Stop two brought me to an extraordinary conference at Southern Connecticut State University, envisioned by Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, a Women’s Studies professor and the president of the National Women’s Studies Association who has been nurturing the leadership of feminist scholars of color for years. This meant that, unlike many academic conferences, this one was multiracial, multilingual and intergenerational, from the interns who set up the event to the keynote speakers. Also, the conference committee really extended themselves to be sure that the event itself was in alignment with its focus—“Ecology, Spirituality, Sustainability.” We ate all of our meals together, which were vegetarian, and all of the supplies were biodegradable. As a result, during meal times we didn’t have to individually scamper all over the city looking for healthy good. Instead, we listened, talked, brainstormed, and processed together through the sessions and then got to eat nourishing food together. And, unlike most academic conferences, this one was completely child friendly, which meant the mothers didn’t have to rush out to relieve child-care people or to feed their kids.
This was a conference that was very much in the solution, which included offering yoga for all participants and staff on the Saturday morning before sessions. I loved teaching that class. It was packed with old time yogis and people trying yoga for the first time. People brought their children, their hesitant friends, their injuries, and their enthusiasm. I had a fairly quiet play list planned but once I felt the willing-to-try-everything energy in the room, I switched it up, including Patti LaBelle’s “Wish I was your Child” and Pablo Milanes in the mix.
A high of the session was a young, ample woman who came late and then hung in there for the whole class, trying yoga for the first time and smiling through the music. Another high of the session was getting to work with Tricia Lin who, as key organizer for the conference, somehow still found a way to come to the yoga practice. All dressed up in sheer stockings and a short dress, at first Tricia tried to do the postures fully clothed. But as the practice proceeded, she unpeeled her hose and let herself do the postures full out. During savasana, when I was doing a cranial sacral cradling of her head, her grandmother (who had passed many years ago) visited, as Tricia welcomed her into the space. After the practice was over, Tricia put her stockings back on and went on being the leader, modeling for all of us what it means to be fully engaged and embodied—no small deal in the ivory tower.
The session Diane and I presented, “Soul Work on the Mat: Yoga in Communities of Color” gave us to a chance to talk about one of Audre Lorde’s lessons to all of us—changing ourselves will inevitably change the world. During the session, I was especially appreciative of an African American activist and community organizer who spoke openly about what it might take for her to incorporate yoga into a grant she is writing for the community center where she works. Before the session, she has been planning to include Zumba in her grant proposal, only, as she listened, she realized that yoga might also bring a badly needed calm and focus to the people at her center. We talked about how important it is to vet yoga teachers. They not only need to know how to guide people through postures but also need to have experience working in communities of color. She and others agreed that such a capacity must be considered integral. This capacity is not a requirement in many teacher trainings, a reality that, we all agreed, needs to change.
Diane spoke about how she came to yoga kicking and screaming, wary of white people engaging with her in overly familiar or condescending ways, in classes that felt more like gym then meditation. At the same time, she has seen how desperately Black women need body-based healing practices to help counter burnout, unacknowledged trauma, health problems, and guilt about taking time for themselves. On the mat by yourself, it is possible to come back to yourself, to let down the armor the world so often demands. I spoke about how yoga teachers need an expansive understanding of the range of stresses that people bring to the yoga mat. It is not only about stretching to relieve corporate tension, but also a way to deal with sexual abuse, racist stress, genocide, and the need to flee the body.
In many communities of color, the traumas people are dealing with are multiple. But making a big deal out of this reality—by explicitly saying we teach trauma-sensitive yoga—can feel forced and too formal. Rolling out the mats, putting on good music, and being willing to switch up sequences depending upon who is in the room and what people are bringing to their mats may mean more than explicitly naming “trauma sensitive practices.” What matters is helping to create communities where people are visible to each other, where people learn and know each other’s names, where they can be cranky or quiet, demanding or unassuming, enthusiastic or sad, in complicated poses or sleeping on their mats.