Anacostia Yogi Strikes the Warrior Pose

Leigh, aka Anacostia Yogi. Photo: Wanakhavi Wakhisi

"On K Street there's a thousand physicians, but in Southeast I can count on one hand the amount of physicians I see. And that's pediatricians, dentists, everything. It's such a huge disparity." That is one of many blunt assertions made by Sariane Leigh, also known as Anacostia Yogi, about her crusade to foster wellness east of the river and provide residents with the tools to achieve it.

The Baltimore native moved to Anacostia in 2005 after two years in the Peace Corps, working on HIV/AIDS awareness among young women in a Belizean village. “Coming back, it's like, how is it easier to get fresh vegetables in a village in Belize than in Anacostia?" she asks. "We're so close to so much wealth yet it's a challenge to get basics."

According to the DC Department of Health's most recent obesity report, in 2009 there were only seven grocery stores and organic food/farmer's markets across wards 7 and 8, compared to 52 convenience stores and carry-outs. The city's five-year obesity action plan asserts that every year more DC residents die from obesity-related chronic disease than from AIDS, cancer, and homicide combined.

Becoming Anacostia Yogi

Originally Leigh only wanted to find fitness options in her neighborhood. "There's not really an economy for health in Southeast," Leigh says. "There's one for fitness in terms of obesity, there's services for HIV and diabetes, but there's nothing for prevention in a way that's light and bright and encouraging."

She decided to share her transformative experience with yoga, but worried her training hadn't addressed issues relevant to her audience. Leigh's suspicions were confirmed when a diabetic woman got sick during one of her first classes. "I'd asked if anyone had health problems, and no one said anything. I realize now that she didn't view her diabetes as a health challenge. There was no connection [in her mind]" between illness and fitness. "That was really a humbling moment. I did everything my training taught me to do, but it didn't prepare me."

The following year, Leigh went down in the trenches. She networked at community events while offering Anacostia's first yoga classes at no charge. She enrolled in a Kemetic yoga training course and connected with organizations such as Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and Dreaming Out Loud. Then came the grant-sponsored programs. The first let her co-produce a video to promote healthy activities, starring and aimed at Anacostia youth. Her free “Moms on the Move” workshop gave 20 young single mothers eight weeks of wellness education on topics such as healthy cooking and exercise. Somewhere along the way Leigh earned the moniker Anacostia Yogi.

She explains that the director of the African Heritage Drummers and Dancers, Melvin Deal, “told me that I had to slowly ease into the community, because if I didn't people wouldn't feel like what I was doing was for them. And he was right.”

Anacostia Yogi's signature offering is an inviting vinyasa class called Soulful Flow Yoga, held on Monday evenings at Ryland Epworth Methodist Church. Before class starts the 20 participants, mostly women of varying ages, experience levels, and physical abilities, mingle across their mats. Some are clad in their day clothes. About half have practiced with Leigh before. Almost all are beginners. The smell of lemongrass and sounds of Lauryn Hill, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Adele permeate the room as Leigh leads, naming and detailing each posture and offering less challenging modified versions. Her flow is vigorous enough to engage muscles, but gentle enough to maintain even breathing. Leigh's theme for this first class of the new year is letting go of past issues and ailments and listening to what the body needs.

A Healthy Future for Southeast

Leigh founded her blog, AnacostiaYoga.com, in 2009 to address the lack of consistent, relevant, communal dialogue about health. Today it has 6,000 to 10,000 views per month and has become a hub for empowering posts, food for thought, health advocates, and resources east of the river, including Leigh's classes.

In addition to Soulful Flow Yoga she offers restorative and partnered classes on request, and quarterly workshops. Her most recent workshop, organized in conjunction with Black Women's Health Imperative, focused on preventing and living with diabetes and practical solutions for a better quality of life.

"I don't know if I'm making an impact, but…I'm starting to see people demand more healthy and convenient choices," she says. "That's why I believe creating a health economy would work here, because I already see it happening on a grassroots level." Leigh hopes Anacostia's resources are channeled into creating interest and economic incentive toward the wellness field.

Moving forward, she plans to offer online instruction videos, a more advanced yoga class, and more targeted workshops. Ultimately she wishes to leave behind a thriving, healthy Anacostia to train a new generation of health activists. "If I wanted to be like another neighborhood, I'd open a yoga studio and do my classes there every night and be really trendy and that's it. But that's not what Anacostia is."

You can connect with Sariane Leigh and learn more about her classes via her website, AnacostiaYoga.com.


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