How Shawandra Ford makes the difference

Shawandra Ford wants Memphis to be okay.

Ford, who grew up in Whitehaven, is the founder of yoga studio BRWNSKN Yoga. She opened the studio in 2019.

She started practicing yoga after losing her mother to cancer in 2013. To cope, Ford and her family tried different mental wellness strategies. But she mainly devoted herself to the practice of yoga.

Owner Shawandra Ford stands outside BRWNSKN Yoga, a studio she started to promote inclusivity in yoga, Monday, May 16, 2022, in Memphis.

In 2019, she quit her 22-year job at what was then called Shelby County Schools to launch her yoga career. Having worked in education, Ford detected a need for social-emotional learning; that’s why she started BRWNSKN Yoga.

“I wanted to go into schools to set up programs to teach young children about yoga and social-emotional learning,” Ford said. “And that’s where I am. I opened my studio in Whitehaven, that’s where I grew up. Yeah, that’s where I wanted to be. I really wanted to be in underserved communities where these services are not available and try to bring something new and positive for the community.”

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Beyond his studio in downtown Southbrook, Ford hosts sessions for children and adults in the Memphis area at Cordova Middle School, Cordova Family Center, and BLVD (Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church).

Athletes from Whitehaven High and Southwind High also have partnerships with Ford’s studio.

Shawandra Ford, owner of BRWNSKN Yoga in Whitehaven, helps Mareme Diouf learn to do a headstand.

“We have to prevent injuries because when it comes time for us to start getting scholarships, I want your body to be in top shape,” she said of the athletes she works with. “Especially for my football team and track and field girls, work your brain and work on your breathing techniques.”

Giving back and creating an inclusive space

Hesitation about the practice is common, Ford said, whether for religious reasons, uninformed skepticism or a reluctance to talk about mental health. With BRWNSKN Yoga, she hopes to reframe these narratives by fostering an inclusive space through the use of accessible and assertive language, R&B music, and personalized attention.

“Normally when I would walk into a yoga class for the most part I would be the only woman of color, I’m not saying I’m the only woman of color doing yoga because I’m not, but for the most part, I’ve never seen a lot of representation, especially when it comes to teachers,” she said. “Just being able to go back to my community and share what I’ve learned , so people can see that we have other options for taking care of ourselves, it’s not just getting our nails done or having our hair done. It’s really about taking time for yourself, mentally and physically.”

Seven-year-old Harper Harris shows off an upward-facing dog during a girls' empowerment session at BRWNSKN Yoga in Whitehaven.

Beyond posing and breathing, she focuses on herself through journaling and affirmation writing during her girl empowerment sessions every Saturday. “I’m smart,” read one card, “The world is grateful to have me in it,” read another.

Inside the studio is an oasis that smells of lemongrass. The walls are adorned with explosive floral decals and decorative mirrors for girls to look back and see each other.

Phyleka Diouf and her 6-year-old daughter Mareme ran in the Orion 5K before immediately attending Mareme’s first Girls Empowerment Session on May 7. As an active family, Diouf wanted to find ways for Mareme to explore her interest in yoga.

Finding BRWNSKN Yoga’s Instagram page and connecting to Ford’s mantra posts, Diouf said that after researching Ford’s practice extensively, she decided it would be a perfect fit for her daughter.

“This encouragement is what I want my daughter to be around, a positive community of love support and just encouragement to love her own skin,” Diouf said pointing to Mareme and Harper Harris, 7, helping each other each other to make bracelets. “It’s an opportunity for me to let go of the reins and trust other parts of the community to help me in its development.”

Owner Shawandra Ford sits on her mat in BRWNSKN Yoga, a studio she started to promote inclusivity in yoga, Monday, May 16, 2022, in Memphis.

After a guided meditation, Ford allowed the girls to use their session time as they saw fit. Harper eagerly played with a steel tongue drum, Mareme practiced yoga poses prompted by a 10-sided dice and 10-year-old Sydney Goodrich practiced a headstand she had worked on in previous sessions. The girls turned to help, and Ford let them each take turns in leadership.

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It’s obvious how important diversity is to Ford and the students she teaches. From girls wearing branded BRWNSKN Yoga shirts with the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic written on the back to the Colors of the World Crayola pack for its young students, BRWNSKN Yoga was designed with inclusion in mind.

“For me, it was very important for our daughters to have representation and positive representation and positive representation within our own community. As I said, I grew up in the Whitehaven area, and I I can look at some of these girls, and I can see myself in them when I was younger, so it’s a great way to give back,” she said. “Things that maybe I didn’t didn’t have when I was growing up because I also come from an underserved area, so I understand. I can identify with them. My job, my passion is to give back to them, to reinvest in them.”

BRWNSK Yoga

Address: Downtown Southbrook 1254 E. Shelby Drive

Call: (901) 264-9593

In line: brwnsknyoga.com

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