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I Went To The UK’s First Yoga Retreat For Women Of Colour

Photographed by Jens Ingvarsson.
It was 7am. Yoga mats were strewn on the floor, my workout clothes were sticking to me and I was thinking about breakfast. So far, so normal.

On the surface, it seemed like your average early morning yoga session. Except there was one difference, and not just that it took place in the picturesque backdrop of Poundon House, a beautiful mansion in Oxfordshire.

I was at OYA Retreats, the UK’s first yoga retreat for black women and women of colour and the brainchild of certified yoga instructor and life coach, Stacie Graham. Graham has sought to create a comfortable space for women like me to practice yoga, meditation and movement. Of the eight women aged between 18-40 in attendance, most were actively and regularly involved in yoga, whether as an instructor or as a long-time practitioner.

It might seem strange to sign up to a weekend where a significant section of the UK population is uninvited... but hey, hear me out: I’ve long felt sidelined in "white-centric" wellness spaces, whether it be a spin class, a cold-pressed juice launch or a pop-up supper club. Not just because elements of mainstream wellness spaces have turned into an invisible competition of who's donning the most expensive pair of Lululemon leggings or whose abs are reaching mainstream #bodygoals, but because – as a woman of colour – I’ve long felt conspicuous of – even alienated by – these spaces, and nowhere more so than during yoga.

For one, I’ve rarely come across more than one or two women of colour in the studios I've visited, let alone one that’s leading the class. Even outside the studio, invisibility is still the norm: Instagram posts of #yogaeverydamnday are awash with toned white women in various contortions while a cursory Google glance of yoga magazines feature covers which rarely stray from a Caucasian face.

You’d be hard-pressed to believe that the practice hails from outside the Western world. “I have conversations with people of colour who don't realise yoga has its roots in Africa and India because of media representations,” Josetta Malcolm, a British Wheel of Yoga-certified yoga instructor, who also attended the weekend long retreat, tells me.

There is, as Graham agrees, "a drastic lack of diversity" in the movement, and it was this that motivated her to create OYA Retreats. “Women deserve spaces in which they feel completely free to be who are they are – unapologetically," she tells me.

As WoC have long reported feeling marginalised, even alienated from these spaces, it's no wonder that the idea of OYA Retreats has been so warmly welcomed by women like me in the UK. “Our needs and cultural differences aren’t remotely addressed, which is doing a disservice to [our] community,” said DJ and fitness instructor Shiggi Pakter, who also led a workshop during the weekend.

It’s a space where women feel comfortable enough to take off their hijabs

So, why did I enjoy the retreat so much? There was something unique about connecting with a community that shared the same lived experiences as I did, such as the fear of post-referendum racism. And I wasn’t the only one who felt like I could truly let go that weekend. Many attendees reported feeling comfortable and above all accepted. Malcolm agrees: “Being with women of colour meant I could relax as even though we came from different backgrounds, we all shared the experience of having fairly similar intersectional identities.” It’s a space where women feel comfortable enough to take off their hijabs.
For Malcolm, it was the opportunity to meet and network with other yoga teachers and practitioners in a "comfortable space for us as women of colour” that attracted her to OYA Retreats: “I teach in a yoga studio in my local area but I avoided teaching in any studios for the past five years because I do find the settings white-centric and alienating.”
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of my time at the retreat was feeling that I didn’t have to "apologise" for my body. Bodies like mine veer from the lithe and taut Instagram yoga ideal, and I’ve long felt that I’m "invading" the space. The more expensive the ticket, the higher the standard, after all. So it was a relief to feel accepted at OYA Retreats.
The mainstream yoga community has always stressed that "yoga is for all." And so, inevitably, OYA Retreats has faced a backlash for being "separatist", its organisers explain. Could this largely be in part to the movement’s ongoing reluctance to accept that there is a race problem? “People who are the loudest to complain and protest about these retreats should be the first to ask WoC why we need it. They should ask what it is that yoga as a whole is failing at [and why] we’ve taken our own initiative to create what we need,” Shiggi tells me. “If a woman-only retreat were to happen, protests would be minimal,” she adds.

While the UK has just had the first yoga retreat solely for WoC of its kind, this seems to be part of a burgeoning trend Stateside. Women of colour are increasingly building much needed spaces for their communities to engage with health and wellness. Black Girls in Om, is just one initiative. The brainchild of certified yoga instructor Lauren Ash, she has sought to create a community for people of colour in the wellness world, from workshops to pop-up yoga and meditation events.

But just how financially accessible are these spaces? When the next few OYA Retreats events are priced at £300 minimum, surely it's promoting the same elitism that the mainstream yoga community has favoured? Graham maintains that she remains committed to bringing yoga to "under-served communities" and will soon be offering retreats in urban spaces for those who otherwise aren’t able to attend her events.

Despite Graham’s long-term plan for OYA Retreats to expand and "become a permanent communal living and retreat space”, she’s adamant that she’ll continue to participate in mainstream wellness spaces: “I feel it is important to do so.”

I can see where she’s coming from: if we don’t claim our stake in places where we don't naturally feel comfortable, then aren’t we just complying with the idea of not feeling welcome?

Personally, I’m reluctant to return back to the mainstream but it’ll have to do for now. That weekend might have been a step in the right direction but I won’t hold my breath for spaces accommodating WoC to become the norm, and it was a little out of my price range for a regular visit. Even so, nothing quite beats an experience that Malcolm sums up well as "not having to explain myself."