Earlier this year, Alix Montes received a piece of advice that shaped his outlook on coping with the pandemic. He was told, “If you want to train like an athlete, you should also rest like an athlete.”
This insight from Ashley Speights, founder of The Phyt Collective physical therapy practice, has helped him find perspective and gratitude while staying home.
“My metaphor for quarantine is that I’ve seen it as sort of an off-season in all aspects of life,” Montes explains. “The work doesn’t stop altogether, right? But there’s a little bit more balance. You focus a little bit differently. You work on different parts of your game.”
Though he’s not a professional athlete, Montes has been active his whole life and is currently a yoga teacher and a Lululemon ambassador. From a young age, he was on the move.
“I didn’t play a lot of video games growing up – I didn’t have any – so I was always playing outside, running around, riding a bike, swimming competitively,” he recalls. “It always helped me stay grounded. I think fitness has always been a great way for me to release stress and keep a clear head.”
Montes has kept hold of that commitment to fitness through his adult life, balancing his job as an advertising professional at Wunderman Thompson with his work teaching power vinyasa classes and his own workout regimen of yoga and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). He sees creativity as a common thread.
“I work in what’s considered a ‘creative’ industry,” he says of strategic marketing. Similarly, with teaching yoga, “There’s an element of creativity, in terms of little things of how you decide to sequence a class, how you decide to cue a pose, or even how I decide to sequence a playlist and why I choose certain music to do certain things.”
Montes first encountered yoga as a sixth grader attending a class with his mom.
“I remember I fell asleep for five minutes at the end of class and I woke up thinking, ‘Why is this better than any night of sleep that I’ve gotten recently?’ I went to heaven and back.”
He eventually became a regular practitioner, and says he appreciates the challenging nature of the practice.
“I know people think of yoga as just stretching. Maybe you’re not lifting some heavy barbells and dumbbells, but almost more challenging than picking up something heavy is learning how to use your own body and how to leverage and tap into the strength that you already have, and learning control and body awareness.”
He says yoga is something that anybody with a body can do.
“I think the perception is usually, it’s people who are either really fit or really slim doing yoga. Yoga isn’t about getting a pose to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s more about your own personal growth within the practice.”
While yoga is by nature a practice based on acceptance, that isn’t always the reality in modern boutique studios.
“A lot of Black people don’t feel comfortable going to yoga studios, mainly just because they feel isolated. It’s also not marketed well to people of color, or they don’t feel like they belong, whether that’s actually the intention of the people in the studio or not. I think there’s positive intentions in a majority of yoga studios, and I’m going to go wider and even say boutique fitness spaces. However, I don’t think the impact matches the intention.”
That’s what inspired Montes to start two yoga initiatives focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. Tan the Mat began as a simple hashtag – a nod to “The Tanning of America” by Steve Stoute.
“He talks about this process of ‘tanning,’ which is the impact of Black culture and specifically hip-hop culture, on American pop culture,” Montes explains.
Montes initially used the phrase “tan the mat” to call out the need to diversify yoga. A fellow yogi, Sabrina Depestre, loved the concept and wanted to collaborate. Soon, and with the help of another friend, Erin Levy, Montes and Depestre brought the idea to life with a series of yoga classes with DJs.
“The goal was using music to bring people together to practice yoga.”
A second initiative, Vibras + Vinyasa, played off the idea of music as a connector, but with a focus on music from various cultures.
“I like Latin music a lot. I’m from Miami. I also am from the Caribbean. I like dancehall, I like reggae, I like Afrobeats, I like reggaeton, and I would play that in my sculpt class.”
He collaborated with colleague Yahel Sánchez-Gress to launch yoga sculpt classes with an international soundtrack, DJ’d by Danny Hajjar.
“It’s the mix of music. It’s predominantly Latin, but then our DJ, he’s Lebanese, [Sánchez-Gress] is Mexican and I’m Haitian. It’s like the United Nations.”
Both platforms put an emphasis on authentic connections about culture, so they have yet to take things into the virtual space. They have considered outdoor classes, but Montes is trying to remain cautious.
“The thing we’re trying to be conscious of is making sure we’re not creating another pull for people to easily get complacent and forget that there is still a pandemic going on.”
In any class he teaches, Montes makes an effort to create an inclusive atmosphere for people of all races and body types.
“I’ve always done my best to try to make people that I don’t see represented feel comfortable in my classes. And that’s regardless of race. When I see Black people in my classes, I do my best to make sure they feel comfortable. When I see people that don’t have the typical athletic body type that a lot of people aim for, I do my best to make sure they feel like they belong in my class, just like everybody else.”
He’s witnessed barriers for people of color, like getting “the suspicious eye” in high-end athletic apparel stores and Black women feeling like they have to justify their presence in a yoga studio. In order to build more inclusive communities in the boutique fitness world, Montes wants to see the emphasis taken off of body image and instead put into an appreciation of culture and traditions.
“You can hear people say things like, ‘I want to burn the most calories possible,’ or ‘I need to make sure I get a good workout.’ There’s pressure to have this body image and I think that’s really detrimental.”
Montes believes bringing culture into the conversation can serve as a more productive focal point.
“When it comes to fitness, I think that there’s so much of the aesthetic that comes from hip-hop culture [and] Black culture. But often, you don’t see that culture represented within the studio space. In terms of yoga, what we do is just a fraction of what the actual intent of the practice is. I don’t always use Sanskrit in my classes, but I try to honor the practice. And when I do, I try to do it authentically.”
He says there is a deeper culture to yoga than what he’s studied that has significant meaning.
“That doesn’t mean don’t teach yoga. I still experiment with different sequences. I play my fun music, we have fun messing around with inversions, but just making sure that there’s an appreciation and an awareness for the culture that it came from.”
He says he would like to see systemic changes too, like studios making an effort to hire and mentor people of color, and taking a hard look at where they open locations.
“I’d love to see a studio take a chance and go to a neighborhood before the Whole Foods gets there, before people stop calling it sketchy. There’s an appetite for fitness there.”
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