What keeps people of color out of traditional yoga spaces?
Traditional yoga spaces have not always been welcoming to people of color. My experience is that native born BIPOC have grown conditioned to avoid spaces where they are made to feel unwelcome and unseen. Dealing with those circumstances can become wearying. I was born and came of age in Jamaica, and my response is usually that this is not my problem but the other person’s issue when I am made to feel unwelcome in any place. I sometimes have to be more aggressive in class than my usual nature allows, to keep from getting stepped over, my space taken, mats placed over mine without any consideration and even having feet in my face during crowded classes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the extreme inequalities in our healthcare system. Was Project Breath created in response?
Prior to the Covid crisis, I became aware of health disparities and inequities in medical care when my husband researched those issues, giving me a sense of how deeply these problems are ingrained in the system. Even anecdotally, I notice that even though I have better health care coverage, my white friends get more care for similar medical and dental issues. I was shocked to read an article in the local papers that reported the false assumption of many doctors that BIPOC feel pain less than whites. In this time of COVID-19, I have realized that people of color had a lot more to manage as they are less likely to be able to work from home, being over represented in the service industries. They are more likely to ride public transportation more often. Covid has upped the ante by causing more anxiety in these communities.
When I was given a chance to apply for an art grant, I wanted to share the space of mental ease that comes with any creative work and reinforce the mental quiet with the practice of yoga. My idea was to have a monthly event that includes art and yoga for communities of color. My mentor, Patricia Walden, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher, was enthusiastic about my idea and proposed that the Iyengar Association of New England (IYANE), the local chapter of the international Iyengar community, would be happy to help fund this effort.
Although my proposal did not get funded, we decided to go ahead with the yoga portion of Project Breath, supported by IYANE president Tristan Binns, partnering with organizations that primarily serve people of color to hold weekly community yoga classes for ten-week sessions. I recruited teachers I know who have always “seen” me and treated me with respect and friendliness.
Let’s talk about yoga as a tool for connecting with self, but also with community. How is Project Breath partnering with community organizations which serve people of color?
In visioning what were the most radical actions in the fight for racial justice as I wrote the above grant application, I realized that self-empowerment was the key. My yoga practice allowed me to connect with myself and get through a crisis en route home from an artist residency in India, just before the world’s airports shut down due to COVID-19. How much more useful would it be for connecting the community in this age of anxiety and anger after the death of George Floyd and so many others at the hands of the very forces we pay with our tax dollars to protect us? My fellow yoga teachers were eager to help after witnessing the horror of a man killed while crying for his mother and saying he was unable to breathe.
I created a flier that was adapted for each partner organization with information on their class times and days of the week. Our partners shared the information with their members and took registrations. We were able to provide a basic prop kit of a mat, belt and blocks. Later, a grant from the Boston Public Health Commission enabled us to add a blanket to our prop kits. In this Covid era, we had to provide each participant with a prop kit and even managed to get some tablets for participants to access the virtual classes.
Can you share a few stories about the impact you’ve seen from Project Breath?
Better still, I will share some of our participants’ words:
“I am enjoying the class, it is my first time doing yoga but I believe it will help me. I have knee issues and I have Lupus, but the blocks really helped if I am unable to go too low. I will be there tonight, my body felt good after. Trying to have this be part of my weekly routine even after classes are over.”
The following comment came after the second class:
“I wish to let you know that after last night’s session, my body has been feeling better than it has during most of 2020. I’m feeling a tiny bit sore, but in a healthy way! My knee and ankle joints are feeling less inflamed than they have been over the last few months. Thank you! It’s so hard to live with chronic pain, and having such extensive relief from it was something I nearly forgot was possible. I’m very grateful to both of you for the opportunity to take part in our Monday yoga sessions.”
Underneath everything, it seems there is a spirit of serving. Can you tell me a little about why that’s important to you?
Seva is the source of connection to the universal shakti, the cosmic energy underlying the manifest and unmanifest world. I discovered that knowledge while training in an ashram. In this atmosphere, I noticed that as I willingly offered my selfless service, I was more connected to the pulsation of universal energy. The real secret of spiritual unfoldment, I learned then, was this offering. When I offer my service for the upliftment of humanity and to create more harmony and justice in our world, I feel like my life has purpose. My art is an offering of seva, but also a means of making a livelihood. This was ascribed to being said by Muhammad Ali, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
How can yoga teachers and yoga therapists get involved? Must you be an Iyengar teacher?
Yoga teachers and therapists can get involved by first being more welcoming to people of color. They don’t necessarily have to be Iyengar teachers, but the practice of Iyengar yoga is basically therapeutic. The teachers are trained to offer props and modify the postures for the benefit of the students. BKS Iyengar developed the use of props to allow everyone to experience the benefits of yoga, no matter their age or level of fitness. So, at the heart of the training and teaching is this focus on yoga as therapy.