Black Men Needed a Safe Space to Do Yoga. This Teacher Created It.

Melissa Pandika
·5 min read
Photo credit: David Colwell
Photo credit: David Colwell

From Men's Health

As told to Melissa Pandika

I LIVED A TYPICAL American lifestyle in my 20s—plenty of happy hours and plates of fried Buffalo wings. Then in 2002, when I was 30, it landed me in the hospital with a heart condition. I had never been diagnosed and couldn’t afford a screening because I didn’t have insurance. The doctors did offer me a pacemaker, but I was scared to have heart surgery, so I ended up checking out of the hospital.

That was a life-altering experience, one that sent me down the path of wellness. I started juicing fruits and vegetables and occasionally attempting the yoga poses in my dad’s books. I was also running every day. But sometimes my heart would stop beating while I was running, and I’d bang my chest and cough. On one of my jogs, I saw my father under a pine tree at the park, preparing to do yoga. Since my heart was acting up again, I decided to head over to him and just die in his arms. “You’re looking good out there,” he said. I could sense his love and hope for me. Right then I wanted to live. I wanted to practice yoga and embody that aspect of my dad’s life even more. Later that week, I signed up for my first yoga class.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

My dad is 79 now, and he spent 37 years serving as a first sergeant in the U. S. Army, all while practicing yoga. I’m not sure how or why he got into yoga, but when he was only 21, his father died. After that, he became an ultra health fanatic. I always thought that juxtaposition was interesting: Here he was, a soldier, but also a man, bare-chested, with his body twisted into knots every morning in the living room.

I think I chose yoga as my main form of fitness to be like him. I’d never witnessed him in discomfort or poor health my entire life. After a checkup with my cardiologist, I started regularly practicing yoga on my own, with my father’s guidance, and I found it gave me a heightened body awareness. I can feel a cold coming and know when to intervene. I’ve grown more sensitive to what I put into my body. I used to love cosmopolitans and margaritas, but now I don’t like the way alcohol makes me feel.

After three months of my new health regimen, I returned to my cardiologist for a checkup, and he was amazed to find my heart in excellent condition. He told me I never had to come back. I kept practicing yoga until I felt I had something to offer it, in the same way that MCs like Kendrick Lamar provide us with a great body of work and don’t just take from hip-hop. I discovered that yoga offered me the same opportunity to give of my whole self.

I set out to create a safe space for other Black men to reap the benefits of yoga, one that was welcoming culturally and with men’s bodies in mind. The Black Male Yoga Initiative grew out of that need. My goal: to train 1,000 people of color as yoga teachers, all of whom would train ten more people of color so it becomes a bigger part of who we are as people.

The Struggle for Diversity in Yoga

BLACK AND BROWN men are considered anomalies in this country’s yoga community, which is still largely young, white, and female. I actually stopped going to commercial yoga studios and did a self-practice for four to six hours a day. If I felt something wasn’t correct, I would read classic texts to identify what I was missing.

The yoga community in Maryland can be surprisingly judgmental: I’ll say, “Hey, I practice yoga; I own a yoga studio,” and the first question out of people’s mouths is often “Oh, do you teach in the prisons?” When I answer no, they ask, “Do you work with kids in schools?” I doubt my counterparts of other ethnicities get those questions.

I want men of color to know they’re welcome and wanted, and I want to earn their trust and respect by not committing these or other microaggressions. I’ll ask them to hold a downward dog for 60 seconds but let them know that ten is fine. I want these rough-and-tumble guys to feel comfortable. One time, I was in a private lesson, working with this one guy on heart, hamstring, and shoulder openers, when he looked up and said, “I feel like I want to cry right now. What’s happening?”

Yoga has brought me a certain emotional awareness that I wasn’t used to before. Before, if I felt myself get low, I’d try to dull the pain by playing basketball. But now I ask, “Why is that here? What is this going to teach me?” Amid all the polarity and protests against police violence, the practice has given me an equanimity. I don’t feel neutral about what’s going on, but balanced in my mind and body, and solution-oriented, the same as I would be in a difficult pose.

I ask myself, how can Black men prioritize internal peace when a war is being waged externally on their bodies? That question has guided my personal journey to discovering peace and my calling to make it accessible to all, especially those who look like me.

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