by Esteban Bustillos, Dallas Morning News (source)
When Ebony Smith began practicing yoga, she couldn’t help but feel like an outsider.
“There was something about it that I absolutely loved,” she said. “But I didn’t like going to practice, because nobody ever looked like me and I just always kind of felt awkward.”
Smith, 35, picked up yoga about seven years ago as a way to help prepare her body for the birth of her first child. Along with the physical benefits, the discipline allowed her to be focused. But very few black women or people of color attended the same classes.
Sensing the need for affordable yoga classes in places like her native Oak Cliff, Smith founded Yoga N Da Hood in 2014. In addition to her job as a full-time yoga instructor, she hosts about four free classes a week for those who might otherwise not get exposure to the practice. But more important, she tries to help others understand what it means to love and care for themselves, comparing the difficulties of practicing yoga and keeping your balance to the difficulties of life. Even if you stumble.
“Will you get back up?” she said. “Just like off the mat, will you be compassionate and nice to yourself if you don’t make the grades that you want to or get the job that you want to or you make a mistake, you know?”
Growing up, Smith struggled with her insecurities. A neighborhood woman molested her as a young girl, leading to anxiety and depression, Smith said. As Smith battled with her emotions, she struggled in school, often getting suspended.
Girls Inc. of Metropolitan Dallas acted as a guiding light for Smith during this time. Smith started out participating in the nonprofit’s programs as an 8-year-old and learned skills like how to interview and how to treat others well.
Susan Stephens, who worked at Girls Inc. while Smith was a teen, made it her job to help Smith get through her hard times. “I just always tried to encourage her and let her know that she could be successful and she could be comfortable in the skin she was in,” Stephens said.
With simple acts like taking Smith to church and just spending time with her, Stephens left a lasting impression on the future yoga instructor.
“I love Girls Inc. with everything,” Smith said. “And so when I decided to delve into this project of Yoga N Da Hood and giving back to the community, Girls Inc. was one of the first places that I thought about to go back and to work with the girls.”
Every Thursday, Smith teaches free classes and compassion workshops for Girls Inc., helping to give back to the organization that gave so much to her. But that’s only part of her mission. She also teaches free classes for anyone who can make it to Fair Park and Kidd Springs Park in Oak Cliff.
Jennifer Lawson, who co-owns Sync Yoga and Wellbeing with her husband in West Dallas, helped mentor Smith when she started yoga. In the Western world, Lawson said, yoga has largely been available to just white women. Now, Smith’s work teaching in overlooked areas is helping to change that.
“It’s kind of like Starbucks these days — there’s a yoga studio everywhere,” Lawson said. “But definitely in South Dallas [it’s] more rare to find that.”
One recent evening outside the Women’s Museum in Fair Park, Smith conducts a yoga class under the shade of trees.
Smith leads a small class through a series of stances. As the sun sets behind a curtain of clouds and fountains bubble gently in the background, Smith smoothly gives out commands as the class fluctuates between poses like downward-facing dog, half moon pose, child’s pose and warrior poses.
Throughout the class, she reiterates the theme of remembering what you’re grateful for. For Jasmin Kyle, who’s been attending Smith’s classes for about three months, Yoga N Da Hood helps her find inner peace.
“You could kind of compare it to maybe church,” she said. “How people go get their good fixing on a Sunday, I go get my good energy fixing on a Wednesday. And it’s serious.”
Relaxation techniques that Smith learned from yoga helped when she and her two daughters were downtown during the July 7, 2016, ambush that killed five police officers. She said the techniques helped her “to breathe through the situation, not to panic and be able to have some kind of focus to make a conscious decision.”
“When your nervous system goes whack, the more you breathe, the more you concentrate on your breath, then your nervous system becomes stable again,” she said. “And that is the practice of yoga, as well … using it in situations on and off the map to help you be able to cope and get through those things.”
As Yoga N Da Hood continues to grow, Smith plans on diversifying the services she offers. Currently, she’s raising money to buy a used school bus, re-outfit it and turn it into a mobile yoga studio she can take around North Texas to teach children in. She’ll call it the Mindful School Bus. Her goal is to raise $6,000 for the project.
Smith may teach mostly women and girls, but Yoga N Da Hood isn’t exclusive to just one group. She’s looking for a football team to work with to help athletes understand just how much yoga can help with flexibility and agility.
Tamara Smith, Smith’s sister, frequents her sibling’s classes. For her, yoga is about more than exercise. “It’s also mental and it helps you get through a lot of different things that you may have gone through in the past, a lot of different health issues,” she said. “So I think it’s very beneficial to anybody who might not be aware of it or anybody who, like she always says, might not be able to afford it.”
But at the end of the day, Smith’s lessons aren’t about yoga. They’re about teaching people how to take care of themselves, no matter their skin color, body type or money situation.
“In order for us to become better, we have to heal the things that are broken within ourselves,” she said. “And who better to do that than your own self?”
Ebony Smith conducts free classes at Kidd Springs Park in Oak Cliff and Fair Park a few times a week, along with a free class at one of the local Girls Inc. locations every Thursday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit https://www.yogandahood.com/where-will-i-be. For more on Girls Inc., visit http://girlsincdallas.org/.