The first time Minneapolis resident Nicole M. Smith attended a Twin Cities yoga class, she felt hyper-aware of how different she looked from her classmates. Sure, she has a slim athletic figure — the stereotypical yogi build. But she was the only black woman in the room, which made her feel self-conscious and excluded.

“There were times I felt a certain invisibility where people walked on my yoga mat,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s intentional. But in a spiritual space — where you’re trying to connect with yourself — these kinds of triggering happenings can make one feel unsafe.”

The experience left Smith with misgivings about attending future yoga classes. But she kept looking and eventually found an appealing option — a restorative practice for women of color at One Yoga. The class “completely shifted my relationship with yoga,” she said.

In recent months, Twin Cities yoga instructors have partnered with One Yoga and the Minneapolis Urban League to launch brand-new classes especially for women of color. Instructor Serita Colette started working earlier this year with One Yoga, a nonprofit center in south Minneapolis, to launch a series of workshops for women and gender-queer people of color. And the Urban League worked with instructor Rebeka Ndosi for its first free class, held in conjunction with Women’s Wellness Month in May.

“We thought maybe 30 people would show up, max,” said Mallory Mitchell, the Urban League’s development manager. “And it blew up! There were 300 to 400 people interested on Facebook. And we ended up with 100 officially registered. It was incredible.”

The event was so popular, the Urban League scheduled a second yoga workshop in July, with future classes in the works. And Ndosi fielded so many inquiries that she decided to start hosting a series of yoga events for women of color. The venue will be the Roots Community Birth Center, a minority-owned midwifery in north Minneapolis, with the first class sometime in the fall.

Healing racial trauma

Many people of color have experienced what experts at the American Psychological Association call “racial trauma.” High-profile police killings, especially, have led to a heightened sense of fear in communities of color. Symptoms of racial trauma can include depression and angry outbursts, but also a general reluctance to trust white people.

Can the healing powers of yoga ease at least some of the symptoms of racial trauma? Aida Martinez-Freeman, a Twin Cities spiritual coach, thinks so.

“Being able to provide tools for people of color to practice their own yoga and mindfulness doesn’t have to be against something,” she said. “It’s a return to self-care that generates a whole different kind of energy. And that can help us continue to uplift our larger communities and bring health and positivity in.”

Colette says her students benefit from practicing yoga with other women of color, allowing them to work together to address emotions stemming from racial trauma. She plans to start offering classes for men, too.

“Many of my students are looking to connect this sacred practice with how world events affect them,” she explained.

“If we want to do what needs to be done, our people need to be happy,” added Ndosi, the Urban League teacher who also co-owns a Minneapolis collective of healers. “For that we need to feel unburdened by expectations and societal narratives.”

That means providing women of color with alternatives to the standard American yoga class, where they may feel sensitive about their racial identities. “When we have these spaces for ourselves, no matter what, then we can do the deep work and deep healing and deep connecting to stay afloat,” said Ndosi.

Urban League employee Ambreasha Frazier, who attended her employer’s free classes, said she’s practiced yoga in the past, but felt more relaxed in a class full of women with shared experiences as minorities.

“We may all have differences, but many women of color, especially in Minnesota, find themselves often the only one of their race,” Frazier said. “Sometimes you need that outlet where you’re a part of something and unified.”

Smith, too, enjoyed the break from being the only person of color in the room.

“I feel what often happens when we are just being ourselves is we as people of color are under a microscope,” she said. “It takes effort for us to find a space for ourselves. And we don’t have a lot of this in this city, state, and in this country. In order to heal our community, we need to be with community. We need to allow ourselves to just be.”

Crystal Duan • 612-673-4686 • @duancrys