Fitness Fridays: Jaimee Ratliff Mixed “Deepak And Tupac” To Make Hip-Hop Yoga, Atlanta’s Most Lit Fitness Class
The story people tend to share about their introduction to yoga is generally the same. They stumbled into a class after hearing about how great it is for strength and flexibility, and either they fell in love with it, or they made the emphatic decision that it wasn’t for them.
But for Jaimee Ratliff, she came to yoga way before it was trendy, partaking in classes as a teenager after having surgery to deal with an S-shaped spine. She tried the practice here and there, but didn’t take it seriously. She was a kid. However, after getting back into yoga as a young adult with a lot stress and emotional hurdles to get over, she found her strength in it — physically, mentally and emotionally. She was hooked.
But Ratliff wanted to get other Black men and women hooked on yoga, too. So the the 30-year-old, who is based out of Atlanta, tried to bring the one thing we as a people love to a mode of fitness many of us tend to be skeptical about. That’s how Hip-Hop Yoga was born, and ended up being one of the hottest classes to check out in the city of Atlanta. We conversed with Ratliff about her fitness journey, and why she’s bringing Deepak and Tupac together to help Black people enjoy the long list of benefits of trying yoga.
MadameNoire: So what first pushed you into trying yoga?
About five or six years ago, I started. The reason I started doing yoga actually stems from a scoliosis. I had spinal fusion surgery, which involved me undergoing surgery to straighten out the S-curve in my spine. This was back before I entered my freshman year of high school. I started doing yoga as a way to keep movement and fluidity in my spine because when you have a spinal fusion, you have limited mobility. So the doctor encouraged me to try out yoga as a way to kind of keep some movement there. So I started back in high school, but I didn’t take it as serious back then. It was just a way to work out and do what the doctor said, and I was doing it off and on. Fast forward to my young adulthood, back when I was 23 I think, living in Houston, and I started going a lot more. I was living in the city and there was a yoga studio like five minutes from my house. I was working then so I could actually afford to go to yoga. In high school I couldn’t afford different classes, so I would go every now and then. But as a young adult I was making my own money so I was going a lot more. While I was working in the communications industry I was also doing this traveling thing on the side, so I was also a travel writer. During that time I was also going through a period of trying to find myself, knowing that I should be ending a relationship with someone that I knew wasn’t going to turn into anything positive. So I was going through a lot trying to find myself, trying to find my strength and love myself enough to walk away from an unhealthy relationship. On top of that, in October 2015, I was robbed at gunpoint in Colombia. So after experiencing those two life-changing things, I came back from Colombia and ended the relationship with the guy, then I moved back to Atlanta. At the beginning of 2016 I came back home and really started pouring myself even more into my yoga practice. I took some time off from working and became a certified yoga teacher.
So how did it go from something that helped you with flexibility with your spine to something where you said to yourself, “I need to create an opportunity where I can teach people this because I’m that passionate about it”?
After the robbery, I was dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress. Doing the yoga teacher training would make me feel like I was going to therapy. It was a very rough time in my life. I found my healing not only through my relationship with God and going to therapy but through my yoga practice is where I found strength. Physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s where I felt beautiful and where I would cultivate that self-love again. So when I graduated from teacher training, another thing that I realized, and even before then, was that when I would go to these classes, I wasn’t seeing people who looked like me. I was always that token Black girl who’s at the front of the class. But aside from just doing the poses, I wanted to start sharing this self-care, this mode of healing with other people who look like me. Because there’s a stigma in the Black community that we don’t take care of ourselves and we put everybody above ourselves. Self-care is just now becoming this big thing and it wasn’t like that. And so I wanted to share my love of yoga with people who look like me. Because you see these Caucasian women in their Lululemon pants doing this practice, but when you hear that this is for everybody, you don’t think it because you don’t see images showing that people of all colors do yoga. So January of last year was when I decided that I wanted to do hip-hop yoga. Because I felt like, what way can I really get people interested and just get them into the studio first? From there you can go practice whatever kind of yoga, but I’m just trying to introduce people to this practice. And so I started doing hip-hop yoga. We love good music. We love movement. So this is what I’m gonna do. The classes were just selling out like crazy. And hip-hop yoga is not necessarily new, but I will say, I pioneered it here in Atlanta. And I don’t like to confuse myself with a trap yoga teacher because I don’t really love trap music in my playlist. So I started integrating a lot more hip-hop music versus the newer music you hear nowadays. It doesn’t make any sense and it doesn’t have any good messages. While we’re in a hip-hop yoga practice, we still have to be mindful of the music lyrics that we’re internalizing while we’re flowing through class.
That’s a good point. Because all of it is for the benefit of your health, so you don’t want to hear a lot of “sipping on lean” type songs while working out [laughs].
You do have those artists, and that’s what they talk about. But mine is always profanity-free sets. I always make sure that I play a mix of hip-hop and R&B. The temp of the class starts out slow, getting them into their breath. And then we’ll ramp up the speed, more beat-bumping music, and then we’ll mellow out with like Musiq Soulchild’s “So Beautiful.” In the middle there’s A Tribe Called Quest. So I like to keep it to like real, real hip-hop artists and not too much of the trap stuff.
Do people tell you that this approach, the hip-hop class as a whole and the idea of it attracting a group of Black yogis, is what they needed to get into the practice?
Yeah! The way that I structure my class is the tagline, “We’re Deepak and Tupac.” So in the beginning I get them into their breath and there’s no music and I’ll maybe have them lying on their backs with one hand on their heart and one hand on their belly to really set the tone and intention and what I want them to focus on for the day’s class. And then we pump up the music and then we end in shavasana and I’ll read a meditation. So I have people who will tell me, “I cried on my back,” or “This is the first time I hugged myself.” Because I always have my students hug their legs into their chest. Hug yourself! Show yourself love and gratitude for the amazing things your body and your mind can do. It’s funny because I’m about to go on this tour and everybody’s like, “What am I going to do when you’re gone?” I’m like, you’re going to continue to go do yoga [laughs]. But the response is amazing.
And how has doing yoga helped you spiritually, as in internally, as opposed to just externally with the physical?
After the robbery I started struggling with anxiety. My heart beat would be racing and I would be getting very nervous about any little thing. I continued to come back to the breathing part of yoga. There’s no yoga without breathing. So whenever I’m feeling anxious or just in my head about things, I just always come back to my breath and the present moment. That’s the most important part of anything. It’s not the poses, it’s being in the now and getting out of your mind and just knowing that you’re O.K. and you’re going to be O.K. More than anything, it’s been the breath and meditation part of yoga that keeps me centered and grounded in the moment.
What would you say to people who look at yoga and think it’s basic stretching and not the intense type of workout that people who are trying to lose weight or have certain goals should try? What advice would you offer to get people to try hip-hop yoga, or honestly, just try any type of yoga in general?
I would say that yeah, people think there’s just one style of yoga. Quiet, falling asleep because you’re in a flow. But I was actually trained in athletic power yoga. So when people come to my class, first of all, the room peaks at 82 degrees and it’s intense. It’s a challenging flow for all levels. We’re working on training flexibility and balance. My students leave the class drenched. So when they get in the class and I’m like, “All right, let’s get into downward dog, to high plank, half plank and back to high plank,” they’re all laughing because they don’t think yoga can be a real workout. But I also tell them that yoga is more than just the physical poses. There’s meditation. It’s like finding that inner joy. So I always tell people who think, “Oh, it’s not a workout,” come to my class. You’ll see. And then from there, you can go try different styles like restorative and Yin and Ashtanga and whatever else. But just come to my class first if you think yoga is boring and we’ll see.