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

Hmmmm.  The recent media fallout over the essay published on xojane.com, “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.

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.

New Year’s Lessons from the Warrior Pose

I’ve practiced yoga for years on and off.  While I appreciated the benefits of yoga, it was never something that I could sustain on a consistent basis.  I actually used to give major side eye to folks who practiced hot yoga and now I swear by it.  But, in the last three years, I’ve become much more committed to my practice, and the main reason for that is my reunion with the Warrior pose.

Three years ago, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to practice yoga more regularly, and I started the new year by attending a group class taught at my local YMCA.  I was a bit rusty when it came to both the asana (physical) and pranayama (breathing) aspects of the class.  Let’s keep it real–I was a whole lot rusty.  But, when we began a Warrior series, it clicked for me why I needed this practice in my life.  The instructor directed us into the Warrior I pose and talked us through setting up the proper alignment and maintaining balance.  Once positioned, I felt strong and imagined I was in battle.  And, at the time in my life, I was in a kind of battle–a battle for my physical and emotional health and well being.

warrior pose
My sistafriends in the Warrior II pose at our yoga retreat at Kripalu.

Then, she instructed us to move into the Warrior II pose.  In this pose, one arm and hand reaches toward the front and your gaze is toward your hand.  You keep your gaze to the front, toward your future.  The other arm is stretched out toward the back.  The back arm is facing your past.  The back hand faces down, symbolizing letting go of the past.  This was the meditation that the instructor provided as she guided us through the positions.  In that moment, I needed to hear that, and I needed to physically and emotionally let go of some things.  More importantly, I needed to forgive myself of past wrongs and past hurts.

I still go to this same class, same instructor every week.  I look forward to the Warrior series because it is an opportunity for me to release and let go time and time again.  I tell people that yoga is my church (that’s where you’ll find me just about every Sunday morning at 8:30AM), and for me, the Warrior series represents an act of self-forgiveness.

So, as we begin a new year, I offer a few lessons that I’ve learned from the Warrior pose and that I’ll continue to embrace as I look toward the future.

1) You wouldn’t be the Warrior you are today had you not been through that battlefield.  It has been easy for me to look back on my past with shame, resentment, and anger.  Why did I do that?  What was I thinking?  I wish I had known better or taken a different path.  But, then, that wouldn’t be my life, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.  I am wiser because of all of my bumps and bruises and better equipped to deal with what will come.  So, instead of being angry and resentful, I’ve learned to accept and, dare I say it, appreciate my past because, look, I’m still here.  Through the battle scars, I’m still here.

2) Forgiveness begins with you.  I’ve learned that I have no control over others’ emotions or actions.  For years, my ability to forgive myself was directly tied to whether others forgave me.  I was seeking outward approval and validation.  Yes, when you hurt someone, you should acknowledge it, ask for their forgiveness, and be purposeful in not hurting them again.  But, you have no control over their desire or willingness to forgive you or to let go of the hurt.  That is their choice.  But, you do have control over whether or not you forgive yourself.  Each time I stand in Warrior II, I forgive myself and let it go.  I choose to forgive and love myself, mistakes, flaws, and all.

3) As you look to the future, set your intentions.  It is important to acknowledge the past so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes.  I don’t want to let go of stuff just to have it resurface next month.  I’m letting it go, and I’m saying, never again.  Let me be clear–an intention is not just about what you’re not going to do.  It is about what you ARE going to do.  You are affirming new actions, new beginnings.  And, the new year is a time to set intentions for new beginnings and to unleash the inner Warrior.

Searching for the Girl in Me

dollsChristmas morning, as I opened my gifts from Santa, I started to feel like Santa (aka my husband) was trying to tell me something.  First, I unwrapped a beautiful Kente-clothed, Black doll named Kenya.  She’s part of the Disney collection “It’s A Small World,” and when you press her tummy, she sings the Disney tune first in English (“It’s a small world afterall, it’s a small world afterall…”) and then in Swahili.  Santa left a note explaining that this gift was to get me excited about my upcoming travel to Kenya and also to remind me of how much I love the “It’s A Small World” boat ride each time I visit the Disney Theme Parks.

The next gift I unwrapped was the Rue action figure doll from The Hunger Games.  When I first read The Hunger Games (no spoilers for those who haven’t read the series.  But, if you haven’t, read it!), I instantly related to the character Rue, a 12-year old girl from district 11 selected to participate in the 74th Hunger Games.  From the author’s description of district 11 and of Rue, I pictured her to be a little brown-skinned, naturally curly haired Black girl.  And, apparently, when I saw the first film, so did a lot of other people.  RueOkYet, there was a social media frenzy about people’s upset and disappointment that the role of Rue was acted by a young Black actress, Amanda Stenberg (read more).  For me, this role was cast perfectly–Ms. Stenberg embodied everything I imagined Rue to be.  But, also, how wonderful for young Black girls and for the little Black girl in me to read about and see representations of ourselves even in an imagined world.  Now, thanks to Santa, I had my own action figure of her.

The last gift I unwrapped was a babydoll of the Disney princess Tiana of The Princess and the Frog.  Princess Tiana was Disney’s attempt at giving us a Black princess (sorry, but Nala from The Lion King does not count *side eye*).   While the storyline was still quite problematic (princess ends up with the coveted prince), there’s still some power in representation.  As a child, I just wanted dolls and action figures that looked like me.  But now, on this Christmas morning, I was becoming a little suspect–what was Santa trying to say?  I’m almost 40 years old.  I don’t play with dolls…anymore.  And, now I’m staring at 2 dolls and a female action figure–what am I supposed to do with these?

Along with these gifts came a note from Santa that read,

“From the many conversations we have about our childhood holidays, I’ve always wanted to give something to the little girl I would one day marry.  As you continue to help and teach Black girls and boys, here’s to seeing the innocence in us all, especially the innocence I’ve learned to appreciate in you.”

These gifts were a perfect reminder of the importance of honoring the innocence and youthfulness that is still within me.  In this world, it ain’t as easy for little Black girls to claim this innocence.  We have to grow up too fast, too soon.  We receive constant messages that diminish the mere plausibility of our youth, of our innocence.  Even in the imagination, the young, beautiful Rue cannot be a Black girl.  Even in the imagination, the princess who kisses the frog to discover her prince cannot be Black.  This holiday season, I was reminded that we have to reclaim Black girlhood, celebrate it and protect it.  This reclamation starts with me.

mookieSo, in this new year, I am searching for the little Black girl who still lives within me.  The girl who plays with dolls, jumps double dutch, skips hopskotch, races matchbox cars, eats mud pies, and collects worms.  This is a reminder for me, too, as I live my yoga on and off the mat that it is OK to imagine, to play, and to be free flowing.  If I want to sing and dance in public, I can.  If I want to race my son to the car, I can.  If I want to spend an afternoon watching old cartoons, I can.  If I want to play make believe with my new dolls, I can.  And, I should because Santa said so (and my Santa is a Black man).