A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

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Untold Spiritualities: Yoga and Meditation in the African Diaspora
By Aba Taylor
I know Google isn’t another word for God, but for the information age, it does have a certain higher power about it. And so, in exploring what yoga and meditation mean to the African Diaspora, I thought I’d turn to the almighty collective conscience of the internet, and see what insight the third virtual eye of Google had to offer.
 
Perhaps the search for cyber-truth was also in a quest to strip my own ego from an assumed expertise on the subject and look beyond the horizons of my lived experiences, as multifaceted as they are. For nearly 20 years, I myself have traversed the diverse landscape of spiritual practices ranging from silent retreats, to at one point seriously considering becoming a nun after spending a few months living at a Zen Monastery, to exploring Rastafarianism, to attempting to self-learn the Metu Neter and Kebrah Negast, to accomplishing a 6-days-a-week yoga routine. As a result of having these experiences and then some, I have been accused of having “white gods” (although the only monotheistic religion I’m most interested in is Islam and any other forms of spirituality I am drawn or ascribe to are specifically non-Western). Certainly, the trend of the “new age” is very much seen as thing white people do. and as Google will suggest upon initial inquiry, “Black Spirituality” continues to be conceptually walled in by the Christian Church, and roofed under a steeple, a cross or a gigantic audiovisual system for the mega-masses. Even Lionel Goule’s 2004 article titled “Black spirituality: An untold story” reveals the forgotten black saints of Catholicism. Yet the real untold story of Black spirituality lies beyond a strict Christian pulpit.  
 
 
When it comes to yoga and meditation specifically, people of color are not only entrenched, but also organizing spaces just for themselves, in safe and supportive environments. On the East Coast we have the highly regarded Gina Sharpe, who has studied and practiced various traditions of Buddhism for over 30 years, taught for 15 years and is co-founder of the New York Insight Meditation Society. In addition to holding regular people of color meditation retreats with world recognized teachers like Joseph Goldstein, she also leads a monthly meditation Sangha exclusively for people of color.
 
 
 
 
The great Maya Breuer, has been practicing yoga for the past 25 years and organizes yoga retreats for women of color all around the country. Then there are teachers such as the well-known Ananda Leeke and Nikki Meyers who also owns her own studio in the Midwest. The West Coast hosts a slew of Black yogis, including Dee Benefield, LaMott Atkins, Ava Gallon-Reed and Jaki Nett, all of whom practice and teach traditions as diverse as the diaspora itself. These few names mentioned, do not reflect  spectrum and reach of the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (IAYBT), whose members can be found not only in the U.S., but also Angola, Belize, India, Ghana, Grenada and throughout Europe.
 
Not surprisingly, Latin America and the Caribbean are often popular sites and destinations for various yoga and meditation retreats. African meditation and yoga centers can also be found in countries such as South Africa, Tunisia, Gambia, Mozambique, Morocco, Tanzania and Kenya, to name a few. Egypt also hosts an annual Yoga Festival that takes place on the shores of the Dead Sea.
 
While there are many discussions and online blogs that astutely address the role that marketing and accessibility contribute to the assumptions on what kinds of demographics yoga and meditation practitioners represent, especially in the West, individuals and organizations such as IABYT make it their mission is “To serve the African Diaspora by spreading the teachings of the ancient art and science of yoga.” IABYT is also “dedicated to increasing the presence of yoga in the inner city.” Moreover, organizations such as the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), serve hundreds of Africans ages 16-30, many of whom are homeless and/or living with HIV/AIDS, with free yoga classes. The AYP also offers workshops throughout The Continent in addition to teaching other movement arts, and providing educational scholarships, job training, food stipends, and temporary housing and health services. 37 of AYP’s 38 teachers are African.
Highly revered Reverend angel Kyodo Williams, otherwise known as Kyoshi, considers herself an social visionary and agent of transformative change, as does Maya Breuer, a self-proclaimed “yoga activist”.  
 
 
Along that same tenet, it is important to remember that yoga is simply another form of meditation. And meditation itself is manifested in a multiplicity of forms thus making it not a practice strictly reserved for “eastern” thought, or monopolized by the new age movement. Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder and director of Agape International Spirituality Center, is another example of someone who has dedicated his career to merge “New Thought with Ancient Wisdom.” Agape prides itself on being trans-denominational, and while it denies being a Christian church per se, Dr. Beckwith is very open about the fact that he naturally refers to the bible in his services. Nevertheless, the bible he uses is a metaphysical, Gnostic-inspired version translated and interpreted from the original Aramaic, rather than the Greek translation such as the King James or the Saint Gregory versions typically used in most churches.
 
Throughout my own personal journeys, I never claimed a particular practice. I hesitate to definite myself under any practice if it is not something I wholly and uncritically stand behind. My spirituality is a simple quest of inner peace and outer compassion. Whatever makes me a better person at the end of the day - be it praying to God (not Google), paying homage to the ancestors, reading poignant African proverbs when life blesses me with challenges, or sweating my stress out in pretzel-like posture - I’m down with it, by any means necessary.
 
 
 
 
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