Valerie McMillan is a city planner, yoga instructor and New Orleans native. Her yoga class, which she teaches at Dancing Grounds on Sunday nights, is one of many that have popped up during the city's recent yoga boom. Freret Street Yoga owner Geoffrey Roniger estimates the number of studios in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina at fewer than five. Now, he says, there are more than 20. In 2011, Yoga Journal named the city one of the top 10 yoga-friendly cities in the country.
But people of color have not been well represented in local yoga classes. That's why McMillan started teaching Black and Brown Bodies in Motion (BBM) last month, a yoga class open only to self-identified people of color.
"When I was starting my practice ... I was like, wait a minute, why aren't there other people who look like me coming to class?" McMillan says.
BBM is a collaboration with the Wildseeds: The New Orleans Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective, a progressive African-American community organization. According to the event's Facebook description, BBM is "a direct response to the marginalization and or invisibility of yogis of color in traditional yoga studios and classes."
Tracy Joseph, a student in the class, says the class intrigued her after years of yoga in mostly white studios. "I don't see black folks, yogis of color, so [the class] was absolutely something that I felt I wanted to participate in, trying to see — what are we missing? Why aren't we represented in these classes?"
A 2012 National Health Interview Survey found that the rate of yoga practice among white Americans was more than double that of black Americans. The statistics take on additional significance in New Orleans, where more than 60 percent of the population is black, according to the 2010 Census.
McMillan, who has practiced yoga in New Orleans, Chicago and Montreal, says her experience reflects the statistics. When she began practicing, her classes were dominated by upper- and middle-class white women. She enjoyed practicing with them, and many became her friends. But it bothered her that she didn't often see black yogis — because, she says, "that community does exist."
"A lot of time these yogis practice at their homes, in their living rooms or at work," McMillan says. "I'm trying to encourage them to come out and practice more in regular spaces."
McMillan says many women of color feel like outsiders in predominately white yoga classes. "If you don't know the language [of yoga], then you're on the outside already," she says. "If you don't know the type of mat your neighbor has, again, you're on the outside looking in. And then for women of color, we have that added layer of spirituality. ... That's another barrier that may keep people of color out."
Roniger says another factor is a lack of representation of yogis of color. On the covers of yoga magazines, he says, "they always have the white woman who is thin and looks flexible. And I can see how that's off-putting to people of color, to people who are overweight, to people who for any reason just don't fit that mold."
Joseph describes a yoga instructor of color as "something rare," and says that in a class specifically for people of color "you kind of feel comfortable, you feel welcome, you feel like you can relax and be free."
There are some yoga and exercise classes in New Orleans geared toward people of color, but none so explicitly as McMillan's. The Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower 9th Ward offers occasional workshops. The Ashe Cultural Arts Center offers free rotating exercise classes geared toward black women. But the community of yogis of color is still mostly underground, McMillan says.
Roniger says the percentage [of Afri-can-Americans in his yoga classes] is lower than the demographic in the city — and suggests the disparity is due to an "economic reality."
"I think it's a price thing," he says.
According to a 2013 report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, "African American households in the New Orleans metro earned 50 percent less than white households in 2011." Yoga prices hover around $15 to $20 per class in New Orleans — more than many residents can afford.
Roniger and other studio owners have tried to make their classes more accessible by offering donation-based or discounted community classes. "I fundamentally believe that yoga is for everyone," he says. "It's ... for all of humanity."
He also points to online videos, which can help people practice yoga cheaply or for free at home. For McMillan, however, online classes ignore the importance of a supportive community.
"In order to heal, you want to feel safe in that space," she says. "You want to be around people that have similar backgrounds, similar interests as you."
When McMillan started practicing yoga in Chicago in 2007, she weighed more than 200 pounds and was struggling with depression. Her mother had died, and McMillan found that yoga helped her cope better than other forms of exercise. She began her full-time yoga practice in 2011 at a New Orleans studio. "[They] welcomed me automatically," she says. "And at the end of that class I cried, because I felt so safe in that space. And then I just kept going back."
McMillan, who describes herself as a "healer," says she wants to bring that feeling to people who feel excluded from other studios — and not just along the lines of race. She describes the class as curvy-body friendly. "Yoga isn't geared toward one body type," McMillan says. She also says yoga doesn't require expensive equipment — or any equipment at all. "You can practice yoga naked," she says, laughing. "It doesn't really matter."
Because she holds these inclusive values, McMillan initially felt uncomfortable when Wildseeds Collective asked her to teach the BBM class. She practiced primarily with white yogis, and it was difficult to tell them they couldn't attend. She wasn't sure about teaching "what I considered to be a segregated class," she says.
Only after being encouraged by one of her fellow yogis — a white woman — did McMillan agree to lead the class. Originally, it was to be a one-time workshop, but in the weeks following, there was an outpouring of support. "I had a lot of students come to me again," she says, "wanting that place they can come to and feel safe."
The class has fostered a tight-knit community of black women. About a dozen women attend regularly, and one man has participated.
"For me, being in the class, you have the energy of everyone else," McMillan says. "And you have the physical touch. ... When I started practicing yoga full time, I wasn't completely comfortable with my body. So if somebody's touching you, to me that's saying they're comfortable touching your body. You're perfectly fine how you are."
Black and Brown Bodies in Motion meets at 5 p.m. on Sundays at Dancing Grounds (3705 St. Claude Ave., 504-535-5791; www.dancinggrounds.org).