Why Yoga Teachers Say the Practice Is Essential for Times Like These
Yoga teachers who work with marginalized communities say the practice is a key way to navigating stress, trauma and disruption.
Like many industries, the yoga industry is facing some major upheavals due to COVID-19, with studios closing their doors, some of them permanently, and a mass transitioning of classes to online formats. Yoga teachers, the majority of whom are self-employed contractors, according to Yoga Alliance, are scrambling to restructure their livelihoods and navigate the changing landscape. In the meantime, many teachers are offering free meditation and movement classes aimed at helping people cope with and move through the traumas and challenges of the current moment.
“Yoga has been proven by scientific research to improve health and well-being, including many of the conditions relevant to COVID-19, such as benefits on stress and emotional regulation, sleep, respiratory functioning, mood, immune function, and resistance to disease,” writes Dani Mackey in an email. Mackey is a member of the media team for Yoga Alliance, the nonprofit professional membership organization that has developed standards for yoga teacher and yoga studio accreditation.
“It may be some time before we know the full scope of the changes to the yoga community,” Mackey writes. “Collectively, Yoga Alliance and its member teachers and schools are deeply committed to figuring out the right set of answers to questions about re-opening and recovery, as the benefits of yoga practice could provide desperately needed support for so many who are suffering from the mental, physical, or economic impacts of this pandemic.”
Mackey notes that Yoga Alliance’s director of research, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa of Harvard Medical School, has curated a list of research studies on yoga’s efficacy and potentials to mitigate mental and physical health problems.
Throughout the pandemic, levels of anxiety and depression have been on the rise nationwide. A health tracking poll published in late April by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the majority of Americans across age, race, gender and income levels reported that worry or stress related to the coronavirus outbreak had impacted their mental health and well-being negatively. The report also shows that more young people (between the ages of 18 and 29) and Hispanic and Black adults reported that they had “fallen behind in paying bills or had problems affording household expenses.” This has led to such groups experiencing mental health impacts at slightly higher rates.
And, as mass protests erupt across the country against long-standing systemic racism and oppression of Black Americans, catalyzed by the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 (which comes on the heels of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and so many others), Black Americans, in particular, are experiencing re-traumatization, PTSD and heightened mental health impacts of systemized racism.
As the Black Lives Matter protests aim a spotlight at the mass inequities and impacts of hundreds of years of systemic white supremacy across sectors in the U.S., the whiteness, exclusivity and racism that exist in many yoga spaces are also coming to light. There are growing efforts to build a wellness industry by and for Black Americans and other people of color that can heal and support people experiencing the impacts of racial injustice. And there is a growing discussion of the need to break down inequities within yoga and movement spaces.
For example, the organization Black Boys OM recently shared an Instagram post by Black to Yoga with a caption quoting a 2019 Modern Ghana article that discussed the historical and ancestral connections between Black people and supportive movement and breath practices:
“Anatomy and healing the body through movement as well as carvings of yoga postures are all throughout African Diaspora tribes around the globe. Meditation and seeking the inner power, force or God within us has always been in African traditions, although once frowned upon and discouraged by colonists. The question is, if yoga means unity, and color doesn’t matter, why has so much effort been made to alienate Africa’s connection to yoga and what Africans had already been teaching about the body’s ability to heal itself using this practice?”
Activist groups like Philadelphia’s Spirits Up! and others are offering yoga to heal and support Black protesters and community members impacted by racial injustice. Yoga teachers who work with some of the groups most heavily impacted by current events say the practice is key to navigating difficult times like these.
Maya Breuer, the vice president of cross-cultural advancement for Yoga Alliance and an African American woman who has been practicing yoga for more than 30 years, says scientific studies have demonstrated that the practices of yoga and meditation “are a powerful healer and complement other forms of allopathic medicine to promote health and well-being.”
“This is important work that will support the health and survival of people of color during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.
Crystal McCreary, who teaches yoga to children, adolescents and adults in New York City from a variety of backgrounds, says people often ask her if yoga will make them feel better.
“I’ll say, yeah, it is the thing that’s going to make you feel better, in that it’s going to make you feel all that you have to feel, more; you will feel the full spectrum of humanity, better,” she says. “Will it make all the bad feelings go away? No. You’re actually going to feel them more authentically. That’s what yoga does.”
McCreary is a trained professional dancer and actress with a master’s in fine arts and acting, who has appeared beside her sister Kelly McCreary on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” She says while she has always been connected to physical movement, yoga deepened her connections to herself in ways that were profound and unexpected. While many teachers and studios offer yoga classes that are solely focused on a workout, McCreary says that approach is “misaligned.” Yoga at its core is always a mindfulness practice—and that is what makes it such a powerful tool, she adds.
“I was very drawn to mindfulness because… it is intended to support people… [as they reckon] with their human experience,” she says. “You could feel anger and sadness and joy, all at the same time, and you have to have space for all of it… That’s really what yoga is about. It’s about unifying, integrating these parts of ourselves that have been all chopped up and broken and fragmented.”
McCreary says she has witnessed the ability of yoga and the mindfulness techniques it carries, to transform trauma patterns and aid people of all ages in navigating the many stressors that come with daily living—from the news, to school systems, to incarceration systems and systemic oppression. And, she says witnessing the way young people are affected is revealing of a larger toxic system.
McCreary has worked with kids from many backgrounds—some of them come from low-income areas and have experienced racism and systemic oppression throughout their lives. Others come from wealthier backgrounds. She says regardless of the resources children have access to, one common factor unites all of her students: they all have “extremely high anxiety.”
“I’ve worked with kids who exist inside of so many broken systems, from the foster care system to the educational system to the criminal justice system… These are all systems that are working against them, and so their access to the potential resources that can support them is even more fragmented,” she says. “And then there are kids who have all of those resources, but they’re also fragmented. It’s like, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to go to Harvard, and if I don’t go to Harvard, I’m nothing, so maybe I’ll commit suicide this year.’”
She says she has seen the potential of yoga to have a powerful, positive effect.“[Yoga] is a really powerful tool for all of these populations to begin to recognize that they’re born with a capacity for wholeness,” she says.
According to McCreary, COVID-19 has brought to the surface many issues of racism and class divides that have always existed.
There are significant racial disparities in America when it comes to deaths and economic strife experienced due to the pandemic, as detailed in a recent Atlantic article.
“One thing that this pandemic is showing is we are only as healthy and safe as the most vulnerable among us,” McCreary says. “And Black and Brown people, and immigrants—we’ve always been the most vulnerable. We’re seeing that in this case, because this disease is so contagious, it will impact everyone. It might have a more adverse effect on Black and Brown people, but it’s still going to affect everyone.” McCreary notes the particular impact of COVID is tied to the fact that many Black and Brown people are essential workers, “who make life what it is for so many others.”
Seane Corn, a well-known yoga teacher-meets-activist, has been outspoken about using yoga to navigate trauma and difficulty. She says as a white person coming from a place of privilege, she thinks it’s especially important to acknowledge that while there is a shared collective trauma occurring at the current moment, there is also systemic trauma experienced by people of color in particular.
“There are folks the systems are already so set up against, and this pandemic is making it that much worse for them,” she says. “For some of us it’s inconvenience; for some of us it’s life and death. And for some, our systems are really set up to perpetuate this trauma.”
Corn, who has spoken publicly about her own childhood trauma, says trauma overwhelms the capacity to cope and leaves people feeling hopeless, helpless, out of control and/or unable to respond—known as the fight, flight, freeze or collapse response in psychology. She says in yoga, the understanding is that everything is connected through energy, and in yoga terms, trauma leaves an energetic imprint within the body’s cellular tissue.
Corn says trauma can affect us physically—for instance, we tend to contract certain muscles. In addition to experiencing trauma through emotions (“fear, anger, rage, shame, grief, guilt”), she says, “the imprint of that narrative… lives within our flesh.” Corn adds that yoga teaches that “there’s no separation between the mind and body. When we don’t process trauma [emotionally], that energy has no place to go. So it settles into the system as tension. Tension, stress and anxiety are the number one causes of illness and depression today. And if we don’t have good tools, and big feelings come up, if we don’t know how to be present to those feelings, we will orient ourselves, finding ways to dissociate or disconnect or check out.”
Corn says the practice of yoga teaches us how to address the tension that lives in a body and become comfortable with difficult emotions like rage, grief and shame. “This will help us to develop empathy,” she says. “What we’re doing in the practice of yoga is releasing the tension so that we can self-regulate our nervous system—so that in conflict and in crisis, we can rely on ourselves to remain centered and non-reactive.”
Cut to a global pandemic, she says, and people globally are facing life and death, financial instability, enforced isolation and racial inequities.
She says this is why she decided to offer free weekly yoga during the pandemic every Sunday morning. Her class, dubbed “yoga church,” is free via Instagram Live.
“With yoga church, I’m asking people to be proactive, to pray for people that they love, that they miss, that they want to send good energy to, [and] to acknowledge the people who have died, the frontline workers, the essential workers, the people who are incarcerated or in refugee camps,” she says. “I think the most important thing is to bear witness to [suffering—not just our own pain, but also that of others] and build community in that way… Not bypassing our humanity, but going toward it.”
Yoga and Race
McCreary says while she always felt connected to physical movement, hence her many years of professional dance and acting, yoga deepened that connection and taught her to use her body more efficiently. It also helped her feel a sense of calm so powerful that friends and family noticed the change. But, she says part of the reason she became a teacher is that she realized the experiences of her friends and family during yoga classes, which are predominantly white spaces, were often not positive ones.
“As a yoga practitioner, I am stunned at the silence and inaction by a community of professional yoga practitioners who have purportedly devoted their careers and lives to cultivating the ‘union’ with oneself, others and the environment that the Yamas and Niyamas clearly spell out,” she says, in reference to the first two of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. “But I have always been stunned by this. The current pandemic, the protesting and rioting, and our corrupt national leadership did not wake me up to this.”
She says yoga is not meant to exist in a vacuum, but to inform who we are, whom we become, and how we interact with others locally and globally.
“Therefore, these ancient tools are the very technologies that need be engaged with right now to hold space for the conflict that is arising between Black people and the white supremacist organizing principle that destroys the possibility of wholeness and freedom for anyone.”
She says as a Black woman, she has been singled out in many movement spaces throughout her dance career and beyond.
“I have found that there’s almost a hypervigilance on Black bodies in a space where there are very few, or where you’re the only Black body,” she says. “Teachers would just hover over me and touch my body, make manual adjustments, talk to me and tell me how to fix this or that. And… I’d look around the room and think, ‘Why are they so hyper-focused on me? People all over this classroom are falling all over the place.’”
She says she’d given yoga a pass because the benefits she was experiencing outweighed the costs, but after bringing loved ones to yoga classes, that began to shift.
“When somebody like my mom, who was not as athletic, not physically flexible, or was a full-figured woman, was coming to a yoga class and they would do that to her, she was like, ‘Yeah, I ain’t going back there. Oh hell no,’” she says. “I thought, there has to be a way to teach these practices that make them relevant and engaging and accessible to a diverse population of students.”
McCreary says the COVID-19 era has brought to the surface many underlying systemic issues of racism and class structure that have long plagued America. In a recent blog post, she delves into her hope that this moment will be a time of permanent shifts, and that things won’t go back to normal, because normal was not sustainable.
In reference to the current protests, McCreary says in an email that this moment calls for a sharp turn.
“Our wounded, racist, stratified, and violent American culture and these overwhelmingly challenging times are finally forcing us to reckon with the inequities and the insanity of systems that are impossible for all of us to thrive in,” she says. “We walk around living a fraction of a life, a fragmented human experience. … Racism is a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual assault on our humanity. It is complex and dimensional. Therefore, any lasting change to its horrific impact will only come from a multidimensional approach—one that includes experiential methods to heal the body, mind, heart and spirit of individuals as well as the healing of our families, schools, community-based organizations, governing bodies and our environment.”
She says yoga and mindfulness should be counted among these tools.
“This healing process will not be comfortable or convenient, but it’s now or literally never,” she says. “I have reviewed my parents’ histories and their own experiences protesting these same issues more than 50 years ago, and nothing has changed. Yet since the day I was born, I’ve held a conviction that an unjust world is not one worth living in. Though I also believe in the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ the time to make a sharp AF turn is right now.”
Maya Breuer of Yoga Alliance writes in an email that when she began to practice yoga 30 years ago, “For the most part, I did not see [Black] community members participating in yoga classes.” She has worked to address that disparity for decades.
“It became my mission to address this situation through outreach and teaching and training people of color to integrate the practice of yoga into their lives and lifestyles,” she says in her email. “Around that same time, a number of yoga teachers of color also started teaching and promoting yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in their communities. In 2001, I created the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color, which has continued to be offered at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health for the past 20 years.”
She notes that many Black teachers are now reaching out to address and remedy the health disparities that COVID-19 has brought to the surface.
Palmer is a founding member of the nonprofit Sanctuary in the City, which works to bring equitable access to healing and wellness opportunities to BIPOC through education, grants and scholarships.
Palmer says a large part of why she became a yoga teacher, and part of the inspiration to co-found Sanctuary in the City, was a recognized need in her community and beyond, for equitable yoga and healing spaces by and for people of color.
“We started the nonprofit three years ago with the vision of creating a space where Black people and Brown and Indigenous people of color could have access to healing modalities that are led by people with similar backgrounds, just because yoga spaces in general, in my experience practicing now for over 10 years, are just not great places for people of color to be,” she says. “When classes are $20 for drop-in, and the studios are all in a part of town where we don’t live, and the teachers don’t look like us and they’re going to be culturally insensitive in various ways, it just makes it a space that no one wants to be in.”
Sanctuary in the City offers meditation and movement classes, largely on a pop-up basis at events like the Juneteenth festival, which celebrates the true end of slavery, when people enslaved in Texas learned two years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were actually free. The nonprofit’s offerings are all free or donation-based, and Palmer says they aim to host events in places where they might reach people who might not normally have access to yoga and meditation but could benefit from those practices.
Palmer says she and her fellow Sanctuary in the City board members, Christy Lee and Tiya Caniel, all studied under internationally renowned psychologist and certified yoga therapist Gail Parker, who is based out of Detroit and Los Angeles and bases her work on race-based stress and trauma. Parker has worked in psychology for more than 40 years and is a pioneer of research and practices using restorative yoga and meditation to manage ethnic and race-based traumatic stress.
After working as a therapist for years for people with different mental health issues, Parker noticed that her Black patients and white patients were not responding similarly to treatments. Parker’s work has delved into epigenetics, which is the science that shows DNA is changed and impacted by the things that happen to people in their lives, and also sometimes inherited traits. She also explores the way racism—and the devaluation of certain lives, which is constantly on display—impacts mental health.
“She [Parker] believes that yoga—particularly restorative yoga and other contemplative practices, breath practices—really offers the space for healing,” Palmer says. “We lean heavily into that—that race-based stress and trauma are happening all the time.”
In response to the pandemic, Sanctuary in the City has been offering emergency stipends to Black and Indigenous teachers of yoga, meditation and related modalities who are out of work in both North Carolina and Georgia. They’re also offering free online community programs, for BIPOC only, on a weekly basis.
“All the teachers are Black or Brown, and the things that we focus on vary,” Palmer says. “Yoga is our base, but we also talk about arts and culture, entrepreneurship, and empowerment, and family structure, so we have different offerings that are happening.”
They pay their teachers $100 per hour honorarium to teach classes in an effort to make teaching these modalities equitable and fair for their teachers. Palmer notes that yoga teachers often make between $14 and $25 or so per hour, and their organization is working to shift that model.
“While there may not be anything in the moment for someone to do about financial stress or loss of jobs, if they’re in this heightened state of anxiety or fear or suffering, they’re also not going to be able to be clear about what they can do and where their power is,” she says. “The practice feels important in that way of just helping people remain grounded.”
Palmer says their organization has received some criticism for excluding white people. She notes that it is important for people of color to have spaces that feel safe, given the societal realities.
“Our work feels essential because Black people, Black people’s nervous systems, and their peace are constantly under attack,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of spaces for us to just be, and to breathe and to move with intention. It’s our hope always through our work with Sanctuary that we’re offering that space, we’re fortifying people to step out into this white world, and creating the space for white people to really reflect on the ways they’ve kept Black and Brown people out of yoga spaces, and have taken practices that are indigenous to people of color all over the world and profited off of them—at the same time, making those spaces inaccessible to us. That drives our work, always.”
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.