Serving Up Diversity
Faith Hunter on minorities, yoga, and the spice of life
By Bonnie Lynch Photography by Drew Xeron
Think back to the last yoga class you took (or taught). Did the bodies in the room represent all the flavours in your community—a palette of chocolate, caramel, and coffee mixed with vanilla? Or was it more like white rice, mashed potatoes, and Wonder Bread? Even in some of the least ethnically diverse areas of North America, there are minorities who could be practicing yoga but aren’t doing so. Ever wondered why? Faith Hunter has.
Hunter, who grew up in the cayenne-scented melting pot of Louisiana (and still misses the culture, the revelry, and the red beans and rice),is a prominent studio owner and yoga instructor in Washington, DC. Her form has graced the covers of the best-known yoga magazines, and she’s a popular conference presenter and teacher trainer. She spoke to Sweat Equity about her take on the benefits of yoga for all colours, shapes, and sizes and offered some tips that studios can use to make sure there’s something at the table for everyone who comes to partake of the yoga feast.
Hunter’s studio, which she describes as “a Vinyasa-inspired yoga loft,” sits in the heart of DC—arguably one of the most racially and ethnically diverse places on earth. But Hunter says she feels at home wherever she goes, whether the people in the room look like her or not.
“I’ve never entered a studio or yoga class where I didn’t feel it was inclusive, and I think part of that has to do with the way that I was brought up. I’ve always been in and out of different types of environments. So even just the way that my parents encouraged me to mingle and socialize and connect with other people from a variety of races gave me the ability and the skill as an adult to always feel comfortable wherever I show up. So I’ve always felt very comfortable in my brown skin. It didn’t matter if I was the only person of colour in the room; I knew exactly what I was there for. So there wasn’t a place of feeling excluded.”
But there’s more to say about it, she notes. There certainly are many times when Hunter enters a yoga studio, as a student or as a teacher, and notices that she is the only person of colour. It has never made her feel uncomfortable, she says, and she didn’t even think it was necessarily a bad think – just odd. “It was almost like this sigh of ‘why?’”.
Having come to yoga, as many do, during a stress-filled period in her life, she knew that it was much more than a set of poses. In the early 90s, with her older brother dying of AIDS, her own coping abilities stretched thin with grief and the shared responsibility for his care, she finally gave in to a girlfriend’s urging to attenda yoga class. “That [class] was one of the first times in my life . . . there was a switch that went on—a light bulb, kind of—that said, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay to be you. It’s okay to take care of you, and it’s okay to cry.'” She’d been staying strong for the rest of the family, denying her own needs in favour of keeping it together at all costs. It was hard to imagine how a bunch of odd poses with Sanskrit names could help.
“After that first class, I think I was hooked, because I knew that I could show up every single week, even if I couldn’t do all the poses . . . the one thing that I was doing was breathing and being in the present moment, and that was going to be my process.”
As she continued to attend classes and delve deeper into her practice, yoga and meditation became the constants in her life, through her brother’s death, several stormy relationships, and jobs that never fuelled her inner passion. “I knew that I could get on my yoga mat and not necessarily find the answer, but what I could do was reconnect with me.” What many people (minorities or otherwise) don’t necessarily understand about yoga, says Hunter, and something she still emphasizes to her own students some 13 years later, is that rather than helping them “find something,” it is a way to reconnect to the sense of wonder, excitement, and joy of simply celebrating who they are.
So for Hunter, and for many would-be yogis of all colours, a basic misunderstanding of what yoga is can be a barrier to getting that first taste.
Get the Oct/Nov issue to read the full story on Faith.