By Peggy Howard Moore
Being of African American descent has its disadvantages in our American society and culture, and especially in business. A lot has happened in the past fifty-three years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but that was just the beginning, with revisions, laws, and rules required to enforce it. Fifty-three years of “freedom” doesn’t begin to erase the devastating social and economic impacts of 265 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation on African Americans and all Americans. My grandparents told me stories of slavery and segregation that their grandparents told them and that they had lived through. I also lived through segregation—and more: desegregation, public school busing, fair housing laws, Equal Opportunity, and more.
But now, at age 67, I am living a dream I never could have imagined. I have a comfortable, fulfilling life, while running a yoga studio business with my daughter, Eboni Howard, and helping others find physical strength, health, well-being, contentment, and success in implementing their intentions and dreams. And I am bringing the practice and gift of yoga to people who didn’t think yoga was for them.
I am a yoga teacher and a yoga studio owner who is an older adult and an African American woman. I wear a size 14. Why the distinctions? Because people with my characteristics and background are rare in the yoga world.
Yoga, as practiced in America, has a limited older adult, larger-body, and African American presence. For many, yoga is expensive, so individuals without disposable income or those on fixed incomes are underrepresented in yoga venues, as well as in teacher training programs. Others are intimidated and feel uncomfortable when entering most yoga studios. Yoga in America is viewed by many as primarily a young, “thin, privileged, white female” activity and is marketed this way—by big corporate yoga studios and pricey yoga clothing firms, as well as major yoga publications. You rarely see a larger-framed woman or man, or gray-haired or African American people in yoga marketing campaigns and clothing catalogs, let alone find them practicing in these studios.
The number of freestanding African American–owned yoga studios in the United States is estimated to be fewer than sixty. When I opened my studio, a magazine article said we were one of thirty-nine black-owned studios. This is a difficult statistic to come up with, due to the way data are collected and the dearth of documenting studies, but to put it in context, according to a recent survey by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal (2016), there are approximately 36.7 million Americans who practice yoga.
A Path of Unintentional Advocacy
My journey into the practice and business of yoga was unintentional. I did not start out as a social advocate to change the yoga landscape. But through my and my daughter’s presence in that landscape, that is exactly what we are doing.
I had been retired for three years from a demanding 25-year career in corporate management, when I got a late night call from Eboni. She told me she was going to yoga teacher training in Sedona, Arizona, and asked if I’d like to join her. It would be seven days in a Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga Teacher Training boot camp. We would work hard, sweat a lot, get in shape, and learn to teach yoga. She also told me that we might be the only African Americans in a training class of more than 300 students from all over the United States. I wasn’t too interested in teaching yoga, although I had practiced yoga on and off for many years. Almost always, I was the only black person in the class. But, I figured I could stand to get in shape, so I agreed to go.
Prior to my most recent career, I had a fulfilling 10-year career in state government, with a short stint, after graduate school, as a mental health social worker. Throughout my education and career, I was often the only black person (or one of a very few) in the room. In my company, I was the first black woman to hold many of my management jobs and the first black woman vice president. Yoga teacher training would be no different.
Upon returning from training, I rediscovered the inner strength and determination that got me through life’s early challenges: segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, the South Bronx public housing projects, the University of Wisconsin, and subsequently into leadership careers in state government and corporate America. This inner strength, determination, and focus served as the foundation to build our yoga business.
Struggles, Challenges, and Joys of Our Entrepreneurism
This nation’s economic foundation is based on slavery and segregation, with wealth disparities between white America and black America. With personal wealth and loans from friends and family being the primary source of investment capital for small business, black start-ups struggle. If one’s family has not owned homes or businesses in economically thriving areas, (because of housing and landholder discrimination), that source of wealth is not available for investment. So starting a business of any kind that can survive in very competitive markets is not for the faint of heart. And when it’s a yoga studio business, the challenges increase.
Banks were not eager to loan money to two black women opening a yoga studio in Chicago.
I anticipated this and self-financed our business with personal savings. We opened Eb & flow Yoga Studio in 2013, putting aside three years of operating expenses to fully develop the business.
My daughter and I have worked to create a welcoming yoga environment for all (men and women), especially people of color, older adults, larger-bodied individuals, and people who have felt intimidated, out of place, or not welcomed in the stereotypical Chicago-area yoga studios. Neither of us ever imagined the impact that one winter night phone call and training boot camp would have on us. Our lives were transformed, as have been the lives of our students and community.
We think of this yoga studio as our home. When customers or students enter our space, we welcome them and spend time getting to know them and their goals. Seventy percent of those coming into our studio are beginners. At Eb & flow, our classes are affordable for everyone, with a variety of pricing options including discounts for elders, youth, educators, couples, and we offer low-cost and free community classes.
In opening the business, I also rediscovered my social action roots. Whether it’s rallying to help the O’Hare International Airport unveil its new yoga room, helping Chicago’s homeless stay warm and nourished during the bitterly cold winters, providing financial support to a family in need, fundraising for “no-kill” dog shelters, or helping storm victims, we connect to the communities we serve, with the help of our students. Our reach also is international, as we join annually with a group of yoga studios around the country to support the Africa Yoga Project, which creates jobs for impoverished young people in Africa. We are a Yoga Alliance-registered yoga school and are training the next generation of yoga teachers, who embrace our values and wish to serve the community.
Transformation Can Happen at Any Age
We built the studio, they came, and they like us! When Eboni and I began this transformational journey, it was scary. But once we created the plan and started to act on it, fear disappeared and excitement took over. I felt that same drive and exhilaration from my youth, proving that age doesn’t define one’s capabilities. Changing your thinking about aging can dramatically change your life. The practice of yoga has certainly done so for me.
Every challenge, disappointment, heartache, and tragedy I have experienced in life has made me stronger and more determined to keep moving forward and live in the present, moving toward transformations I could never have imagined. Through my less than privileged upbringing in the South Bronx projects, work to break down racial barriers, a divorce, the death of my second husband, and a marriage to my third husband at age 66, I have learned one thing and learned it well: All things change.
To be alive is to take risks, grow, change, and transform. My father’s advice to me growing up in the projects was, “If you don’t ask, the answer is definitely no” and “If you don’t try and take the risk, you’ve already failed.” Dad also said, “You might not get everything you work for, but you will work for everything you get!”
Peggy Howard Moore, M.S.S.W., 500-EYT, is owner, manager, and yoga teacher at Eb & flow Yoga Studio in Chicago.
Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal. 2016. 2016 Yoga in America Study. goo.gl/6HU4AS. Retrieved August