Black Entrepreneurs Take on D.C.’s White-Washed Hot Yoga Space

by: Christina Sturdivant-Sani Special to the AFRO
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With an influx of students varying in age, race, gender, and body type, Bikram Hot Yoga studios are some of the most inclusive places for yogis to lay their mats in the Washington D.C. region.

At many yoga studios throughout the city, Kendra Dibinga is the sole Black person in the room. With her Bikram studio, she’s intentionally creating spaces that challenge exclusivity and accurately represent D.C.’s rapidly changing demographic.

Omekongo and Kendra Dibinga are the co-owners of Bikram Hot Yoga. (Courtesy photo)

“Our outside environment may tell us to be more tribal, but the reality is that the yoga space is so far from that,” Dibinga tells the AFRO. “Why should I feel so isolated in a space that’s supposed to be a union of community and togetherness?”

Bikram Hot Yoga is a collection of three studio franchises co-owned by Dibinga, who first came to D.C. to study international affairs and African studies at Georgetown University. After studying abroad and receiving graduate degrees from Boston University and Harvard, she settled back in the District as a wife and later a mother.

A former personal trainer and international development professional, Dibinga was introduced to hot yoga in 2008 after the birth of her second child. “I just needed something a little bit different,” she said. “I found that with Bikram, I was able to get a crazy good sweat without having to do anything super strenuous like weight lifting.”

She also found that it relieved pain that she suffered from a knee injury. “I found that it was one of the best ways for me to stay in shape, to be honest.”

After practicing for six years, Dibinga opened Bikram Hot Yoga Riverdale in Prince George’s County, Md. in February 2014. “This was my first brick and mortar. The stakes were high because I was opening up a business that I had to sign a lease for and sign my name for 10 years, so it was a total game changer.”

By simply being a Black entrepreneur in a white-washed industry, it has been easier for Bikram Hot Yoga to attract more diverse students. But it’s also taken a leader who eventually left her international development career to plunge head-first into the business. “You have to be innovative, you have to know your product, and you have to become the brand,” Dibinga said. “You have to be so in it that you are leading the way. You’re not a follower—we don’t have time and space to follow.”

Dibinga found creative ways to distinguish her brand early on. It was the first local studio to partner with young athletes, starting with students at Dematha—a Catholic high school with a reputation of graduating top-ranking athletes. Bikram Hot Yoga introduced hot Pilates to the mix as a relatively new concept among competitors. The studio also hosts retreats and special events such as triathlons to foster a communal environment.

Most importantly, students who come to Bikram Hot Yoga know they’re in for a holistic journey. “This is something that people can do for a long time. It’s more than a physical workout; it’s a practice that helps people solve many of their health problems,” said Dibinga, who says she’s witnessed Bikram yoga aid people with diabetes, heart disease, and other medical issues that plague African-American communities.

In September 2015, Dibinga opened Bikram Hot Yoga Ivy City in Northeast, D.C. Three months later, she welcomed yogis in Takoma Park, Maryland. The company’s rapid growth has been fostered by a dedicated team, she said, “We have really good people who believe in what we’re doing and see the vision of how we’re trying to go further.”

This spring, Bikram Hot Yoga will put down roots in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. With each studio opening, Dibinga hopes to foster a spirit among students that cannot be contained inside four walls. “I see the yoga studio as helping to bring together people who may never talk to each other in their regular lives. But because they interact in the yoga space, they have a little better understanding and a little more humanity when they step outside,” she said. “They might think twice about how they respond to or react to other people.”

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