By Jasmine Hines
In the summer of 2016, thirty-three people were shot by North Carolina police.1 Of the thirty-three, seven were shot by Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD)—and of the seven killed, four were black men between the ages of 18 and 43. The impact of these graphic and aggressive murders being emblazoned in our minds by media outlets matched the national climate of outrage and heightened attention to the ongoing issues of police brutality and mass incarceration.
Charlotte Uprising, a direct action movement led by local Charlotte activists, held monthslong protests, speaking out against these questionable lethal forces, lack of accountability, brutal treatment and wrongful incarceration and harassment of black, brown, and trans people. Their call-to-action was to dismantle what they described as a police state in Charlotte. Organizations such as Charlotte Uprising, Southeast Asian Coalition, and Comunidad Colectiva were some of the catalysts that created space for voices of concerned community members to express their distrust of the CMPD. Their message was supported by the systemic racism noted in Raj Chetty’s Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States2 (2014), which revealed Charlotte as the 50th worst city to achieve economic mobility for black and brown children born into poverty.
Yoga as a Peace Practice: Contemplative Practice for Violence and Trauma
It was during the protests of the summer of 2016 that several black yogis quietly came forward—brought together by Charlotte yoga teacher, Kiesha Battles—and organized a Yoga as a Peace Practice (YPP) effort. The YPP is a Black Yoga Teachers Alliance curriculum, designed to train yoga teachers to facilitate contemplative practice as a way to create resilience from the impact of violence on individuals and communities. Kiesha’s organizing efforts connected us to the teachings of the yamas, niyamas and the yoga sutras, developed leadership to support community members in need, and created healing by sharing yoga practices.
I met fifteen black yoga teachers available in Charlotte who were not teaching in studios. I listened and learned that their experiences in studios were similar to my own. These narratives included how black yoga teachers are often assumed to be new to yoga practice and unable to do the poses properly, yet often overlooked for hands-on assists or modifications. They experienced references to body weight, or it was suggested that they lose weight to enhance their ability to do poses. They felt they were not welcomed or just ignored, which made them feel invisible or unseen. Hearing so many shared stories about the experiences of yogis of color in studios, I contemplated on what actions I could take to raise awareness about these harmful practices, and invite studios and communities to reevaluate practices that are in conflict with the essence and meaning of yoga, “to yoke.” I wanted to be part of the movement to change yoga studio culture—to move away from patterns of segregation, distrust, alienation, elitism, inaccessibility, and harm.
Self-Care As a Catalyst for Change
In 2017, I was invited to teach yoga as a part of Self-Care Matters, an initiative founded by Anana Harris-Parris, author of Self-Care Matters: A Revolutionary’s Approach. Self-Care Matters is a self and community empowerment program that supports people to address trauma by learning how to identify and place their critical needs at forefront of their decision-making. With Anana’s help, I brought the Self-Care Day campaign and self-care movement to Charlotte, to catalyze a shift in the current power structure. I wrote a proclamation to local government identifying December 4th as “Self-Care Day,” urging our government and citizens to recognize and acknowledge the humanity of its citizens as the primary source of power. It also serves as a reminder for citizens to take back their power by re-learning practical strategies they can implement to address their critical needs. By embodying a mindset of self-care, we can catalyze change within ourselves, our families, our communities and beyond.
After the inaugural Self-Care event in February 2017, I became emboldened from my own Self-Care empowerment and made a public post on social media about the hypocrisy of silence displayed by yoga studios during and after the racialized community trauma of the summer of 2016. I shared my frustration with studios being loud and vocal about the Orlando shooting in June 2016, hosting yoga classes as fundraisers to raise awareness of gun violence and LGBTQ violence as well as posting about this specific atrocity on their websites. Yet they were complicit in their violence through silence, asking for peace and calm and offering meditation classes during the murder of six men of color murdered by police in their own backyard that same year. As I recalled the shared stories of harm by the fifteen yoga teachers of color I met in the summer of 2016, and seeing the actions of yoga studios perpetuating institutionalized racism, I felt a calling to do more than publish this personal outcry. I owned my voice as a leadership challenge to do more.
Amplify and Activate: Yoga as Social Justice
As a form of healthy resistance and out of the need to increase awareness of racial, economic, gender and body biases that exist in yoga studios in Charlotte, in August 2017 I created Amplify and Activate, an interactive, inquiry-based learning community to practice yoga as a form of social justice and self-care. I was inspired to mobilize yoga community members in Charlotte to participate in amplifying their own self-care and activating their practices for positive social justice. Thus began the Amplify and Activate Summit.
Amplify and Activate brings together a rich and diverse population of yoga practitioners and teachers, as well as non-practitioners, activists, artists, athletes, and members of the media. Our participants and supporters come from a broad range of ages, body sizes, race/ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. We invite people to take a look at themselves and the narratives they have been fed in order to honor the practice that invites contemplation, compassion, non-judgment, and learning.
We host summits throughout the year that combine asana practice and facilitated dialogue, and provide space for black and brown voices to be heard. We partner with a collective of teachers and organizers within and outside of Charlotte to provide online or in-person learning and workshops.
Uplifting Underrepresented Voices
We acknowledge that the content of the dialogue can lead us to a place where harm and healing operate in the space at the same time, and people may be triggered by visceral reactions as in when describing a racial incident in a yoga studio. At the same time, another person may be relieved to know they weren’t the only one who has experienced the same or similar experience. We are mindful that some topics might weigh heavy on the psyche, so we encourage people to honor their feelings—whether it is an emotional release; or the need to leave the space, get a drink of water, move their bodies; or speak their truth and breath. We hold space in a way that participants can share their stories, even “taboo” topics, which they may have repressed. We build trust and connections through raw and honest dialogue. We allow space for self-inquiry by putting ourselves in the seat of perpetual learners. We create the space for vulnerability to look like courage, and we honor the most sacred truths about the fallibility of humans in learning and resilience.
We invite white people to challenge and deconstruct the paradigm and practice of white supremacy, and people of color are invited to deconstruct internalized oppression and to construct a practice of self-care. Participants may reference relevant yogic teachings to learn how to connect and cope with oppression that exists in our everyday world. We share our experiences and learn from our mistakes (the impact we seek does not always meet the intentions we set). We seek opportunities to learn the relevance of the yoga sutras, yamas, niyamas, and how our bodies can be vessels in our physical practices to keep the mind and emotions steady, and to create genuine human connection within ourselves and our communities.