,€ the Northwest resident said.

Harvin, 48, prefers Kripalu yoga, a style of yoga that €focuses on deep breathing€ It helps with flexibility, and puts me in a balanced serene state. It also makes me more mindful of my body and movement.€

Harvin said that he usually takes classes at the Yoga District€s Bloomingdale Studio in Northeast, but has frequented other studios in the area as well.

Matsimela Ajani, an instructor for Maruka and Yoga District, said that he has been active in the D.C. yoga scene for the past four years. Certified in both Sivananda and Hatha yoga, the instructor practices every day.

€Yoga is very accessible; people can practice this art form on their own, with the aid of DVDs, before they find a teacher that suits them€ Yoga can help athletes, such as runners and bikers, to improve their overall performance by building core strength.€

Practioners agree.

Carla Young said that she has used DVDs as her main source of yoga instruction and she practices in the privacy of her Northwest home.

€I never really went to a studio or had a regular teacher,€ Young, 32, said.

Yet, she said that the practice of yoga has benefited her in numerous ways.

€Yoga is great for things like the digestive system and really helps with sculpting. It is great at working the core,€ she said.

Stephen Pleasant owns Bikram Yoga in Takoma Park, Md., and serves as the studio€s primary instructor. The former clinical social worker decided that his true passion did not revolve around mounds of paper work; rather he prefers to help people help themselves through the practice of yoga.

Pleasant, who opened his studio in 2008, offers a form of yoga known as Bikram or €hot€ yoga. Students move through a series of 26 asanas or poses in temperatures that range between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

€It is still my intention to help people, but I feel that I am much more successful at helping people through yoga than through social work,€ Pleasant, 45, said.

€People who come to yoga are health seeking, whereas many people go to social workers because they are required to do so. Many of the same issues that people go to social workers for can be addressed through their yoga practice.€

There are more Blacks practicing yoga nowadays than most people imagine,€ Pleasant said. €Word travels fast in the community and especially among women.€