When I moved to the Bay Area from New York City, I immediately started a search to find an exercise studio that resonated with me. Naturally, I signed up for a bunch of trials (a great bang for your buck). I flowed at yoga studios, sweated it out in cycling classes and dabbled in reformer Pilates at boutique studios all across the area.
Yet despite the diversity of the classes, the diversity of my classmates was lacking. Each time, I came away disappointed by the monotony and homogeneity of it all, the permeating privilege and whiteness palpable.
The revolutionary concept of boutique fitness came to light in the early 2000s, eventually creating a job market for new instructors and attracting customers with pay-per-class options and enticing benefits, such as membership access to national studios.
During the last few years, such classes have become even more popular, with social media breeding fitness influencers and serving as the greatest marketing tool for boutique studios alike. And it’s no secret that working out at studios is not cheap, contributing to their overall exclusivity (some in the Bay Area peak at $40 per class).
The task of establishing inclusive spaces that invite people of all races, body types and backgrounds begins with who leads those communities internally. We caught up with a few local women making strides to do just that.
Program manager at the Assembly and SoulCycle instructor
Having grown up in Brooklyn, Amber Quiñones, who is black and Puerto Rican, came to California to attend Stanford, where she discovered SoulCycle as her fitness outlet. She’s been teaching at the cycling chain for three years and takes her role as a woman-of-color fitness motivator seriously.
“One of the biggest things I hear from people who come to my classes is a sense of appreciation for just existing where I exist,” said Quiñones.
Quiñones is also the program manager at the Assembly, a women’s co-working space in the Mission that includes fitness classes. There she pitched a butt, legs and abs class called thick., seeking to define “thick” as a “positive word” and emphasize that “curvy women with big butts and sculpted thighs” are beautiful.
“I wanted to create a class where everybody felt celebrated,” she said.
Quiñones has also created an ongoing monthly speaker series called Black Women Rising at the Assembly, highlighting black-women trailblazers who are “on the rise” in their respective fields.
The Assembly, 449 14th Street (San Francisco) | theassembly.com/
SoulCycle | Various locations | soul-cycle.com/community/instructor/21-questions-with-amber/2779/
Jean Marie Moore and Katrina Lashea, Anasa Yoga
Cofounders Jean Marie Moore and Katrina Lashea met in a yoga class years ago, where both of them were the only black women in the room. After bonding after a class, they discovered their shared vision: to open a yoga studio that welcomes all. Soon after, in December 2013, they opened Anasa Yoga in the Laurel neighborhood of Oakland.
Before opening Anasa, Moore worked as a construction manager focused on sustainable building. Already LEED AP–certified, Moore wanted to create an environmentally sustainable studio and knew how to achieve it.
“When it came time to open a yoga studio, it just made sense to have a green space,” said Moore, adding that Anasa uses water-saving fixtures, repurposed furnishings and LEED and fluorescent lighting.
As the only green-certified yoga studio in Alameda County, Anasa distinguishes itself naturally. But being a black-owned business requires more consciousness, she said.
“There aren’t a lot of black-owned yoga studios in the world. What we do to break the stereotype is that our teachers represent a lot of what Oakland looks like and the diversity here of LGBTQ and POC communities,” said Moore.
When you walk into Anasa’s naturally lit and cozy space, the first thing you see is a wall of their teachers, underlined by a quote that inspires them.
“I’m really proud that I’ve had other people of color ask me, ‘How do you start a business in Oakland?’”
4232 MacArthur Boulevard (Oakland) | anasaoakland.com
Samar Isabel Nassar and Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli, Hipline
Samar Isabel Nassar and Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli are sisters. But as Hipline’s missions states, “We are all sisters.” While they were growing up in the East Bay with immigrant parents—a Peruvian mother and Lebanese father—dance was organic to their cultural upbringing.
In 2008, Hipline opened its doors in Oakland as a women-identifying and nonbinary space. Nassar and Nassar-Covarelli began offering belly-dance classes that evolved into their coined style—Shimmy Pop.
Nearly 20 instructors teach their signature classes, including Power Pop (dance strength-training), Shimmy Pop (choreographed cardio dance), Stretch Pop (a combination of both), Samba no Pé (Brazilian samba) and Afro-Diaspora Dance (Caribbean genres like soca).
“We have a carefully curated team with very diverse background[s], and that’s what seeps through to create a diverse community,” said Nassar-Covarelli.
Hipline prioritizes serving women from all ages, backgrounds, skill levels and incomes. “Why don’t we keep our prices low and get more people in on it?” said Isabel Nassar. To do that, they formed the Love Club membership, which grants $8 classes to those in financial need. On June 1, Hipline will host its annual outdoor dance fundraiser—Shimmy Pop-a-Thon. For the second year, they’re Partnering with MISSSEY, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides trauma-informed services for women and fights human trafficking in the Bay Area.
3270 Lakeshore Avenue (Oakland) | myhipline.com
Jessica Rae, Rae Studios
Jessica Rae has fitness goals. Growing up as a dancer in the Bay Area, Rae wanted to find a way to merge traditional dance and fitness in one place. She opened the original Rae Studios eight years ago. Now the tropical-plant-filled and neon-lit studio in Union Square in San Francisco hosts 70 classes per week, ranging from cardio dance to dance technique to fitness to yoga.
Rae said she hires instructors who are current professional dancers, performers and choreographers. “Our goal is to highlight as many diverse instructors and invite different people to come together to celebrate movement,” said Rae.
The studio offers a range of workouts, from its signature choreography classes to Cardio Jam to Twerk It Out! And non-dancers and beginners are invited to take their traditional forms of ballet, belly dance, hip-hop and jazz. Rae, who also owns her own dance company, has spunk and radiates energy. She doesn’t only teach class; she actively participates, sweating along with a full room of women.
“We bridge the gap between a traditional dance studio and a traditional fitness gym into one place that’s inviting for all levels, whether beginner or advanced,” said Rae.
414 Mason Street #705 (San Francisco)| raestudios-sf.com/jessica-rae
Lauren Marmol found yoga about 10 years ago in college. She remembers her first class vividly: “As a woman of color, I definitely stood out, but I kept going because it felt good.”
Marmol, a first-generation Peruvian American, started teaching yoga around six years ago and now teaches at Moxie yoga & fitness, where her classes are always packed. Last month, the Latinx yogi launched Yoga for Us — yoga, self-care and community building for people of color. Every first Saturday of the month, Marmol and another POC yoga teacher will lead a 60-minute donation-based yoga class for all levels, followed by tea and conversation. In addition, Marmol just started teaching Yogamos, a bilingual and donation-based yoga class (in English and Spanish), every Saturday at the Assembly.
“The aim is to create an environment where POC feel comfortable and empowered to take up space,” she said. “I don’t think it’s enough for studios to claim that ‘everyone is welcome.’ Yoga studios are typically white spaces, expensive and often lead by white teachers. I think it’s important [for us] to feel seen.”
“Studios can start by diversifying the teachers they hire. Inclusion is more than just something you say you want; it’s something you work toward purposefully,” said Marmol.