Austin yoga classes aim to address stress inequities in Black women

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For one hour on a recent Saturday morning, the gentle ripple of breathwork and affirmations trickle from Easley Boxing and Fitness in south Austin. Inside, instructor Frederika Easley guides a class of in-person and virtual women through a yoga flow, with dedicated time to chat and check in on how their stress levels are.

Easley’s class, Flow to Heal, is a program entirely made up of Black women of all ages and experience with yoga, launched in tandem with Dell Medical School as one of its community-driven initiatives. Dell Med’s CDIs are designed to address systemic inequities while working with area residents on how to provide better health solutions within their communities.

For Easley, her experience with yoga previously involved her being the only Black woman in the studio. She wanted to craft a space where Black women could see themselves reflected in their fitness instructors and classmates, as well as to home in on stress management resources for practitioners to adopt in their own lives.

“I’m a Black woman and you know, my primary concern was for us to be able to have wellness practices and for us to be able to build that community,” she said. “Especially as a mom as well, a lot of the times, you don’t have that many opportunities to [practice wellness].”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ social determinants of health have identified racism, discrimination and income as three factors that have disproportionate effects on people’s health and quality of life. These can lead to chronic stress disparities that, among other health complications, can cause high blood pressure, heart disease or other complications.

When crafting Flow to Heal, Easley wanted to marry the physical benefits of yoga with a community-centric environment. She said she wanted women to feel like they were connected and intertwined during the intimacies that come with yoga practices.

But in order to create this sort of communal space, women needed to feel comfortable and have access coming to the table.

“Typically a yoga practice is one of privilege — the classes cost a decent amount of money,” she said. “So I really wanted to create a space where women can come as they are, they can feel comfortable in all of their curves, in all of their thickness, and be able to take advantage of this.”

Some class participants went from not being able to walk up the stairs due to injuries and mobility issues to mastering yoga poses. Others cited the class’s breathwork as a tool they now use to come with daily stressors that previously inhibited them in their day-to-day lives.

“I really wanted to create a space where women can come as they are, they can feel comfortable in all of their curves, in all of their thickness, and be able to take advantage of this.”

Frederika Easley, founder, Flow to Heal

But a common thread among all participants was getting to be part of a community of women from all seasons of life. A trio of women KXAN spoke with afterwards said that while this wasn’t their first introduction to yoga, Flow to Heal helped create a space where they could prioritize themselves and their health while feeling physically and spiritually connected to those in the room with them.

“Coming here and being able to find a space where you can be unapologetically yourself and just bond and talk after the sessions, and even during the sessions, on some of the challenges that we’re having — it’s really been uplifting for me,” participant Sheila Jones said.

Participant Sade Walker told KXAN yoga has been a way to build up not only her physical strength, but gain from the wisdom and life experiences of classmates in the group setting.

“I just love to be in an environment where I see us all trying to get out of our comfort zone and do something different,” participant Alexandria Robertson added. “If you walk into the typical yoga studio, you don’t see a lot of us. And so this is a space where we get to come, we get to be comfortable. There’s no judgment.”

Flow to Heal officially launched in March as an eight-week pilot program free to participants. Now, Easley is working on analyzing the data of participants’ stress assessments, as well as to establish program goals, as Flow to Heal aims to receive permanent funding. She continues to offer free weekend classes to her students in the meantime.

Flow to Heal is one of 15 community programs Dell Medical School has helped fund since 2017.

Currently, Dell Medical School’s CDI program and Easley are identifying future funding opportunities, such as grants and sponsorships, to continue Flow to Heal. For more information on Dell Medical School’s CDI program, click here.