By Javacia Harris Bowser
At first glance, Tori Wolfe-Sisson’s yoga class may seem like any other. The lights are dimmed to help participants relax. Attendees are donning leggings with tank tops or t-shirts and sitting cross legged atop their mats.
But this is no ordinary yoga class. Wolfe-Sisson’s yoga classes are “melanin-centered,” meaning the classes focus on relieving minority stress. The classes also seek to make yoga more accessible to people of color and the LGBTQ community. Though Wolfe-Sisson’s classes are open to all, the classes are designed specifically for “black, brown, indigenous, trans and queer people,” said Wolfe-Sisson, who identifies by the pronouns they, them, and their.
Wolfe-Sisson’s classes often focus on relieving tension in the hips and thighs, which is where they believe minorities carry the most stress.
“The type of micro and macroaggressions that we face on a daily basis, that we try to convince ourselves that we’re not holding, that’s what we’re releasing in that space,” Wolfe-Sisson, 29, said.
Even the location of the classes is intentional. Wolfe-Sisson’s classes are hosted at The Hub. A program of AIDS Alabama, The Hub is a community center created to be a safe space for young gay, bisexual, and transpeople of color. The Hub offers HIV/AIDS testing and education but also hosts a variety of events on any given night, from exercise classes to concerts to poetry readings.
“The Hub is like your auntie’s house or your grandma’s house,” Wolfe-Sisson said.
While yoga class is happening in one room, someone may be setting up for a party in another, with the scents of homecooked food and the sounds of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Goapele, Maxwell and Jill Scott wafting through the air.
Wolfe-Sisson teaches a class called Mela-Zen Yoga at The Hub every Wednesday at 7 p.m. and on the third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. Wolfe-Sisson teaches Trap Yoga, a class that combines traditional yoga moves and poses with lo-fi hip-hop beats. Trap Yoga even features a DJ.
Phree Moon, 27, has been attending Wolfe-Sisson’s yoga classes, including Trap Yoga, since February 2019.
“The music helps you keep going through the poses,” Moon said of Trap Yoga. “You’re not judging yourself. You’re not judging anyone else. You’re just comfortable.”
Moon says that hearing those same beats elsewhere, even while driving, brings back the sense of calm she felt in class.
“I can bring that peace with me,” Moon said.
Wolfe-Sisson, a Las Vegas, Nevada native, has been practicing yoga since childhood and started sharing yoga with friends during their college days at Tuskegee University. Wolfe-Sisson became a certified yoga instructor earlier this year.
Yoga In America
Despite these years of experience, Wolfe-Sisson said that when they attend other yoga classes, the instructor often assumes they’re a beginner because of the stereotype that black people don’t practice yoga.
“Yoga in America has a really racist culture,” Wolfe-Sisson said, adding that yoga students of color are often not treated the same as other students in class and that yoga teachers sometimes unnecessarily touch the hair of students of color or adjust their bodies without consent.
For these reasons and more, Wolfe-Sisson understands why many people of color don’t feel comfortable in yoga classes.
“The only fix that I can see is for there to be more of us at the front of the room,” Wolfe-Sission said.
The proceeds from Trap Yoga are used to provide scholarships for yoga teacher training to women of color.
Trap Yoga is a part of Wolfe-Sisson’s organization BLK Pearl, which they founded in 2016 with their wife Shanté Wolfe-Sisson, a DJ known as BLK Alchemy who often provides the music for Trap Yoga.
The mission of BLK Pearl, Wolfe-Sisson said, is to provide “wellness through visibility and economic development for black, brown, indigenous, transgender and queer women and gender neutral and gender non-conforming people.”
Moon, who has been practicing yoga since 2015, plans to start yoga teacher training in the fall with the help of a BLK Pearl scholarship.
“I’ve always wanted to become a yoga instructor,” Moon said, “but after meeting Tori and coming to their class it definitely gave me the mindset of ‘You can do anything.’”
At the end of many of their classes, Wolfe-Sisson, with permission, will help students relax by massaging their temples with essential oils and helping them stretch their neck and legs. Wolfe-Sisson often reads poetry from renowned black authors like Nikki Giovanni, too.
“The poetry that Tori reads to us is very empowering,” Moon said. “I embody it and I take it with me outside of my practice.”
Wolfe-Sisson believes that challenging the notion that people of color don’t practice yoga also requires a conversation with the black church.
“There’s a lot of demonization of yoga,” they said. But to anyone who believes spirituality shouldn’t be combined with movement as it is in yoga, Wolfe-Sisson asks, “What then is praise?”
Wolfe-Sisson knows that body insecurities can also keep people away from the mat. That’s why they’re a fan of yoga teacher and body positivity advocate Jessamyn Stanley.
“Seeing her can wrap your head around the things your body can do,” Wolfe-Sisson said.
One of the quintessential poses in yoga is called the lotus flower and, in this flower,
Wolfe-Sisson finds the perfect symbol for why African-American culture should be fused with yoga as it is in classes like theirs.
“A lotus flower blooms out of the muck,” Wolfe-Sisson said. “What have we been doing here for the past 200 years?”
Tori Wolfe-Sisson teaches Mela-Zen Yoga every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at The Hub, 2217 6th Ave S. Birmingham, AL 35233 and hosts Trap Yoga classes on the third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m., also at The Hub. To learn more visit blkpearl.org/tours.
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.