Yoga N Da Hood founder Ebony Smith is one of 15 instructors in her yoga program. Smith says she uses yoga and its benefits as a catalyst to break down social barriers and bring wellness to underserved communities. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Change your mind, and you can change the world around you.

That bit of enlightenment came to Ebony Smith during her very first yoga class 10 years ago, and she knew she had to make it her mission to bring yoga to the ’hood.

It all started with Ricki Lake.

Smith says she was an alcoholic addicted to benzodiazepines like Xanax. She was married to someone she barely knew and found out she was pregnant.

She watched “The Business of Being Born,” a documentary in which Lake and a journalist examine the business of medicine as it relates to giving birth.

Smith decided she wanted natural childbirth, so she found a doula, who recommended a yoga class.

“I was like, ‘Well, black people don’t do yoga,’” she says. “There are no yoga studios. The closest one was 24 miles from my house. And when I walked in, the lady at the front saw me coming, and she was like, ‘… um this is a yoga studio.’” 

The typical picture of yoga didn’t include someone overweight or African American, she says.

Yoga N Da Hood founder Ebony Smith goes through a morning session with KIPP Oak Cliff Academy students. Smith says she uses yoga and its benefits as a catalyst to break down social barriers and bring wellness to underserved communities. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

“When I stepped on the mat for the first time, it was this familiar unfamiliar feeling,” she says. “I saw that if I change my mind, I could change the world around me. I didn’t always have to look for this healing outside of myself.”

She was harboring self-loathing because of childhood trauma.

Smith was molested at age 8 and then scolded when she told a family member, punished for her own trauma. She attended five Oak Cliff high schools and has seen the inside of a jail cell. Her boozy antics went so far that she says she was banned at one time from the Paul Quinn College campus.

It’s hard to imagine this drop of sunshine was once so angry and lost.

“I was like, ‘I have to bring this to my community and make this accessible,’” she says. “Yoga is expensive, and then it’s finding clothes that fit, then a yoga mat and all this stuff. When it’s really only you and your breath. That’s the most important part about it.” 

Almost 31 percent of black children in the United States live in poverty, according to Economic Policy Institute data from 2016. Chronic stress from poverty can lead to a host of mental and physical health problems.

“The ’hood needs to know how to heal themselves. Because we are so sick not only physically from preventable diseases, but then all these mental illnesses that no one talks about,” she says. “How do we heal from that? It has to be taught, and it’s a practice.”

Smith became a certified yoga instructor and started her nonprofit, Yoga N Da Hood, offering free classes in Kiest Park.

“Yoga and wellness doesn’t look like us,” Smith says. “It looks like a luxury and not a human right.”

She translated it into ’hood speak, she says. Hence, Beyoncé yoga. 

“I might not know shit about yoga, but I know I love Beyoncé’s music, so maybe I’ll try that,” she says.

She started working with schools, teaching yoga to kids, then teachers, school staff and parents. She developed a trauma-informed yoga instructor-training course to spread yoga and self-love as far as possible.

Yoga N Da Hood this year won the $50,000 Pegasus Prize from the Dallas Foundation.

A bucket for holding yoga mats for the Yoga N Da Hood program. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

They’re using the award to train 300 yoga instructors and triple their reach to 6,000 kids by 2020.

The nonprofit, which has about 15 instructors, already works in 27 Dallas ISD schools. In the fall, they’ll partner with DISD’s Harry Stone Montessori Academy to train the entire staff — principals, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers — in a seven-week certified yoga instructor course.

An amazing thing about yoga is how fast it can change a person’s outlook, Smith says.

Often the most stubborn kids are the ones who wind up benefitting the most.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she tells them. “All you have to do is lie on the mat.”

All they have to do is connect to their breathing.

And sometimes, it changes their lives.

“I’ve had people cry and give me some of the best hugs,” she says. “I had a woman who lost 150 pounds, and she said, ‘I never would’ve done yoga if I didn’t see someone who looked like me.’”

Smith says she wants to set the example for her daughters, Zoe and Maya, that they have the power to create something great.

But her biggest inspiration is the ’hood.

“Any time I drive through my community and see my neighbors who are homeless or people with mental illness or who are strung out on drugs, that’s what motivates me,” she says. “Because I know that could easily be me. They’re people who don’t have the coping mechanisms to live through what they’ve gone through.”

KIPP Oak Cliff Academy students go through a Yoga N Da Hood morning session. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

AWARD WINNERS:

 Yoga N Da Hood won the $50,000 Pegasus Prize from the Dallas Foundation. The award will pay to train 300 yoga instructors and increase their reach to 6,000 Dallas elementary and middle school students. In the fall, they will partner with Dallas ISD’s Harry Stone Montessori Academy to train the entire staff — principals, teachers, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers — in a seven-week certified yoga instructor course.