To heal a people: An intersection of yoga and activism

3 mins read

Kali Alexander, a yogini who grew up next door to Compton, says she makes the “woo woo” of yoga. For years, Alexander gives a free class in the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Mall every Saturday. The area of Los Angeles is a yoga desert that also deals with a plethora of fast-food and liquor stores. Bringing health and wellness to one of the last remaining African American pockets in the city is more than a passion for Kali. It is her calling.

 Classes for the Masses

The concept for “classes for the masses” is to hold yoga classes in non-traditional spaces. It is one of the most diverse yoga classes in Los Angeles, and definitely the funkiest. Alexander is hands-on, as she moves through rows of black, paled and brown bodies, realigning positions, encouraging people in their stretches and greeting those who trickle in after the session starts.

Says Kali, “I often tell participants to make sure that they make room for anyone who comes in during class. It is important to me that everyone is welcomed and acknowledged because my classes are about creating community.”

Learning Her Power

The 46-year-old mother of three who grew up in Lynwood — a modest municipality bordering Compton — has been in-and-out of yoga studios since adolescence, but her preferred classroom is the grass, in a park or at a farmer’s market. For her, making yoga accessible and creating spaces where everyone acknowledges each other while actively participating in community is the definition of the perfect yoga practice.

It is not about how well you bend or how many poses you can carry out, for Alexander, it is the intention in the movements of practitioners; and how a person implements into their daily lives, the revelations and lessons that emerge during yoga sessions. But, in sunny Los Angeles, that is not always been the case.

“Fully operational studios are more racialized than southern churches in L.A. There is a sense of propriety that I have not found in any other space in the city. People think that just because they say peace and Namaste that they are elevated. But a lot of these yoga spaces are places where I find that white privilege and entitlement run rampant and unchecked. They think that they can hide behind their yoga, but that is not the case.”

Kali, who teaches and takes between twelve to fifteen classes a week, recites incident after instance where her presence was unwelcomed in both subtle and blatant actions. Her matter-of-factness is sobering, uncomfortable and refreshing because it is true. Los Angeles in general is a highly segregated metropolis divided by race and class lines. The markers are often Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, train tracks, freeways and yoga studios.

When she noticed that the racial hostility played a huge factor in the absence of black people in the LA yoga scene, she began to answer with more clarity, just how she designed her classes. “I teach to black women.” The classes are for everybody, and my students run the gamut of women to men, to all types of race and ethnicities, but I teach to black women.”

To Love Black Women

She explains further, “I read something by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker that said something like ‘when you work to meet the needs of black women, everyone benefits.’ And for me, I think that my class attendees are so diverse because I teach to a population that needs so much love and attention. My students feel my intention is about teaching to a group that deserves this respect and they too inherit that. That is powerful.”

A bold and unapologetic approach, Alexander teaches to black women with mostly white people in her class some days in the week.

But, she is content because she finds her truth in creating spaces that welcome the diversity L.A. represents. “I worked at yoga studios where there would be not one black person for weeks. Then all of a sudden, blacks and Latinos would trickle in and the studio manager would tell me that they noticed a change in participants. I’m like, ‘Hell yes, you can say it. Black people, brown people come here now because they feel like they belong.’

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