by Curtis Bunn
Urban News Service
Bad knees forced fitness enthusiast Kendra Blackett-Dibinga to quit her passion of running and training. But those same knee troubles ultimately lead her to a business that has not only relieved her pain, but also provided her Washington, D.C.- area African-American community with a haven for improved health.
An elder woman who had arthritic knees suggested she try hot yoga to alleviate pain. She did.
“And I fell in love,” Blackett-Dibinga said.
Reports by medical professionals indicate health and health care for Black Americans lead to a shorter life span, and that African-Americans are predisposed to myriad crippling diseases.
But Black entrepreneurs, like Blackett-Dibinga, are forming businesses across the country that focus on wellness that can combat both social and inherited heath concerns.
Hot yoga, also known as Bikram yoga, is a 90-minute program that consists of a series of 26 postures in a studio heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. The postures require lengthy, forceful and well-controlled contractions of all major muscle groups. The demanding nature of the poses and the heat are designed to raise heart rate and tire muscles—and have healing properties.
For Blackett-Bibinga, it worked. And realizing this option of wellness was non-existent for residents in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., hot yoga filled the void. After completing a nine-week certification class on hot yoga in California, she became an instructor and eventually opened Bikram Yoga Riverdale Park 18 months ago, with plans to open a D.C. location soon.
And the rewards have been plentiful.
“I’ve always believed that women were the gateway to good health for the family, community and the nation,” Blackett-Dibinga said. “Women set the tone for what the family ate. At the same time, Black people have been plagued with some of the most debilitating chronic diseases. The thing is, those issues can be controlled with changes in in your life.
“So, it’s been an interesting process watching these Black women come in and eventually become in tune with their bodies. Their health concerns are being addressed and they are feeling better physically and about themselves. It’s powerful.”
But Black men, who historically have been hesitant to consistently visit the doctor, increasingly are participating at Blackett-Dibinga’s studio.
“Mothers are bringing their spouses or their sons,” she said. “And they don’t come to see what it’s about. They come because they have health issues they want to address.”
Blackett-Dibinga recalled a worker on her house shared his issues with diabetes. She said he purchased a week-long introduction to her hot yoga studio.
“He called and said he loved it,” Blackett-Dibinga said. “After three months, his diabetes was under control. He said, ‘You gave me life.’ That makes it rewarding. . . And the more stories like this we can tell about people in our community hopefully will inspire more of us to make that commitment to healing ourselves.”
Maurissa Stone of Baltimore founded The Living Well as a “center for social and economic vibrancy.”
Her studio hosts yoga classes, various dance lessons and almost any activity that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
“Baltimore is not unique with communities that experience generational poverty and health disparities,” Stone said. “There are neighborhoods with (only) a 30-year life expectancy. In addition, mental health is a huge issue in our community. We are very concerned with how to reach people who may not have the resources to engage in wellness activities. We are located in a neighborhood that is a desert for yoga and Tai Chi, not to mention music education. Many African Americans have never been exposed to healing arts so we provide the introduction and support to keep folks involved.”
Operating the business can be challenging, but Stone, like Blackett-Dibinga, has found it gratifying to see community members embrace working on their health.
“It’s an amazing experience to see my people not only engage in physical health, but emotional and financial wellness,” Stone said. “We understand that generational poverty and economic strife is a major contributor for African Americans experiencing high blood pressure and diabetes. Ninety percent of our events offer vegetarian options. We have created healing circles that provide our community with exposure to wellness. Mental health is another aspect that is traditionally under resourced in our community. We are working to make sure people have a safe place to share and heal.”
Stone said her business has taken on more significance in the community with the April and May uprisings following the controversial death of Freddie Gray who sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. “Much of the work we have been doing before, during and after this historic but familiar outcry for justice is about creating alternative options for people to ‘get ahead’,” she said. “My work is really about incubating dreams. . . There is major stress and trauma in the city. The #Uprising was an outcry of the people who experience hell on a daily basis. The Living Well is working on transforming and healing the city.”
Many health concerns start with obesity, a rampant problem in black communities. Daphne Grissom’s SkinnyU and InShapeMD outside of Atlanta specializes in developing custom wellness programs for clients that help them lose weight and, in the process overcome other health issues like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes.
Since 2009, Grissom and her staff physician have provided appetite suppressants, supplements, bio identical hormone replacement therapy, vitamin, fat-burner injections and suggested meal plans for clients “to get them to optimal health fast,” Grissom said.
“There is no better business than helping people,” she added. “I get excited when I see more and more African Americans taking their health more seriously. Many of us are now focused on prevention. We are not waiting until we have a heart attack or stroke or even given a life sentence filled with prescription pills to treat our illness. I literally get chills just thinking of some of the stories through the years. Many people that come to me want to lose 10-to-30 pounds in less than a month. Doing so makes them feel good about themselves and about me for being the catalyst, but I also have clients that need to lose 50, 70, or 100 pounds. It is a life-changing experience for them and for those around them who witness it. (And) their joy is contagious.”