Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD, is an educator, activist, and founder of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for Teen Girls at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Her activism and research are grounded firmly in understanding communities that practice yoga and the ways in which embodied practices are used to understand trauma and participate in healing and resistance. Chelsea's ethnographic research and community work are sustained by the Atlanta-based nonprofit Red Clay Yoga. Chelsea serves as a Community Partner to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and is a contributor to Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, and Loving Your Body. Chelsea is also the founder and facilitator of Chelsea Loves Yoga, a blog focused on sharing the lived experiences of yoga practitioners across multiple communities.
Yoga is clearly an integral component of your life’s work. But I know from reading your essay “Too Much and Not Enough” in Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body that it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. You talk about how challenging it was to be in that room as the only larger-bodied woman of color. Yet you challenged yourself to stay and, in many respects, the rest is history! Can you share how you came to that first class and how your practice evolved over time?
I was introduced to yoga in 2002 and understood the practice only with regard to asana. I saw yoga as a workout, but something clicked for me very early which gave me a glimpse that it was so much more than a physical practice.
My practice began to shift in 2004 after losing my college roommate and best friend to violence. As a result of her abrupt death, I became very disconnected out of sadness, fear, and anger for our loss. Out of options, I decided to look deeper into my practice and found my teachers, Swami Jaya Devi and Ma Jaya.
While practicing with them, I decided to become a certified yoga teacher in 2007. It was important to me to find a school that was diverse, and Kashi Atlanta was an urban ashram deeply committed to human rights and service. It was during my teacher training that I developed a deeper understanding for how yoga looked off of my mat, and the teachings I received at Kashi definitely contributed to the confidence I had when reimagining how yoga could look when advocating for myself and others.
What does your practice look like now? Now, my practice looks a lot different because it is being applied to the work I do in this world. Whenever I do make it to an actual yoga class, it is typically a Chill Shop Yoga with Octavia Raheem in Atlanta, which is both yin and restorative. I am learning more and more each day about how to listen to what type of practice my body needs.
In Yoga and Body Image you state, "I never thought that my yoga practice could be used as a tool for resistance." Describe what you meant then and what it means now. I mentioned this realization in Yoga and Body Image when referencing my experiences as a Black woman in the United States who seldom felt included in this vision of what a yogi looked like. I could count on one hand how many times I saw any person of color on the cover of a yoga magazine or in advertisements for local studios, assuring me that I, too, [was] welcomed in this space of wholeness and wellness.
And the lack of diversity in mainstream yoga culture and yoga imagery propelled you into action. First, you created the online community and forum Chelsea Loves Yoga, with the popular spotlight “Yogis in the Community,” but you’ve continued to grow and build off this foundation. Yes, as a result of these experiences, I created Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for Teen Girls at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. I wanted to facilitate a space that normalized the beautiful diversity that exists across yoga communities. I wanted to ground the experience in the voices of women from the African Diaspora because these are the voices that are often silenced the most because of both race and gender. I wanted to offer a space that could be co-created with the youth participants, with their lived experiences as the focus.
As our program moves into its third year with more community involvement and multiple sessions, our freedom expands in our resistance against dominant narratives that dismiss our own. Our yoga practice and presence is constantly breaking down barriers caused by systemic oppression because we are learning to speak our truths more by applying lessons and principles learned through yoga.
And most recently you founded Red Clay Yoga. Can you tell us more about this new venture? The work that I am able to do with the Red Clay Yoga community in Atlanta builds from the realization that my yoga practice can be used as a tool for resistance. Red Clay Yoga is a Georgia nonprofit that I co-founded with my husband, Shane Roberts. With the support of a host of youth advocates in both the fields of education and yoga, Red Clay Yoga offers culturally responsive workshops, classes, and training for educators and yoga practitioners who work with youth and marginalized communities across the United States.
Earlier in this interview and in your Yoga and Body Image essay you talked about not seeing people who look like you represented in yoga magazines. Since then, you’ve actually appeared on the cover of Yoga Journal. What was that experience like for you? I have infinite gratitude for the experience of being on the cover of Yoga Journal. I was completely honored to be recognized for the work I've been doing through Chelsea Loves Yoga and now Red Clay Yoga. More than anything it was the outpouring of love and support I received via emails, letters, phone calls, and social media posts that celebrated me as a Black woman who cultivated community through yoga.
What is most memorable for me through the experience is how significant my image was for so many groups of people and communities. On the one hand, the overwhelming amount of excitement from my community showed me how proud they were of me, and on the other hand, it shows how dismissed we tend to feel because a moment like this doesn't happen very often within the field of yoga, health, and wellness.
Do you feel your cover and the Yoga Journal covers featuring Bibi McGill and Grace Flowers signal a paradigm shift? Seeing images like mine as well as the covers featuring Bibi McGill and Grace Flowers is definitely a small shift or step along a larger journey that shouldn't stop here. It is important that editors and writers invite diverse groups of people to sit at the table when thinking about features and images that are used to promote the benefits of yoga. In addition, taking a look at who is invited to teach and lead conferences and who is not is an honest way to think about why change is not happening more consistently.
Despite the changes that have occurred in yoga culture and representations of yoga practitioners and the practice itself, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make yoga accessible and equitable for all. What do you foresee in the coming years? If we use our physical yoga practice as a metaphor for the ways in which yoga is practiced in the West, I believe that it can evolve into a more inclusive practice only when we first confront the pain and tension that already exists. The sooner we stop compartmentalizing yoga into this practice that is immune from carrying out some of the same oppressive and exclusionary practices that we see in society, the sooner we can begin to heal, transform, and evolve. I don't believe that it will happen overnight but it is happening, and the proof is in the sharing of articles like these and the work that numerous groups are doing across yoga communities that use yoga as a tool to resist oppression.
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