When Davina Davidson was teaching math at a north Houston middle school, her eighth-grade students often struggled to focus. So Davidson, who taught yoga on the side, started leading them in simple breathing exercises and stretches at the start of class. “Their behavior changed,” she remembers. “They started to be more relaxed, more thoughtful.” Parents began asking her what had led to the positive changes they observed in their kids; when Davidson explained, the adults asked for yoga classes too.

“But the reality was that in the lower-income communities that I was working with, which were predominately Hispanic or African American, they didn’t have transportation to go into the city to take my class,” she says. Many couldn’t afford to pay $20 or more for an hourlong class, either. The experience made clear to Davidson why yoga classes are so overwhelmingly filled with white, wealthy students. Of the roughly 37 million U.S. adults who practice yoga, 85 percent are white.

Now she’s leading a nonprofit aimed at changing that. The Melanin Yoga Project, which Davidson launched in 2017, is focused on bringing yoga to people of color in underserved communities. The group organizes yoga classes at low-income schools and community centers throughout the Houston area, offers training and mentorships at highly discounted rates, and holds an annual expo with workshops and networking opportunities. Davidson has since trained more than seven hundred instructors and attracted 27,000 followers on her Instagram, with yogis and non-yogis alike praising the necessary service she’s providing people of color. She even has plans to take her homegrown project abroad as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

We spoke with her about dismantling racism in yoga, navigating through this stressful time, and how the Melanin Yoga Project has changed Houston’s yoga scene.

On how her education background has informed her yoga career

There’s this positivity of light and love and happy energy in yoga, but it doesn’t necessarily help people grow and evolve as teachers. So I created a rubric to help teachers get succinct, clear, effective feedback on their classes to help them grow and evolve. That was the first tool that I used. 

And fast-forward to now, I’ve been doing online teacher trainings for probably five or six years. So when COVID hit, it wasn’t like, “What do I do?” I’ve utilized all of my resources as a school teacher—worksheets to break down Sanskrit, worksheets to break down sequencing and anatomy, flash cards. I mean, we do all the things to ensure that people are learning. So my background has been very instrumental in being able to lead in the way I do now. 

On yoga training as a service project

What’s interesting is in leading a lot of yoga teacher trainings in predominantly white settings, [there’s a] tendency to walk away thinking that the only way that you can teach yoga is in that company’s studio. And the problem with that is if you don’t look like them, you don’t talk like them, if you have too much pizzazz or you have too much passion, you’re told to tone it down. And so people are misinformed. Through the service projects, because we are a service and want to be used as a service organization, we give trainees the opportunities to teach in schools, to teach in community centers, shelters, churches, so that we are literally spreading this practice to people who need it, not only the people who can afford it.

On dismantling racism in yoga

Just through a training that I led this July, the Black Lives Matter rocket training, we systematically crushed some portion of the system, I would say. Because traditionally yoga teacher training costs two to three thousand dollars. And even if it’s just a one-hundred-hour training, those can be a thousand dollars. Instead, we offered it at a donation rate. Some people paid a dollar to get access to this. I think taking money out of the hands of white studio owners and white supremacist systems—meaning studios that are not welcoming to people of color, like openly just not welcome—that’s one effect. 

And in general, yoga is healing and is for everyone. It wasn’t created for one race. What yoga can do is teach people of color how to navigate their feelings, their emotions, their mental health. By creating more Black trainers, we shift what the industry looks like. Because right now, you will [almost certainly] either be trained by a white man or white woman. And occasionally there are a few Asian teachers, but the majority of teacher trainers are white. 

On how Melanin Yoga Project has changed Houston’s yoga scene

One thing that stands out is that there’s a space—a safe space that’s created for people of color. There are people who enjoy practicing at white studios and have never had any concerns or issues. I’m one of those people. I’ve never been discriminated against in the time that I was practicing in studios.

But I think the most impactful thing is that there’s a space for us. We host an annual expo and it’s the most beautiful thing ever. It’s four hours of lecture, yoga, and community. You get to see Black yoga teachers. You get to practice with people who look just like you. You’re the majority. You’re not the minority. 

On her time during quarantine

For a lot of people, their lives might have slowed down, but my life actually picked up during this time. Yoga is in high demand right now. I was trying to get a bit of rest through June—that didn’t really work. And then through the Black Lives Matter training, there were 2,500 people who attended, which was a lot. And that was very stressful. I had some moments where I was extremely overwhelmed. I had some nerve stuff going on. I was just stressed out. Toward the end of the month I just started setting more and more boundaries and creating more space for me to be by myself doing the things that I enjoy, like laying in my hammock for an hour. That’s so important to me.

On handling stress

It’s different for everyone, given that we all do deal with stress differently. And I think what is most important is to create space for yourself. Spend some time with yourself doing things that you love, whether it’s reading, drawing, whatever that is. 

Spend some time in meditation and breathing to clear the mind. I don’t like to parallel what we’re experiencing to Hurricane Harvey. However, that’s exactly how I felt when this first happened, and one of the things that was very helpful for me was a meditation and yoga nidra practice. Listening to that was the only way for me to go to sleep. And then, I like to think that we’re like plants. We need hydration and sunlight. 

Advice on fostering a community

One of the things that I love, for me and my family and some friends, is that we’ve been doing a weekly Bible study together through Zoom. Prior to March, I had not been to Bible study in years. However, that was something that my sister cultivated and just kept with it. And so it’s just creating ways to connect. What’s the thing that you’re passionate about? Can you share that with people, whether it’s a book club, maybe it’s certain fitness things that you enjoy? Get together in community versus trying to do everything on your own. 

On the future of Melanin Yoga Project

The desire and goal is for this to be an international yoga nonprofit where we serve communities all around the world. This year was supposed to be the first year that took our expo on the road to Atlanta and it got canceled because of COVID. However, next year we’re keeping forward with the plan to bring the expo to Atlanta as well as L.A. We also have a service trip scheduled for Ghana next year. 

Right now, through the BLM training and Melanin Yoga Project, there are people from everywhere. So, I mean, during this time, because we’re given this virtual opportunity, it’s amazing how we got to connect with people all over the world. For Melanin Yoga Project, I really see it being a tool and guide for people of color to be supported and to grow and evolve.