‘Yoga is very much whitewashed. We need to make sure we make it as diverse as possible’

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I had a good relationship with sport growing up. I come from a sporty background, my mum is a fitness instructor and personal trainer. I used to take part in lots of different sports, from dancing, ice skating, swimming and judo. I’ve got two brothers who are also sporty. One of them used to run for Belgrave Harriers, my other brother went into bodybuilding and he inspired me to go down that route and challenge myself.

When I was at secondary school I gained a lot of weight when my hormones started to kick in. I’m tall, I’m 5ft 11in, and the foods I used to eat prior to starting my period, I couldn’t eat anymore. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was fed up as I was physically active but wasn’t seeing my body responding. I did what a lot of women do, which is jump on the treadmill and run for hours on end. I lost weight, but my body shape became very straight. I didn’t have any muscle mass, which is why my brother inspired me. I wasn’t doing enough resistance training or understanding my food intake. With the help of my trainer, and then studying myself, it clicked, which is why I love lifting weights and have that knowledge now to achieve the body shape I want.

I came into this game late. I’m 42 now but I only started this journey five years ago. After finishing school and college, I became a fashion stylist for a long time before I got fed up with it and thought, what am I going to do now? My mum jokes that all those years I spent around her had an influence in a way that I didn’t expect. If you’d asked me years ago, would I become a fitness instructor, I’d have said, no way.

It was normal for me to see black fitness instructors growing up, because my mum is black and we live in an area that has a higher percentage of black people. When I ventured further afield, I started to see it wasn’t as diverse as I thought. The yoga industry isn’t very inclusive of black faces or different body shapes. It’s probably a generational issue, as well as cultural, to break down those barriers. You have a certain age and demographic within the black community that think yoga is for the devil and it shouldn’t be practised.

There are a few more black instructors who do powerlifting and body training, they are changing the face of what a bodybuilder looks like. The more visibility we have in different spaces of fitness, the more the wider community will see it’s OK to put myself in that space and change the landscape of what a fitness person looks like.

The stats in regards to black people being physically active aren’t great, only 54 per cent do the recommended amount of daily exercise compared to 64 per cent of the entire nation. When you also consider that Covid-19 is attacking the BAME community and those with underlying health conditions, it’s becoming more apparent that we need to take care as much as we can of our fitness health. That’s an area that really needs to be pushed.

Covid-19 will have changed the fitness industry because a lot of fitness professionals will choose to stay online. There’s a lot of people who are doing well from their online sessions. They have been able to keep their pockets full without seeing the pinch of Covid. Other people who rely on fitness spaces and gym spaces are the ones who are going to suffer. Those people will really have to think about online presence, and whether this is something they want to do.

Racism has been killing us off longer than Covid has. Since George Floyd’s death, I haven’t been able to think about anything else. Even during a global pandemic, some people can’t give their racism a rest. People can argue about whether taking down statues is right or wrong, or if people are able to stay socially distant at the protests, but when you’ve been pushed into a corner for so long and you can’t do anything else, we need to do what we can do right now. Before George Floyd’s death, I thought if we go back to the way society was prior to coronavirus then we will have failed as a society.

After running a panel about black women in fitness, one of the takeaways from the conversation was about creating an event covering all different areas of fitness. That’s how NoireFitFest was created along with Donna Noble, who is a yoga teacher. The goal is two-fold. It’s about giving a platform and visibility to black fitness professionals, from PT, body builders, fitness instructors, dance teachers, and the idea of having these faces front and centre is to encourage the black community to get involved and take their fitness seriously. We had started crowdfunding for the festival, which was going to take place in London this September, and then coronavirus hit.

If you look at certain brands or fitness companies, a lot of their campaigns don’t use a lot of black faces. The yoga world is a part of the industry that is quite problematic in that regard. The fact that yoga was created in south-east Asia, it is weird that you don’t see a lot of black faces. Yoga is very much whitewashed. We need to make sure that we make it as diverse as possible, as I feel it’s doing a disservice to the industry.

Lorraine Russell was speaking to Vicki Hodges

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