African American woman doing yoga

Unlocking the Health Benefits of Yoga for African American Women

A regular yoga practice has been shown to have tremendous health benefits, but too often it can be daunting to those who feel intimidated by yoga due to their weight, physical limitations, race, gender, or orientation. It’s time to change that. I recently conducted a pilot study with African American women and yoga that shows the potential it has to improve health outcomes in our community.

A Narrow View of Yoga

Yoga has played an important part in my life, health and wellbeing. I’ve maintained a regular yoga practice over the past 13 years, and began teaching almost immediately after completing a weekend intensive certification. I recently became a 200-hour registered yoga teacher which compels me to share yoga with as many as possible. Because I know how powerful yoga can be in helping me maintain my body and mind, I’ve often asked friends of mine, many of them African American, who haven’t tried it to come to a class.

Often, they would decline, and say they hadn’t always felt comfortable or welcomed in their previous attempt to try yoga. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Though this has changed in recent years, traditionally, yoga has been portrayed as being for a very limited demographic: thin, white, and affluent women. For many African Americans – or anyone who doesn’t see themselves as flexible or having the right body type – that image can discourage them from even attempting to begin a yoga practice.

Because of my own passion for yoga, I wanted to see if I could help introduce African American women to it – and help them reap the considerable health benefits. Yoga has the potential to be a powerful tool in our community.

A Health Crisis for African American Women

One of the reasons I was so passionate about introducing African American women to yoga is the health crisis we are facing in this country. Statistically, African American women are one of the least healthy demographics in the United States. Over 80% of us are overweight. African American women have high rates of diabetes and 40% of African American women are hypertensive.

Most worrisome is the fact that – unlike in other ethnic or racial groups – African American women’s health outcomes don’t improve as their socioeconomic status rises. For almost any other group you can name – black men, Hispanic women, etc. – as income and education increases so does overall health. This doesn’t happen with African American women; those with high incomes, college or even post graduate degrees aren’t healthier on average than those with little education and low incomes.

It’s a disturbing phenomenon, and one that begs for further study. At least partially, I believe some of the problem is rooted in chronic stress. Many African American women suffer from what researchers are starting to term “strong woman syndrome,” the physical toll caused by the stress associated with having a demanding job plus the role of caretaker for children, parents and a spouse or partner. This often leads to women taking very good care of those around them, but not so great care of themselves.

Measuring the Benefits of Yoga

This health crisis facing so many of my peers was my primary motivation for wanting to study the effects a regular yoga practice could have on African American women. I’ve recently completed a three-month study that followed a group of women to see how regular yoga classes affected their health.

I wanted to make sure that my data were carefully gathered, so I had very specific criteria for participants. They had to be African American, over 18 and considered overweight with a Body Mass Index of over 25. They could be hypertensive but must have controlled blood pressure, be able to exercise for 20 minutes but normally be active for only 15 to 20 minutes a day. Thankfully, my friend, news reporter Angela Davis at the local television station WCCO, was interested in the project and did a report on it – which led to recruiting 120 interested participants in one weekend. After sorting through the potential participants, I was left with a group of 59 women who I divided into an intervention group of 30 and a control group of 29.

The women in the control group were given a number of tests to establish a baseline of their health, then told that we would contact them for retesting in three months. The study group agreed to attend multiple classes a week at one of two studios (Svasti Yoga and Yess Yoga) that had agreed to host my study.

I wanted to remove the typical barriers that discourage African American women from taking yoga, so I recruited five teachers who I felt would be sensitive to their needs (four were African American and the other was trained in “curvy yoga” and as expert in working with larger body sizes). The classes were free and offered at a variety of times that would be convenient. For their part, the women committed to doing a regular yoga practice for a three-month period.

Real Change, Real Benefits

Now that the study period is complete, we are analyzing the data and health information we collected from our intervention and control groups. While we haven’t yet completed the process, based on our exit interviews and my interactions with the intervention participants, I’m confident that we will see that yoga helped our participants enact some very powerful changes in their physical and mental health.

A couple of our most committed participants have reported remarkable changes in their health. One of our group was very diligent in her practice, attending four to six classes per week and practicing on her own at home. In only three months, she seen such an improvement in her mind and body that she’s off the blood pressure medication that she’s been taking.

Another member of the group had been highly stressed. She has a demanding career and worked both full-time and part-time. This meant that she would often come home late and “stress eat,” which caused her to gain weight. During the study, she practiced 3-4 times per week when she returned from her jobs, she would do a series of breathing exercises or yoga instead of eat. In only three months, she’s feeling less stress and has lost 30 pounds. It’s stories like this that confirm my belief that yoga has the potential to help dramatically improve the health of African American women. I hope that this small pilot can lead to much larger outreach and research efforts.

Tips for Beginning a Yoga Practice

If you’re interested in what yoga can do for you, but have been too intimidated to try – or worried you won’t be able to handle the physical demands – I assure you that yoga really is for everyone. The following are guidelines for starting a regular yoga practice. With a little desire and a lot of patience, you will be surprised at how far you can go.

  1. Start at home. The Internet (especially YouTube) is a great resource for beginning yogis (that is what we call people who do yoga). There are thousands of instructional videos posted online that you can try for free. If you’re worried about the difficulty of starting yoga or have any physical limitations, search the terms “gentle yoga” or “restorative yoga.” You’ll find many yoga routines that move at a slow, meditative pace, gradually opening up your joints and limbs through a slow series of poses.
  2. Find free classes. In most cities, especially during the warmer months, you can find many free yoga classes offered outdoors or at community centers during the week. Also, many yoga studios offer a free week or a free class to new students. This can be a great way to experience yoga if you’re on a tight budget, and a chance to sample many different varieties of yoga.
  3. Don’t compare, don’t judge. It’s natural to want to compare ourselves to others, especially in yoga studios that have mirrors on the wall, but you must fight the urge. Trying to emulate more experienced people around you can lead you to attempt poses that are too advanced and risk injury. It’s also important to understand that personal growth – not judging yourself against others – is a core principle of yoga. Stay at it, and your body and its abilities will grow and change at a pace that’s right (and safe) for you.
  4. Talk to your instructor. If you’re taking a class for the first time, or have any concerns about your practice, I encourage you to show up early and talk to your instructor. Yoga instructors are well-trained in providing alternative moves and modifications that can help you have a safe and positive class experience. Tell them about any concerns you might have or poses you find difficult. Most instructors will go out of their way to help; the last thing any teachers want is for a student to leave class feeling defeated – or injured.
  5. Take a break. If at any time you are feeling pain, or just too overwhelmed by thoughts or physical sensations, lie down and rest. With our hectic schedules, it’s often hard for us to find time to focus, breathe and just “be.” I tell my students that it’s perfectly fine to lie down for an entire class and focus on their breathing if that’s what feels right. Yoga is a discipline of both the mind and body; taking time for mindfulness is just as important as the stretching and physical aspects of your practice.

About the Author

Daheia Barr-Anderson, Ph.D.

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