Pictured-Anasa Yoga co-founder and owner, Jean Marie Moore, Bobbe Norrise (Center), and Anasa Yoga co-founder and owner, Katrina Lashea
The name Bobbe Norrise might not ring a bell for you, but to the yogis of Oakland, Calif., she’s been a cornerstone of the community for four decades. She was also ahead of her time: Norrise became a yoga teacher in 1975, when few African Americans were practicing yoga, let alone teaching it.
“When I started [practicing] there were no other black people, no people of color. I took many classes where I’d be the only African American, but I didn’t really care about that, because I loved the practice,” Norrise tells YJ.
Norrise went on to become the first African American yoga teacher in the Bay Area, inspiring hundreds of students from all backgrounds, many of whom went on to become yoga teachers themselves. In fact, Norrise has been so influential in the community that the mayor of Oakland declared May 15th Bobbe Norrise Day in 2011.
That was four years ago, but even though she stopped teaching in February, Norrise is just as relevant today, if not more so, says Katrina Lashea, one of her former students. Lashea, who co-founded Oakland’s Anasa Yoga in 2011 with two other African-American women, Jean Marie Moore (another student of Norrise’s) and Crystal McCreary, will be hosting a Bobbe Norrise Day celebration at her studio on Saturday, to honor Norrise's 40 years of teaching yoga, and contributing to the health and well-being of Oakland.
"It’s a community of teachers and her students that are coming together, and all are invited to celebrate this amazing woman,” says Lashea, who co-owns Anasa Yoga with Jean Marie Moore. Lashea says taking classes at Norrise’s sun-filled studio inspired her both to deepen her practice and to teach yoga in a "lovely space" (Anasa Yoga is Oakland’s only green-certified yoga studio, and one of the city's two yoga studios owned by African American women). "When you have role models who look like you, it inspires you to believe anything is possible."
Norrise says being African American helped draw black students to her classes when she started out, and while there are more people of color practicing yoga today, she believes the comfort level of “seeing someone who looks like you” is still a factor, as opposed to just “thin, flexible blondes.” Cost matters, too.
“If we want to really reach out to a community of color, classes have to be more affordable. We have to go to places where African Americans are and where they would feel comfortable — I taught all kinds of places like that, classes with donations or small fees," says Norrise, who has taught at community centers, drug treatment programs, a halfway house for women who have been incarcerated and recently released, as well as San Francisco State University for over 20 years, an Oakland fitness club, and The Women’s Heritage Program for girls at Berkeley High School. She's also led yoga workshops for Oakland Unified School District.
Norrise thinks the stress reduction and mindfulness that yoga brings could be especially beneficial to the black community right now, when people are still reeling from the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and other highly publicized cases of alleged racial profiling and police brutality.
“When we see black men being killed, it's traumatizing. It could be our children, it could be us … we don’t know what to do about it. Yoga is a graceful and effective way of handling that pressure,” she says, adding that the police and elected officials could certainly benefit from yoga and mindfulness as well.
Today, Anasa Yoga is picking up where Norrise left off, offering free community events that introduce and welcome people to yoga, weekly donation-based classes, free class on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and free yoga sessions at the quarterly “Be Still” retreat, a community event hosted by the Black Women’s Media Project. The studio is also offering a teacher training in July led by Baltimore’s Holistic Life Foundation, which works to bring yoga and mindfulness to high-risk youth and young adults.
Norrise is delighted, honored, and somewhat surprised that she’s had such a huge impact on Lashea and Oakland in general. “You never know how you are affecting anyone. People say you made such a difference -- I’m just doing what I love to do. When people are inspired and affected in a positive way, that’s just the icing on the cake,” she says.
If you would like to participate in the Bobbe Norrise Day Celebration at Anasa Yoga Studio, please register at anasaoakland.com or call (510) 482-9642, as space is limited. If you can’t be there in person, Anasa invites you to send a letter that they will read or a video that they can project.