Founders Phyllicia Bonanno and Tie Simpson believe women of all backgrounds should feel welcome in yoga—and they're on a mission to make that a reality.

By Renee Cherry
July 02, 2020
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Scroll through #yogachallenge on Instagram and you'll see photo after photo of bendy yogis in varying asanas. The concept behind the popular social media challenge (of which there are many different iterations) is pretty straightforward: The creator(s) post a picture of themselves doing a new yoga pose over the course of a few days, and participants follow suit, sharing their own photo doing the pose with a dedicated hashtag. Like so much of social media, these challenges tend to be fairly ephemeral, lasting only a few days and only online—that is, except for the #yogachallenge created by Phyllicia Bonanno and Tie Simpson that turned into an IRL endeavor.

While scrolling through challenges, Bonanno noticed an absence of women of color. She reached out to 11 women of color (including Simpson) who posted yoga photos on Instagram to create a yoga challenge together. They were all in. And after an enthusiastic response to the challenge from yogis on Instagram, Simpson and Bonanno wanted to try bringing people together in person.

"We were like 'how can we expand this community to let people know that women of color are practicing yoga, women of color yoga are teachers, women of color are within this wellness space, we're just not being seen for whatever reason?'" says Bonanno. Sisters of Yoga, an organization dedicated to community healing and representation in yoga, was born. (Related: Meet Lauren Ash, One of the Most Important Voices In the Wellness Industry)

Their first meetup in Brooklyn in 2018 attracted 25 people. From there, Sisters of Yoga grew, hosting workshops in New York and Atlanta (where Bonanno and Simpson are based, respectively). In addition to yoga sessions, the events have entailed activities like guided meditations, plant workshops, and panel discussions on wellness. This year a national tour of one-day yoga and healing retreats was in the works, but it was put on hold due to COVID-19 in favor of virtual events like a recent journaling workshop.

"Sisters of Yoga started off as just a safe space for women of color to heal, to explore themselves, and have a supportive sisterhood because a lot of times [wellness] is new territory for us [as women of color]," says Simpson. "So we don't have the support system sometimes to have us navigate and feel safe to say certain things and just be open. We wanted to build a community where people leave thinking 'oh my God, I felt so beautiful in this space,' so we put a lot of thought into the experience."

"This really is a space for wellness but also for education, because a lot of people of color haven't been exposed to the wellness that everybody else kind of takes for granted," says Bonanno. (Related: What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White)

When the duo first got into yoga, neither founder had intentions of becoming a teacher, let alone starting a grassroots organization. Bonanno started taking classes in high school. "I was raised by my grandparents," she says. "My mother was a drug addict, and I'm the type of person who doesn't like to show their emotions. At that time in high school, I was looking for a physical activity to release." She started walking to a Gold's Gym to take classes before school. "Through the yoga, I found the release physically, mentally, spiritually and it was something that actually helped me to manage my own emotions that were going on within me," she explains, "because I had a lot of anger and resentment towards my mother that I didn't really know how to express." (See also: Accessible and Supportive Mental Health Resources for Black Womxn)

Simpson, on the other hand, discovered yoga as an adult circa 2012. "I'd just been laid off from my job and I was in a very bad space and I had two children at the time," she recalls. She joined Instagram and started seeing photos of people doing yoga—something, believe it or not, she had yet to hear about. Still, she was intrigued and joined a yoga challenge, only to get hooked. "After the 30 days I remember my body feeling so alive and leading up to this it felt like crap," she says. "And so this was something that awakened my body and made me feel like 'you should probably do more of this.'" (Related: Take Our 30-Day Yoga Challenge to Get Your Om On)

Both women ultimately completed yoga teacher training and became aware of the hefty price tag (thousands of dollars) attached to becoming an instructor. "I got a full scholarship, which was such a blessing because teacher training programs are very expensive; they're not always really accessible to everybody," says Bonanno. Meanwhile, Simpson created a financial plan to tackle the cost. For this reason, the duo hopes to eventually offer more accessible (and budget-friendly) teacher training through Sisters of Yoga.  

"The hope is to essentially add people with different backgrounds, different life experiences," says Bonanno. "Because if the baseline cost is between four and eight thousand dollars, you're only going to have a certain type of middle-class teachers who can afford it or teachers who spent their whole life savings." (Related: Watching My Mom Become a Yoga Teacher Taught Me a New Meaning of Strength)

In addition to rescheduling the national tour and starting teacher training, they also hope to hold a large Sisters of Yoga festival in the future—and, in turn, welcome even more women of color into the wellness world. Down the road, the duo would also like to offer "mini-retreats" that have the same Sisters of Yoga-esque safe space but for an extended period of time "to do deeper work," explains Simpson. Think: more time to dig deep while meditating and heal more effectively than what's possible in a quick yoga session.

Amid an ongoing national conversation about social injustices, Simpson and Bonanno are inspired to continue to build upon Sisters of Yoga. "Everyone has their role in this awakening, and for us, that is to provide a space of healing," says Simpson. (Up next: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)

As in-person, well, everything (events, yoga sessions, talks) is on pause, they continue to highlight women of color in yoga, most recently through a new Instagram yoga challenge. "More than ever this is the time of change, this is the time of revolution," says Bonanno, "and it's a time for everybody to be seen and to include all backgrounds."

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