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These black-owned Charlotte yoga studios take the practice to the next level

Kiesha Battles, founder of I Am Yoga and director at Charlotte Family Yoga Center in Concord, has a diverse following.
Kiesha Battles, founder of I Am Yoga and director at Charlotte Family Yoga Center in Concord, has a diverse following. Courtesy of Keisha Battles

From Bikram to beer yoga, and Ashtanga to yoga with baby goats, the options are broad for students ready to move beyond the basic Westernized poses, breath and meditation promoted in American yoga classes. The field is wide, but some would rather go deep. Many intermediate or advanced yoga students are choosing certification-level studies instead — and not necessarily to become instructors. Some feel guided to teach. Others hope to deepen their own understanding.

Two Charlotte studios, both owned by black women, are offering courses to facilitate those kinds of learning in radically different spaces from mainstream yoga studios. Eternity Philops’ Soul Liberation Yoga, on the east side, is black-centered and queer-affirming. I Am Yoga, founded by Kiesha Battles, has a primarily African-American following that is broadly diverse in age, income level and physical condition on the west side. These black-owned yoga spaces are a vital resource for a number of reasons.

“Mainstream yoga spaces can be so whitewashed, no pun intended, that black students often experience microaggressions there,” Philops said. “Yoga is supposed to be healing. At a black-owned studio, there’s less of a chance of that. It’s also easier to learn from a teacher who looks like you and understands your body and your struggles.”

Yoga spaces are often a microcosm of the society in which they exist, reflecting the same commonly held assumptions and prejudices. The majority of yoga instructors are white women who often are uninformed about race relations, and standard yoga teacher training does not cover ways to avoid re-traumatizing students coping with systemic oppression.

Yoga: More than a fad

This is why Battles’ teacher trainings focus on personal transformation first. Battles built her reputation on making yoga accessible to all bodies at all levels. The founder of I Am Yoga and yoga director at Charlotte Family Yoga Center in Concord has been instructing for 20 years and has sought half a dozen specializations to serve the 400 students she sees weekly.

“It’s important to everyone to understand the healing aspects of yoga versus just doing an activity because it’s a fad,” Battles said. “I’m a knowledge crafter, I want to understand everything about yoga so I can point people in the right direction.”

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Keisha Battles built her reputation on making yoga accessible to all bodies at almost every level of capability. Courtesy of Keisha Battles

Battles is trained in traditional Hatha yoga, yoga for children, prenatal yoga, yoga for larger bodies, for practitioners battling eating disorders, and yoga for people living with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolarism. She has hosted classes in various studio spaces in Charlotte since 2011, and in 2016 expanded to certifying yoga instructors.

Candace Jennings was her first yoga teacher trainee. Jennings had undergone several surgeries for herniations on her spinal cord when she began taking classes under Battles at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

“I felt safe and supported and encouraged,” Jennings said. In Battles’ classes, “we encouraged each other and shared laughter. It’s a fun place, real heartfelt place, where you’re learning together, breathing together and cheering each other on.”

So she asked Battles to train her to be an instructor. Battles also partnered with the Stratford-Richardson branch of the YMCA to train yoga instructors on Charlotte’s West side. She graduated the first YMCA group in 2018, and the second cohort in June 2019.

“Teacher training programs are not just for people who want to be yoga teachers,” Jennings emphasized. “We all share yoga differently; some just want to take their studies deeper to understand their own practice.”

Hatha, which focuses on breath and movement, is Battles’ certifying form of yoga, but she exposes teachers in training to five other paths for a holistic view of yoga systems: mantra yoga that uses repetition of a phrase or affirmation, jnana yoga which is based in study, and raja, karma and kriya yoga. Students study the poses (asanas), breathing, meditation — plus community service, ethics, philosophy and spiritual development.

“It’s become a melting pot experience,” Battles said. “I want to point everyone to the yoga that best serves their needs and lifestyles.”

‘Poses are the pinky toe on the body of yoga’

Philops, another of Battles’ instructor trainees, has been leading Soul Liberation Yoga since 2017. This year, she expanded her practice beyond classes and weekend workshops to include yoga student certification. Unlike Battles’ program, Philops is specifically aiming at people who aren’t looking to teach but to learn.

“The purpose is to help people gain a deeper understanding of yoga beyond the asanas,” Philops said. “Most yoga systems don’t even include movements and poses, but it’s what the West has grabbed ahold of to tell people, ‘This is yoga.’ Poses are the pinky toe on the body of yoga.”

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Because black students often face microaggressions in mainstream yoga spaces, “It’s easier to learn from a teacher who looks like you and understands your body and your struggles,” Eternity Philops said. Courtesy of Eternity Philops

Philops’ curriculum focuses on what she calls the head of the body: self awareness, self realization and, depending on the student’s beliefs, connection to a higher spirituality. She also teaches the philosophies, history and ethics of yoga. And because the classes are aimed at enrichment rather than for those who want to teach, they are substantially less expensive than the former, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

“This is sharing knowledge in order to build more informed students,” Philops said. “You shouldn’t have to get teacher certified just to access these higher levels of information.”

She is also in the midst of compiling The Black Yoga Magic Directory, an international database of black yoga teachers and classes slated to go live in January. Free to subscribers, it will include a newsletter, features and videos.

Battles can be reached at www.keishabattles.com. Information on Philops’ classes is accessible at MySoulLiberation.com.

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