I’m the only Black woman in my yoga class but…

Hmmmm.  The recent media fallout over the essay published on, “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” has me feeling some kind of way.  Jen Caron (actually a pseudonym used by writer Jen Polachek to conveniently protect her identity), self-described as a “skinny white girl,” writes about how she becomes uncomfortable watching a “young, fairly heavy black woman,” a new and unfamiliar student in her regular yoga class, “struggle” in a space that is “unable to accommodate her body.”  She writes,

Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.

Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.

At first, I had to stop reading right here–really!  This is all about you now?!  But, I read the entire essay, and you should too.  And, read all of the responses weighing in on how problematic and dangerous this confessional is (“Black Woman in Yoga Class Gives White Woman Race Angst” is on point).  Suddenly, in a yoga class, the heavy, black body threatens the safe, comfortable zone that belongs to this white woman.  She went home and cried because the presence of this one Black woman presented her with a moral crisis and interrupted her flow.  She questions, what should she have done?  How could she help this heavy, Black woman who couldn’t do yoga?  For an answer to these questions, read “It Happened to Me:  I’m a Big Black Girl Around Small White People & I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It.”

But, let me keep it all the way real here.  I am always the only Black woman in my yoga classes.  Is this because Black women don’t practice yoga?  No.  Is this because Black women struggle with yoga?  No.  Is this because heavy Black women are not comfortable with their bodies in the presence of “skinny white bodies”?  No.  Let me offer another perspective, Ms. “Jen Caron”.  After reading this essay, I reflected on the number of times I have gone into a studio and other students coincidentally avoid placing their yoga mats next to mine.  I thought about times when the instructor does not acknowledge my presence, nod or say “hello,” or even make eye contact with me.  I remembered all the times that I have wanted to stay in child’s pose because this is my practice and that is what my body needed in that moment.  And, if in that moment we had been in the same yoga class, would I too have been a threat to you?

So, why do I continue to go to yoga classes, “shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women” as Ms. Caron writes, where I am the “only one” (which is not unlike other experiences in my everyday life)?  Why do so many women of color continue to practice yoga despite narratives like the one Ms. Caron confesses?  Because, as Sweet Brown would say, ain’t nobody got time for that.  Ain’t nobody got time to worry about your prejudice, your guilt, or your fear when it comes to taking care of her own body and health.  When I practice yoga, I carve out my own space and focus on my flow.  Ain’t nobody thinking about you.  And, health and wellness do not belong to you.

As I complete my yoga teacher training, my friends are like, “girl, when are you going to start teaching your classes?  I’m waiting for your class.”  I have sistafriends who don’t feel like being the “only one” in a yoga class taught by the “skinny white girl” who might possess the same attitude as Ms. Caron.  And, I don’t blame them.  For that reason, I am pursuing this training because one, I want to deepen my own practice and two, I want to create yoga spaces where women (and men) of color know that they are welcomed and expected.  What is most problematic to me about Ms. Caron’s sudden realization is that it is only occurring because of the presence of a Black woman who may have been new to this yoga class.  It happens because what is familiar is disrupted by the unfamiliar.  Instead, I would want yoga teachers and students to pose these questions and experience this discomfort because these spaces are homogeneous and occupied with people like them.  Not when “diversity” appears on the mat behind them.

In the meantime, I will continue to show up in yoga classes and settle in on my mat.  And, if you find me in child’s pose, don’t worry.  I’m OK.  And, I’m sure that you will be OK too.

Why I hated bridge pose

p223-001Well, hate is probably a strong word.  Let’s say that I strongly disliked bridge pose and would love to avoid it, when and if possible, during a yoga session.  Yes, the bridge pose has many benefits–it strengthens your back, your butt, and your legs.  It’s great for your neck, your chest, your hips, and your spine.  It improves circulation of the blood.  It aids with digestion.  It’s said to calm your nerves and alleviate stress.  Yet, it is one of the asanas in yoga that I do not look forward to.  It’s a heart opening pose, which means that both physically and emotionally, you’re opening yourself up.  You’re opening your heart to others and to the world.  It can also symbolize being a “bridge” from yourself to others and to the world–building connections in your relationships.  Not only is the pose sometimes physically challenging for me, but emotionally and spiritually, I’ve come to realize that there are even deeper reasons for my disdain.

Taking care of others. Being responsible for others.  Just being there for others.  My identity has been wrapped up in being the strong one, the reliable one, the one you can depend on.  I grew up the oldest child so I come by this honest.  But, being the big sister who is a caretaker and nurturer, I have a hard time trusting that I can depend on others.  So I’ve learned to take care of myself–I’m hyper independent.  Always feeling responsible is exhausting.  Not surprisingly, my expression in bridge pose is often one of exhaustion and weakness and not of strength or confidence.  While I may not like to admit it, I’m tired of being the bridge.   But, letting go and trusting that others can have my back sometimes is not easy for me.

Yesterday in my yoga teacher training, we did an activity that was all about building trust and depending on others.   In this activity, I stood in the middle of my group with my feet together, arms crossed, and my eyes closed.  I was instructed to fall back and allow myself to be passed between my four group members.  As I fell back and leaned from side to side, my group members were responsible for catching me and making sure that I did not fall.  I knew from the beginning that I was going to have difficulty with this activity–you’re asking me to close my eyes, fall back, and trust that these folks won’t drop me? Oh hell no! is what I was really thinking.  Now, I am the person that you want on the outside of the circle–I will not let anybody fall.  But, trusting that others will do the same for me has been my challenge.  As I began being passed between my group members, I was quite stiff and nervous.  I could not relax and let go.  At one point, one of my group members paused the passing, held me, and said, “Relax.  We got you.”  And, in that moment, I did just that–I relaxed and trusted that my group had my back, literally.  My group members said that my body began to feel much lighter, and I was passed between them with ease and speed.  After the activity, I had to work to hold back my tears.  I was struck by how someone’s simple affirmation of “I got your back” calmed and relaxed me.  And, I was also overcome by my willingness to trust that they would.

I’m learning to trust that others can have my back.  As I continue to give to the world and to others, I witness how the love and support is returned.  The bridge is not one-way but it is reciprocal.  I look forward to practicing bridge pose now because I have a new outlook on it.  Being a bridge is my gift to the world.  It is my way of showing how much I love and care about others.  But, the bridge also needs to be strong so that I can receive the gifts that so many have for me.  I no longer hate the bridge pose.  Instead, because of it, I am so grateful.

In my solitude, like Billie sang

I’m just resurfacing from observing silence for the last 24 hours (this was part of my pratyahara homework for my yoga teacher training).  That meant, no talking, emailing, Facebooking, TV watching, reading, writing–nada.  I didn’t interact with my family.  I didn’t even listen to music.  I basically went inward and spent some quality time with me, myself, and I (queue the De La Soul!).  Funny thing, once alone with my thoughts, I seemed to go on a musical tour of songs that reminded me of being alone, from Billie Holiday’s Solitude to the Geto Boy’s My Minds Playing Tricks on Me.  While Scarface’s lyric “I sit alone in my four corner room staring at candles…” was somewhat appropriate, my time of solitude was a much more positive experience than it might have been if I was doing this, say, 5-10 years ago.  It was a much needed pause for me.  I was able to slow down and pay attention to myself–mind and body.  I spent time washing and conditioning my hair, giving love and care to each strand.  I massaged my sore feet with this wonderful lavender mint salve my sistafriend, Tanya, sent me from a local farm in San Antonio, TX.  I cooked and savored every bite of vegan spinach ravioli with sauteed fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, and red peppers.  I enjoyed some quality time, alone.  One of the reasons that I did not instantly gravitate toward yoga and meditation in my younger days was because I did not like being alone with myself or with my thoughts.  I was constantly seeking connection with others, and approval from others.  When alone, I only had me, myself, and I.  And, what if I wasn’t enough?

One of the things I look forward to each time I drink tea is reading the little affirmations on the labels.  It’s just as exciting for me as reading my fortune from a fortune cookie.  So, last night, as I was drinking my Yogi Bedtime tea, I decided that I would meditate on whatever affirmation I received.  It read, “I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am blissful.”  Okay, I am, I thought.  yogi tea 2Then, my mind starting wandering, and I was replaying the scene from the movie, The Help, when actress Viola Davis, who is playing the Black female “help”, affirms the self-image and self-esteem of the little White girl that she cares for, telling her, “you is kind, you is smart, you is important.”  So, as you might imagine, this wandering went all kind of wrong for me.  Trying to stay mindful, I worked hard to stay focused on the Yogi tea affirmation.  What did it mean for me in that moment?  I reflected on how being in my solitude was a welcoming experience for me because I enjoy being me.  I am at a place in my life where I finally understand that I am enough.  I am all of those things that my Yogi tea affirmed–I am beautiful in and out; I am blessed and have many gifts to share; and I am peacefully satisfied with life.  Needing someone else to affirm that for you is a dangerous place to be in–you’re vulnerable, you’re weak, and you’re lonely.  That is quite different than embracing a space of solitude that you choose and because you look forward to your own company.

morning teaThis morning, the affirmation on the label of my morning tea, Traditional Medicinals Organic Peppermint Tea, read, “be heard.”  I didn’t really know what to take from this since my 24 hours of silence wouldn’t end for another 6 hours or so.  And, generally, I don’t have real issues letting my voice be heard.  So, I shifted my meditation to this morning affirmation, and after a little while, I realized that the “being heard” isn’t as much about making sure others hear me as it is about me listening to my inner voice.  I needed to stop and pay attention to my own voice.  If I truly believe that I am enough, then I am worth pausing to listen to my own thoughts.  Cultivating an intuitive spirit only happens when I slow down and clear my mind space.  Listening inward is also important because it forces me to focus on my body.  I observe my breathing, I pay attention to my heartbeat.  I need to understand what it feels like to be in this body so that I am aware of how it changes and evolves.

I learned a lot in the past 24 hours–one, I think musically; two, I am confident in who I am and know that I am enough; three, I need to listen inward; and four, it’s good for me to slow down every now and again.  I plan to deplug and turn off my phone (though my family and friends complain that I never answer it anyway) more often.  And, daily, I plan to pause to honor and listen to my own thoughts.  It’s so important.  Now, queue the Brand Nubian.

ZenG Interviews LaToya & Detra

My girls, Detra (l) and LaToya (r)

In a recent post, I reflected on the role my circle of sistafriends plays in my overall health and well being.  Taking on and accomplishing new health goals feels more attainable knowing that my girls got my back.  In this post, I am featuring a conversation with two of my girls who truly inspire me–LaToya and Detra.  They inspire me for several reasons.  I met LaToya almost five years ago when I first moved to central New York.  A wife and a mother of four school-aged children, she was working full-time and juggling the demands of maintaining her household.  And, at that time in her life, she was looking for something more so she decided to pursue her doctorate in composition and rhetorical studies.  The same year that she began her doctoral studies, she also decided to homeschool her two boys.  And, of course, she blames me for convincing her to add this new level of craziness to her already busy life.   We’ve bonded over homeschooling our kids, navigating the academic life as Black women, and our fierce pursuit of self-care rituals, including yoga.  She is now working on her dissertation, her four children are thriving academically and socially, her partnership with her husband is solid, and most importantly, healthy living is one of her main priorities.  Over the years, I have been in awe of LaToya.  She is my little sister, and I feel so privileged to witness her journey.  She optimizes the notion of getting her life.

I met Detra in 2006 when we were both fellows in a national mentoring program for emerging scholars of color.  Ours is a sistahood that has grown over time, to the point that it seems like we’ve known each other since forever.    We have a lot in common, especially when it comes to our diets–I’m addicted to Pellegrino and she’s addicted to Coke; she’s looking for a Shake Shack when I want the nearest vegan restaurant; she eats the Reese’s peanut butter cups and I’ll have the darkest chocolate.  What I love about our friendship is that we support what makes the other person happy–no judgement, period.  Detra is another woman to marvel at–she’s a wife, a mother of three children (one in diapers, one in middle school, and one at college), and an accomplished scholar and teacher educator.   Last year, she lost the first love of her life–her father.  I witnessed how she cared for her father in his final months and how she lived through his passing with such grace and strength.   She is a constant reminder for me that we must focus on what’s most important in life and eliminate the foolishness, as we like to call it.

My girls, Detra and LaToya, are both simply beautiful–in and out.  Through life’s ups and downs, they remain grounded, and I imagine that part of this is because they’ve found ways to incorporate a yoga practice into their lives.  So, a couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to have a conversation with them both about their thoughts about yoga, what it is, and what it means for them personally.  Here’s what they said:

What is yoga?

Detra:  Yoga is patience and grace.  It’s being patient with yourself–giving yourself grace to deal with your mistakes.

LaToya: It’s a spiritual practice that helps me to connect and be more grounded with myself.  It’s physical.  It’s an integration of the physical and the mental.  I really appreciate that.

Is yoga a religion?

LaToya:  That’s a hard question.  I see religion as something that is systematic or that has ritual.  I guess it depends on how a person practices it.  I think it can be a religion for some.  I treat my practice like I would treat prayer.  For me, I don’t label it but I see how it can be considered that.

Detra:  I need to think about what religion means.  Is religion a set of doctrines?  I don’t know that yoga is a set doctrine.  If it’s personal, I’m not sure if it can be a religion.  I don’t know.  I just think it’s a practice.

Do you think a person has to be vegetarian to practice yoga?

Detra:  I never thought about that as being a prerequisite.  Maybe there is something that says you honor the life of living things.

LaToya:  I practice yoga and I’m not a vegetarian.  I think it’s an individual choice.  You’re supposed to try to avoid doing harm but I eat meat.  Yoga allows you to get more in touch with yourself and pay attention with your whole self.  It helps you to be more attentive to what your body needs.

What benefits do you receive from practicing yoga?

Detra:  Mental health. Emotional benefits.  Social benefits.  I feel healthier.  I think about what I’m eating.  I’m more thoughtful about what I put in my body.

LaToya:  There are so many benefits.  The main thing it does for me is to help me relieve stress and anxiety.  They’re also physical benefits in terms of toning and flexibility and pain relief.  I have scoliosis so sometimes I have pain in my shoulders.  When I’m consistent with my practice, I don’t have those issues.  I think it also has helped me to be more mindful and stay in the present.  It helps me to make choices, to grow a lot.  It helps me to grow in a good way.  I feel more authentic.

Detra:  I feel more at peace.  I have a higher tolerance for foolish, ridiculous people.  I am kinder.  I feel more hopeful before and after.  I plan for my future in ways that are more thoughtful, and I am always thinking about the positive and possibilities.  After a session, I always want more people to have that feeling.  I want more people to experience it, and I want to share it with other people.

Namaste, my beautiful sistas.

The Power of Sista Circles

The other day, I watched this video of Lakeisha Shurn, a woman in California who took a challenge to videotape her workouts for 100 days straight.  At the time of the video, she weighed in at over 300 pounds.  She shares how, because of her weight and body image, she felt discouraged and depressed throughout her life.  At the start of the video, I could sense her feelings of defeat and even despair.  But by the end of the 2:59 minutes, I was rejoicing with her.  Her attitude and energy just came alive.  Over the course of 100 days, she lost 18 more pounds and made it out of the “300 club”, as she put it.  I may never meet LaKeisha, but I wanted to embrace her and let her know that she has my support to keep going.  I also wanted to let her know that her story inspired and encouraged me and all of the other thousands of people who have watched this video.  Thanks to social media, the video has gone viral, reaching millions.

Watching this clip and the way that LaKeisha is receiving love and positive vibes from folks all over the world also made me think about my own circle of support, the sista (and brotha) friends that have supported me along my wellness journey.  Having a community of support is paramount to maintaining my wellness commitments.  Staying the course has required that I stay surrounded by like-minded individuals who understand and can relate to the struggle.  These sistafriends bring light into my life in ways that they probably aren’t even aware.  So, I thought I’d make it plain and dedicate this post to my circle of sistafriends who,

Maintain a yoga practice despite having crazybusy schedules as mothers, partners, professionals, academics, and so on and so on, and share their journeys with me;

Convince me to sign up for 5Ks, not knowing that running would take my workout regime to the next level (good luck getting me to do a 10k though);

Drag me to spinning classes even though they know I hate it;

Go on spiritual yoga retreats with me when I know that’s not quite their thing;

Don’t look at me crazy when my order at the restaurant becomes so complicated because I have to ask the waitstaff to inquire about how the food is prepared;

Pick up the phone or chat with me on Facebook (because I refuse to text) about how to deal with the stressful moments in our lives;

Post tips and articles about all things health-related to my Facebook timeline;

Read, comment on, and share the ZenG blog.

I only hope to be half the friend my sistafriends are to me.  I want to give back to our sistacircle in ways that are meaningful and that help them to accomplish and sustain their health and wellness goals.

I’ve learned that as I evolve and grow in this life, not everyone is going to come along for the ride.  And, that’s OK.  I don’t want to impose my lifestyle on others, and at the same time, I do not want to be surrounded by naysayer or negative energy.  That is why, today and always, I am so grateful for the sista circle that embraces me, feeds me, and keeps me going.