EveryBody Bends – Katrina LaShea

“It gave me such a release from the pressure and the pain…that’s what started it for me,” says Katrina Lashea, sitting behind her desk in the small back office of her studio in Oakland, CA. When Katrina first stepped on a yoga mat, she was trying to treat a back injury. She had seen photos of flexible people in advanced poses, but was skeptical that it would be able to help someone like her. 

When she got to a class, though, the teacher guided her through some simple sequences with props and she felt her back pain slowly melt away. “But it was therapy for me. It was back therapy, and it wasn’t until much later that l was able to achieve some other benefits from it.”

Katrina is 55 now, but as energetic and enthusiastic as someone half her age. Her hair is cropped short in tight curls against her head, and her eyes sparkle when she talks. She speaks confidently when she teaches, wandering between mats, adjusting poses and offering modifications for those having trouble. 

In 1984, when Katrina first started, yoga classes were tiny. Often she was the only person in the room, and she didn’t know anyone else who practiced. She was also, for many years, the only African-American person she knew who practiced yoga, but she doesn’t recall feeling excluded as a result. “My family was in the military,” she remembers. “so I became very used to being the only African-American person in my class. I was always the new kid, you know, so yoga was sort of like the same thing.”

Over the years, Katrina says, she only had one negative experience as a result of her race. Isolated though it was, that experience was a pivotal moment for her.

She was a few years into a teacher training program in Oakland when it happened—a far cry from the inexperienced young woman trying to ease her back pain. “I had to teach a class once a week. I had to practice every day. I had my homework assignments. And then I had the teacher training program itself,” she says. “When I first went to that class…they looked at me and the first thing they told me was, ‘You know this is not a beginner’s class, right?’ Didn’t ask me my name, didn’t ask me my experience, didn’t ask me how I heard about the class. But you know, just by looking at me, determined that I was an intro-level student.”

Katrina wasn’t put off entirely by her experience with this person, a well-known and highly recommended teacher at the time. She credits her other teachers and experiences for reminding her that not all yoga teachers were like that. But it made her wonder. “I immediately thought, is it because of the color of my skin that you would make that assumption about me? And if I’m having this experience, how much of this interaction is a barrier for other people of color?” 

“I think that became a pivotal moment for me to begin to think about my classes, hospitality, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment,” she says, thinking back on the experience. “It shaped my idea of having a studio and creating a space in a place that people can come and practice, so they wouldn’t have that experience, especially if they were a person of color.”

Katrina was determined to make sure that what happened to her wouldn’t happen to anyone else. With her friend Jean Marie Moore, she decided to found her own studio, Anasa Yoga in Oakland. In Sanskrit, the ancient language used to describe yoga poses and practices to this day, anasa means “indestructible.” In Swahili, it means “a place of comfort and joy.”

Her studio was one of the first in Oakland, and her commitment to diversity is still evident today. Her classes are filled with people from a broad array of backgrounds and experience levels, with a diversity of race and body type that Katrina couldn’t have imagined when she started 30 years ago.

“Walking into a yoga class or even a yoga studio for the very first time is very intimidating,” Katrina says. “Especially when you’ve been seeing images of really hyper-flexible people in magazines and in the media.” That intimidation is exactly what she is trying to mitigate with her style of teaching, full of props and modifications, and the inclusive attitude of her studio.

“Yoga is truly, truly beneficial for everybody. It has something for everybody,” Katrina says. “It’s important for teachers to kind of check themselves. I think every time you get an opportunity to teach, you have to come from a place where you can be hospitable and welcoming. Get to be curious about people. You always have to stay curious about people, because you never know what it took for them to be there.”

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