This is the fourth individual spotlight in of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign that launched in 2014 and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.
Raja Michelle is the Founder and Executive Director of Green Tree Yoga & Meditation. Raja has always been drawn toward service and found the healing arts of yoga and meditation to be the best way she can serve at this time. She began studying yoga with Bryan Kest in 2000 and has continued her study with various teachers across the country. She received her training with the Living Yoga Program in Austin, Texas in 2005. Most recently she has continued her study with Annie Carpenter, Sara Powers, and Leslie Kazadi.
I've enjoyed following your work in South LA with Green Tree Yoga. What led you to practice and teach? What were you like before you found yoga? How has it changed you? Before yoga, I was simply asleep. I wasn’t aware of how trauma and life experience affected me and I wasn't aware of how I affected others. I moved through life with mental conditioning, based on my upbringing and society as a whole, that drove my reality.
I love that. I think so many of us can relate to being asleep in many ways. How can yoga wake us up? Yoga creates space to notice the self. At first, when I started yoga, the awakening was subtle. It was just the beginning of sensing my body and emotions and learning how to be gentle with myself. Then, this set me up to go deeper into meditation and one-pointed focus in order to observe my mind and its patterns. Noticing how much my mind ran my world gave me the internal space and objectivity to start to do deeper work.
Just as you inquire within and do this deeper work on an individual level, how do you think yoga can address the deeper work in the world around us—for example, promote diversity, positivity, and inclusiveness? How can this type of insight be applied to class/race/gender/sexuality discrimination? I am not sure how much modern Western yoga does to promote diversity. I believe, though, that we are beginning to see our “asleep-ness” in regard to this issue. That which connects us all is at the core of the practice, and by practicing together, we create connection, safety, and inclusiveness. As far as what we can do as instructors, I would first say we should look at ourselves—look at our sexist, racist, homophobic, prejudiced conditions and be humbled by them and clear them.
By transcending these separating beliefs, we will then organically create an inclusive space. I can say “all are welcome” until I am blue in the face, but if a transgender woman of color walks in and I energetically react negatively, which might even show up on my face…then I am not being inclusive.
The change has to happen on an individual, internal level.
How do you utilize yoga to empower yourself and others? Do you have advice for studio owners who want to make yoga more accessible? Yoga empowers me to move beyond my mind and get into the space of awareness. That is the only true sustainable power for me, everything else seems to be ego. My work at Green Tree is simply about creating access. There was only one other yoga studio is South LA when we opened our doors in January 2013 (and there still is). I hope to see more.
How do you create access? You offer the practice without charging a shitload of money. You offer a safe space for people of color and other marginalized communities to practice. You set up shop within walking distance within an underserved community or along public transportation lines. You go into the heart of forgotten places within a city.
I know at Green Tree you value accessibility. How do you make your classes welcoming and inviting to all body types, ages, races, abilities, and disabilities? It seems we are trying to make yoga some sexy package to sell. Education is important, though ultimately it’s important to change our own minds and to listen to marginalized communities—listen to their experience, become aware of injustices, and take action. Get still, be open, be honest with ourselves, and the rest will happen. People will often ask me “How did the community receive you, being a white woman in a community of color? Did you have some strategy?” Often we want to map out everything as if there is a magic formula. I find that the way this really works is a lot more subtle. People who have been discriminated against their entire lives can feel discrimination regardless of what one says or does.
Our South LA community is one of the most loving and resilient communities I’ve ever been blessed to be a part of. It did take some time to build trust as I do represent that of the oppressor. So, I understand the need to just be open and transparent, not defensive, and to listen to those who have been excluded.
Heart is Heart is Heart. If you walk into Green Tree that is what you feel: Love. Folks often express this. And it’s not just an idea, like “Let me love everybody." It is experiential. From my experience, if you heal the confused mind, the heart just shines through. Do your work, check your beliefs, and feel the Love that we all are.
Has yoga helped you overcome an obstacle personally? Can you tell a story about this? There was one obstacle that yoga healed: the obstacle of my mind with reality. Yoga has been a catalyst for me to get to know myself. So the practice has given me space to really learn about my confused self and meet myself with compassion and question why I believe and do what I do.
Do you study with a particularly inspiring teacher? What is something they’ve shared that’s resonated with you; how did it impact your life? Truthfully, Eckhart Tolle is my OG. If I was to ever claim a spiritual teacher it would be him. He taught me about meditation, and I went deep into that practice. I will say, however, that Brian Kest (my first yoga teacher) set me on a path of being true to myself within my practice; he taught me to not be dogmatic about all the spiritual identity that happens. He keeps yoga simple and authentic. And he also influenced my passion to teach donation-based classes. He’s part of the reason why the studios I have designed are donation-based. Brian will always hold a special place in my heart.
Finally, what do you love about teaching yoga? I love dialing in with people. I love sharing the sacred practice that leads us back to the internal (which is the eternal). What else is there?
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