Here’s how Afro Flow Yoga is providing exercise and dialogue in a pandemic

Leslie Salmon-Jones leads a virtual session of Afro Flow Yoga, a combination of West African dance and traditional yoga, while Jeff Jones, her husband, plays accompaniment on a ukulele and drums. Afro Flow Yoga is one of two virtual programs still offered by Northeastern Crossing. Photo courtesy of Afro Flow Yoga

Inside an impromptu yoga studio that used to be a living room, Leslie Salmon-Jones sits crisscrossed in the center. On top of a purple mat, she clasps her arms close together as she inhales deeply. 

Her breathing and instructions are accompanied by the light plucking of an upright bass from her husband, Jeff Jones, behind her. 

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

The two join in an extended “Om” chant, a phrase that’s traditionally said at the beginning and end of yoga sessions. Jeff Jones softly strums the uke bass while adding the sounds of a tambourine and Indian bells into the mix, while Salmon-Jones continues her guided meditation. 

The tempo builds. The sound of the uke bass is replaced by the steady beating of bongo, djembe, and conga drums, building up a feverish pace as Salmon-Jones stretches out, and extends in every direction. Then, just like that, the rhythm comes to a halt.

Marisa Luse helps curate the programming for Northeastern Crossing, a space created in 2015 to provide a physical location for skill-building and wellness workshops. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

This style of yoga is called Afro Flow Yoga, and it fuses aspects of West African dance with modern-day traditional yoga (or vinyasa yoga). Salmon-Jones created the class with Jones in 2008 after spending two years in Jamaica, Haiti, and West Africa. She describes each session as a “dynamic flow of movement and sound.”

Since 2015, Salmon-Jones has hosted classes through Northeastern Crossing, a university department that provides a physical location for skill-building and wellness workshops to help unite the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Fenway, Mission Hill, and South End. 

Northeastern Crossing is run by the Office of City and Community Engagement at Northeastern. Marisa Luse, who curates the department’s programming, says that in addition to these yoga sessions, Northeastern Crossing typically hosts a collection of different programs for these communities, such as English as a second language classes, and workshops to refine résumés or negotiate salaries.

“It’s a space that brings together people who have a common interest around self improvement,” Luse says. “The beauty and the magic that it creates is that dialogue where you’re seeing all types of background and experiences coming to this one place where they feel safe.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices and shifted life to a more virtual setting, Luse brainstormed ways in which Northeastern Crossing could continue to offer workshops. She thought of crises in the past, and how Afro Flow Yoga sessions could provide an activity for people to get away from their anxieties, and process their emotions. 

And during a time in which people are searching for new ways to stay in shape, Luse says it made sense to offer online Afro Flow Yoga classes, even if the sessions were virtual. She says “it felt like the right thing to do.”

Leslie Salmon-Jones and her husband, Jeff Jones, created the Afro Flow Yoga class in 2008 after spending two years in Jamaica, Haiti, and West Africa. Salmon-Jones describes the practice as a “rollercoaster of movements and sound.” Photo courtesy of Afro Flow Yoga

Since April, Salmon-Jones and Jones have hosted virtual classes twice a month. At the end of each session, they unmute the attendees and encourage them to talk about their feelings, thoughts, and anxieties from what’s happening in their lives. 

“It’s an opportunity for people to open their hearts, get out of their heads, and go into a place where we can actually have a conversation, where we’re not triggering each other, where we’re actually trying to form a connection,” Salmon-Jones says.

Jeff Jones says that the reach of Northeastern Crossing has brought a diverse range of people to the class—people who normally might not be interested in yoga, or don’t have access to a studio where they live.

“We’ll have professors that are teaching at Northeastern, students from colleges close by, and people in the community that live in the projects across the street come together in the same place,” Jeff Jones says. “Afro Flow Yoga creates the bridge to bring these diverse communities together. These are people that wouldn’t normally go to yoga classes, which usually aren’t that diverse, but we want to make them feel comfortable and they diversify our meetings.”

As the pandemic continues, alongside widespread social unrest over injustice toward Black people, Luse says the department will continue to brainstorm different programs.

“We just want to let people know we’re here for them during these times,” Luse says. “We want to play a role in the rebound.”

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