When Linda Wells started her yoga journey ten years ago, she was lucky.

“I started practicing yoga with a black teacher,” she said. “It was the first time I saw a black woman teaching yoga, having her own wellness business, and being someone who stood in a place of her authentic self. And I was like, I want some of this.

Today, Wells is one of Boston’s yoga teachers welcoming more people of color into the physical and spiritual discipline. Black Americans may feel unwelcome in white-dominated studios, and some have not been receptive to the practice because they believe its religious origins would conflict with their own beliefs. Another barrier has been cost, with teacher training courses and sessions not being affordable for those living on limited incomes. To overcome these barriers, practitioners and studio owners have had healthy discussions about how to open yoga up to more people, such as adding classes that blend cultures, offering classes on a sliding scale and support for future teachers who are Black, Indigenous or of color. .

“There are more opportunities for BIPOC yogis to enter the field and access it through scholarships,” Wells said, using the Sanskrit name for yoga practitioners.

The teacher who inspired Wells was Leslie Salmon Jones, co-founder of Afro Flow Yoga in Cambridge. Since 2008, she and her husband, Jeff Jones, have been offering community classes that integrate West African music with yoga and meditation movements in what they call a “judgment-free environment.”

Salmon Jones said when she started her business there was a lack of diversity in the yoga world and it was difficult for many people of color to feel like they belonged in yoga studios.

“A lot of colored people were coming in and they weren’t seeing themselves reflected,” she said, “even the men too.”

Salmon Jones comes from a dance background and Jeff Jones’ father was a bassist who played with the likes of Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tom Jones. In each class, Jeff Jones plays live music rooted in his West African heritage with electric and acoustic basses. Working together, they create a class that makes yoga fun, healthy, and inclusive.

“And so that’s been one of our missions is to show that people, all people, can come in all levels and colors and sizes and shapes can do yoga. It’s not exclusive,” Salmon Jones said.

Jeff Jones plays drums on stage while Leslie Salmon Jones instructs the audience during one of their yoga sessions.

Courtesy of Leslie Salmon Jones

In the United States, yoga has become dominated by white practitioners, even though colored Indians developed the practice thousands of years ago.

“The idea of ​​yoga really begins… as early as 1300 or 1400 BCE,” said Joseph Walser, an associate professor of religion at Tufts University who specializes in Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and early religion. of South Asia. He said priests of that time believed they could bind their minds to a ritual or prayer by sitting cross-legged, back straight, eyes closed, and meditating.

The first yoga teacher in the United States was biracial, an Anglo-Indian living in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1860s, according to Walser. This teacher’s practice included a mix of theatre, dance and performance chakra, or energy points in the body.

“With yoga, throughout history people have mixed what made sense to them,” he said.

Jana Long, co-founder and executive director of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, agreed that the practice has changed over the years.

“It’s almost as if that spiritual component of yoga has been taken away,” she said. “It’s now been pretty much defined as a fitness activity here in the United States or in Western culture.”

Long became involved in yoga in the early 1970s while attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. In search of an experience that would help her better understand the meaning of life, she explored different avenues, “but yoga was the one that resonated the most with me.” But adopting the practice meant confronting people’s preconceptions about it. She said that back then — and even in recent memory — some people considered yoga a cult practice.

“If you said you practiced yoga, people would raise their eyebrows, they thought there was something strange, unusual about you,” she said.

The creation of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance in 2009 marked the beginning of a national movement to diversify the practice through the sharing of knowledge and resources. The Baltimore-based group became a nonprofit and held its first conference in 2016.

Long produced a film “An UnCommon Yogi; A History of Blacks and Yoga in the US”, which examines the history and progression of yoga. She said it is important for yoga teachers and practitioners to understand the diaspora around her.

“To expand people’s knowledge base around yoga where they see not only that it can support the body, but that it can support your mental health – especially now – and it can support your spiritual health, and what that mean,” she said.

A black woman stretches on a green yoga mat outside a brick building.  She is kneeling on one leg with the other leg bowed in front of her, while her arms are up.
Yoga teacher Linda Wells in a lunge pose.

Photo by Erwins Cazeau, courtesy of Linda Wells

Wells, known locally as Wellness Warrior, advocates teaching yoga to people of all shapes, sizes, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. She also offered “pay what you can” courses to appeal to people with limited incomes.

When the weather is nice, she teaches outdoor yoga classes on Schoolhouse Hill in Boston’s Franklin Park.

This is where Johnnie Hamilton-Mason, who has been practicing yoga for 20 years, found her.

“I am an African-American woman who has lived in Boston for most of my adult life and [yoga] studio that I was going to have had a white instructor, and I absolutely loved him,” said Hamilton-Mason, professor of social work at Simmons University.

But Hamilton-Mason said she wanted to get more involved with the African-American community in Hyde Park, where she lives, and sought out yoga classes that were more in line with her lifestyle. She enrolled in the outdoor class taught by Wells, who became her yoga teacher and life coach. Hamilton-Mason had found his niche.

“And it just felt magical,” she said, “because it was outside, and there the majority of the attendees were men and women of color. And that stuck with me.”