I Have Power Because I Have People

 

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[8 minute read]

I recently spoke with my new friend Elizabeth (Liz) González about her experience as a social worker and yoga instructor. We sat outside of our favorite coffee shop, excited at the opportunity to soak up the sun after being in confined air conditioned offices all day. Liz is the type of person I feel like I’ve known forever, but we’ve really only hung out three or so times. I was grateful to learn about her life and background in college access during our conversation.

Liz was the first in her family to go to college. She moved from a predominately Mexican community along the border to attend University of Texas at Austin.

“It took me a while to find my place. There was also a culture shock. But one day there was this Latino guy running for student government outside of the dining hall and we became friends. He told me he was a social work major, and when he told me what that was I was like ‘oh, that’s me!’”

Liz took Introduction to Social Work the first semester of her sophomore year and describes the experience as generally awful. “I got stuck in a group with three white women who were all in a sorority, and it was all about what was convenient for them. I was working two jobs at the time on top of 12 hours of class and there was no attempt to figure out what worked for all of us.”

Liz continued with the Social Work program despite similar persistent challenges.

“People hid true identities for fear that it didn’t align with what social work was. There was this diversity class facilitated by three white women – and not to say three white women can’t be diverse, but this is the problem.” So, Liz minored in Sociology to get the dialogue she was looking for and when she graduated worked for a long time in college access, mostly with first generation college students.

To Liz, the concept that the personal is political is foundational.

“All the work that I do is functioning from my identities. I know that these are my lived experiences, but they are not the only experiences.”

While working at Huston Tillotson, an HBCU, she found herself overidentifying with the students. She wondered to herself, “Why is this student struggling? They need to pick up the pace,” until one day she realized she was projecting.

“And here’s social work,” Liz stated, drawing attention to an ironic trend in the field. “Often we are only having a conversation in our multicultural competency classes when the person across from us does not have a shared identity. So the curriculum is set up for white students only. Because then where’s the room for me to have a conversation about when I have a person who’s sitting across from me who is a first generation college student or Latina? All of my stuff was on alert and I had to be extra aware.”

After that, Liz worked part time for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and part time at a college access nonprofit. “Again, all personally connected to me. So I wonder how is that helpful? Where do I get stuck? Who do I talk to about this? There’s a lack of mentorship and guidance.”

Liz took up yoga at the suggestion of a friend and noticed there was no one in the room who looked like her, until one day “I found this one instructor and his was the first class in which I saw people of color, people in their 60s, women in hijabs, men who looked like football players, and for the first time I was like this is what this should look like. How do I get more of this?”

Around the same time, Liz started therapy to work through some of her trauma. Then last September she participated in a yoga teacher training at her studio mostly to enhance her own practice and complement her therapy.

“Words can’t even begin,” a teary-eyed Liz explained. “If I could support others in feeling this good because there’s an awareness there and an experience there without saying that this is the only way it should be, then how awesome would that be? When the universe shows you a gift it’s for a reason.”

Liz has since taught around campus in addition to her responsibilities at the University counseling center.

“Part of my approach to teaching is that words matter. Oh my gosh, words matter so much. You will never hear me say ‘if you need something more intense do this,’ because then you’re also saying something to folks who can’t, who aren’t ready, there’s this inherent judgement. I come from this approach of challenge by choice and if it’s not right now it doesn’t mean never and let’s play. As adults we don’t really play anymore. We’ve lost the vulnerability, the courage.”

The concepts of vulnerability and courage transcend her experience on the mat.

“Once a month as a staff we get together to do internal diversity work. Sometimes people say things that are racist or hurtful. There’s a moment of fear when I call them in, and that fear is always there, but I’d rather have that then this person walk out of the room thinking that what they just said or did was ok. This idea of power. To me, there’s a way in which power is an illusion. Some people get fancy titles, but we all answer to someone. I really do think that I have power because I have people. When I’m in those internal diversity meetings and someone says something off and you look around to see who else knows that was really messed up, it’s about making eye contact that gives me strength and power to call that person in. I am definitely shaking in my boots all the time, but I refuse to let someone walk out and think that’s ok.”

Listening to Liz, I noticed themes of balance and exploration. She believes strongly in going into your vulnerability, fear and trauma to the extent that you feel that you are empowered to do so. I admire that she recognizes that trauma is part of who she is and also part of why she’s able to serve others. I asked her how she comes to terms with that balance of authenticity and not being completely overwhelmed.

“Sometimes I’m scared that when I speak up it will hold me up from moving up the ladder or getting a good reference to go to another place, but that’s how oppression works. That’s how trauma works. Let me scare you. Let me have you think that I have something over you so that you be quiet. At the end of the day I’ve decided that if I don’t say anything then I’m not authentically me and I can’t continue to hold this hurt and frustration when there isn’t any change. I’m going to continue to bring attention to what is and not necessarily be married to whether other people choose to do something about it. When it comes to developing knowledge and cultural humility: when you know better, do better. I can’t control is someone wants to do better, but I’ll do my part by speaking up.”

Being engaged in such relentless and personal work, I wondered if and how Liz let’s it all go at the end of the day.

“This summer I got to a place of burnout. In May, I told my boss I would do a presentation at our August staff retreat on using work as self-care. By the time it rolled around I thought I could tell my boss I can’t do this, or I could be a bit more radical about my self-care and see where I show up. I did this loving-kindness meditation: send love and kindness to yourself, a neutral person and someone who you love. Then it said to give love to a difficult person. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. In a 20-minute guided meditation I went from all zen to I could be on Jerry Springer, you don’t know my life, I have every right to be angry at this person. The next line was if you are having a hard time sending love and kindness to the person, then send it back to yourself because you are the person in the moment suffering.” Liz realized that she was holding onto anger. “So when I got to the presentation I was honest about wanting to get out of the presentation and what I did instead.”

When I asked Liz what gives her hope, or if there is no hope what keeps her going, she responded without a beat, “Power because I have people. People who are in it with me. People’s stories.”

And her advice to others who can relate to her?

“Know what’s non-negotiable, when you’re getting to a place that’s compassion fatigue. Self-compassion, self-compassion, self-compassion. Be authentically you, but it can be scary because who knows what the repercussions on. I have a lot of faith in the universe conspiring to put me in a place I need to be, but I co-create that. Sometimes when the universe is showing me where I need to go I’m scared, but then I remember that I have people.”

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“It makes you aware of your limitations, but at the same time you’re not defined by them.”

Qisi Yao and I met through my mentor, as Qisi is currently enrolled in her course. Qisi is starting a Masters in Public Health Program, focusing on Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Tufts University in Boston. She hopes to do NGO work when she graduates, and from what I learned about her, also teach some yoga classes! I am sad that Qisi does not live in Ann Arbor anymore; I would have loved to get to know her more. Regardless, our conversation was wonderful, and I think we will be able to keep in touch in the future!

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Qisi: After you told me about your project, I became more aware of the types of people and diversity at yoga studios. Before I wasn’t aware that there’s not many Asian people there. But after you told me about it I started to look around.

Raina: Now you’re looking around anxiously! haha.

Qisi: Yeah, haha. I asked the studio – because they do the new client information when you come in – do you ask about ethnicity? They only ask about gender, but I think that could be a good resource. Compared to Ann Arbor, the diversity at Boston yoga studios is better. I guess because it’s a bigger city. I heard from them that our location is near one of the schools a lot of foreign students go – Korea, China, Japan –  so that might be another reason there are more Asian people there. They are in the neighborhood.

Raina: Ann Arbor is more diverse than where I come from, so it always seemed more diverse, but I think it actually puts up a facade of diversity. It’s ok to go to a class with mostly white people, but as you know, yoga has been so powerful for us. So I’m always curious what draws people like us in and what keeps us there. So, what’s your yoga story? How did you start practicing?

Qisi: I used to go to The Barre Code. They didn’t used to have yoga, but they hired a new teacher who was a yoga teacher. She had a lot of energy and she was very encouraging. I hadn’t practiced yoga before, but she really makes sure everybody is in the right posture. She will make sure your arm is where you can reach, makes sure we’re comfortable practicing, and challenges us to be better. A lot of people don’t really believe there’s a perfect posture, but I sort of do, considering your own body condition.

Raina: There’s good alignment.

Qisi: Yeah. So I started practicing with her and it’s been a very wonderful experience. I met other teachers that were amazing. Compared to what I’m now experiencing in Boston, those classes are more about exercising, they’re in hot rooms. It’s a good thing that some people feel really good after those classes, but at the same time, now I need something more spiritual, so I”m practicing other kinds of yoga now. In the very beginning, we’ll sing and the teacher will explain what it’s about. She might tell a personal story, or just a story about what she thinks of the mantra. It’s nice because before we start practice, we’ll know what we want to dedicate the practice to. It gives us a focus, which is really cool. After the practice, we’ll sing again, but not as long. I really like it.

Raina: So these are classes in Boston?

Qisi: Yes. I love most of the classes I’ve been to. I just feel like the Ann Arbor classes I went to are more intense, because I always went to hot classes. I knew there must be some style that’s yoga plus meditation.

Raina: I always say if you don’t like yoga, you just haven’t found the right class. There are so many styles and approaches to access.

Qisi: For me, I personally like those intense classes, but I like them more when in the beginning there is something spiritual before we focus on the physical challenge. Yoga is a holistic approach to sculpt one’s body comparing to just lifting weights and doing squats. And I don’t see yoga as just an exercise anymore, but a discipline.

Raina: What do you like most about yoga in general? What does it do for you?

Qisi: I would say having an hour each day to just get down on my mat is a treat for me. Everybody is really busy. There are so many things, so much information, so many things I have to deal with, not just academic, but also in my personal life. I find that having an hour to do yoga calms me down. It makes me feel really good. I meet nice people at my classes, too.

Raina: It calms you down and helps you collect yourself in a way that’s different than exercise.

Qisi: The difference between yoga and something like crossfit or bootcamp is that it makes you aware of your limitations, but at the same time you’re not defined by them. When I first started yoga, when my teacher would instruct different poses I wouldn’t know what she was talking about! Then one day I did one! With different postures now, when I start them I don’t think that I will never be able to do them. I just think, “I can’t do this yet.” So there’s good vibes going on, positive things. We’re influenced by our environment, by people who are around me. It’s nice to have people who are optimistic and positive, so I can be influenced like that.

Raina: I love that: if I can’t do a pose, it’s just that I can’t do it yet. So you would like to be a yoga teacher someday?

Qisi: Yes, the studio in Boston has a 200-hour training starting in January. I want to check them out some more, but if I like it I will do it!

Raina: So what do you see yourself doing with your training? Will it just be for yourself or what style will you teach?

Qisi: Yeah I would like to advocate for yoga. Not everyone knows what it’s about. People will ask me if it’s just meditation…I’m like, not really! I want people to know what yoga is, what types there are, and how you can use it. I want to be an advocate, but also do it for myself. If I pay $3000 to be certified, why don’t I educate other people?

Raina: If you could tell non-yogis one thing about yoga what would it be?

Qisi: After I started practicing yoga, I persuaded a lot of people to try it. Most of them had never tried it before. I would say to them, don’t underestimate yourself. Don’t just look at the yoga celebrities and think you won’t be able to do that. Everybody starts small. Also, yoga is not just for girls.

Raina: Yeah, it’s interesting, because women used to not be allowed to practice yoga. That changed a lot when yoga came to the U.S. It’s a trendy thing now. What do you find frustrating or challenging about yoga?

Qisi: When I first started practicing, my focus was to lose weight. After a while, doing the same stuff, I wasn’t losing weight anymore. My body recognized my pattern. It’s not that yoga wasn’t working, my body was just getting used to it. Now, what I do is change the style – I go to another kind of class. It might focus on holding a posture, instead of a vinyasa flow class.

Raina: Everytime I go to a different class, it’s challenging in a different way. Do you have a favorite pose?

Qisi: I like visvamitrasana. One thing, is I’m looking up. I really like the idea of having your gaze follow your hands. Your gaze is a very important thing. Some postures, you can’t do it as well without your gaze.

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Raina: Do you have any questions for me?

Qisi: I do. I wonder what you got the most out of your training.

Raina: My training happened really randomly. I didn’t have a steady job after graduation, so it was perfect timing. I don’t know if I knew what my agenda was. I knew – sort of like you were saying – that I wanted to advocate for yoga and share how it was so powerful for me. My students and friends will have heard this before, but the biggest thing I got from my training was the openness to be vulnerable. That comes out in my teaching and in my real life. Being open, trusting myself, not judging myself as much as I have in the past. I think I’m a good teacher partly because of my own teacher, but it was also a really personal journey as well. I recommend a training for people regardless of if they want to teach or not. You just can’t go as deep into the practice or the philosophical aspects in an hour long class.

Raina: Well, I’m glad we got to talk today!

Qisi: Yeah, I really like talking about yoga!

Raina: And I look forward to hearing about your training in the future!

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Mystical Meditations and Doing the Dishes

Emma Schaff and I met in a Social Work class last Fall and she started coming to my yoga classes shortly after. I wanted to interview Emma because she and I have spoken about her journey to yoga through meditation. I admire her as one of the few folks I know who has a consistent and well-explored meditation practice and I knew that both myself and my readers would benefit from hearing about her and how meditation has changed her life. Emma is a warm-hearted and very thoughtful person. It is always clear to me how intentional she is with her self-care practices and her interactions with others. Contrary to the title, this interview serves to DEmystify meditation and mindfulness. Enjoy our conversation below!

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Raina: How did you start to practice yoga and meditation?

Emma: I started in undergrad. I went to Albion college and there was one yoga class you could take for credit or you could take the free rec classes, so that was where I got my feet wet. I dabbled in it because I had a friend who was more proficient in her practice and she would bring me along, but I never really got into it until my senior year in the fall when I was really busy. I was writing a thesis and doing all this different stuff. I was kind of in a really low place mental health wise, and I realized I wasn’t ever really happy. It was a really stressful time in my life and I think I was kind of depressed. Around that time I started going to therapy too, then started taking the meditation class and a seperate yoga class, both for credit. My therapist was really into mindfulness and meditation, too. Having both her support and getting more serious into meditation practice – with the class you had to do a daily meditation journal, so all of those things kind of together, started all at once and drastically changed my life and really improved my thought process and how I viewed myself and the world. Nothing has helped me so much in my life as that.

Raina: So you kind of had this synchronicity of everything happening and the opportunity to build yourself back up and create some coping skills. You said you had the support of your friend and your therapist, but what made you so open to those ideas?

Emma: For me it always goes back to love. It sounds really cheesy. But the dominating factor in my life that really helped was seeing the love both my therapist had for me – she wanted me as a client to succeed and be happy – and my yoga instructor, who was also the meditation teacher too, she just had compassion pouring out of her. Always encouraging us to see in ourselves what she saw in us. And having my friend and being able to talk with her about these things. Those were all really important things in getting my mind ready to be open to that. That was the big thing for me – realizing that I deserved that same sort of love too. I’ve always been a very love-y person to other people, but not necessarily to myself. All that synchronicity, with other people’s influences, that kind of helped. Like, come on, Emma, you give all that to other people, you should have some of that too! That’s been important with social work too, that self-care aspect, not getting burned out and trying to give too much.

Raina: For some reason, that is definitely the social worker struggle! How long did you take off between undergrad and grad?

Emma: I went straight through. So that was just a year and a half ago that I started to make it a daily practice.

Raina: And had you applied for social work then, or thought about applying to social work?

Emma: Yeah I had applied and was waiting to hear back. I always knew that I wanted to do some sort of work with people. I thought about being a school counselor for some time, then I thought I wanted to be a teacher. Then I realized social work is a really versatile degree, but I didn’t really start connecting the two – social work and yoga – until pretty recently, probably second semester this past school year. I think it was through a lot of my Julie Ribaudo classes. She’s really attachment focused and relationships are the most important thing in creating change–that kind of love and compassion that entirely change your life when experienced. Seeing that love in terms of yoga philosophy, and I’ve been dabbling in the Zen Buddhist Temple. The first time I went there – I don’t know if you’ve ever been there?

Raina: Not for a service!

Emma: They have just an open service to the public 10 am on Sunday mornings. When you go you do a longer period of meditation – 20 to 25 minutes – and that’s followed by chanting and they say the precepts and that’s part of the chanting too, then you meditate for a shorter period, then there’s the dharma talk. The first dharma talk I went to was about what we can do as individuals to help the world. Someone stood up and said “love” and that really clicked for me. That was also around the beginning of the summer when I was thinking about all this and so that was a serendipitous thing to happen that the very first one I went to we talked about love. And through our connectedness, that’s the key to it.

Raina: I would love to go sometime and sneak off the class after!

Emma: I’m thinking that’s going to be my Sunday thing – going to the Temple and then to your class at the Phoenix Center.

Raina: So where do you – and you don’t have to have an answer to this – how do you see your personal practice and professional practice merging? Even if it’s just for you, or if it’s how you’ll work with your clients. What’s your vision?

Emma: I feel like the more I’m in it the more I feel like my vision is happening, little by little. The more I connect to the values deep within me and commit to always remembering those values and challenging myself to remember them even when it feels really difficult to be compassionate and mindful is key. I think, “What would you say to yourself if you were meditating or you had just finished a meditation?” I think in my social work practice, it would look like living in a wholeheartedly, fully compassionate way, and in a way that demonstrates and honors our connectedness. Realizing if a client is really challenging or were tired or stressed, realizing that they are us and we are them – like, people. To help others is to help yourself. I think that’s also part of realizing that for myself – that I deserve that same compassionate view for myself that I give to others. It’s kind of like this reciprocity thing.

Raina: I like that you said you feel like it’s already happening. When I think about it or ask this question, I know it’s happening but I still have this – well, this is where I wanna be eventually! – instead of having this exploratory perspective of what I’m in the midst of.

Emma: I’ve been realizing the fluidity of a lot of things in my life. I used to want to categorize everything. But I’m realizing that accepting ambiguity, like you said in your blog post, is an ok thing. That was really important for me to realize, and it’s still a practice in integrating that more fully. It’s ok, even if I’m imagining myself one way, I’m getting there eventually, even just committing to it on a daily basis.

Raina: Yeah, you don’t realize it for a period of time, and then you finally learn it and then it’s a practice of practicing it and always working with it. I think for a lot of people meditation is very mystical. What does your meditation practice look like.

Emma: It’s very not mystical.

Raina: Yeah – and that’s why I ask!

Emma: Right. I actually just received a set of mala beads for my birthday that I’ve been using. That’s been something that I’ve wanted but have struggled with the cultural appropriation stuff and the commodification of yoga. But, anyway, I’m getting off track! I usually do it in the morning or the evening and just kind of get quiet. It’s the least mystical thing I do, really, because it makes me feel – well actually, I guess it’s kind of mystical! – it makes me feel both grounded and expansive. Have you heard of loving kindness meditations? You wish well for yourself, for people you care about, people you feel in different ways about, and the world. It’s kind of these graduating levels of well wishes for people. That’s one of my favorite meditations to do because I can feel my heart expanding and encompassing the connected world. It can feel mystical at times, but it’s also a way for me to tap into my inner-self and get grounded. Sometimes when I’m meditating I imagine myself like that connectedness. I imagine myself as I’m laying there as part of the earth.

Raina: I love that visualization. I think I shared this quote in my last blog post. Virginia Wolfe said, “I am rooted, but I flow.” I love that concept of both, because we can get stuck in either one of them. Are there other mindfulness practices that you have or ways your life has changed?

Emma: One that comes up with people often is that in my meditation class we were supposed to pick one thing in our life to do mindfully for a week and journal about it. I picked doing the dishes and now I love doing the dishes.

Raina: I hate doing the dishes! I know it’s an opportunity that I could use, so maybe I should be inspired by you… I have a dishes problem.

Emma: Doing them mindfully really changes it! Our teacher would have us do something different each week to “drop into yourself,” which is the phrase my teacher used. One week we colored, one week we played on a playground, one time we did this obstacle course, so many different things. I’m really grateful for that experience. For learning that mindfulness and healing can happen a lot of places, not just sitting in meditation.

Raina: I just bought a Buddha Board – it’s like a little canvas and you draw and as you draw, it disappears.

Emma: *gasps* Where did you get that!

Raina: I got it at Paper Source. It was like $15! Not bad, one-time investment. I was out and I saw it and I just thought – I could use that! Do you think there are identities that play in for you like when you go to different classes, or different communities you are willing or not willing to share this with.

Emma: As a white woman I always question my participation. Yoga is something that has changed my life in many ways, but I also recognize the other stuff that goes along with it. There are so many people that look like me that are at all of these classes and I question my contribution and participation. I realize I want to make space for others and I want to remove myself if needed to make that space, but I still struggle with conceptualizing how that looks in practice.

Raina: It’s been important for me to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s not necessarily sufficient to just be aware, but it’s good to be aware.

Emma: Definitely. It’s something I have a lot of trouble putting words to because I feel so many conflicting things. But that’s a lovely reminder.

Raina: I think constantly about figuring out all the answers but not becoming hypercritical to where I’m not welcoming. It’s an interesting balance.

Emma: What you’re doing is important though, because not a lot of yoga practitioners in Ann Arbor do that – creating those spaces and being intentional with the atmosphere you create each time you teach. It’s a really cool thing. Everyone should experience that kind of yoga at some point in their life. So, good job!

Raina: Thank you. There’s not a lot of readings on these topics, so it’s nice to include other people’s voices, like in these interviews, I don’t think everything in my head vacuum is sufficient. Do you have a favorite pose and why?

Emma: I love crescent pose. It makes me feel both strong and open. I love the backbend part of it – lately I love heart openers and I think that parallels my discovery of love and compassion and how these values are coming in my life in so many different areas. That open heart part of it is really important to me, but also having that strong foundation.

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Raina: I’m always surprised by people’s answers to that question. Everyone always has an interesting pose, but then I guess I don’t know what the go-to is! Last question – do you have any questions for me?

Emma: Not that I can think of.

Raina: Well, thank you for this interview!


Emma was done with me. Just kidding! Our conversation was definitely a thought-exploration for both of us and I think we both needed time to digest. I was honored to speak with her and think critically about the ways I can both forgive myself and challenge myself. To date, I’ve done about 10 total dishes mindfully, but I continue to remind myself that every opportunity is one for mindfulness and presence. One quote I’d love to share related to this topic and in reflection of my conversation with Emma comes from the book, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.

“You are good when you are one with yourself.

Yet when you are not one with yourself you are not evil.”

The times when I forget or am ironically too lazy to be mindful do not make me a bad person, bad meditator, or bad yogi, but the times when I create the space to actually practice mindfulness prove invaluable for me. I find, as I’m sure many do, that it’s really more difficult for me to get myself TO the mindfulness than it actually is to be IN the mindfulness. Regardless, I think one thing I gleaned from my conversation with Emma is that we can look to each other for support and inspiration. This is the gift of friendship, community, and love. I know for sure that I will continue to think of Emma as a beautiful example of what my mindfulness practice can (note: not will or should) look like.

“I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.”

Sean Smith is a friend I met in the School of Social Work. Energetically, I immediately felt drawn to him. His presence is tranquil and his wisdom is beyond his years. I was so excited the first day he showed up for my Sunday afternoon class, and flattered when he continued to attend. I am so grateful for the chance to connect with him and benefit from his support, which clearly stems from years of dedicated internal reflection and practice. Interviewing him was a beautiful experience and I enjoyed listening to our conversation as I typed it up even more! This is quite a long dialogue and so I’ve again decided to let it stand as is. Regardless, I know anyone who reads this piece will find something inspiring in Sean’s words – and I’m sure many will look forward to the warmth of his classroom on a cold December day when he will teach us as a certified yoga teacher.

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Raina: Thank you for being willing to meet with me.

Sean: I’m glad you reached out. I love talking about yoga and I’m thinking about starting a yoga teacher training, so this is perfect timing because it allows me to talk about yoga and get really clear on what it is that I need and I value. And I know you and I agreed about the decolonization of yoga and who were intentionally bringing yoga to is really important. And having a really clear vision for your yoga as a teacher, and you’ve always been great with that, which is why I practice with you.

R: Absolutely, I want this to be more of a conversation, and the interviews I’ve had so far have been really helpful to think aloud. You learn how to teach from your practice. I loved my yoga teacher training, but I also feel like since I’ve done it I’ve learned a lot more. Because you just see things differently. I’m curious to see how it all unfolds for you. Well, why don’t you talk a little bit about how you started practicing yoga.

S: I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011 and then I hopped right into Teach for America.

R: The last person I interviewed talked about Teach for America!

S: I feel like the stress and the crazy-ness of something so unbalanced leads you naturally to try and find balance. I stopped in this one yoga studio and I remember thinking it was so expensive and I was like, “I’m never going to be able to make this sustainable!” But I remember the first time really feeling that yoga high afterward and that was undeniable. I think there was music, but it was very soft and it was really inviting. It was ok that I was really stiff and for it to be what it was. It was the first time since starting teaching and really the end of this really hectic career of finishing my studies that I really turned off my brain. I wasn’t thinking about the kid who needed my help, or the kid who was experiencing trauma, or the kid who didn’t have enough to eat everyday. I was just focused on, “oh my god this hurts,” or, “my toes are kind of tingling right now.” I eventually started a mini home practice when I needed it and that led to a really great practice at a different studio. Friends and other teachers were coming with me, which was like this accountability. It was more affordable. The affordability is something I always struggle with yoga, so when I found something affordable, it became sustainable, and then it became changing.

R: Yeah, for anyone! Well I also wonder if it’s been sustainable for you because you do have a strong home practice. That’s the biggest obstacles I notice with people is a discomfort with their home practice. How did you cultivate that?

S: A home practice was not easy to develop. Part of it was coming with time. A year ago I hadn’t gone to enough classes to get a flow that was comfortable and I had these silly expectations I felt very not creative on my mat. Now I go to my favorite poses and think, “oh, Raina showed me that really tough one, I wanna try that again.” It becomes a self-knowledge that comes with practice. You need a certain amount of experience before you feeling comfortable starting your own flow and a home practice.

And then a second piece is that I had to designate a physical location. For someone like me, location is important – I’m drawn to studios depending on how much light there is. I actually sold a piece of furniture and moved something in my space to create a yoga corner where all my mats are stored in a basket and there’s a little candle sitting over there. It’s in the middle of the living room but it’s just enough that it’s a physical reminder and it feels like a little yoga home. I needed that, because otherwise I didn’t feel very anchored. When you actually you create the space then the practice starts coming.

R: Do you prefer practicing at home or practicing in studios?

S: I much prefer practicing in studios. I love the energy of practicing with other people. I love the creativity that teachers bring into “try this now!” because it’s never ideas I would have thought of myself. I like my home practice, but I get caught in the rut of doing things similarly. Plus, there’s not all that energy and people around you – the breathing sounds great and the energy and the sweat. It’s totally a whole different animal. I like the accountability of a class too. Just showing up and trying to make the most of it.

R: Yeah, I really like the community aspect of it. The days when I’m really challenged to practice if I go to a class, I’m really energized to practice. Even if I go really slow and stay in child’s pose for a long time.

S: I’m enjoying those child’s pose days more and more. Once you have a home practice you have all these data points of what each different day feels like. This one teacher was a really big proponent of if the sequence didn’t work for you, do something different or take something out. I love that idea. I thought, if I cut out this and this, my body is gonna love this. You have to, with different teachers, be ready for making the best and finding the little treasures in each one that you need to pull out, and that’s kind of a fun challenge in and of itself.

R: I think a lot of that comes with feeling comfortable owning the space. I notice with students, and even myself, teachers would say what yours did – if you don’t like it, add or omit – but a lot of people don’t get that that is an honest statement. So you’ve always felt comfortable doing those things?

S: I’ve always felt comfortable stepping outside of a flow. I really think yoga has to be your own on the mat, outside of the mat, walking out and holding your space. The day that we start serving up one-size-fits-all yoga is the day that we actually slaughter it. It’s supposed to be a really amazing, individual journey. I think really good teachers get this – you offer up certain things, students have to take what they need out of that and carry it through their entire day. They’re having their own internal experience and they’re taking your words and they’re mixing with what just happened 10 minutes before, and then they’re thinking about what’s happening later, and they’re combining it with their own fears and it’s just such an internal landscape, it’s always changing, we have no idea what’s happening for most students. To expect one flow and not being accommodating or letting someone change it up is just not it.

R: You’ll be a good teacher, having that in mind.

S: I sure hope so! I find myself reflecting back on classes and I already see myself in the role of a teacher.

R: That takes ownership. You know what I do, that you might like, is that anytime I go to a class and I really like something I write down the flow or something they said.

S: I do that too! I love it. Sometimes just words. I remember my first class with you, you were talking about self-care. It’s the very first one I’d ever shown up for and there were a lot of social workers in the room. I just remember writing down self-care as one of the big ideas and I was like, I’m gonna form a class too around self-care, and what that looks like, barriers to it, and around why we think we do that. That’s when I put the pieces together that social work and yoga have a lot of good stuff there.

R: I think they complement each other well. What do you think are some major barriers to self-care?

S: Oh my gosh. I think there are so many things. I think we have this glorification of “busy” in our culture. It’s like, you’re not achieving everything you should be if you’re not busy”. I don’t know where it happened or why it is the way it is, but I just don’t buy into it. I work differently. I want to serve and lead by example, especially in the social work program with all these burned out students. You may not know me as the smartest kid in the class, or the kid who got the best grade. I think I’m holding my own in the classroom, but I want to be known for, “he took care of himself all the time. He came in with a smoothie and he made one every damn morning. He was eating a salad, he packed it the night before.”

I also have my own qualms about how expensive yoga is so I think that’s a huge barrier to self-care. When we value yoga at $22 – I don’t know what I could possibly offer people for $22. When you set that $22 up, know your audience: rich, affluent people who are independently wealthy. And then it creates this condition, as one teachers doing this, another will. I just totally want to defy all of that. I love donation-based yoga, and just trusting that my clients are gonna take care of me and that I’m offering something important to them. It should be sustaining, but that busy-ness, that money factor, all of those things really get in our own way. We complicate our own shit. As humans, we just get in our own way. If it’s something you really value, then do it, or delegate it out to someone, ask for help, or just drop it. It can’t be that important if it’s causing you stress.

R: It’s a big lesson to learn to say “no.”

S: I used to suck at it. Especially in social work, we think it’s not acceptable. If we’re gonna help people, we have to help people all the time.

R: Switching gears, what are your most salient identities?

S: First and foremost, I identify as biracial, which I think is super salient to me because I benefit so much from being biracial. I pass as white. I say that from what used to be a place of guilt and I’ve just come to a place that I want to share how my foundation of having a native mother and a white father has opened up so many doors for me. It’s been a weird ride, but I think the underpinnings of being Anishinaabe, and what it teaches you in even just your generational memory. It’s been accessible for me to plug into the divine and all the different ways in which it comes, so always have this strong sense of helping others.

I was born gay. I was born a biracial person. I was born a biological male. We’re born with these great gifts, these great lights. My identities have been there the whole time. I should have seen that they’d lead me to yoga. I’ve always been interested in alternative understandings or concepts of god, other than kind of white images of god, as well as the goodness and the interconnectedness of all people. And it definitely comes from being Anishinaabe and just seeing and valuing the greatness in humans and nature. It’s even better now because it’s being underscored by my yoga practice.

And it’s being underscored as well by my teaching experience. I would definitely identify as a teacher in a lot of different ways. Both in very employable and non-employable ways. I really like to teach, I like to inform, I like to encourage, I like to open up ideas and have great discussions. All of these identities were always there and now I can really speak to them. And now yogi is there. The spiritual practice was always there, but now this really physical practice has entered the picture.

R: How do you think your other identities interact with being a yogi?

S: I think they all just inform one another, they all just support one another. Especially as a teacher always looking through this lense of social justice, I bring all of that into my practice as a yogi. I’m pursuing a greater understanding of yoga to bring it to others. This feedback relationship of: I do more yoga, I learn more, I think more about all the people who are not in this space and deserve to be. I am always doing the research trying to support some of these practices and I bring that back into doing my yoga and then I see it again and I learn from it again and I bring it back into the spaces of social work.

With my native identity, we grew up in this very Catholic household but it never felt right. It felt very staunch and very judge-y, but I always believe there is something bigger. There are too many beautiful things for it to just be coincidence or just be chaos theory. Humans are really nice and really great when they’re allowed to shine. It has to be the divine. It has to be interconnectedness of all things and all people. I’ve had too many damn amazing experiences for there not to be proof and for me to deny that there’s something bigger than me. That would be irresponsible of me to try to speak against that. So that informs the yoga too. The nativeness of being taught the interconnectedness of all things.

And then the yoga comes back and makes me think about traditional ideas and it makes me want to research and explore – learn more about my family, learn more about histories of trauma within my family. Intergenerational legacy of trauma – that’s big – that comes down through our blood. Yoga helps me sit with as I learn more about tragedies within my family. We’re all trying to heal the intergenerational trauma, because everyone wants to shine. I have to believe that my ancestors and my relatives want to do that. It looks different than mine sometimes, and they don’t understand mine all the time. But just standing strong and doing what you’re doing – it does ripple out to people who need to hear it. It all is interconnected.

Being a queer person doing yoga, even though that’s not pretty irregular in a town like Ann Arbor, I just love it. Being a male doing yoga. That’s a group I really want to bring it to. I think masculinity is so damn fragile all the time. Cracking through that terrible shell of “only girls do yoga” and “it’s a feminine activity.” That informs my yoga practice.

R: I know it could shift, but do you have a vision of your teaching practice?

S: All the time I get little flashes of it. I’m really happy with how things are rolling so far. I would love to offer free or donation-based classes. In particular I love to work with sexual assault providers. I’m hoping that my identity as a male will not prevent me from being able to do that work, but I understand if it’s someone else that needs to do that work. From what I’ve seen and heard through my work, I think there is space for me to offer that. I think those that need it will come, because that’s the way everything is, you know?

I really want to bring yoga to men of all ages, sizes, genders and identities. It’s so tough being a guy sometimes. Just letting it down and being vulnerable is such an important lesson. Even if it’s not a life-long practice, there’s a lot to be taken from a yoga experience. You may never speak of it, but that’s fine.

I would really like to bring yoga to children too. I see the benefits of a mindfulness practice in general with kids in urban school districts in particular. I started doing it with teaching and saw how beneficial it is. Kids doing yoga is so awesome and so important.

R: And you see the changes so quickly. They’re open to it.

S: And they give you feedback! And then when you do an asana they love it. They have such child-like wonder, it’s so beautiful. And their bodies naturally want to do it and it’s accessible for all kids of all abilities. I would love to do that if those spaces are available or if there’s training available.

R: There’s every kind of yoga these days.

S: Diversification of yoga is beautiful; it’s confusing. We get a lot of not actual yoga in the mix. At some point you can do this really thinly veiled yoga practice, which is just basically stretching, but at some point it’s gonna start to change and you’re going to have to go deeper. You can’t do down dog and sweaty practices for 10 years and just teach the “touch your toes, hands up, prayer twist” and it’s just not enough.

R: I think everyone comes to yoga for one reason. A lot of times it’s a physical reason and then it always expands.

S: We come to it when we need it. No one comes when it’s like, “I’m doing really good, I’ve got a great home meditation practice. Now I want to add asana.” Said no one ever.

R: That’s why I always say it’s called a practice. You’re not accomplishing. You’re being. It’s on going.

S: It is so much practice. And that incorporates getting it right and getting it wrong. Feeling good about it one day and not feeling good about it another day. How many other sports or activities or goals in life is that the case?

R: Is there anything for you that is still really unclear or frustrating about yoga?

S: I am not still, hardly ever. I was in one of your classes – and there were two other boys in that class! I was like, What the hell! I was like I’m the only boy in Raina’s classes, guys! What’s going on? It was predominantly men! The stars aligned for your class that day. But anyway, I remember that day in savasana I actually got still. I went 30 seconds with a totally blank mind. There’s always some intrusive thought. It comes in for me constantly. It’s not always bad or indicative of bad things. A Spice Girls song will come it – but something’s gonna come in. I have no chill. I’m always thinking.

R: That’s your challenge. Maybe that’s your breakthrough. Everyone has a theme, in life and in yoga, you know?

S: My theme is balance. I feel totally awful when I’m out of balance. Having a good sense of balance, not having everything in control – I love change, I’m flexible so I don’t break – but I hate when things totally go out of whack. It’s really hard for me. That’s a resounding theme as I look back to being a child. So balance and stillness are these constant struggles I’ll probably deal with my entire life. I get little glimmers of progress.

R: Do you have a favorite mantra, yoga sutra, or phrase, or philosophy?

S: It comes back from my days of a teacher and never feeling good enough, it comes back as a gay teenager and never feeling good enough, this history of never feeling enough and it’s in the stupid glorification of busy. So it’s, “I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.” I love saying it. It’s enough. You don’t have to try so hard. It’s perfect. You’re perfect. We’re all perfect. I try to encourage others to see it too, but I think you really have to learn it in your own time.

R: Do you have a favorite pose?

S: Triangle. I feel super strong in it. I’ve gotten compliments on it! Naturally, I’ve been able to do it, since day one. I can hold it all day. Sometimes it’s my first warm-up one. I even smile as I talk about triangle pose. I just love trikonasa. It feels gooey, it feels warm, it feels nice, like a really nice hug.

R: It’s one I always forget to practice but when I do I love it.

S: One of my teacher said early on, “God gives everyone one or two poses they can kick ass at.” Definitely triangle. Do you have a favorite pose?

R: It’s funny because I realized as I chose this question as one to ask everyone, I probably do but it’s difficult for me to recall one. For me it’s all about phases, so right now I’m in a phase of working into full king pigeon. When I started yoga teacher training, my teacher had us pick a pose as one that we were working towards. She told me natarajasana was mine and I remember thinking, yeah right. It’s been two years since I’ve been teaching, and probably like 6 months since I was in her class more recently and she had us working on it and I was like, yeah no. And then all of the sudden I just felt my shoulder go around. I couldn’t fathom for ever how to make that happen. And then she grabbed it and I thought she was going to break me but it just happened. And it’s a heart opener, and she told me once I could get into that so much would open up for me. It’s true. It’s an affirmation of being able to do a pose that you couldn’t think you could. Yoga for me, a lot of it is all about pushing boundaries, and seeing what your boundaries really aren’t. So that’s where I’m at right now.

S: I saw an adage about when you don’t know the way forward, and all these doors seem to be closing around you, well, that is your way forward. The closing of doors and the ending of options, is, by default, a movement forward. It makes me think of these things in yoga, where you crack down a limit it moves you forward. You break down one wall and you just keep progressing. It’s not in a competitive way, there’s just always more. It’s a slow momentum with these little break throughs.

R: Yeah, I mean, I really appreciate the simple breakthroughs, but it’s not that I can do the challenging ones, but that I worked on them. Well, I just talked a lot on that last one, but do you have any other questions for me?

S: What would you say are essentials to look for if you’re choosing a yoga teacher training program? I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect teacher training program.

R: There’s no such thing as a perfect one, which I think is really beautiful, because I think if it is available to you that you should access multiple trainings in some way. That doesn’t mean like the $3000 teacher training programs every time, but just to have access to different types of training and education.

It’s been important for me to have my teacher around. I need someone I can build a relationship with. But, to the same extent, maybe for you or others it’s just creating community with other mentors who you can count on. Sometimes I just have random questions I’ll text my teacher, or I’ll just want to be around her, or when I go to her classes and it’s like I’m back in training. She never lets me off the hook. You need someone to hold you accountable.

I think it’s important that you’re uncomfortable. You don’t want to always go with what seems comfortable or fun, you want to know going into it that you can do a lot of things that you didn’t think you could ever do or want to do. So someone who can push you past that a little bit.

The last thing: I think it should be well rounded, which could be a lot of things. There’s the business side, the philosophy, the anatomy, sanskrit. Some holistic components. Every program is stronger in different components than others.

S: Those are all good insights. Everyone values such different things and has such a different experience. I really value people’s advice. It’s what I do with everything. I’ll look at 30 resources and pull what I want. I never pull and just say, that’s now my way of thinking. I always construct. I weave my own understanding. So I think that’s what I’m trying to do.

“I trust myself.”

Angela Abiodun and I met in either 2010 or 2011 when we were both enrolled in a (what I remember to be incredibly rigorous) Black Feminist Thought course at the University of Michigan. We didn’t really talk much, however, until recently. Through the synchronicity of the universe we crossed paths in a few realms of our lives, and I think we each realized how our interests in yoga, academics, feminism, and activism might overlap. We’ve been in touch over the past year as Angela explores how she would like to cultivate her yoga teaching practice. Though we have only just begun to get to know one another, I have been aware of Angela’s intelligence, wisdom, and grace since that class in my junior year of college. When I decided to start this interview series, she was one of the very first people I knew I had to get involved. Below is the bulk of our conversation on July 7th. Because of the length of this dialogue, I’ve chosen to leave it as is, instead of closing with my reflections. I hope my readers will enjoy learning from her as much as I did!

Angela


Raina: So, how did you come to start practicing yoga?

Angela: When I graduated I joined Teach for America and I was in Louisiana. My roommate and I realized that the reason we got hired was partially because of a desegregation mandate in Louisiana and they wanted more black teachers in their classrooms. And so that kind of was the backdrop for my teaching experience, especially the first year, and that first year was so stressful. I was over a thousand miles away from home, in the country – rural backwoods Louisiana, where they would film ‘Swamp People’ – in a community that really wasn’t open to me, and constantly having to battle a very misguided interpretation of what racism means. And so I found myself doing what everyone else in Louisiana did, and to pass time it was eating and drinking. I knew that I needed to find alternative ways to cope. And before teaching, before college, I was a dancer. I loved movement. So I had come across yoga in a variety of ways and I ended up finding a studio and it was a hot vinyasa. I remember I came home and the next day my body completely released – I was on the toilet all morning, and I was like “oh, this is what I need.” There was so much there, and my body just let it go.

R: I’m surprised they had yoga there!

A: Yeah. Actually, I’m not surprised, with the way that yoga is becoming a lot more commodified, because it’s the new exercise.

R: And did you share that experience with other people?

A: I immediately began to do stuff with my classroom, because I had a lot of classes – one in particular – that was high energy. It got to the point where they would be asking to do yoga to start the class off. And then I brought my roommate with me to one session and she was surprised. I think when most people hear yoga, if they’ve never experienced it before, they think of slow, a cold room. But I continued my practice because I believe it has such power, especially for black and brown youth and mothers. I want to be able to provide it in spaces that it otherwise wouldn’t be, either because of access – not being able to get there – or money.

R: Can you talk more about what components you see being beneficial and how you’ve actually used them or would like to use them in those communities?

A: For me, it didn’t come through classes that I realized the benefit, it came through conversations with other people who were also engaging in holistic, more spiritual ways of understanding their body. I feel like yoga is one of the ways that I’ve been able to understand my body. I pay attention to what parts of my body are flexible and how that flexibility changes over time and how that reflects what I’m experiencing in my life. Sometimes in yoga class I feel myself on the verge of tears, or I will start crying because I’m sifting through something. So the reason I view it important for people of color is that when you start to learn about the energy systems as well as the ways that our energy systems are out of whack, yoga is one way to support the shifting of our energy systems, so for me it pushes me to go internally.

What would it look like for us to go internally, to find our power and strength to change the ways that the world manifests for us? I believe if [people of color] had a lot more of that how they engage with social justice would be different. When you shift from yoga being strictly about the exercise, when it becomes a holistic engagement with yoga that also manifests with how you deal with yourself. You see yourself as unable to be compartmentalized and when that compartmentalization begins to fall apart you see your opportunities they way that you would see the world shifting as well.

R: What has been your experience sharing that with friends and family?

A: My core group of friends, all of us connect around ideas of yoga and holistic healing, and we all want to work in the community or are already doing work in the community. So on the regular we have conversations about mindfulness, transforming our thoughts, challenging discourses about what it looks like for those two worlds to merge because they tend to exist in isolation. But we see this inside of all of us – they exist in unison. We were talking a lot about creating spaces that don’t reproduce the detrimental power structures that we all claim to be wanting to change. You see people saying a lot of, “this is wrong, we should be doing it this way,” and the alternatives tend to be very reactive, but in being reactionary you’re losing your ability to really be transformative and sustaining something that would actually work for people. A lot of conversations around compassion and accountability. So what does it look like for us to recognize that in a lot of ways we are all victims of what the system produces, but also recognizing that we have all made choices and to engage with and not engage with certain things in yourself? A lot of things that exist we draw to us, and that becomes a hard conversation when talking to black people. It’s like, “did I ask for this?!”

As I’ve been working on my healing, I wanted those around me to be a part of that process. With my father, I realized I want a lot of validation from him, and in seeking that variation, I invite him into conversations, I look for his affirmation to what I’m thinking about and they’re never there. I’ve realized that honoring a person’s process is really important and that I don’t need to look outside of myself for what I’m doing. If I feel good that’s all that really matters, and that comes across in how I engage with people, how I live my life, and how I look. That’s been one thing I’ve really had to realize and part of that is trusting myself. What does it look like to truly trust me, and trust my thoughts and my desires and follow them without caring about how anybody may respond to that?

R: That sounds really frustrating. It’s always interesting, especially with family members, when you know you deserve their support, but also respecting their process. I was watching Oprah once… *sighs*

A: Oprah has some good stuff sometimes!

R: There was a show where she was interviewing three young spiritual leaders and one of them [Gabrielle Bernstein] was talking about when you go through the process of enlightenment people fall away and it can be a really painful process. And I think it’s also interesting that you bring in the comments of how reactive we can be. Reacting to things we think we did or did not bring into our lives and it’s always been a touchy space to figure out how to have those conversations. When do you know you can challenge someone on that? How do you “pick your battles?”

A: So I’m not good at picking my battles! For me it always starts with a conversation about energy and autonomy. Energy is never destroyed nor made, it is always just shifted and transformed. So that means when we – energy and the law of attraction – think about things, our thoughts are energy. If someone is interested in healing, I want to see if they’re interested in being autonomous, interested in having control, if they’re interested in being involved in their healing process. If they’re not, then we don’t want to have that conversation because reactions are where you’re at right now. And that’s cool – I’m not there [right now].

R: So there’s autonomy and then there’s involvement – and you don’t see those as separate?

A: No. I think my two layers are autonomy and healing in regards to that conversation about being reactive. So first, being autonomous. How involved do you want to be in your healing, if healing is what you’re seeking? Many people want to be passengers. The passenger’s seat does not require you to be very reflective, it does not require you to be engaged, it does not require you to be conscious at all. If you want the healing where you have control and where you change and shift things, it requires you to be very invested and very autonomous and very engaged. If [people] ask me, then I’ll give it. But if they don’t, I won’t. Some people are so hurt and so not autonomous that they end up hurting others and they feel like they don’t need to take responsibility. That thing about hurt people hurting people is so real.

R: So, now you’ve been practice for four or five years. How would you define your practice?
A: It’s funny that you ask, because I hate definitions. I think definitions can be incredibly limiting, but I see the need for them. [My practice] is one that’s holistic. It’s one that requires me to listen to my body and listen to what it’s telling me. When I say holistic, I mean my nutrition, my actions, where I go and spend my time, what I do with myself outside of yoga, my thoughts, my all of that impacts my yoga practice.

R: And where do you see your practice going? Do you have desires for it? Or is the future of it open?

A: I’ve been having this internal battle about ambition and success. I feel like ambition is just self-competition and competition is bad because it’s saying that for you to be valued you have to beat somebody, you have to stand over someone, [or your] past self. Using that as a defining mechanism for my world has got me into the emotional and physical pain. I’m trying not to be ambitious. [My practice] is very open. I do want to share it more. What it will look like inside of me, I don’t know.

R: I think a lot about, even on my mat or watching my students, there can be elements of ambition in the physical practice of yoga too. So I’m really into the “that’s yoga!” moments of life Or vice versa when you’re on your mat and you’re having an experience. Like when you were talking about using your flexibility to understand and interact with what’s going on with your life. Are there other things for you where you’re like, “that’s yoga!” or “that’s life!”?

A: I think I have it more during my physical practice, where I’m like, “that’s life.” I feel like as long as you’re breathing and in touch with your breath you’re doing yoga. When I say that people tend to laugh, because I also say it usually responding to them saying “I’m bad at yoga.”

R: That’s my biggest pet peeve!

A: That’s a manifestation of how we view everything – you’re either good or bad at it.

R: Do you primarily practice on your own?

A: Yeah. [I’ve been going to a studio] like twice a week. But I’m primarily at home.

R: I ask because I’m curious about studio culture. I don’t want to polarize or put things in categories, but I am curious what experiences have felt really good for you in studios, and which ones not so great?

A: My best studio experiences have been recently at my new studio [Iyengar Yoga Detroit]. The women who own the studio are both of color. They know everyone who comes in. They have a kitchen in the back where a couple people make food for various venues. It feels like a home and a community. I see them out often and randomly. I appreciate that. I wish more places cultivated that. But they are also a small studio and it’s in Hamtramck, so it’s in a specific community.

My worst yoga experiences have all been in Bikram studios. The first time I went, the guy said, “If you feel dizzy, that’s good. Just fight through it.” I was like – no…if you feel dizzy, sit down! But the worst situation – I went and played volleyball and had skinned my foot. I came in the next day for yoga and I was really tired. The woman leading the session called me out, she said, “You’re already taking a break? We’ve only just begun.”  If I come in there and lay in corpse pose the whole time, I paid my money, let me sit here and have my sauna day! I was completely baffled that she responded like that. And the rest of the people there laughed. What kind of culture have you built that you do not expect a person to honor what their body is telling them, even if it is two minutes into the practice? And that the rest of the people in the space think it’s important to laugh?

R: I’m also curious what you think about yoga and cultural appropriation?

A: As a black woman I see it very differently than how it’s discussed. I’ll give it two layers. One, you have the typical idea of what a yoga student looks like: 20s-30s, petite, white, the most updated yoga mats, fancy yoga clothes, maybe some yoga shoes, yoga gloves. Even though most of the people in the world who practice yoga don’t look like that. It’s also difficult that it’s inaccessible on a monetary level. And it’s also crazy that you’ll have people who have grown up practicing yoga in their home and when they go in a studio it’s directed and lead than in a different way than they’ve ever seen it in their home practice. On another level, it’s always interesting to me when you credit yoga somewhere. Especially things out of India or Asian culture, because a lot of it has origins traced back to Africa, but no one talks about that. The idea of appropriation is interesting to me, because that means that there’s ownership. And what does it mean for that ownership to not truly be reflective of all the hands who impacted what it looks like today. I definitely think it has been appropriated, it’s become an exercise class. And I wish that if it does look like that you’re honest about that. [But cultural appropriation] becomes a complex conversation for me [as a black woman] that not all parts of it’s origin are honored.

R: That articulates questions and thoughts I have about how things evolve. There are definitely two layers: it’s been commodified in how much it costs and everything you can purchase and the barriers to being able to practice, but then at the same time the sense of connection that I think we feel when we practice is something everyone should have access to. I think when we connect with the self, we connect with everything, so I want to be honoring that. So thanks for that. I think I have some Googling to do.

A: It’s hard to find! But it’s out there.

R: I often get stuck thinking about the face of yoga and how I see it being commodified, but also knowing how I’m a part of that, but also knowing I’m a woman of color, so I wonder how does that play into it? There are so many layers, it’s hard to tease out. Sometimes there’s not always a perfect answer or way to talk about it!

A: I don’t think anything should be given for free. You should be compensated. I personally would like to create spaces for barter. I think [commodification] really is a reflection of the ways that capitalistic systems are. Exchange is necessary, but when you put a dollar amount to it it cheapens it. It removes the community, or relational aspect of exchange.

R: I approach my teaching as a reciprocal process, so I like that how you explain your perspective, it brings you up to being peers. Will you do a teacher training eventually?

A: I see the value in certain spaces, but I don’t think I’ll be in a space where I’ll need a certification to teach yoga. You can become certified in anything today. On a certain level, we need to make sure people have a certain level of knowledge, but this idea that you can take a class and all of the sudden be an expert is weird to me. Especially if you engage with yoga on a solely physical and material level. [Teacher training] would push my knowledge in ways in which I’m not there yet, but it feels like how I’m growing in yoga doesn’t align with a lot of teacher training spaces. I haven’t found a training I’m interested in. Maybe, but right now I’m just practicing and living and sharing.

R: Yeah, I thought of you the other day because I read this article [I have sadly lost said post in the interweb abyss, otherwise I would link to it] about how the process is now you go for a certain amount of time, you pay, and then you leave. Whereas for centuries – Iyengar [and Ashtanga are] the only practices I’m familiar with that even resemble the more traditional method of training – you would train and train and train and the teacher would decide when you were done and then the student would be expected to give something to the teacher when they were done. So it’s that exchange element again.

So, another question I’m asking everyone is how you identify – or what your most salient identities are?

A: A lot more of my identities are salient now than they were before. My race, my blackness. My ethnicity, the fact that I am a child of immigrants. My ancestry takes me back to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, specifically Mende and Yoruba people. My gender, my status as a woman. My status as a woman, I identify as queer because it allows fluidity. My socioeconomic status, because it has shifted continuously since I was born.

R: We’ve kind of talked about this, but are there ones that feel more salient to your practice?

A: There are a couple that are salient for me in this practice. I will add a salient identity: my spirituality, I don’t have a name for it, but that is also very salient to me. It ties to this question. Honoring of the earth and nature and love and how that manifests. And understanding the development of my appreciation of the energy systems that exist. When I practice I notice how my body feels in those areas. Also, more tied to ethnicity: my ancestry, I think a lot about that when I practice. I think about how [chakras and karmic impact are] impacting what I’m able to do and feel and practice.

R: I know for me my intention with my practice, which often connects with life in general, will go through phases. Do you have a favorite theme, yoga sutra, focus, or mantra right now?

A: For now, my personal mantra is “I trust myself.” One of my instructors told a story of how extended handstand was a hard pose for her to get into. Getting into that position required a lot of internal trust and knowing that one, you can do it, two: you’re not going to hurt yourself and . that you will protect yourself. I think she said it because that was a hard time getting into that position, partly because I didn’t trust myself. I recognize how this is tied to things I’m dealing with my father and my general healing, so that’s my focus of the moment.

R: Do you have a favorite pose?

A: Sarvangasana. (shoulder stand)

R: How come?

A: I hold a lot of stress in my back, so my ability to fully perform that shoulderstand – into halasana (plow)  as well – allows me to tap into how much length I’m giving to my spine. And with that, how much support I’m receiving, how much support I’m feeling.

R: Do you have any questions for me?

A: How are you feeling about your development in yoga – your personal practice and how you’ve been sharing it with others?

R: I feel good about it. I feel grateful for it. I think it’s helped me be more peaceful and content with life. Trust is often my invention. To be trusting of the things that I want, but also trusting that I don’t need those things, whether it be handstand, or losing weight, or doing well in general. I think trust, and I think vulnerability is the biggest thing that I’ve gotten from my teacher. So I’m very vulnerable in my practice, I adjust it to fit the day, instead of thinking that I need to have the same practice or one that is challenging exponentially over time. So that’s how I approach my teaching practice too, is to be vulnerable with my students, and to inspire them to be vulnerable. I do my best with what I say and how I teach and the options I offer so people feel like they can take the foundation of what I give them and mold it to fit their day, and not feel like they have to accomplish. I think I’m aware lately that there is more for me to learn so that I can share and more for me to learn from other people about their own practices so that I can have a different perspective. I have an increased energy sense these days about how people feel, but I don’t want to make assumptions. So, that’s one of my goals with these interviews is to not make assumptions. To really hear and process all of it. It’s exciting.

A: One thing I always hope is that it remains exciting for others. Because depending on how you approach it it can become daunting. But with more control over that it looks very different, depending on the purpose. So that’s good that it’s still exciting.

“Action doesn’t always mean we call someone out”

In many ways, yoga in the U.S. has developed a culture and image of exclusivity. Who practices yoga, what they look like, what their perceived skill level is, how much they pay for classes, what they wear while practicing, and other factors reflect broader social norms that shape how and to what extent we interact and share spaces. For the most part, that image is a young, seemingly heterosexual, white woman with a pretty comfortable amount of cash in her wallet. She is tall, thin, and flexible. She looks nothing like me and she definitely doesn’t represent the diverse range of other people who practice yoga or could practice yoga.

For this reason, I have incorporated many components into my classes to cultivate a sense of inclusivity, as well as reciprocity. So far, this has included student initiation of Om, occasional post-class conversations about yoga, and free classes at a variety of locations and times so that many different people have opportunities to practice in solidarity with others. It is important to me as a yoga instructor that that I involve my yoga community (which is comprised of my students, my teachers, and other yogi friends) in my teaching practice so that the learning is always reciprocal.

To the same extent that I find it important to include my community in co-intentional learning, it is also important to me that I am not silent on issues concerning social injustice in order to seem professional or neutral. This has been achieved through the practices I describe in the paragraph above, but also in the type and the breadth of articles, books, events, or other resources I share with my email list and on my Facebook page. Some of my students and I have formed meaningful bonds by realizing some of our shared perspectives, and valuable conversations leading to thought evolution has transpired. Thus, today I am excited to extend my involvement of my community members by initiating a series of interviews with some of them. These interviews are more so conversations, dialogues, opportunities to think aloud with one another.

One of the people I bonded with, and the first person I have interviewed for this series, is Linh H. Linh and I first met when she started coming to my classes at the Phoenix Center. She is one of the many beautiful and smiley faces I get to see each week and I am grateful to now call her a friend.

Below is a transcript of our conversation on July 5th.


 

Raina: I’m really glad you’re interested in this as well and open to talking with me. I wanted to start with how you started practicing yoga.

Linh: The first time I heard about yoga was my freshman year when my roommate was like, “Oh do you want to do this yoga DVD with me?” and I didn’t really realize what that was at the time. I just thought it was another form of exercise. I started taking a few classes here and there during my later years of undergrad. I really got into it more here in Ann Arbor, with Aum Yoga. I realized this awareness of my body. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with my body. I would be conscious when I danced, or with what I wear, and I felt like yoga just allowed me to feel my body, feel my arms, feel my legs, feel my breathing, on a scale I don’t think I’ve ever done before. You don’t realize you go through the motion of the day and you don’t really take care of your body. When I practiced yoga more regularly, I felt like, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that!” Something you mentioned in class, that not every pose is for every body. I think there’s this thing around yoga, that form is perfection. Well, it’s the challenges up to that, I think, is where it’s beautiful.

R: Yeah, that’s really what I hope to cultivate for people when I teach: that it’s more the process than the end! So, my next question was, how do you define your practice?

L: The first word that comes to mind is cautious. I think that goes back to being previously disconnected from my body and learning how my body works, and feeling often times like scared of my own potential. I hear [a student] landing on her mat [during crow] and I’m like “I wanna land on my mat too!” But there’s that moment, like before you jump up into the air [from downward dog] that you feel really scared. I don’t know if it’s scared of falling, or scared of actually doing it. I say cautious because I’m still learning what my body can do, and not wanting to over extend myself, but wanting that challenge. It reminds me a lot of what [my professor] says: “You only have a few seconds to prove yourself to the world and in that moment when you’re being asked to step up to the plate, those moments mean so much.” I always think about that moment in between when something’s coming and time slows down. Like when someone says something that’s really hurtful, how do you respond, that moment before you jump into your pose, that moment of public speaking…that moment in between I think is really interesting.

R: I love that analogy and that you see a connection – I mean, he’s obviously not talking about yoga – but it’s applicable to different situations. Do you feel like there are other areas for you where you consciously see overlap between school, or politics, or yoga? Are those areas there for you? I’m always curious what things people realize in life and it’s like “oh, that’s yoga!” What’s your “that’s yoga!” epiphany?

L: Feeling discomfort, whatever you’re in in that moment. That strain in your back or in your hips. I think about my work, which is a challenging workspace. I’m coming in with the mindset of assisting underrepresented students in STEM, while the focus of my office is not that. I often encounter comments about student’s ability to do well.  So I think about when I encounter moments where someone told me, “Well, these students are not prepared, I don’t know why we admitted them in the first place.” And I responded, “Well it’s our responsibility now to find support and create support systems.” And they say, “Well we should make sure they’re not too dependent on these systems, because when they leave the university life is not like that.” I feel very deeply offended in the moment – that moment where you’re like “this doesn’t sit right with me and I don’t know why” and I think sitting with that and not responding with like an immediate, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” because they do know what they’re talking about, at their own level. And maybe you don’t know why it feels wrong, and I think sitting with that discomfort, because so often time were so reactive.  I don’t mean to say that you should be okay with social injustices, but to say that there is so much value in reflection, in thinking about and attempting to make sense of why things are the way they are. Especially talking about activists, we can be quick to call people out, just criticize instead of listening and trying to understand why that is being said. Reflection is as important a responsibility as action. And action doesn’t always mean we call someone out. Sitting with your discomfort, to me, is one approach in first recognizing what’s going on and beginning to think through things. So I think about yoga and that moment of feeling so uncomfortable but not being sure which part of your body is uncomfortable, or why it’s uncomfortable.

R: Yeah, we’re a culture that is fearful of discomfort, instead of using it as feedback. So this has been helpful for you in your workplace?

L: It’s incredibly hard for me to be at a primarily white institution, and I’m in the humanities – in the most humanity of the humanities in education – so, speaking about myself – sharing with [my coworkers] my own experiences, that hey this is difficult for me too [not just the students]. Trying to open the other person up – making that connection for them about why we should expect the most out of our system. The same that we’ve done for women students, [for example], why wouldn’t we do the same for students of color. So making the connection to their own experience, contextualizing it.

R: It’s like the we’re all students and teachers of life concept. Yeah, it’s funny, especially at the School of Social Work I get that “Well, in the real world it’s not going to be like this.” and I’m like is that an excuse?

L: Yeah, and it makes me think about students at minority serving institutions – are you saying they leave and don’t do well in life? Because I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s easy to shift the blame back to the individual. People [who] are born with privileges use them all the time!

R: So speaking of how your identity influences your experience at institutions where youre definitely a minority, what are your most salient identities?

L: Being an immigrant – I moved here from Vietnam when i was 11. I’m still working on this one: being an Asian Pacific Islander woman, or a woman of color. Those are the top two.

R: So I wonder how your identities have shaped your experience with yoga.

L: For one, yoga is very white. And you can feel that from the moment you walk in. You see what people are wearing – Lululemon and fancy yoga mats. You can see it in the way people approach yoga. It feels like people are jumping to form – like really wanting to perfect that pose. And it being fast-paced and not really talking about why we do what we do. Or using ‘namaste’ or ‘sanskrit’ without really defining them. Those words just sound cool and they’re coopted. And frankly, no one crediting the origin of yoga is really frustrating. I’m oftentimes one of the few women of color in the room, with instructors that are white women or white men. And whose practices kind of cater to that kind of body – very long, very lean. As my friend would say, “I got little bumps on this body!” And then, [I notice] how hard it is to get my friends of color to go to yoga! And feeling disconnected, and wanting them to see the benefits of it – especially men of color.

M: Does your family know you practice yoga?

L: No! My mom would want to talk every Sunday at noon [during your class] and I would have to say “I’m going to an exercise class,” because I don’t even know how to describe it in Vietnamese. I just sort of translate it as aerobic exercise. I think they would give me a really funny look if they knew that I practice yoga.

R: What has been the best and the most challenging experiences that you’ve had practicing yoga that relate to your identity or feeling connected to it?

L: I think of moments where I felt like, “Oh man, why did I come?” It comes back to space being a big thing, inclusive space. It’s so difficult to pinpoint what irks us, but when you walk into a space that maybe besides the fact that you don’t see people like you, you also don’t feel a sense of this is a space for everyone. People can say that, but to really create that space, yoga spaces aren’t often like that. I keep remembering my time practicing yoga in Virginia last summer. I just think about why I never felt good in that space. I always felt like I stood out. During practices, I wouldn’t lean as far, or my body doesn’t stretch like that. And then I think about when I go to Zumba, and it’s mostly women of color. There’s a difference in attitude. We’re not here to compete, we’re just here to let loose. Yoga can be so performative. I feel like women of color enjoy something that is a community practice. [Zumba] is closer to our culture in a way, we just naturally move our bodies to music. Yoga doesn’t resonate as naturally as dancing would. And I think when people think of yoga, they think of a white women in Lululemon leggings just doing poses. Until you sent me those websites, I had never seen a woman of color doing yoga.

R: When you talk with your friends about coming to yoga, what is your intention in convincing them to come?

L: I want them to feel their bodies. We talk a lot about self care and learning about our bodies. And we do it through dancing and food, but I want them to feel what it’s like to sit with their bodies, what it’s like to move with their bodies, what it’s like to sit with their discomfort with their bodies. I want them to go through the experience with me. My friends and I talk a lot about mindfulness, and this is such a big way to learn about being mindful.

R: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing with me – just being aware. We think we have to carve out the space for meditation, which can be great, but just practicing yoga and becoming more mindful, it just becomes a day-to-day thing.

L: A lot of my friends are very strong women. We live in a world that makes us very defensive. I think yoga lets us see that it’s ok to feel the pain, the challenges, the discomfort, the anger. It’s so easy for us to jump into our activist minds and say “Fuck the world, fuck the system!” but then, we are the system, we are the world, we can’t fuck it! There’s only one! *laughs*

R: Do you have a favorite mantra, or common theme, yoga inspiration, or sutra?

L: Yeah, it’s from you actually!

R: What is it?!

L: “You already have what you need to get what you want.” I often think, I need to be leaner, I need to be more toned to jump into that pose, to get more breath, but I think about what you say, and well, not every pose is for me, but I already have it! Drawing from within, drawing that energy from deep down and carrying it out. To connect it back to everything else: it’s easy for us as activists to say, “the system is wrong, let’s create a new one,” but again, we live in the system, so we can’t throw it all away, because we are a part of it, we’re a product of it, all the evils and goods, that’s us! We should work with what we have, and change it from the inside out.

R: What about a favorite pose?

L: Warrior II. I like that part when we rise from being down on the mat, and your back arm goes out first and your front arm lifts up. It feels so good, it feels so powerful. It feels like I’m rooted from the bottom up, like a tree. And my core is where it’s supposed to be. It feels like a power pose.

R: Yeah, I love that as well! Well, do you have any questions for me?

L: Uhh.. What’s been a challenging moment for you in the classroom? Either as a student or as a teacher.

R: One challenge I see in new students and veteran students, and myself even, is when you think you should be able to do something. Wanting to address that person directly, but wanting them to feel supported and empowered, and so sometimes I have to let go and not say anything, sometimes I have to say it to the entire class, sometimes it comes up in conversation later. I just have to hope they hear it. Sometimes you have to repeat it. And the thing is that you can tell your body to do one thing, but sometimes it just takes time. A big lesson for me has been being uncomfortable, being vulnerable, or being embarrassed, and then moving on from that moment. And wanting other people to feel the same thing so much, but not having control over their bodies or being in their head. I know I teach challenging classes, because I think you can find space for every level, but it takes a calm sense of self to be in a multi-level class that’s challenging and knowing that you can dial it down. Sometimes I notice I don’t have a strong connection to people depending on our identities. So I have to be really mindful of if I really have to say anything right now. Sometimes you have to – it’s a safety issue – but sometimes not.

L: It’s cool to hear that there’s another side – that it’s not just me as a student who feels uncomfortable.


What did I learn from my conversation with Linh?

I have worked really hard to build a diverse class at the Phoenix Center on Sundays. I am proud of where I am in that process. Depending on the Sunday, I can count on having students from a variety of identities present in the class. Some of those identities are visible, some invisible.

When I first started my teacher training, my mission was to bring yoga to communities of color, particularly black women. I have been challenged over and over again to do so “successfully.” As a biracial woman who also identifies as black I felt perplexed as to why it was so hard to convince people of color, people in my communities, people who may look like me to come to MY class. I have had to let go of my ego quite a bit and realize the many reasons why someone of color would be skeptical of yoga. I have also had to be honest with myself about why someone of color would be skeptical of me. In doing so, I have also had moments where I have felt unsure of my reasons for practicing yoga. I have had moments of questioning if I was being authentic in my identities by practicing yoga. I have felt guilty for buying into something that has been co-opted by the yoga industrial complex.

Linh spoke of sitting with discomfort, and of that being an active behavior. There is a lot of complexity in the reasons why people of color largely steer clear of yoga spaces. The need for a counter yoga culture screams at me every single day. I do my best, but it is sometimes not enough. I appreciate Linh’s comments about the system, and working within the system to change it. In the same ways that I am comfortable with my body’s discomfort during my own personal practice, I also must be content with the times I experience discomfort in my teaching practice.

With all this said, I am actively sitting with my discomfort. I will be persistent, but I will take my time to incorporate new ways of being inclusive and encouraging diversity in yoga. I will not pretend to have all the answers. I certainly have a lot more learning to do about how I can hold myself accountable to being a more inclusive yoga teacher. Yet, while we all figure out how to deal with the system, how to counter the culture, how to prove to underrepresented identities that they deserve to be in the spaces that have excluded them for so long (as my own professor would say), conversations with beautiful, confident, and smart women of color who practice yoga, like Linh, have reminded me that I deserve to enjoy and thoughtfully share this practice that has done so much for me.