Exactly 247 people came to practice yoga with me today. Why is that such a big deal? Well, it means that I’m a badass. But to fully understand, you have to learn more about me and my community.
The practice of yoga powerfully changed my life. I went from being an alcoholic, Xanax-poppin’ college dropout to traveling the world to inspire others to be the greatest versions of themselves.
I was born and raised in Dallas, and was eight-years-old the first time I was sexually abused by my neighbor. That year I was also sentenced to my first in-house suspension. I didn’t have the tools to cope with the trauma, and I was punished for it. I became a menace in my elementary school. Teachers didn’t want me in class, so they placed me in an ESL class instead (English is my first language). The ESL teacher drank cold coffee all day. She spoke in Spanish (which I didn’t understand) and seated me in a cubicle I couldn’t see over or around. Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything that year. I grew more disenchanted with school. Nobody asked what was going on with me.
My dysfunction bled into adulthood. By the time I was 29, I was an alcoholic, married to a man I didn’t really know, and detached from myself. Then I found out I was pregnant. I told my then-husband, and I haven’t seen him since. Watching a Ricki Lake documentary called The Business of Being Born (who doesn’t love Ricki Lake?) inspired me to have a natural childbirth. I found a doula, and the first thing she advised me to do was to start practicing yoga.
My first thought was, “Yoga? Black people don’t do yoga.” But I found a yoga studio, and it went something like this: I’m nervous as fuck wearing too-little yoga pants (of course, people don’t make yoga pants for my kind of super sexiness). The white woman behind the counter actually said, “This is a yoga studio, mama.” No kidding, I’m here to buy donuts, I wanted to say. When I explained that I was there to practice, she told me to pick a beginner class because I was plus-size. This was my first interaction with the world of yoga, at the closest studio to my home, and I had to travel 24 miles to get there.
Despite it all, the first time I stepped on the mat I was introduced to myself. As I practiced more and more, I gained the power to cultivate my life. I also quickly learned that yoga was expensive, so I found a studio that would let me clean up in exchange for free classes. I didn’t understand how a practice that empowers people to heal themselves was so inaccessible.
That’s why I had a dream to bring this healing to my community in southern Dallas. And it’s why I started offering free yoga in Kiest Park. As a child, I spent several summers at this peaceful spot, an anomaly in the area where I grew up. I’m sad to say that my community—plagued with a drug epidemic, under-resourced schools, and poverty—is in crisis.
On any given day, drive three miles in my neighborhood and you’ll see people slumped over park benches after injecting crack, heroin, or meth. You can visit a corner store openly selling crack pipes. You can witness people yelling down the street or talking to themselves because they lack the mental health resources they need. Everyone in the community is suffering from trauma; nobody has the skills to cope with the level of stress induced by living in these conditions.
I want more for the people living in the hood (definition: under-resourced neighborhoods). In my neighborhood, there is an abundance of food deserts and crime. Families living in these communities experience trauma, directly and indirectly, on a daily basis. If they aren’t victims of violence themselves, they see it at home or on the streets. The area is rife with caretaker instability, including substance use or incarceration. House fires are common. I’ve seen all the reactions to this madness, including PTSD, depression, over-indulging, anxiety, irritability, stress, and aggression, along with health issues such as cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. During traumatic encounters, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, either by over-activation (“Too Turn’t Up”) or suppression (“Leave Me the Hell Alone”). When this goes down regularly, you become overloaded, hoarding trauma in your body. It’s like having a cut that never heals, because you don’t have resources to get a damn band-aid.
COMMUNITY IN CRISIS
Needless to say, my hood needs some healing. But here’s the thing: Just because I understand the power of yoga doesn’t mean people in the hood do—or would even be willing to find out. Not only does the community lack accessibility (there are no yoga studios or wellness centers around here), but the idea of yoga itself seems foreign. Wellness is portrayed by the media as a luxury for the rich and the white, even though, truthfully, it is a human right.
Also, deep in the Bible Belt, people often have a false idea of what yoga has to offer. Yes, yoga came to us from an ancient religion, but even medical science recognizes the benefits of it for all. Recently I hosted a summer camp for young ladies at a local nonprofit, and we planned a trip to a yoga studio. Some girls had to stay home because their parents believed yoga was “worshipping another God.” Even one of the staff members sat outside the studio in 102-degree weather. “Yoga is against my religion,” she said.
Many yoga communities are trying to become more inclusive, but we have a long way to go. We must translate what wellness means across cultures, poverty lines, and sexual orientations. The best way to do it is from hood to hood.
So, now you can begin to understand why, when I first started teaching at the park, I spent the first few summers teaching free yoga to invisible (that is, zero) people.
Every once in a while my mother or some of my friends would sit on the sidelines. But I wanted to empower my community. So every time no one showed up, I would still teach the class like there were hundreds of people there. I would still try to inspire, tap into the power of self, and discover the awesomeness within.
Last summer more than 200 people came out to practice yoga with me, the Ghetto Guru. I think people saw how determined and consistent I was on social media.
I’ve seen the power of yoga work in my community. One of our yogis lost 200 pounds because yoga changed her mindset. My favorite transformation so far has come from a 16-year-old African-American male. Like me, Will experienced trauma early in his life, seeing his mother on drugs and his father in and out of prison. When I met him, he was angry, hurt, and confined to the high-school behavioral unit. We began to practice yoga and mindfulness together. At first he was reluctant. But after a while, William got so good that I started teaching him how to lead classes, which gave him a sense of pride. After six weeks of practice, he was released from the behavioral unit and returned to regular classes, where he thrived.
I am guessing you might be saying that shit sounds like some yoga fairy tale—and it is. It’s a fairy tale I brought to life with the power of positive thoughts and perseverance. You can do the same thing with your fairy tales if you believe. My dream (and hard work) crystalized with Yoga N Da Hood, an organization that translates wellness into a language that people in our community understand. We make yoga accessible by teaching in parks, recreation centers, schools, and churches. Last year we reached more than 3,000 people by offering free yoga and mindfulness in ways the hood can relate: We offer Trap Yoga, Beyoncé Yoga, Yoga with African Drums, and so much more. We designed yoga nidra stories written for children of color and we produced a curriculum that teaches children and educators how to eliminate stress, thrive through trauma, and incorporate mindful movement into everyday life. We’ve grown from Kiest Park to five parks, 27 schools, and a mega church.
I’ve also had the opportunity to teach the power of changing your mind to change your life at workshops, universities, schools, corporations, and other cool communities around the world. I relish the opportunity to partner with you in making wellness accessible to everyone.
For more personal stories on the transformational power of yoga, see Yoga Saved Me.
About our Author
EBONY SMITH is a Dallas-based, trauma-informed yoga teacher and yoga therapist, mindfulness instructor, neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, certified wellness coach, and motivational speaker. She is the founder of Yoga N Da Hood. Visit yogandahood.com for more information.