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Helping yoga widen its reach

Saying it's for everyone, teachers are hoping to enlist more African American and Latino students.

May 26, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Krishna Kaur has been teaching yoga in the African American community for about 30 years, and her involvement includes building an ashram in South Los Angeles in the early 1970s, bringing yoga to schools and at-risk kids and founding the 158-member International Assn. of Black Yoga Teachers. She sees many more yoga classes appearing in the community, a greater acceptance of the practice and believes there is much more growth to come.

The public's image of yoga -- from magazines, advertisements and the media -- rarely includes blacks and Latinos, she says. "Usually it's thin, white, affluent people with discretionary time," she says. "And those whose lives are so stretched and have so little resources say, 'How is this going to benefit me?' "

For yoga to gain greater recognition, there needs to be more of a connection for African Americans, Kaur says. "Yoga still has a very white face, and there's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we need to see other faces too. It's also helpful when people see that there is research that shows yoga in [ancient] Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa." Kaur also cautions that "focusing on the disparity minimizes the accomplishments of people who are teaching and what they're achieving."

When Oprah Winfrey touts yoga on her show and athletes like Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal talk about their yoga practice, they help bring it into the mainstream. So far, however, there has been no yoga equivalent of Tiger Woods or Arthur Ashe.

Although it's true that today's yoga stars, such as Rodney Yee and Rod Stryker, still lack the national recognition of a Woods or Ashe, one path to such stardom is selection as the cover model for the field's most popular magazine, Yoga Journal. A spokeswoman for Yoga Journal said the magazine strives for diversity on its cover and inside pages. The June cover, for example, features Bahni Turpin, an African American actress and yoga teacher from Los Angeles.

Yoga is being introduced to African American and Latino communities by classes in community centers, schools, churches, private homes and gyms. The membership at Bally Total Fitness at Macy's Plaza in downtown L.A. is about 80% Latino, and yoga classes there are well attended.

When Kelly Wood opened Karuna Yoga in Los Feliz about a year ago, she offered a yoga class in Spanish. There was "little interest" in the class, however, and the teacher left for another job. "I want this to be a community center," says Wood, who adds that other classes reflect the ethnic diversity in the neighborhood. "I want to get across that yoga is for everyone. And I would love to try the Spanish class again."

Aerobic and Spinning classes at the Southeast-Rio Vista Family YMCA in Huntington Park are constantly packed, says executive director Rene Brizuela, but yoga hasn't been so successful. Knowing that yoga was the hot fitness trend, he started classes a year ago and about 25 students signed up. But after about six months, interest waned. Classes in tai chi and relaxation and stretching met a similar fate.

Brizuela offers this theory: "I think that Latinos have a different way of relaxing, and yoga is not the solution for them. They like to be more active, meet other people, be more social. Also, some people see it as a religion." But he's confident it will eventually catch on.

Julie Deife, publisher of L.A. Yoga magazine, believes that individual yoga studios may not be the best way to serve certain areas. "Each community has its own way of communication," she says, "so schools may be the best way, or community centers. At a place like a community center, it may have tremendous potential."

L.A. Yoga publishes listings of studios and classes all over the city, and although Deife says she hasn't seen a particular geographic trend, she has seen new studios open in such ethnically diverse neighborhoods as Silver Lake, downtown L.A. and South Los Angeles.

Adesina Ogunelese's Inner Balance Yoga class has been in a studio space in South Los Angeles since the beginning of the year; she also teaches seniors at the Westside Family YMCA and a class called black men's yoga boot camp in Leimert Park sponsored by a black gay support group.

"We're trying to bring to our community what is the norm in other communities," she says. "On the Westside, most people can afford classes, which run anywhere from $10 to $15 each, so yoga has become the sport of the middle and upper-middle class. But we need it very badly. When you look at the health crisis of African Americans, with health care facilities being taken from our communities and services cut, you have to have a preventive program."

A perception that yoga has a strong religious component has slowed yoga's growth in some areas. "Some people tend to relate it to Hinduism or something of that nature," says Mustapha Sankofa, an instructor for Yoga for Youth, a program Kaur founded to take yoga to young people in schools, summer camps, detention centers and prisons. "But when people hear that Oprah does yoga or the Lakers, or when they see community leaders practicing it, some of the resistance melts away."

Leonard Davis teaches yoga at the Los Angeles Third Church of Religious Science in Leimert Park and finds that his informal approach to classes, which feature R&B music, meditation and affirmations, is welcome.

"I've seen my students get to know themselves more, know how the mind works, know more about life," Davis says. "They begin to move through ups and downs a whole lot better."

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Jeannine Stein can be reached by e-mail at jeannine.stein@latimes.com.

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