None of her yoga-teacher training quite prepared Sariane Leigh for leading her first classes in Washington east of the Anacostia River five years ago. “I’d ask, ‘Who has health issues?’ And no one would say anything,” she says. Realizing that couldn’t be true, she switched to more specific questions, such as “Do you have diabetes?” and “Do you have high blood pressure?” The answer was yes — and, too often, it still is.
“They don’t acknowledge these as problems,” says the 34-year-old, who’s dedicated herself to turning around the health of this community — her community — through teaching and activism, as well as her blog, Anacostia Yogi, which has highlighted health resources since 2009.
When the Baltimore native first came to the District in 2005 to start graduate school at George Washington University, she moved in with her cousin in Anacostia. Leigh, who’d just returned from a two-year stint in Belize with the Peace Corps, couldn’t really afford to live anywhere else. But the lack of access to healthy food and safe physical activity bugged her. “It seemed unjust,” she says. “It’s not so insurmountable to bring wellness here.”
She thought yoga, in particular, would be an effective approach. She’d been introduced to the practice by friends in Belize, who suggested sun salutations, breathing techniques and basic sequences as ways to help her cope with her mother’s death from diabetes in 2003. “And it worked,” Leigh says. “I didn’t need antidepressants or to leave the Peace Corps.”
What struck Leigh, a lifelong athlete who’s been certified in aerobics for a decade, was that yoga isn’t merely fitness. It’s a form of self-empowerment, which is exactly why it belongs in lower-income areas. “Yoga is all about you. You don’t need a teacher or equipment or fancy pants,” she says.
At her classes east of the river, you also don’t need money. With the support of grants, Leigh has been able to offer free Soulful Flow Yoga at Hillcrest Recreation Center, a facility in a location with few other exercise options.
Keeping the classes complimentary also helps encourage folks who don’t see themselves as yogis because they don’t fit the stereotype of a “thin blonde with disposable income,” Leigh says. With her healthy curves, Leigh aims to be a role model for her students. “I want them to think, ‘If her body can do it, my body can do it,’” says Leigh, who emphasizes that there are modifications and adjustments for women of any size. “You can lift your belly out of the way and lift up your boobs.”
In each of her students, Leigh sees a little bit of her mom. “I saw her pass from a preventable illness and watched her health deteriorate based on habits,” she says. “A lot of black women take on stress in ways that people don’t see. I tell them to forget about their husband, kids, work. Give yourself the hour.”
But Leigh doesn’t want her students to stop there. At class, she encourages them to consider which resources they want more of in the community, to document their experiences and to email their city council representatives. Her goal: to turn them all into Anacostia Yogis.
People searching online for anything about wellness in Wards 7 and 8 often wind up at Leigh’s blog, which is why she tries to provide a one-stop shop for area resources and events. Over the past few years, she’s witnessed remarkable growth in the number of programs focusing on health east of the river. She’s doing her part by hosting her second-annual “Your Body-Your Life” workshop March 12 at 7 p.m. at Hillcrest Recreation Center. The free event features yoga and tips on getting healthier food into corner stores. Register at Anacostiayoga.eventbrite.com.
This article is part of “Fitness Deserts,” an occasional series examining disparities in access to physical activity in Washington. The series was produced, in part, as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.