I believe that Yoga can be practiced by anyone, and should be accessible to everyone. But what does that mean? Yoga? And who is everyone? And how can I make it accessible? And what happens when everyone is practicing Yoga? And what does this have to do with the protests happening around the world on behalf of Black Americans?
In the 2 years that it took to build out the new borealis studio on High Street, I learned a lot about disability and making a physical space truly accessible. Through this process, and in getting to know teachers and clients with different abilities, my view of ability and accessibility changed completely. A space can be accommodating to someone in a wheelchair, while still limiting access to someone who has limited use of their arms. Sometimes it doesn’t have to do with space. Sometimes it’s ignorance and the behaviors that result. Something as simple as allowing clients to kick off their shoes in the welcome area without storing them under the bench becomes a hazard to the sight impaired yogi trying to make her way around safely. The hearing-impaired yogi may be stuck in the back of a crowded class when it helps her to be closer to me, so she can read lips and understand what I’m teaching in a mediation. And the young man who cannot speak or hear, and signs in a language I never learned, has no idea when the meditation is over unless I gently tap him on the shoulder so he can open his eyes.
As my father-in-law recently reminded me, we humans are all animals first. And animals are concerned foremost with safety and survival. I strive to make borealis a safe place for everyone who visits or wishes to participate in our activities. For me, accessibility is related to safety. And so, I have come to believe that inaccessibility is a form of discrimination, whether or not it’s intentional. I have learned a lot about space, and accessibility, and safety in my years of teaching. Each time there is an opportunity, a lesson awakening something in me, and helping me to see my own ignorance. Helping me to do better.
To say that borealis promotes freedom from discrimination means that I, my team, the space, and our approach and behaviors need to contribute to the safety of everyone who wishes to participate. Lately I have been asking myself, “If I were a Black woman approaching the borealis studio, would I feel safe?” My defensive answer was immediately, “Well, of course!” In our student surveys, the most common feedback has been that ‘borealis and its teachers are welcoming and approachable.’ So why should I not believe this? But if it’s possible that this is true, I must also be open to the possibility that it is not. That a Black person, or person of color would come into a room full of mostly White women with a White studio owner and teacher, and feel something other than warm, fuzzy and safe.
This is what the practice of Yoga (big “Y Yoga) has taught me. To be open to possibility. Not only in the feel-good way of constantly looking for rainbows in the rain. The not-so-comfortable possibilities, too. Sitting with the hard questions, and being open to all the possibilities is the hard and difficult work of Yoga. It's why I see people give up easily on yoga, and on meditation in particular, because they hope to escape the uncomfortable feelings they encounter when they desperately try to still their minds and find bliss. Yoga is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And stilling the mind is a futile effort. Yoga – life – is about so much more than this.
As Austin Channing Brown said, “What if instead of longing for ease, we were made for more – made to advocate, made to dig in, made to speak out, made for complexity, made for this moment? What if we believed so deeply in our own capacity to rise to this occasion that getting to work wasn’t a tiring chore, but a life-giving opportunity to invest in something larger than ourselves?”
What does this have to do with borealis? With the postural practice of yoga (little “y” yoga)?
A big part of the human experience is the physical. Our human body informs so much of the way we relate to the world, and to everyone and everything in it. I believe we can use the body to get to a deeper understanding—not simply an intellectual understanding– of ourselves, of each other, and of the mysteries of life. That moving the body gives us the chance to feel and connect with everything: emotions, energy, experience, grief, pain, joy, others.
Resmaa Menakem says that we can’t simply use the rational mind to think about this issue differently. That instead we have to use the body to heal since trauma, since every experience lives in the body. His book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is teaching me so much about the generational legacy of trauma, especially how it relates to racism. The tangible practices he offers in this book have already opened up my eyes, and my body, to the impact of racism on Black people, as well as on myself, and my own ignorance. Mostly, it has given me hope that there are ways, tangible ways to use the body to heal our personal and collective trauma around racism in this country. (If like me you connect with physical practice of any kind, sport, yoga, dance, martial arts, then read Menakem. This is a great place to start: Resmaa Menakem’s interview for the On Being podcast. Here’s a link to his book in Bookshop.org, though I believe it’s sold out in print so perhaps listen to the Audiobook on Audible.)
This is the reason I created borealis: to help people in my community and myself do this work. To share postural yoga, movement, and meditation practices for something much bigger. Not to escape, but to use the body, and our experience in this body, to connect to greater understanding and possibility. To discover what’s possible for my life, for my community, and for the world. I strive to do this work - the work of teacher, community leader, and human – from my best and highest self in order to have the biggest impact on the greater good.
So I’ve been asking myself, “What can I do right now to have an impact on the greater good? To have a positive impact on racism in this country and in my community?” It feels easy to slide into thinking “Who am I?” and “How can little me alone have an impact?” I found one of the answers was right in from of me.
I will do what I know how to do: Teach. Teach and share. And learn and listen.
It is after years of teaching that I now understand that teaching is one of the most powerful ways that I keep learning and practicing. The more I teach, the more I learn and understand myself. And I commit to do so using two pillars of Yoga that will help me teach and share with integrity and authenticity.
- Svadhyaya, self-study. This is always the first step. I commit to a daily practice of learning, seeking out authors and voices of color and diverse cultures, especially as relates to the field of Yoga + wellness. It is only in diversifying the color and backgrounds of the sources of information I take in that I can teach and share from my best and highest self. My team and fellow teachers will share resources as we learn and teach together, so that we may each and together do this work from our best and highest selves. I also seek to hire teachers from diverse backgrounds, so that I and others may learn from their stories, perspectives, and gifts.
- Ahimsa, non-harming. As I choose how and when to speak and act, I will look to leaders and activists of color and diverse cultures to know what I can do as a White woman that is helpful, not more damaging, to the possibility of progress. For the possibility of having the biggest impact. Because it is near to my heart, and because strategic non-violent action was my work before entering the field of Yoga + wellness, I will also share the wisdom of strategic non-violent action with those involved in the Black Lives Matters movement, so that their and our efforts for change have the best chance for the greatest impact. Where I can and as is helpful.
In addition to Resmaa Menakem’s fascinating work, here are some of the books and voices I’m listening to and learning from at the moment:
Initiatives and Organizations
Black Lives Matter Boston https://blacklivesmatterboston.org/
Black Boston https://blackboston.com/
Campaign Zero https://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision
The West Medford Afro-American Remembrance Project http://www.medfordhistorical.org/medford-history/afro-american-remembrance-project/
When no question seems big enough https://onbeing.org/programs/living-the-questions-when-no-question-seems-big-enough/
A History of Black Yogis in America https://medium.com/@MichealSinclair/a-brief-history-of-black-yogis-in-america-pt-1-d0e5f3078ed7
Reflections from a Token Black Friend https://medium.com/@rnagarajah2/reflections-from-a-token-black-friend-2f1ea522d42d
Instagram accounts in the Yoga + wellness space:
Other inspiring people
I have personally made a donation to the following organizations:
West Medford Community Center http://wmcc.us/
Sista Afya https://www.sistaafya.com/
Pretty Brown Girl https://prettybrowngirl.com/
The Audrey Lorde Project https://alp.org/
Sister Love https://www.sisterlove.org/
This is only the beginning.
What strikes me most about what I have learned so far from Black leaders and educators is how the institutional and cultural systems in place in our country have and continue to contribute to racism and discrimination against Black people. If it’s having this big of an impact on Black people and People of Color such that they are dying for simply being who they are, then it may also be possible that our institutional and cultural systems are contributing to discrimination and even death of others because of their gender, ability, religion, sexual orientation—for being who they are. As Audrey Lorde said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Therefore, I further commit to continued learning from teachers, leaders, authors and voices of all backgrounds to understand how I can personally take action to reduce the potentially harmful effects of discrimination in my own work and actions. While the current conversation in our country is about racism against Black Americans, I fear that if I—if we – do not commit to having further conversation about disability, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, to name a few, that the possibility of progress for anyone is limited. That I would not be teaching and sharing and learning from my best and highest self. And that any impact I have would be ingenuine, and possibly harmful.
“What else can I do right now? What can I do that would make an impact?” I keep asking myself.
Since Yoga + mediation can help us show up for our lives and our work at our best, to heal and to recover, this is what I will do. From now until July 5th, I am offering $1 day passes to access the borealis Online Membership to Black yogis and People of Color, as well as others involved in the non-violent protests. I know that financial resources are a big barrier to accessing yoga. So if anyone needs access to yoga + mediation and finances are a major stressor right now, this is for you, too. I never want this to be why you don’t keep practicing. All proceeds from Day Pass purchases through July 5th will go to the organizations listed above and others working for Black lives in our community.
So “What happens when everyone is practicing Yoga?” I asked earlier.
(Cue the kumbaya song.)
The practice of Yoga has helped me recognize the extraordinary in the everyday, and in myself. It has helped me deepen my relationships, welcome and celebrate all the parts of me, of my identity, and to see life more clearly. If this is possible, what else is possible? For Black Americans? For people in our police? For public leaders? For racism and healing in our country?
Yoga by definition means union, yoking, joining, attaching, harnessing. To practice Yoga is to connect ourselves to our own truths and to witness the truths of others with compassion. To stand in solidarity, in union, with each other. And right now that means Black Americans. To practice Yoga is to harness whatever power we have as individuals for the greater good. If everyone is practicing Yoga, who knows what’s possible? We could hit this greater good thing out of the park!
I will hold myself accountable to engaging in this conversation, engaging in this moment, and all the moments that follow. That is what it is to “be in the moment.” To get in the moment. Not seek to escape it. To feel all the feelings, get comfortable being uncomfortable. For the sake of seeing life more clearly. For the sake of having the biggest impact. For the sake of Black lives.
And so, I ask you to join me. Join me in the practice. Join me in the learning, in the sharing, and in the teaching. Join me on the mat. Educate yourself on racism and Black life in America. Seek out inspiration from Black artists, leaders, educators, athletes, and those in your own fields of work and interest. Learn their stories and faces. Share them and engage in deeper conversations with your friends, family and community on these issues.
Let’s keep practicing together. Black lives matter.
All my best,