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TheRootDC
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Posted at 09:22 AM ET, 01/23/2013

Seeking good health through African American churches, yoga classes and food companies

It’s a new year, a time when folks make resolutions to do better, quit something or in the case of most Americans, lose weight. Many people will try Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. A number will join a gym or a boot camp.


Sariane Leigh, yoga teacher and blogger of Anacostiayoga.com (Theodore Wolff)
Damian Stone, 39, is taking a more spiritual approach to getting healthy. He is participating in a three-week fast with the nine-member Brothers in Discipleship group at First Baptist Church in Glenarden.

“The number one reason I’m fasting is spiritually,” says Stone, who lives in Bowie. “Number two is physically. I found it’s a great opportunity to try to achieve some of my weight-control goals. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Like Stone, many African Americans in the region have made a pledge to get healthier this year. But they are looking for culturally relevant activities that appeal to them. Many want to do things with folks who look like them and have a shared sense of purpose.

This is the ninth year Edwige Desbhy is participating in her church’s fast. She attends the Gaithersburg satellite church of Bethel World Outreach in Silver Spring.

“It just helps to start my year out right, to be focused and prayerful and just looking toward a new year,” Desbhy says. “It just kind of focus my energy on God and God’s will for my life. It gives me an opportunity to pause.”

Though Desbhy, 35, primarily fasts for spiritual reasons, she says the health benefits are a by-product.

“You get thinner. You get slimmer because you’re not eating all the junk that you usually eat,” she says.

Bethel’s fast runs 21 days. Participants abstain from food from sunrise to sundown and they usually break their fast around 6 p.m. with a corporate prayer and a meal. Desbhy says she usually continues eating healthy months after the fast.

“I try as long as I can,” Desbhy says. “Your system gets used to eating healthy.”

Stone’s group at Glenarden started its fast the first Saturday in January. For the first week they were instructed to eat only fruit and vegetables. The second week the group was allowed to add nuts and soups to their diet and the third week is strictly fruits, vegetables and salads. No meat is allowed during the three-week fast.

If Stone runs out of ideas of what to eat, he might want to call Raw!, a vegan catering company started by two young African American women — Johnee´ Wilson and Brooke Johnson — in August. Raw! offers detoxifying juices, raw food dishes and vegan and vegetarian meals that are soy-free and gluten-free. The company specializes in living foods, which the founders describe as anything that is from the earth, not pasteurized, not processed, not refined and no heat added. 

“Unintentionally our whole demographic has been African American. We see that our people need a lot of help. We’re actually excited about that,” says Johnson, the company’s nutrition consultant. “We’ve had a rush over the last couple of weeks of people trying to change their lives.”

Raw! delivers meals from noon to 9 p.m., Thursday to Sunday within a 30 mile radius of Springfield. Lunch or dinner platters start at $15. Meal plans start at $120 and juice plans start at $150.

But Wilson emphasizes that folks should focus on lifestyle changes instead of quick fixes.

“A lot of people go on a temporary diet or a short fast. But the most critical point is after the diet or after the fast,” Wilson says. “Without the proper guidance they will go back to what they were eating before. And basically counteract the whole diet or fast that they just did.”

Yoga, with a touch of soul

Tikeisha Harris also decided to get healthier in 2013. But she’s doing something less drastic than fasting. She’s participating in the Soulful Flow Yoga series in Southeast.

“I had been wanting to go to a yoga class,” says Harris, a social researcher who lives in Upper Marlboro. “There are tons of yoga studios around the area but I liked the whole natural, black-owned aspect of it.”

And after one class she’s hooked, Harris says.

“I just felt so good, peaceful mind-wise and I felt better in my body,” says Harris, 33. “I started meditating last year, and it really was like that connection for me. Just the practice of being still enough and paying attention to what my body was saying to me was really important. I realized that it was a practice I was missing in my life.”

And that’s the goal of the Soulful Flow Yoga series, says founder Sariane Leigh, also known as Anacostia Yogi.

“A lot of people who come to my class, it’s the first time they’ve taken yoga before,” Leigh says. “They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to feel stupid.”

Leigh started the six-week Soulful Flow Yoga series to address the lack of consistent yoga classes East of the River and also introduce yoga to a population not usually seen in yoga studios in the area. But more importantly she wanted to create a nurturing and supportive environment for those who didn’t feel comfortable in a traditional studio.

“I wanted to teach to black people because a lot of the classes I would go to I would be the only black person and I didn’t feel acknowledged,” Leigh says. “I thought why not create an environment that we would want to be in. I really wanted to integrate my own style where you have a lot more fluid and rhythm and music.”

At the Spiritual Essence Yoga and Wellness Center in Upper Marlboro, owner Dana Smith says she has at least 15 new students, most of whom want to lose weight. She kicked off the new year with a 30-day yoga challenge: 30 yoga classes in 30 days.

“One woman has high blood pressure and one of her resolutions is to get off the medication,” Smith says.

Smith opened Spiritual Essence in her home a decade ago. She’s been at her latest locationsince 2008. It is the first African American-owned yoga studio in Prince George’s County. About 96 percent of her students are black and she has eight African American teachers, two of whom are 60.

“What kept me from yoga initially is that I didn’t see anyone with my body type,” Smith says. “I wouldn’t be classified as the traditional yoga body.”

 Smith says a lot of black students are hesitant to try yoga because when they pick up a yoga journal all they see are 25-year-old petite white women who are super flexible. It’s different at Spiritual Essence.

“A lot of my students will go to my Web site and they’ll see my picture and they’ll see I’m no where near a size two, but I’m able to do almost all of the things you see in the magazines and I do them great with my voluptuous frame,” Smith says.

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