WHEN ONE mentions the word yoga, it’s probably fair to say that the images which quickly spring to mind are those of thin leotard-clad women or bearded gurus sat in the lotus position.
However, one practitioner is aiming to change all that.
Dr Stacie CC Graham, originally from Miami, Florida, has set up the OYA Body-Mind-Spirit Retreats which cater specifically for women from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK after identifying what she felt was a need for yoga in the black community.
Graham believes that the discipline can help BAME women achieve better physical and mental health. However, she says many are put off by the belief that they have to be a certain body shape.
She told The Voice: “It can be very disconcerting if you do not have any experience and all the pictures that you see [of people practising yoga] are of a certain body type. I feel it is important to remind black women that they don’t have to be a specific body shape to practise yoga.”
The certified Hatha yoga teacher speaks from experience.
Graham was an athlete throughout her adolescence in the US and found that long periods of academic learning coupled with weight training led to her muscles becoming hard.
She also developed some mild sporting injuries and it was her physical therapist who suggested she try something else.
Graham recalls: “I came across yoga without knowing too much about it and it spoke to me. I’m a dancer and played soccer, and it somehow felt like I was bringing these two worlds together.”
But her muscular body shape was not always accepted by some in the yoga profession.
“Some of these teachers could not relate to my body structure or help me get into a pose,” she said. “So it wasn’t until I found some amazing teachers who didn’t just look at me and say: ‘Oh you won’t be able to do this,’ that I understood that it was perfectly fine to have muscle. You just have to enter the pose from a different perspective.”
For Graham, her retreats are a way for her to give something back to women who may have wanted to try yoga but felt excluded from it.
The retreats aim to provide a safe space in which black women can feel supported and empowered to practise meditation, yoga, and other forms of movement.
The OYA name is derived from the female deity or orisha of death and rebirth from the traditional Yoruba religion.
Graham, who works alongside five other black female instructors, is dedicated to the lineages of Iyengar (intellectual and spiritual practices) and Kundalini (meditation and chanting) yoga and visits India every two years to continue her training.
The retreats are in a countryside setting and are designed to allow participants to deepen their learning by offering an immersive experience over the course of the weekend. Daily classes can be between six to eight hours long, with up to half of that spent on meditation. The retreats also aim to strike a balance between sharing the tenets of yogic philosophy without overwhelming participants.
Graham is due to launch a series of shorter classes or “urban retreats” for women who don’t have much time, money or who are constrained by family commitments and cannot travel far.
She said: “Another motivation has come from talking to our Muslim sisters who cannot always travel, especially if they are travelling unaccompanied. They need spaces where they can practise yoga in London without the necessity of travelling far.”
The first urban retreat, called ‘A Day of Community’ will take place on September 10 and will include one workshop in grounded movement and one workshop in partner yoga.
■ For further information please visit: www.oyaretreats.com