Trap Yoga Comes To The Green

 Thema Graves Photos.

Thema Graves Photos.

Instructor Thema Graves inhaled and exhaled over the lyrics of Migos and Kendrick Lamar. We shifted into downward dog position, and stayed there for a few breaths.

“You know this would be a good place to dance,” Graves said to the class. Everyone giggled, and eventually, they danced.

That was the scene as Graves taught a trap yoga class on the New Haven Green last week, a 45- minute sample of the class she teaches weekly at Alisa’s House of Salsa in Westville. Almost one year into teaching the series, she used the class to reflect on how the classes can grow going forward.

Born in North Carolina, Graves grew up in New Haven and then headed to Atlanta after high school to pursue sociology at Spelman College. While she was there—a college career that turned into a 13-year love affair with the city—she found inspiration in trap music, a strain of R&B that comes out of the South. It came at a time when her personal yoga practice was also growing.

“Yoga is a union of mind, body, spirit, breath and movement,” she said. So why not unite all of that with music?

Graves found out about trap yoga from a Huffington Post article last year. In June 2017, contributor Dr. Kristian H wrote an article about the revolutionary act of “Black Girl Happiness.” Among her tips for self-care — therapy, reading, analysis of relationships — was a plug for her class at the Khepera Wellness studio in Washington, D.C.

Graves’ attention was piqued. She explored the genre of trap yoga and figured “New Haven could definitely benefit ... I love trap music and I love yoga.” She started teaching her first classes late last summer, and found that it was a good fit.

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For Graves, it’s part of a longer-term desire to make yoga more inclusive. During her earlier yoga practice and training, Graves said she was often the only person of color in the room and wanted to engage people who looked like her. Often, she found that sparking people’s interest in yoga involved making the physical movements accessible as well as the environment. A yoga class, she said, is something that all levels of students should be able to self-modify. But adding dancing as a relaxation aspect helps new yogis adjust.

“It’s definitely a mixed bag,” Graves said. Some of her students still choose to go the stoic, held-position route. Others are more open to dancing in lieu of holding on to deep squats and tricky balancing positions. “And either is fine!”

Graves recalled having classes with grandmas who were reluctant to try positions at first but then were ready to “pop” once the R&B rhythms took over.

As we took a deep squat, hips open and hands in prayer position, it was easier to relieve the strain on muscles while holding the position by wiggling a little to “God’s Plan” by Drake.

“She say, ‘Do you love me?’ I tell her, ‘Only partly’/I only love my bed and my momma, I'm sorry,” Drake sang through a speaker.

Where I would have usually held on for dear life in this squatting position, I let myself bounce along to Drake to relieve the muscle strain on my thighs. A small child accompanied by her parent sat easily in her squatting position, while two older women a few mats away laughed and danced along throughout the pose.

At the end of class, Graves turned the music down until the bass beats and lyrics faded to silence as we lay in savasana — corpse pose. We lay flat on our backs with our limbs falling naturally towards the earth, concentrating only on our breath.

I usually value the stillness of shavasana after an intense hour of challenging asanas in a room with only the instructors voice and, on occasion, low instrumental music. However, laying silently on one’s back — even with a toddler fidgeting nearby or the sounds of the Green — was rewarding in its own way after the heavy beats of trap.

After the class, Graves fielded questions from parents, elderly women, and yogis alike on her regular studio classes, suggestions for getting into yoga practice, or physical activities suitable for small children. In a follow-up after the class, she alluded to “things on the horizon,” including some guest classes that she may be teaching in New York City. She said she is also planning on expanding her current schedule of teaching once a week at her studio.

"The music is always changing—new artists, new release," she said after the class. "I've been able to fully embody my intenrions of letting loose and having more fun with teaching and maintaining the integrity of the yoga asana."