It was the picture of Rosa Parks that started it. Not one of the “Black history” photos we’ve seen of her in a neat coat and prim hat, looking more like a church deaconess (which she was) than a revolutionary (which she also was). No, this picture showed her wearing a black leotard, kneeling on a Mexican blanket. Rosa was doing yoga.
The unexpected image became the touchstone for Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace by Stephanie Y. Evans, Ph.D. In this book, just out in paperback, Evans explores the ways that Black women have used yoga to find peace and balance in a world that has not been kind or easy.
“This work traces how Black women learned to breathe (expressed in popular culture as “woosah”), despite conditions that were painfully breathtaking,” she says. “Specifically, I investigate the inner peace practices that elder Black women have used to try to bring their lives into balance.” Her research found evidence of African-American women using meditation, postures, and other forms of contemplative practice as far back as slavery.
As director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, Evans scoured archives, contemporary literature, and historical documents looking for references to yoga and mindful practices—and found some unexpected yoga devotees. Here, some of the well-known women who have practiced yoga for physical health, mental wellness, and emotional balance.
Rosa Parks would answer the door in yoga pants
Rosa Parks shared her yoga practice with people in her community. Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
“Parks practiced yoga for more than 30 years and taught yoga in her community. She documents her own mother leading her and her brother in daily ‘stretching exercises,’” writes Evans. Parks started learning yoga in earnest in 1965, when she was already in her 50s.