The Life and Times of a ‘Bippie’ (Black Hippie)
Arlington yoga instructor Gayle Fleming is a go-with-the-flow kind of person. It's served her well.
Gayle Fleming uses the word “bippie” (Black hippie) to describe her journey through life. Today she’s a yoga instructor at Sun & Moon Yoga Studio in Cherrydale, but the events that led her to that place were about as linear as a butterfly in flight.
Raised in Oakland, California, Fleming graduated from high school in 1966 and joined the Black Panther Party a short time later.
“Mostly I was a foot soldier—working in the office, participating in rallies, selling the party newspaper,” says the Arlington resident, now 74. “In those early days, women really had no leadership roles. The sexism in the party, among other things, is a primary reason that I left and joined the fledgling women’s movement. The party also became very corrupt. My expectations of equality and integrity were sadly not met.”
Plus, she says, “I would never touch a gun or smoke cigarettes or weed or drink alcohol. I was there for the politics. I left after two years when it became more of a criminal enterprise.”
In 1975, Fleming moved to Santa Cruz with her young daughter, Malaak (which means “angel” in Arabic), in tow. “I didn’t have a career in mind,” says the free spirit. “I wanted a simpler, more peaceful life. We had a garden. I rode my bicycle.”
She attended Mills College in Oakland for a time because she enjoyed learning, but didn’t feel compelled to earn a degree.
A series of jobs, mostly in retail, followed. By 1986, Fleming was in her late 30s and had talked her way into a management training program for Marriott Corp. in Washington, D.C. It ended up being a good move, though not for the obvious reasons. “I’m not really a corporate person,” she admits.
In meetings she was outspoken, particularly about policies she considered unfair or unethical. “The company was glad when I left,” she laughs. “I was clearly not going to rise up the corporate ladder.”
The upside was that it brought her to the D.C. area, where the politically minded activist could sit in on congressional debates. Despite her initial fears that Virginia would feel like “the Deep South,” she was cheered to discover that Arlington was willing to embrace a bippie.
“I loved it when we used to refer to Arlington as the ‘People’s Republic of Arlington.’ I love South Arlington’s diversity. I love the proximity to bike paths and all the green space,” she says. “My daughter and I moved into Lee Heights, a [mostly] White neighborhood in North Arlington, the year Virginia elected its first Black governor, Doug Wilder.”
It was also in Arlington that Fleming’s passion for yoga and meditation bloomed and began to define her. She had been practicing both since the mid-1970s—a time before yoga mats and lululemon—being self-taught from a book. In 1997, she started taking classes at Sun & Moon on Lee Highway (now Langston Boulevard). By 1999, she was teaching there.
In 2003, Fleming opened her own studio, Samata Yoga, on Columbia Pike. “A very low percentage of yoga teachers and students are people of color,” she says. “They don’t meet the color or body image. It’s ironic because yoga is about the oneness of humanity.”
Samata Yoga was open for three years until 2006, when she had to close up shop to make way for redevelopment. Today, a Starbucks occupies the space.
Fleming now splits her time between a condo in Arlington Heights and New York City, where her daughter lives. Malaak Compton-Rock was married to comedian Chris Rock from 1996 to 2016 and is now a humanitarian, author and mother of three daughters—Lola, Zahra and Ntombi. Fleming dotes on all of them.
Her days in Arlington are consumed by long bike rides, intermittent work as a real estate agent (she earned her license in 1989) and her abiding passion for yoga. She is back to teaching at Sun & Moon and will lead a class for seniors through a county program this summer. Yoga helps build strength, agility and flexibility of body and mind, she says, allowing people to stay active and independent in their older years.
“I have a totally different yoga practice now than I had when I was younger,” she says. “I know how yoga can complement people as they age. We are starting to pay more attention to diversity in yoga, but it is still an industry that targets skinny, young White women. There is very little attention to seniors. Yoga can be for everyone.”
She continues: “I am a traditional yoga teacher in that I don’t think of it as exercise. I integrate meditation into my classes. Yoga was meant to be about mind/body/spirit.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—a life in which she was content to simply see what happened next, Fleming has ended up in a place where she is happy. She has written two unpublished novels and has a close circle of family and friends.
Though she admits to feeling fairly pessimistic about the state of the world in 2022, yoga and meditation continue to lift her spirit. “I don’t believe everything good can be found on the outside,” she says. “I have to find an inner sanctuary. When I am able to dig deep and meditate, I can find a sense of inner peace.”
Tamar Abrams is a writer who enjoys asking questions of interesting people. She currently lives in Falls Church City.