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It’s a common struggle, walking into a yoga class and being the only person of color in the space. For Racheal Weathers, who picked up yoga from the most unconventional place, Instagram, it was something she couldn’t stand and would eventually make her purpose to change.

The 25-year-old based out of Brooklyn did her research and started teaching herself yoga after a few bad class experiences. She would eventually get certified to teach, and from there, teach independently, not attached to studios who want the stereotypical demographic. Weathers eventually made it her mission to not only bring out Black yoga enthusiasts, but support Black-owned businesses at the same time who own studio spaces. It’s been years since she started, and faster than you can break into Warrior II, she has gained a tremendous following. “I thank God for it,” she said during our chat. “I was not thinking this could be a business one day and this is how I will eat and live one day. I was not even close to thinking that.” It may not have been her plan, but it seems to be her destiny — to make everyone feel welcome in her classes and even capable of teaching their own, no matter what they look like.

We talked to Weathers about how she went from learning from an Instagram star to becoming one, the classes that drove her to teach herself, and why she’s going to diversify yoga by any means necessary.

MadameNoire: What is your fitness background? Did you play sports growing up?

Racheal Weathers: Yeah, when I was in elementary school, my mom put me in gymnastics. Once I transitioned to middle school I didn’t do anything until yoga, really. So from ages 12 to 22, I didn’t do anything. I loved gymnastics to the point that I was like, if I’m not going to be that dedicated to anything else, what’s the point? And then, everything that I would try, it just wasn’t it. I would end up quitting. I tried cheerleading and I was never invested. I did programs but I was never there for it [laughs].

So you’ve always had some flexibility then?

Yeah. It was amazing coming into the practice at 22 because it was like, my brain was like “Ok, Racheal, we’ve done this before,” but my body reminded my brain that it had been 15 years: “Chill and take it slow [laughs].” I would definitely say that with my practice, having done gymnastics, the advantage that I have is that I know my body can do certain things. And so a lot of mental roadblocks I don’t really encounter. There’s not a lot of “Is this possible?” I know it’s possible and I know I can do it. I just need to do A, B, C, D until I can get to Z. So I will say that’s been a super advantage and major pusher in my practice.

And how did you get into yoga? Why at this point, years later, do you continue?

So, what’s amazing is I got into yoga via Instagram. I had a regular profile, a regular Racheal Weathers profile. Then I found this girl named Irene, her Instagram name was @fitqueenirene, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this girl is phenomenal!” And so what made me really connect with her was that she was a shapely woman. She’s a yoga teacher who at the time was based out of Virginia. So literally, seeing her is what got me started. I would just start copying things that she was posting on her site and Instagram until six, seven months later I realized, “Oh, there’s a whole practice to yoga. It’s not just taking pictures and doing poses [laughs].” It was a whole journey to actually come around to the actual practice, but my very first introduction to yoga not being what you used to see on TV with someone standing there, arms out kind of and looking really bored, was Irene.

Once you got started, since you were a follower of Irene’s, did you ever go to classes? If so, did you find them to be diverse?

I did. It was maybe three or four months into me copying Irene until I was actually like, “Ok, let me go to a class and see what this is about.” So yeah, I went to a class, two or three classes in the same month actually, and it was the worst thing. Everyone in the class — blatant with the stares. A completely White class, so I was the only person of color anywhere in sight. It was really weird. Really uncomfortable. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re here to practice.” It was like, “Oh my God! There’s a Black girl in the corner!” That to me was what class was. I feel like that’s what everyone was thinking. I felt it. It was so — I wanted to leave but I didn’t want to disrupt whatever was happening. And so I didn’t. After those back-to-back bad experiences, I pulled back from going to classes and I started to learn the practice and then how to actually self-study. Because I knew, “Ok, this is what sequencing is, these are like accredited teachers, these teachers know what they’re talking about, I connect to this teacher for this reason, etc. So really, I started buying a lot of books. That’s what really, really built the practice. Buying books and then practicing on my own, because I was not here for people staring at me. But now I’m happy that happened because it really catapulted me into my lane of offering classes for anyone. For someone to come to a class and not feel comfortable. I’m thankful for the shade, because now this is my purpose. Every time I have a workshop, every time I have a class, the testimonies at the end or the hugs at the end are like, “Wow! This was such a safe space.”

I love how, looking at the classes you lead, how Black they are [laughs]. A lot of people look at the yoga practice and all they can envision is waiflike White women who do cleanses and whatever else. Based on your experiences, why was it important for you to teach yoga to people who look like you who otherwise might feel left out?

Oh my gosh. It’s so important. I try to be very intentional about people actually realizing, hey, there is a safe space for diversity. I love that my classes are so Black because it’s not a lot of times that you ever see that. It’s funny you said that because I had a student from Australia. She was a White woman, mid-30s. Afterwards, just hearing the women talk about how they felt so safe, she felt like, “Am I taking up space?” I told her, “You’re not taking up space, I’m glad you’re here.” This is what it’s about. It’s about diversifying the wellness space. I was like, “During class, did you ever feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m the only White person?'” She said, “I didn’t.” And I was like, “Exactly, and that’s what this space is for. They didn’t feel like that, you didn’t feel like that, you didn’t feel like anyone was staring at you because no one was staring at you but me.” So yeah, my intention is to diversify what wellness looks like. We associate health and wellness with someone who is super thin and put together. That is wellness, and until you look like that, you’re not well. But it looks completely different for everyone. Your yoga teacher isn’t just a skinny White girl, it’s also the big Black girl. It’s the woman who wears a hijab. It’s all of that. It’s so many different faces and I’m just on a mission to show those faces.

How has your body changed since you started doing yoga and what is your diet like to help maintain such gains?

I slimmed out quite a bit, which is good. I feel better. I went through a period of complete laziness, which transformed right into a depressive state. So I was at my unhealthiest. From the outside looking in it didn’t look that bad, but the feeling inside, I felt horrible. I slimmed out. I completely cleaned up my diet. I used to eat garbage. I used to eat so bad. Like gallons of Tampico. So bad [laughs]. I don’t claim any vegan or vegetarian diet, but I would say I follow a plant-based diet. I definitely feel clear. I feel more light and always ready. I’m never lethargic. No more itis [laughs]. I feel good though, I really do. So I try to stay 95 percent plant based because that’s the way our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did it. They were plant based because that’s really all they had. And that’s why they lived to 110, 115 years old.

What advice do you have for women of color who are trying to get into yoga but feel frustrated because not only do they feel different in class but they’re also struggling with certain poses? It seems easy for people to write off yoga if they feel it’s too advance or just not a welcoming space.

I honestly would say, come to my beginners workshop [laughs]. But really, the key to a fulfilling practice is to have a phenomenal beginner teacher. It sets the tone for the rest of everything. How do you find a phenomenal teacher? You literally have to be open-minded until you find someone who can teach you. Everyone is teachable in different ways. Some people might need a little more encouragement, some may need a little less. More attention, less attention. That’s stuff you find in a really good, quality teacher. But good, quality teacher doesn’t mean they’ve been teaching for 400 years. They could have just started teaching five months ago. It means someone who really wants to show up, be there and teach you. Someone who really cares. But I think it’s also important to find someone who looks like you in some way. Because when they don’t, you don’t know the language. Find a teacher that speaks the same language as you, that gets and understands that “Hey, my butt is big so I can’t bend back like that” and they’re like, “Ok, cool. I know what to do for that.” There are a few cases where people go to random places and have a good experience and that’s awesome. But nine times out of 10, find a studio, either the teacher or the students, that look like you because that’s the only way you’re going to get the quality instruction you really need.

As a yogi, what are you top three favorite poses?

I’m going to go with handstand, crow and middle split. Those are my three favorites. Middle split is my favorite in particular because it’s so hard. I earned that, so it’s my favorite [laughs]. And then handstand because they’re fun and crow — same thing. It’s just fun sitting there, and also, it’s the first inversion that I learned.

So what’s next for you when it comes to diversifying yoga? 

Setting up a scholarship for men and women of color doing teacher training. A lot of the time, we can’t or don’t do them because they’re so freaking expensive. So boom, another effort to diversify the space. Now we can have people who can afford to go to these trainings. But I’m very intentional. If you get the scholarship to get your teacher training, it’s via approved studios that the board team has decided that they put forth an effort to diversify their space. We’re not just giving money to anyone. We’re really trying to make diversity normal. I want to see old women, young women, men teaching the class and not this weird, fake deep, fake sacred space. Classes of a wide variety. One kind of person can’t teach everyone.

Follow Racheal on Instagram and check out the rest of our inspiring Fitness Fridays profiles!

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