Taking Survivors on the Road

For the last few years, I have been working on a new book, Survivors on the Yoga Mat, which, happily, will be greeting the world on September 9, 2014. Between now and then, the pre-book release tour has begun, allowing me to talk with people in California, New York, Connecticut, and Boston (so far) at various conferences, and forums—about yoga, trauma and recovery. It has been an exciting time as what I have been thinking about at my desk by myself is now going public.

Stop One: Yoga and Access Conference at Berkeley

An early stop was the first annual Yoga and Access conference held at the University of California at Berkeley, where two dynamo graduate students—Tria Andrews and Sabrina Strings—pulled together a divinely inspired group of yoga teachers, academics and activists, all of whom are doing their part to make yoga accessible across race, class, sexuality and disability. In some ways, the conference reminded me of the first Black Women in the Academy conference at MIT in 1994. In both instances, there was a new and gutsy energy in the air—people telling truths they hadn’t told in public before, refusing to let the academy or big business take charge of their realities.

Many of us who traveled a distance (in the case of the people on my panel—from Boston, New York and North Carolina) had a hard time finding the Multicultural Center at UC Berkeley, where the conference was held, as it was tucked behind buildings, requiring a circuitous walk and the willingness to ask plenty of people for directions. Right away, I was struck by how multicultural centers on college campuses continue to be on the margins, even as so many schools tout “multicultural” as key to their agenda. Anyway, after learning that the doors to the Multicultural Center were locked, Sabrina and Tria graciously regrouped, holding the opening welcome on a picnic bench outside of the Multicultural Center—the coffee and donuts moistened by the light rain—as they ran around trying to get keys. This was the beginning of us knowing what it must have taken for them to pull together a national conference as graduate students.

What I loved about the conference—the number of activists who are teaching yoga in their communities, whether they have space or not, whether they are getting paid a respectable amount or not. When Lauren Quan-Madrid and Leah Rose Gallegos, the two women who founded the People’s Yoga in East Los Angeles spoke, the whole audience got quiet, their beauty, passion, and vibrancy filling the room like new air on a spring day. These two Chicanas had been teaching in a rented space, watching as the classes grew and then outgrew the space. Eventually they opened their own studio, creating it as they want the world to be—accessible, in two languages, intergenerational, and in walking distance to people’s houses. The women said that they realized they have the medicine to heal themselves (and their communities) and are doing that. And they are ingenious, doing whatever it takes to get people to try yoga out: hosting yoga and karaoke nights; saying “maybe” you can do this even as people are wary; giving boys hard poses so they don’t think yoga is just for girls; documenting the process with their own photo gallery; and offering themselves up in true ways. There was a buzz and quiet in the air as these two women spoke, their postures as strong as their vision, their eyes glimmering, kind and free.

I also appreciated Amara Miller’s analysis of the shift in the Yoga Journal from the 1970s until now, as she flashed a chronology of covers on the screen. On the 1970s covers, people wore all different kinds of clothing and mostly what we saw were faces of yogis of various persuasions. That is a far cry from the Yoga Journal now, as scantily clad young, white and ultra thin models appear on almost all of the monthly covers. The words “strong and toned” are the new code words for “skinny” as whiteness is celebrated through its omnipresence. Meanwhile, the multiracial roots of yoga are largely missing from view—that yoga was started, nurtured, and passed on by people of color—in Asia, East Africa, and in Indigenous America (with sweat lodges, talking circles, and nature-based meditations). The whitewashing of yoga in the last two decades did not go missing on the conference participants as various speakers made reference to the booming yoga industry as a colonial settler act, the work of decolonizing yoga central to this liberation struggle.

I came home from the conference feeling so energized—that there are reasons I keep teaching at the Dorchester YMCA rather than at a fancy studio in the suburbs. Even as I arrive early to sweep up Cheerios before teaching the class in the nursery, even as I know that some of the practitioners have taken two buses to get to the class, we are there together, holding onto yoga’s multiracial roots, practicing crow and headstand and bridge and savasana with abandon. Ashe (Yoruba for divine energy, blessings, peace) is how the conference ended, all of us knowing that we gotta hang tight with each other. We know that gathering for one day at the UC Berkeley Multicultural Center cannot compete with the 27 billion dollar yoga industry as it multiplies itself—with Lululemon, Lucy, and trips to pristine coasts of Mexico. Since the conference, I have found myself worried about how the multiracial, community-based foundation of yoga can hold its own in a capitalist context. Somehow, it occurred to me that the eight limbs will help us find new ways. Discipline (tapas), focus (dharana), equanimity, and nonviolence will keep us inside of our practice; inside of namaste together.

Tags:

yoga and access

activism

By |2017-09-15T16:56:26+00:00June 1st, 2014|

About the Author:

Becky Thompson is an award-winning writer, professor, yoga instructor, and activist. She has spent the last twenty-five years traveling across the world researching, teaching, and writing on issues of inequality and social justice. Thompson has published ten books including her most recent work Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice.