Bringing Wellness and Yoga to the Black Community
A health scare opened this fitness teacher’s eyes to the importance of self-care.
Yoga instructor Octavia Raheem doesn’t subscribe to the age-old adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” In fact, rest is integral not only to her yoga practice, but how she lives her everyday life. But before rest became a daily habit, Raheem was always on the go—waking up at 4:30 a.m., rushing to a CrossFit class in her hometown of Atlanta, running home to make a smoothie before work, then commuting across the city to her day job as a middle school teacher—before taking or teaching a power yoga class at night. Lather, rinse, repeat. Until one day her hectic schedule came to a halt.
“I had a breakdown,” she says. “I was hospitalized with a condition called rhabdomyolysis, where your muscles break down from over-working out.” The real threat of that condition, she explains, is that it can lead to kidney failure. While in the hospital bed, Raheem came to the realization that her way of life needed to change. “I was working like my life depended on it, but the way I was working was actually subtracting from my life and my livelihood,” says Raheem.
After a life-changing conversation with an evening nurse about rest and stillness, Raheem decided to shift her practice to include more restorative yoga, a restful version of yoga wherein you hold the poses longer and move at a slower pace. “I started doing this practice where I’m resting and have access to my own feelings and finally have to face why I’m always running and what I am actually running from,” she reflects. “Pausing, being still and resting gave me space to really access who I am when I’m not doing things for other people.”
Reclaiming Her Rest
Reintroducing rest into her daily routine was easier said than done, Raheem admits. “Rhythm requires sound and silence. Dance requires movement and moments of pause,” she says. “Rest allowed me to realize how out of my sync I was with myself and my dreams. Rest reintroduced me to the part of me that has nothing to prove, that’s worthy just because I exist and I am.”
Epiphany in hand, Raheem opened a yoga studio to share this new perspective with other Black women and women of color who so often place their needs below others and are expected to bear everyone else’s burdens. “The labor of Black women is treated like it’s invisible even though it’s in plain sight,” says Raheem. “Black women are doing all the emotional labor, all the physical labor, all of the spiritual labor. I hope that by prioritizing our rest, we remember it is part of our birthright. We don’t need permission to rest, because if someone else gives you permission, they can easily take it back.”
In addition to restorative yoga, Raheem also practices yoga nidra, which translates loosely to “yogic sleep” and involves exercises that put you in a deep state of relaxation. “Yoga nidra is a practice that awakens us to the essential nature of who we are,” she says. “For me, doing practices where the sole purpose is to be at rest—how can you not encounter more of who and what you are when you do that?”
Pivoting in a Pandemic
After the onset of COVID-19 last spring, Raheem made the difficult decision to close her studio, Sacred Chill West. “I knew I had to make decisions and they had to be anchored in love, community and people’s health and wellbeing,” she says of closing her studio. “My business partner and I said, ‘we’re going to shut it down right here and now in March. We’re going to sit with what arises, we’re going to notice what’s going on, we’re going to be with our families, we’re going to consult with our accountants and business coaches and we’re going to listen deeply.’”
At the same time she published Gather, a collection of “soulful sayings, poetry and flashes of insight,” Raheem decided to create a space specifically for Black and brown women to rest and recharge. She opened Starshine & Clay, an online yoga and meditation resource for Black women and women of color, modeled after her popular in-person yoga retreats. “There’s this notion in yoga that talks about facing beauty, or in the words of [“Lift Every Voice and Sing”] the Black national anthem, ‘facing the rising sun,’” says Raheem. “Last year was a challenging year and for many people, it allowed us to get off the trains we’ve been riding that we need to get off of. Part of the pivot was getting off that train.”
In preparation for her second book due out in late 2021 or early 2022, Raheem is focusing on how restorative yoga can support people as they navigate endings, transitions and beginnings. “Stillness helps us set our inner compass,” she says. “The idea for this book was born out of living through 2020—a year of so many startling losses all at once. We can’t go back to what was and we don’t know exactly what’s waiting for us. But there’s power in transitional space.”
As with all of her endeavors, Raheem is committed to centering and celebrating Black women. For her new book, she initially set out to showcase imagery of Black women resting. “I have read so many restorative yoga books and there isn’t a lot of diversity in what the students look like so that people can see different bodies in different poses,” she says. “My hope with this book is that people either decide to rest and then read it, or read it and then rest, but that they couple the two practices together.”