Nicole Calhoun, owner of ĒLXR Yoga Lounge, photographed by Meredith Mashburn.

Earlier this month, we read an article by The Scout Guide Northwest Arkansas wellness contributor and owner of ĒLXR Yoga Lounge Nicole Calhoun on the subject of inclusion that didn’t just catch our attention and open our eyes, it immediately made us want to learn more about the multi-talented woman who has made it her business’s mission to create a supportive space for everyone—regardless of their race, gender, or sexuality—to experience the power of yoga. Here, the molecular biologist, mother of three, influencer, entrepreneur, wife, and yoga devotee discusses how she fell in love with the practice, her experiences as a Black woman training to become an instructor, and how she’s promoting a message of diversity, inclusion, and representation at her studio.

Please tell us a little about yourself: I’m from Arlington, Texas, and am the youngest of three kids. I attended Texas Tech University for my undergraduate degree, and I have a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Arkansas. I’m married with three sons. I have been practicing yoga for twelve years now and teaching for five years. I received my yoga teacher certificate from Karmany Yoga in Dallas, Texas. I own a yoga studio in Fayetteville, Arkansas, called ĒLXR Yoga Lounge (EYL for short). We’ve been open for one and a half years and are a power yoga-based studio. Other passions of mine include running, traveling, true crime, and happy hour!

How did you discover yoga, what made you fall in love with the practice, and how did it become part of your everyday life? In my twenties, I was involved in several rear-end car accidents, and as a result experienced chronic back and neck pain. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life in chronic pain, so I began to explore ways to alleviate and correct the problem. My doctor suggested that I go to yoga to help out with these issues. From the first class I was hooked! I loved the physical challenge of the practice as well as the peace is offered. Ever since that first class, yoga has been a part of my everyday life. It has become therapeutic for me-mentally and physically—and when I don’t practice, I feel vastly different.

Please describe your journey and experiences learning and training to become a yoga instructor: My journey to become a yoga teacher was initially a very smooth one. I trained in Dallas with a teacher that I loved, and truly enjoyed every step of the training. It wasn’t until I tried to get my first job as a yoga teacher that I experienced first-hand bias that’s embedded within the Yoga world. In this country, yoga teachers have been traditionally and majority white. And as a result, yoga teachers of color are not traditionally seen as skilled, competent, or marketable. Along those lines, one of the owners of the first studio I applied to told me she was not hiring me because people didn’t like me, and I didn’t fit in. Her staff just so happened to be all white and so was the vast majority of her clientele. I was very hurt and discouraged by this as a new teacher and didn’t teach for several months afterwards. It wasn’t until another yoga studio owner reached out to me and offered me a chance to teach at her studio that I regained the courage to teach again. Over the next couples of years, I continue to sharpen my skills and grow my personal practice into what it is today. It was also during this time that I grew the large following online and in studio that I have today.

“I felt like I had something different and substantial to offer the yoga world and I wanted to build a brand and a studio around it, as well as promote the important message of diversity, inclusion, and representation.”

How and why did you start your own studio? During my first few years of teaching I amassed quite a following online and within Northwest Arkansas. I was chosen to be a lululemon ambassador during that time as well. It was the manager at my lululemon store who first suggested I open a yoga studio. I was very unsure and didn’t take her seriously for quite a while! But when the current yoga space that my studio occupies came available for rent, she continued to encourage me to open my own space. Eventually I agreed, and with the help and support of lululemon, EYL was born. I felt like I had something different and substantial to offer the Yoga world and I wanted to build a brand and a studio around it, as well as promote the important message of diversity, inclusion, and representation in the Yoga world.

Tell us about ELXR Yoga Lounge’s goals and mission, and how you reinforce them and put them into practice: EYL’s goals and mission are simple: to create a safe and supportive space for everyone, no matter their race, gender, or sexuality, and to encourage everyone to experience the power of yoga. From day one we have intentionally promoted and encouraged an inclusive and diverse studio.  The primary way that we intentionally encourage diversity within our yoga studio is with our marketing campaigns. Our social media and our marketing are targeted towards everyone, not just a select group of people. You will see all races, men, women, and all body shapes and sizes in our marketing. When people see that they are represented, and that yoga is indeed for them, they feel safe, and they feel welcomed. We also promote and encourage diversity by having a diverse teaching staff at the studio. Currently our teaching staff is 75% African-American and our clientele highly diverse. In the Yoga world, this is virtually unheard of.

How has yoga helped you over the past few months, during the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial violence and injustice? No matter what is happening in my life, Yoga has always been a place of peace for me. During the coronavirus pandemic, as well during the current political climate of our country, I have experienced a wide variety of emotions, including anxiety, depression, and anger. And just like every other time of unrest over the last 12 years, I have turned to yoga. Yoga brings my mind back into my body, into the moment, and into my breath. The physical practice teaches me courage, strength, as well as self-love. Not only does it teach me to care for myself, it teaches me compassion for others, which is something everyone should possess.

What opportunities do you see for change in the yoga industry in the U.S., and in the country at large in terms of becoming more inclusive of the Black community? The events of racial injustice in our country are tragedies. While we never want these things to occur, there is good that can come from these events. These events are not new in our country, they are just having a spotlight shown on them. If it hasn’t been obvious in the past, it should be very obvious now that racial inequality in this country is a serious cancer, and this is very apparent in the world of Yoga. Ask yourself, how many black yoga teachers have you ever had in your life? The next time you go to a yoga class, look around. How many black people do you see practicing with you? There’s so much room for growth and the time for that growth is now. Now is the time to highlight black yoga instructors and give black yoga teachers a platform to speak and teach. Now is the time to listen to black yoga students as they share their experiences. Now is the time to hire black yoga teachers instead of perpetuating the stereotype that they are not skilled, not competent, and not marketable.  Now is the time to speak about racial biases and racism within the Yoga world. Until these things happen, yoga will remain a whitewashed and exclusive entity in this country.

What’s next for you, personally and professionally? Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in our country, I was employed at the University of Arkansas as a molecular geneticist. I was technically employed by a Chinese-based company who hired the university to conduct research. Ironically, my job consisted of designing and constructing vaccines! When coronavirus hit and China went into lockdown, I was laid off from my job at the University. Initially, this was a shock and a disappointment. But, as I had been juggling owning a yoga studio and working at the University for over a year, it meant I had a lot more time to devote to yoga and myself! I don’t anticipate returning to my job as a scientist just yet. I’m going to spend the next year or so devoting myself to EYL, its mission, working more closely with companies that sponsor me (like lululemon and Garmin), and possibly the expansion of EYL! Oh, and I plan on sleeping late more often, spending more time with friends, and traveling with my husband and kids all over this beautiful world.

ĒLXR Yoga Lounge is featured in The Scout Guide Northwest Arkansas.