The Wellness industry has a diversity issue, and women of color continue to be underrepresented in yoga and meditation. Kenyari ‘Yari’ Keith is helping to change that by creating a space for Black women in Yoga in her hometown of Indianapolis, IN. Yari is a passionate, genuine, intellectual, and vibrant Black woman dedicated to fulfilling her life dreams and being happy. I sat down with Yari, to discuss when her passion for yoga began, what yoga means for the African American community, and how it affects your day to day life. In a fruitful and fun conversation, I came out learning more than I thought I would, and I am grateful to have had this conversation and opportunity to spotlight an amazing woman. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BWI: When did you start yoga?
Yari: I started taking yoga as an elective when I attended Indiana University – Purdue University, and it became a way for me to relieve stress and be more active. I wanted to give it a try, and I fell in love with it from there. That was around 2014, my sophomore year of undergrad.
BWI: What made you fall in love with yoga?
Yari: I fell in love with what it could do for my body on a surface level. When I first started practicing, I knew right away that it was something special for me. But when I first started to like it and feel like it was something I needed in my life, I didn’t realize it was something I needed to practice regularly for it to be effective. When I went to graduate school is when I started practicing consistently. It’s almost like when you meet someone, and you realize that person is your life partner, and you can’t live without them. That was kind of my experience and when I fell in love with it. In undergrad, I was so wrapped up in getting good grades, joining organizations, and exercising when I found the time. I was wrapped up in being perfect that I didn’t make time for self-care, and I was facing a lot of challenges that I didn’t realize were due to lack of self-care or self-understanding. So when I started grad school, I was nervous because I knew college made me feel stressed. Then I remembered that when I took yoga, I felt better. So I started practicing on my own every single day, and I went to the studio like three to four times a week. But there was never a day that I wasn’t practicing. When I practiced every day, I fell in love with yoga on a whole other level. I realized that it made a difference, not only in the classroom but how I treated other people.
BWI: If you had to describe yoga to anyone, what would you say?
Yari: It’s indescribable! The key is – yoga is for everyone, but the experience is different for everybody. It’s one of those things that can not be described by any type of imagery. It can’t be described by any one person because anybody that practices yoga is going to feel it differently than the next person. I hate to keep comparing it to love, but it’s almost like that. If you ask people to describe the love, you will get several different answers. For some people, they may feel in touch with their yoga practice when they’re doing a fast vinyasa and dripping sweat. Other people just need to be on a bolster with their eyes closed for an hour, but I would say it’s a universal practice that anybody can benefit from. It’s indescribable.
BWI: Today, we talk a lot about self-care and mental health, especially when it comes to the state of African Americans in this country. Where do you think yoga fits into that conversation?
Yari: We have a history of not being afforded the same opportunities as other people, and that transcends into almost every area of our lives. When we are faced with challenges and tragedies, we’re starting to understand the importance of self-care. We understand that if I am strong internally and if I have something I can go to that is not an outward medication. I’m not saying that all of our people do this, but if it’s not something I have to spend a ton of money to do or understand, but it’s my mind and my body then I can hone in on that power and show other people how to do it. I can uplift my people. When I say “I,” I’m speaking as a Black person in our mental collective, especially Black teachers, and that goes beyond yoga. I think it becomes so centralized for our people because we’re taking our mental health more seriously. You can see the political state of our country. I have a journalism degree, and I don’t watch the news because I don’t want that in my mental space. I feel like we do a great job, in some instances, in lifting up ourselves, and I think that yoga is just another way to do that.
BWI: When did you become an instructor? When did you know you wanted to become an instructor and share your passion with other people?
Yari: That happened over time. In October of 2017, I taught my first yoga class. I was practicing because I knew I wanted to complete my training to become a teacher. In preparing for that, I was enjoying my practice and sharing with others as I saw fit. While I was doing that, I had some of my undergraduate chapter of AKA friends reach out and ask if I could teach a class for one of their events, and I wasn’t going to say no. I was nervous, and I informed them that I wasn’t certified, and they were like, “It’s fine!” I did it as volunteer work. I knew I wanted to teach and share with other people because it was something that I loved. I got on that mat, and I was holding space for those women, and it almost felt like doing something that I didn’t have to think about, and people received it well. They kept asking when I would teach more, and I told them that I had to learn how to be an actual teacher. Fast forward, I finished my certification in April of this year, and after that, I started my #HerGlowUp series toward the end of my teacher training.
BWI: Describe the typical environment in your yoga class.
Yari: It’s different every single time. One thing that’s always constant is I teach to hold space. It is always about the student. It is not about you coming to take a yoga class with me. It’s you’re coming to your mat, showing up for you – I’m here to hold space for you. Typically, like with my #HerGlowUp series, I’ll have an objective that I want to reach for the day, as far as how the practice will flow, and l may have a theme. But it’s an open environment. I tell people to come as you are and be comfortable because there is no expectation for what you do. I know that I may have a plan for the class in my mind, but I’m there as a space holder. I may say, “Today we’re going to practice tree pose,” but if someone’s body is not going to do tree pose that day than there body is not going to do tree pose, so we make that adaptation. I’m always explaining why I ask people to get in poses and what that pose will do for them. I’m not a teacher about looks – that’s not my focus. I’m more focused on how someone feels after they leave the mat. That is the most important thing to me. Forget about what your practice looks like. Do you feel recharged? Do you feel better than you did when you came here?
BWI: You mentioned briefly the #HerGlowUp Series. Tell me more. What made you start it? What made you want to create this space for women to gather and practice yoga?
Yari: The #HerGlowUp Series is focused on creating space where women can access their divine feminine power off and on their yoga mats. I created that space-based around the idea that women can connect with yoga concepts. As I mentioned earlier, I noticed that I started treating people differently. That was due to concepts that I was learning about as I went deeper into my yoga practice. So we focus on divine feminine energy off and on the yoga mat, sisterhood, and yoga concepts. One thing that made me want to start a series is that when you go to a yoga studio as a member – you’re going to end up building community. But it was harder to find women who looked like me in my classes, and when I did, we could only talk a few minutes in between the yoga class. A friend of mine from the yoga class would meet to discuss all these things regarding the class, and I was like, you know what, why not to facilitate and create a space where this is the norm. So, I started it, and I only held space for four women at a time at first because it seemed like it would be a one-time thing. I didn’t think it would grow into something we’d do regularly, and so I gave it a try, and we all loved it. As I said, I’m just holding space, so if they hadn’t received it well, then it would have been one of those things where it didn’t work out. But it did, and it grew from there.
BWI: How do you envision your yoga series enhancing the city of Indianapolis?
Yari: WOAH! (Laughs) You know, I am just here to facilitate space. My hope is for the #HerGlowUp series is that it continues to be something intentional and if there are people here that need it that they feel welcome and affected by it positively. I’m just a space holder and someone who loves yoga and loves to see what it can do for other people. So, thinking on a larger scale – the women who do Her Glow Up range from psychologists, moms, teachers – you name it! I’ve had several participants bond, build friendships, and collaborate, then go out and make changes in the world. Maybe I’m affecting the city in that way because I do love my city, this is my home! But I just see it as them putting in the work, and I’m creating a space where they can put the work in and affect change.
BWI: In one of your captions on Instagram, you said, “I practice non-attachment so that I can love genuinely.” Tell me what that means to you?
Yari: Nonattachment is a concept in yoga. It’s an ancient concept that’s deep to me. I’m the oldest of four kids, so I’ll use my siblings as an example. I have a younger brother who I love dearly. I can say I want to support him at his wrestling match. Throughout the day, I plan my entire day around wanting to go and see him wrestle and wanting to see him win and be happy. I want him to see me there and know I’m supporting him. But he calls me and says, “Kenyari, I’m not wrestling tonight. I decided I don’t want to do that anymore.” If I practice non-attachment, I am not attached to the idea that I wanted to go and see him wrestle. I just love him. My purpose behind wanting to support him at the wrestling match was the love, not being at the actual wrestling match. This story is hypothetical but gives you an example of how it applies to so many different things. In everyday situations, it’s not being attached to anything – not being attached to outcomes. It’s knowing yourself. It’s knowing I want to do this because I genuinely understand who I am and what’s motivating me. If I have a goal, it’s a pure goal, and I’m not attached to the gratification of achieving that goal. I’m not attached to people approving of me, the smile someone may give me, or the frown another person may give me. I am solid within myself. When I show up to places, it’s without attachment to what I think I’m going to get out of it. It’s because I’m supposed to be there. For me, it reflects in my work, and it’s vital in yoga. That’s why I’m able to say I’m here to hold space. If you love something, it’s really easy to be attached to a specific outcome. As humans, we think I love this, and I’m going to work hard, and it’s going to be perfect. But say my student comes and there sore because they had a tough workout or they have an injury they didn’t have the day before, I can not be an effective teacher if I’m attached to the way my class is supposed to go or look. I’ve had it happen before where I had a class of a dozen people, and two people showed up. If I’m attached to the idea of a dozen people showing up, that doesn’t make me an effective teacher. I can talk about non-attachment all day long because I believe nonattachment allows us to be the best versions of ourselves.
BWI: How often do you do yoga?
Yari: I get on my mat every day. I always tell people, yoga is more than just rolling out a mat for 30 minutes to an hour of poses. Yoga is also about your breathing and how you treat people. I practice yoga every day! But I practice my yoga if I’m frustrated at work. I’ll begin doing a breathing technique or deep belly breathing. I’ll practice not being judgmental one day. Those things are me also practicing my yoga, so I feel like I’m practicing all the time.
BWI: This point has come up often in our conversation. So, I just want to ask how do you see yoga changing the way you treat people? I believe that also coincides with how you communicate with people. Through your practice, what has changed between your interactions and communication with people?
Yari: Because of my yoga practice, I know myself. I can look at myself without being ashamed of anything that I am. So I’m not distracted by anything that I used to be distracted by when it comes to communicating with people. I understand the fact that I am a human being, and anyone I’m communicating with is also a human being. So, it’s all about holding space. If we don’t hold space for one another, we can’t communicate. The way I teach is more genuine now. Before, I would be nice and friendly, but I would be more concerned with how the other person is perceiving me. Why do I need to talk to this person? Is this person out to get me? Is this person, my friend? The thing is, this person is communicating with me, and that’s a blessing. Instead, I realize it or not what’s going to come out of this interaction. My yoga practice helped me come to that space in my mind.
To keep up with Kenyari’s yoga practice and to join the #HerGlowUp Series, follow her on Instagram @yari_yoga and visit her website at www.kenyari.com. Janae Morris, an Indianapolis photographer, provided all photos. Find her at lovexjane.com.
Brytnie Devon Jones was born and raised in Gary, IN. She graduated from undergrad with a Bachelor's in English and is currently finishing her Master's in Public Relations. She is passionate about Black bodies, police brutality, education, and prison reform. On her personal blog and Be Well Indy, her main goals are to inspire positivity and raise awareness.