It’s a Friday night in early March, and an unusual yoga class is about to begin at Denver’s Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, which is also home to an urban farm, a preschool, and mental health providers. The sun has set when I enter the building, but a few staff are still there. They are all Black or Latinx, which is unsurprising since the campus is in north Denver, historically home to communities of color. In a basketball gym, two Black instructors are setting up, and the two other attendees are, like me, also people of color (POC). In predominantly white Denver, this class is an exception. Which is why I’m here. The classes offered by the Satya Yoga Cooperative are a safe haven for POC in this city, in no small part because its yoga teacher training program exclusively for POC is changing who teaches yoga.
Tonight, the teachers are David Hallman and Beverly Grant, both graduates of Satya’s training program. It’s a restorative class, with lots of lusciously long stretches and little talking from the instructors aside from basic directions. No mirrors, philosophizing on spirituality, or chanting in Sanskrit.
A few days after my I class, I talked on the phone with Satya Yoga’s founder, Lakshmi Nair, a soft-spoken Indian-American woman. She created Satya Yoga’s training program after years of feeling out of place in the Western yoga world. Across the United States, the people who practice yoga and attend classes are mostly white and have above-average incomes. Aside from often being the only POC in class, Nair, who trained in yoga at India’s S-VYASA University, taught in a simple way that didn’t always resonate with students. Instead, she focused on breath, inward focus, and stillness in asana. “It felt weird to me to over-romanticize or glamorize aspects of our [Indian] tradition in the way that is prevalent in the yoga world,” she explains. Nair did not offer “dharma talks” or exciting choreography. But many students and studio owners expected these embellishments; over time, she found it hard to build a following.
Disheartened, Nair published an essay in 2012, titled “Why I Really Want to Give Up on Yoga,” which attracted the attention of Denver’s Center for Trauma & Resilience, at the time known as the Denver Center for Crime Victims. The executive director, Cathy Phelps, invited Nair to teach a class for people of color who had suffered trauma and violence. “I taught in my regular way, but these people were super appreciative,” Nair says. “And they were sharing with me how much it was helping them. So, for the first time, I felt like I was finding a community that I connected with.”
As demand for her classes grew, Nair realized she couldn’t teach all the sessions herself. Since 90 percent of certified yoga teachers in America are white, Nair decided instead to equip other POC to teach yoga in their communities. In 2014, she created a yoga teacher training course exclusively for POC—likely the first of its kind in the country. Since its founding, 45 people have graduated from Satya’s 200-hour training program, with another 22 currently in online training due to COVID-19.
“Since starting the program, I’ve realized how disconnected from my body I actually am,” says Niyankor Ajuaj, a current student. Born to Sudanese parents, Ajuaj moved to Colorado 20 years ago. “I believe that disassociation is actually very common for folks of color,” she says. “Racism, sexism, classism, along with our own experiences of trauma, make our bodies not a safe space to necessarily exist. The most valuable thing for me has been reclaiming that.”
Studies have shown that populations of color experience significantly more stress than white people—a condition that yoga has been shown to alleviate. “I was dealing with a supervisor at work that had me questioning my role within the department and how long I could endure,” says Hallman, one of my instructors at the Friday night class. “My hope going in [to Satya’s program] was to find a way to deal with people, stress, and situations that I could practice on my own.” He got that, and more. “It was a very eye-opening experience: learning about the many traumas that people of color have had to navigate and cope with and how those traumas can be internalized and passed on from generation to generation.”
Satya’s approach is radically different from other teacher training programs: over eight months, each cohort learns the fundamentals of yoga as a tool for healing and liberation. “We learn all the yoga things, but then in our program we actually talk about racism and how it affects us as people of color,” Nair says. “Because it’s something that absolutely affects our wellness, our physical and mental health. And it’s a spiritual problem, in my opinion. It’s a spiritual illness of society.”
Satya’s training program also fits within a broader movement to call out the structural racism of the Western yoga world, a $16 billion industry dominated by white people—teachers, practitioners, studio owners, gear sellers—but built on Indian knowledge and practices. In 2014, an article in xoJane that chronicled a white woman’s discomfort after a Black woman attended her yoga class prompted enormous backlash, receiving more than 2,500 comments on the website. In 2015, a Canadian university canceled its free weekly yoga class after complaints of cultural appropriation. And just last year, Yoga Journal, which has long featured almost exclusively thin white women on its covers, sparked further outrage by asking readers to vote between two cover options that were nearly identical except for the cover model’s race: one was white, and the other Black. “What are they asking the community to choose between?” wrote Nicole Cardoza, the Black cover model, who did not know about the vote before it was released to readers.
While these examples show growing consciousness around who can and does practice yoga, not as much attention has been devoted to who teaches yoga and the challenges different groups face in getting to the front of those classrooms.
Satya’s training costs $2,000, which is comparable to other teacher training programs. But recognizing that cost can be a barrier for POC in particular, Satya offers two work-study spots in each cohort of 12 students—the work-study scholars assist with administrative and marketing duties for a few hours a week. “Cost has kept me from applying to any [other] teacher training program,” Ajuaj says. “So, I am really grateful to do work-study with Satya to cover some of the tuition.”
The financial support also allows students to save their energy for the training sessions, which can get quite emotionally “intense,” as Nair puts it, with people bringing their lived experiences of oppression to the classroom. This was especially the case in 2014, when police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York flooded news coverage, and in 2016, after the presidential election. Also in 2016, Nair received a death threat on the heels of similar threats issued against a Seattle-based yoga class for people of color. When this happened, Nair was scared—but it didn’t shake her belief in the need for POC-only trainings.
“It just makes sense to have other people who understand or have gone through the same pain,” she says. “There’s value in being able to address the specific trauma.”
Grant, the co-instructor of my Friday night yoga class and a Black Denver native, completed the program in 2018, shortly before her youngest son was murdered. The tools she learned in Satya’s training program turned out to be critical to her healing. “I was able to ground myself, gain mental clarity in time, feel relief in my aching body and soul,” she says.
In 2019, Nair and ten graduates from Satya’s training program formed a cooperative to support each other as yoga teachers after graduation. The member-owners teach classes nearly every day of the week, offering accessible alternatives to Denver’s more expensive yoga studios. (Most of the cooperative’s classes are pay what you can, with a suggested donation of $10. In contrast, other Denver studios charge upwards of $18 for a class.)
Hallman, who graduated from Satya’s program in 2016, now teaches the occasional restorative class (including the Friday night one that I attended) and a twice-weekly men’s yoga class, both through the co-op. “We want to provide our instructors with a vehicle to earn sustainable, livable wages, outside of the traditional yoga studio atmosphere,” he says of the cooperative’s goals. “We also hope to meet our community where they’re at—you know, take yoga to the people, at an affordable price, in a space where the instructors and participants better reflect the community that they live in.”
Most of the cooperative’s classes take place in spaces frequented by the city’s communities of color, such as the Dahlia campus, the Gypsy House Café on Broadway, and the Salvation Army downtown. Since the pandemic has rendered in-person classes impossible, several co-op members have moved their classes online, with more virtual offerings in the works. In late May, as protests over the death of George Floyd erupted across the nation, Satya also opened up its kirtan, a practice in the yoga tradition of call-and-response ecstatic singing, to the POC community at large. (Typically, Nair facilitates this only for Satya trainees.) Nair says the kirtan is meant to be “as an offering to uplift our collective spirit.” In June, the co-op started offering a trauma-sensitive yoga class for Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. They are also in discussion with communities that have lost members to police violence about offering classes specifically for grieving families.
As Denver continues to gentrify, Nair hopes to offer training in one of the suburban areas where people of color are now concentrated. She also hopes to transition the teaching of the 200-hour program to the co-op, with members teaching some or all of it, while she works on developing a more advanced 300-hour training that will deepen students’ practice and teaching of yoga.
Another dream of hers is to travel with the training program to different communities around the country. “But I also think other communities are starting to create yoga spaces exclusively for people of color. And I don’t want to step on people who are from a place,” Nair says. “I’d rather be supportive. I don’t want to go into a community unless I’m invited into it.”