Sisters of Yoga provides a safe space where Black women can find community and healing in wellness.
Tie Simpson was scrolling through Instagram in 2012 when one particular photo caught her eye. It was a man with his body contorted into a seemingly impossible position, and Simpson was intrigued.
“I’ve always been a person who loves to challenge my body,” she said. “I love the gym. I love dancing. I love working out.”
Simpson didn’t know anything about yoga, but that didn’t stop her from jumping in on day 10 of what turned out to be a 30-day Instagram challenge.
“My body was like, ‘What is this? What are we doing?’ she laughed. “But I was also so excited because I was able to get most of the postures.”
The diversion couldn’t have come along at a better time. Simpson had recently been laid off from her job and was admittedly “not in a great place mentally and emotionally.” The stay-at-home mom filled the extra time with more IG challenges and started gaining a following on her recently created account. But she noticed there weren’t many women who looked like her practicing yoga. One of her new online friends, Phyllicia Bonanno, had made a similar observation and reached out to Simpson to create a challenge with other women of color. The response was so positive and uplifting that the two started brainstorming ways to continue developing their burgeoning tribe. Sisters of Yoga, an organization providing a safe wellness space for women of color and representation in yoga, was the result.
Their first New York City meetup in 2018 drew 30 people. Another in Atlanta, where Simpson is based, attracted 60.
“It just caught like wildfire,” said Simpson. “Representation was needed to see Black women coming together to do something positive.”
Their online collective is now almost 97,000 followers strong. Members include teenagers and mothers in their 50’s. The group is prepping for their first official international Sisters of Yoga retreat this August in the Dominican Republic.
Sisters of Yoga is part of a new wave of inclusive wellness that rejects toxic positivity and instead works to change the narrative about who belongs in yoga spaces. Jessamine Stanley is a yoga teacher, body-positive wellness advocate, and author of Every Body Yoga and Yoke: My Yoga of Self Acceptance. Chicago-based yoga instructor Lauren Ash’s Black Girl in Om makes yoga accessible to women of color. Dr. Sanaa Jaman goes by the moniker Ladydork and has also built her brand on promoting diversity in her yoga practice.
Simpson opened up about the shift in the yoga industry over the past ten years and how Sisters of Yoga is making the wellness space welcoming for Black women.
You started out doing yoga challenges, but how did you deepen your practice?
For the first two years, I was a stay-at-home practitioner. I never went to a studio. I never did any actual yoga training or went to a class or anything. I was just YouTubing, looking at apps, and trying my own practice flow. And then, I was inspired by my community to get my YTT (Yoga Teacher Training). I even posted the day I went to my first yoga class on [Instagram]. It was like, ‘I’m going to yoga class for the first time!’ It was a big deal.
What are the general barriers to entry for Black women in yoga?
Well representation, for one. There were Black people practicing yoga, but we weren’t visible. Not to say there were a lot of us, but people were practicing. And then it’s just the accessibility. I was a self-practitioner for two years. I didn’t have money to go to yoga classes all the time. And then, when I went into classes, I wouldn’t see myself reflected. My first yoga class was with a Black woman, but no other Black people were around me. I just think that it felt like it was untouchable. Yoga didn’t feel like it was for us or something that Black people had access to for a number of reasons; the price, feeling comfortable in the class, and understanding even what yoga was about. I think for a lot of Black people, we also struggle with our religion and anything in conflict with it.
What are some of the unexpected benefits of practicing yoga?
When I started yoga, I felt like I was very separated from myself; my awareness of myself, my energy when I stepped into a space, and the thoughts going through my head were causing self-sabotage. Yoga causes you to look at yourself.
When I was just learning these poses, I just wanted to pose right. But this practice has taught me how to be a better parent, speak to my children in a healthy way, and even give them these tools that I’m learning. So it’s healing my family and my lineage from the generational trauma that we have that we suffered. We haven’t gone in and pulled out the roots of all these things because we’ve never turned the mirror to look at ourselves. So yoga turns the mirror to you and says, ‘Who are you? What are you about?’
You mentioned the word healing which is vital because after the pandemic and social justice reckoning in 2020, collectively, we needed to recover. Was there more of a demand for your services?
One thousand percent. During COVID, we were needed more than ever. That’s when we started to do more live streams and free yoga classes on Instagram for our communities because everybody was stuck at home. We’ve always been pretty consistent with posting challenges for people to always be able to tap in and feel like they’re connected. But many people don’t know how to have an at-home practice or how to stay consistent or committed or inspired to practice. And so, especially during 2020, we needed each other and our community. We were all so separated, and we needed to be together more than anything.
Sisters of Yoga originated from a desire to promote inclusion. Have you seen positive change since you entered the wellness space?
For sure. In the last eight years of me practicing yoga to now, it’s incredible. Just take a look at the yoga community and see all these Black women on our page. It has substantially changed over the last five years. I love seeing companies create spaces for us even more, knowing how important it is to bring in other voices, especially Black voices, to the conversations surrounding wellness.
Before, a few Black women in this space were getting all of the gigs. Everybody was calling the same five women. I was one of them, but it’s different now. I’ve seen women and young girls in the space killing it and getting deals from different companies to work. I’m amazed and very proud of the shifts in the wellness space as it pertains to inclusivity. We’ve just got to make sure that it’s not being done for show.
I understand part of your mission is diversifying the instructor pool as well. Did that strike a chord with you as an instructor yourself?
I want to create more opportunities for Black wellness practitioners and leaders to make more income. When I started teaching at yoga retreats, I wasn’t making that much money. But it was for the experience and for me to learn. I don’t always feel like money is the most important thing in certain transactions; however, we need to eat and take care of ourselves. And so, I’m building this amazing community that continues to pour into each other. A huge pillar of Sisters of Yoga retreats is to create income for yoga teachers. I pay top dollar to my yoga teachers to teach these yoga retreats.
You have your first international retreat coming up. What can participants expect?
It’s for women, so it’s about breaking the barriers and masks that we have for ourselves. And we show up as a mom, teacher, writer, or whatever. We go to beautiful locations, and we connect with the earth. We eat healthy foods, we do yoga, and we have shamans. It is a deeply healing experience on my retreats in terms of the inner self. For Sisters of Yoga, it’s more about sisterhood and community healing, and so we create sacred sister circles where we have these guided discussions talking about different things.
What are your short and long-term plans for Sisters of Yoga?
I want to start doing our yoga tours again on a smaller scale. COVID definitely put a halt to our yoga tour schedule. We had [planned] this six-city tour to our communities to visit them and create this Yoga Day. I want to start creating a yoga teacher training program so that we can bring in more yoga teachers and then be able to give them work. I want to create a Sisters of Yoga wellness studio, and I would love to franchise them and see them all over the world. But first, we’re going to start with the online yoga studio.