UVA Alumna Creates a Yoga Practice for Students Like Her

November 29, 2022 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2018 with a double major in African American studies and philosophy, alumna Carrington Kernodle Epperson has returned to the University as a mentor and yoga instructor. 

In her position as the assistant director of contemplative engagement at the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center, Epperson has one goal: to promote the flourishing of all students through yoga and introspection. 

Santosha Instructor sitting with her legs crossed and arms out palms up meditating

UVA alumna Carrington Kernodle Epperson created Flourishing While Black, a program through UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center to promote healthy lifestyles to the Black population at the University.

The Contemplative Sciences Center defines flourishing as “[realizing] well-being by achieving deep states of health and actualization of potential in all aspects of life, as well as to actively contribute to the well-being and flourishing of other people, other communities, and the natural world.” 

“At UVA, I did a lot of research on double consciousness,” Epperson said. “Coupled with my African American studies degree, I liked to learn about how, as a Black woman, people perceive me and how I perceive other people.

“That’s why I like to teach yoga, because I find concepts like these very malleable to everyone’s life and easy to introduce through these practices,” she said.

The Contemplative Sciences Center hosts a range of reflective courses that use methods from various cultural practices, including ashtanga yoga, tai chi and yin yoga. While most programs are open to all students, some programs have specific target audiences in mind, like practices for student-athletes, international students and people of color. 

“Santosha for Sisters” is one of those programs. It’s a key component of Epperson’s Flourishing While Black initiative, a series of classes aimed at promoting access to healthy lifestyles and engagement with new wellness techniques in the Black community at UVA. 

“Flourishing While Black has three pillars to it,” Epperson said. “The first is creating a sense of belonging in this community of Black contemplative practitioners. No. 2 is cultivating compassion for yourself and other beings. And lastly, the program is meant to engage [members] in a wide variety of practices.” 

In her role, Epperson is responsible for creating and teaching yoga programs and assessing their response. While the Contemplative Sciences Center hosts several programs designed for all students, Epperson’s focus is on creating wellness groups for underrepresented groups at the University. To Epperson, creating programming that fits the specific needs of certain people is more impactful than simply using a one-size-fits-all approach.  

“There is a very distinct difference between saying people are welcomed in a space versus telling someone a space was designed for them,” Epperson said. “That is why I created Flourishing While Black, to really cater to the Black population at UVA.” 

She’s been working toward this goal much of her life.

At 14, Epperson took an interest in mindfulness and mind-body yoga movements. Over the years, she was exposed to various yoga philosophies, including Ahimsa, the principle of refraining from harm. Another philosophy Epperson was introduced to was Santosha. 

Santosha, a Sanskrit word that roughly translates to “contentment,” is one of the five guiding principles of yoga meant to encourage inner peace. The concept of Santosha is not to promote absolute happiness in life, but to encourage the acceptance of one’s circumstances for what they are. 

During her time as a UVA undergraduate, Epperson taught recreational fitness classes and was the head chair for Sistahs Get Fit, an initiative by the Office of African-American Affairs to promote healthy habits and resources for Black students.

After graduating, Epperson completed a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher training program in March 2020, allowing her to finally teach yoga as an instructor. 

Epperson said Black students, Indigenous students and other students of color benefit from “spaces where they can truly not feel watched or judged, the option to dress how they like instead of what is ‘acceptable’ or to uphold certain ‘aesthetics,’ to hear music and accents that remind them of home, and to feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Carrington Kernodle Epperson on her knees bent forward in a yoga pose meditating
Santosha for Sisters is not your typical, high-intensity yoga class. It uses mindfulness practices borrowed from Santosha and gentle flow structure to create an environment for participants to de-stress.

“Historically, these needs aren’t always met, so I make sure to design my programs to meet those forgotten needs to make [students] feel more comfortable,” she said.

“My target audiences for Santosha for Sisters,” Epperson said, “are Black women and non-binary students because they typically get forgotten and might not feel welcomed in certain spaces. They have different needs than other students.” 

Santosha for Sisters is held every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. in Room 2010 in McLeod Hall, a building at UVA’s School of Nursing. Participants can also join by Zoom.

When it comes to any contemplative science program, Epperson has one piece of advice for students: Show up as the authentic version of themselves. 

“If you show up in jeans, I don’t care. If you show up with your hair not done, I don’t care, because [my sessions are] not the time to worry about that,” Epperson said. “I welcome everyone just as they are.” 

Each session of Santosha for Sisters starts with introductions and a mental health check-in, allowing Epperson to gauge how her participants feel that week. After the group is acquainted, the meditation and gentle yoga commence. 

While most people might be accustomed to hot yoga or other types of yoga with more demanding poses, Epperson’s sessions are different. “I am going to spare [my participants] of that. I want them to relax and learn how to come down after feeling overstimulated.”

The principle of Santosha is ever-present, especially when the session brings up any overwhelming feelings. Epperson holds space for her participants to speak their minds in an inclusive and respectful environment. Afterward, the group acknowledges the feelings for what they are, exemplifying the principle of Santosha. 

The response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with a group of more than 60 active participants. They report significant improvements in their physical well-being, mental health and feeling of belonging at the University. 

A historic moment for the future of health in Virginia. | Learn more about the new UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology.
A historic moment for the future of health in Virginia. | Learn more about the new UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology.

After graduating from North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution, fourth-year doctoral candidate Alexys Riddick said attending a predominantly white university was a challenging transition.

“I don’t have many opportunities to let my hair down and just be,” the biomedical sciences graduate student said. Last year, Riddick came across Santosha for Sisters and has been an active participant ever since. 

“Santosha for Sisters gave me the community and sisterhood that I dearly missed from my undergraduate experience,” Riddick said.

Riddick also credits Santosha for Sisters for teaching healthy coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and depression. 

“The mindfulness techniques I’ve learned from Santosha for Sisters are now integrated into my own mental health care,” Riddick said. “For example, I practice deep breathing whenever an experiment goes wrong. I take a walk or move my body when I’ve been sitting in the lab all day.” 

In the future, Epperson hopes to keep expanding the programs in the Contemplative Sciences Center to expose more students to the benefits of yoga and mindfulness, as well as implementing practices from a variety of cultures. 

“I hope to have more instructors in the future and incorporate more research into practice that specifically comes from Africa and the African diaspora,” Epperson said. “I think a lot of people only know about Buddhism or yoga from the lineage of India, but there’s a style of yoga from Egypt called Kemetic yoga. There’s so much more to teach.” 

For students interested in Santosha for Sisters, Flourishing While Black, or any other wellness programs, check out the Contemplative Sciences Centers website.

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Managing Editor University Communications