Aaron Duncan, hip-hop yoga teacher
Sacramento’s yoga-sphere is an alternate universe. Sweat is currency, each studio is a tribe, and every day is segmented into class schedules. In this world, Aaron Duncan is the outsider. A 6-foot-plus Chicago native with a thing for basketball and the Roots, Duncan left his family and moved to Sacramento a decade ago. When Duncan started teaching at Zuda Yoga, his hip-hop roots soon found their way into his classes. Rap and pigeon pose mix about as often as Tupac and Biggie, but hip-hop is in Duncan’s nature. Even his Starbucks orders sound like a freestyle rap. Now, Duncan’s Friday night classes are a landmark of Sacramento yoga. At 10 p.m., when the bars start buzzing, Duncan begins teaching students with a curated mix of underground rap, The Roots and (of course) some Drake.
How did you end up in Sacramento?
I grew up in Chicago, the youngest of six kids with parents who’ve been married 40 years. But a friend offered me a job and an opportunity to come to Sacramento. I was about 30 and I wasn’t sure of my direction, so I thought, “Why not give it a shot?”
Why did you start doing yoga?
I was playing in a basketball league and I ruptured my Achilles tendon. Then some friends brought me to yoga and I was hooked. … At the beginning, I did it to differentiate myself from just going to the club. I would still do that [clubbing] like Thursday through Sunday, but then Monday through Wednesday I was trying to get some yoga to sweat it all out. I’ve always wanted that other side to the party.
What made you stick with it?
It made me view the world differently. Understanding that everything is not exactly what it appears to be, and that you got an ego that you got to check in with. It makes you more aware of the little things. When I was like 36 and didn’t know what direction I was going in with life, I saw people who went through yoga teacher training and it seemed like they had more discipline. I thought, “I need more discipline and I’m too old for the military.” So I did a teacher training at Zuda. One statement in training stuck with me forever: Your yoga class should mirror who you are.
Is that where the hip-hop comes in?
I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop. … I’d heard of studios in LA and Australia that do all hip-hop. I thought I needed to find out what they do, but I don’t got money to just go down to LA to take some yoga. Then my friend was like, “Man, why would you go to Australia just to learn hip-hop yoga?” It came back to me: The class should mirror who you are. So I started freestyling in class.
Have you ever performed on stage?
We used to go to a place in Chicago called Subterranean that’s like 8 Mile. Hip-Hop is not just the music. It’s the way I talk, the way I walk, the way I was raised. Hip-hop yoga at 10 p.m. on Friday night is not just a job.
Any plans to make it even bigger?
My dream is for hip-hop yoga to bridge the gap. For those who think yoga is too slow or they can’t bend or twist. I really want to do it with youth. Hip-hop yoga in schools could expose the youth to yoga. It’s like giving them vegetables with the chicken tender they like. In order to get this hip-hop, you also got to feed with this yoga. Especially ages 13-19. It’s going to help their sports, their mental health, their work in school. Knowing how to diffuse when they’re angry.
Has anyone told you that what mixing rap and yoga is wrong?
People say it’s just a fad. You can have your beef, but at the end of the day, it’s just yoga. Whether the music makes you want to shake a tail feather is up to you. If you feel like it’s Friday night and you should be dancing, then you dance in your pose. It’s still just yoga.
What’s your favorite style of music?
I’m underground. When I first started the class I was trying to introduce people to underground. Now I intermix everything, but I don’t pick stuff just because it’s Drake. Every week I make a new playlist. I have hundreds on my Spotify.
Oh man, I don’t know. The Roots. But sometimes G-Eazy, Erykah Badu, Common, Kanye West … people don’t like him, but I don’t know him, like, personally, so I don’t get into any of that. I like DJ Drez and RJD2. I don’t own hip-hop, I don’t own yoga. Only thing I can do is give it to you Aaron style. Like that song “Gangnam Style,” I just give it to you “Aaron Style.”