Yoga is all the rage. The ancient Hindu philosophy and practice is over 5000 years old and going strong. Many associate yoga with South Asian culture and, in Western culture, with well-off white women, but African Americans have a long history of using yoga as a tool for physical and mental wellness in the United States and abroad. In fact, African Americans are central to the cultural shift that took place in the 1970s, that resulted in the founding of the yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, which was established and considered the definitive repository of American yoga practice and culture.
African Americans have been practicing yoga for decades. Our role in helping to make yoga a part of mainstream American wellness practices was evident in the 1970s, when community yoga events took place all over the country, including Detroit, Michigan, where civil rights icon Rosa Parks practiced. Coast to coast, yoga was practiced in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, DC, where yoga classes were offered at Howard University. During this time period, there was not only a deep dive into honoring Indian and Southeast Asian traditions in America, but there was a commitment to uncovering and honoring African traditions of yoga. This movement is where the origins of what is now known as Kemetic yoga begins.
The founding of Kemetic yoga developed in a community that included Asar Hapi and Lawrence Yirser (now known as Yirser Ra Hotep) in 1970s Chicago. The Kemetic yoga method was founded to connect Africans in the diaspora holistically. Originally from Chicago, Yirser studied with several African-centered scholars, including historian Jacob Carruthers, and was influenced by participating in anti-apartheid protests and attending lectures featuring renowned writer and historian Yosef Ben-Jochannan, writer and celebrated author Alex Haley, and iconic comedian and activist Dick Gregory. The quest for liberation in the wake of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement included health and wellness through yoga to expand the cultural understanding of ancient healing traditions.
Ancient pyramids were studied, and the poses found in the hieroglyphics were used to develop Kemetic yoga practices. Many of the poses pre-date those used in the traditional South Asian system of poses and include poses that are now called The Wheel (a backbend), and The Lotus or Bended Knee, originally named Sesh One and Sesh Three. Students learned to recognize the Kemetic poses and methods and to give the African-centered practice the same respect and cultural weight of traditional yoga practices. Yirser Ra Hotep, who has been celebrated for his development of Kemetic yoga, identifies Kemetic origins by locating poses like The Wheel and Shu (God of Breath) in pyramids and temples, making the link between meditation and yoga even more concrete. Scholars like Nwando Achebe, Maulana Karenga and Greg Carr have traced cultural practices like yoga, meditation, prayer, sun salutations and spirituality to ancient Africa.
Connections have also been made between India and Africa, including references to Ethiopia, Kush (Sudan), and Somalia. Serious acknowledgment of Asian philosophies and developments are essential because of the distinct contributions of Indian, Chinese and Japanese evolutions of mindfulness, but this particular practice centers Africa and is based on diasporic culture and history.
Kemetic-based yoga and meditation systems can contribute to an understanding of holistic health practices and why they are especially relevant in African American communities. Yoga practice in Black communities has tripled in the last decade. There is a growing number of Black-owned yoga studios and organizations in the United States. Among these, Black Yoga Teachers Alliance and International Association of Black Yoga Teachers are central networks.
As early as 2014, Crystal Whaley published a list in Ebony magazine featuring 37 U.S.-based studios, along with one in Grenada and two in Jamaica. By 2020, Black-owned studios were found in Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Chicago, North Carolina, Atlanta, and California, (four in Northern California and five in Southern). Over three-quarters of Black-owned yoga studios are owned by women.
Since the pandemic, dozens of new instructors have made their classes available online. The expansion of studios also offers an encouraging opportunity to experience the pursuit of community self-care in person. In a full circle moment, Yirser opened a new studio in Chicago in January 2022, bringing back to the community a center where the origins of Kemetic yoga began.
With the stress of being Black in America, Kemetic yoga offers African Americans a holistic solution to finding peace and wellness through an African-inspired yoga practice.
Stephanie Y. Evans is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University. She is author of several books including Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace.
For more on the history of Kemetic yoga, visit www.kemeticyoga.com/
history-of-kemetic-yoga. Yirser Ra Hotep Lawrence, YogaSkills Kemetic Yoga Teacher Training Manual (Chicago: Yoga Skills, 2001)