The “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” series is a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices.
I had always been a runner. As a first grader at Jackson Elementary in the predominantly black section of Pasadena, California, that circled Lincoln and Woodbury, I would tear across the playground. I’d rip from the swing set at the far edge of the grounds to the tractor tire pyramid—the poor kids' climbing gym—in the center of the schoolyard. There was a lightness to running. To the feeling of the sun on my brown skin and the wind dancing S-curves around my little legs. It was a freedom I didn’t know I was seeking.
On one occasion, my teacher stopped me. She was a white woman who looked to be in her mid-40s. I was one of her best students, labeled “gifted.” “Wow!” she marveled, “You are so fast!” I said nothing as I climbed down from the tire I’d mounted to tear back in the opposite direction, giving a command performance of the show that she had apparently been enjoying. When the bell rang I sprinted toward the front of the line to be accounted for as the lot of us marched back into the classroom, alive with the intoxicating energy of play.
Running would eventually become a salve. I applied it to the hard times of my girlhood. I could use the speed of my legs to help me escape difficult situations, difficult feelings.
But later in life, when I felt like I needed it the most, that was when running failed me. I was in graduate school, doing fine, getting good grades, but feeling alienated on the predominantly white campus. I brought my feelings of isolation and exclusion to a professor-turned-administrator. She explained, matter-of-factly, that graduate school was a “white space.” She said it not as an assertion of what should be, but simply an acknowledgment of what was. She offered no support; said some very smart people realize it’s not for them. She was encouraging me to drop out.
There was no running from that moment. I kept trying, only to exacerbate a foot condition that would ultimately require surgery. My podiatrist warned that if I kept running, I would eventually need surgery on my other foot, my knees, my hip.
In yoga, I was called to sit in the quiet challenge of a demanding posture so that I might know that each moment of discomfort is temporary, surmountable.
So I wasn’t looking for yoga when I found it. I was only looking for an alternative to running. I wandered into a studio in Berkeley, where I was staying for the summer, and took a class. Before long, I was taking three classes a week. I can’t remember much about what we did in those classes, only that when I was in there I reveled in activating my muscles again. And like running, it was so much more than exercise. In yoga, I was called to sit in the quiet challenge of a demanding posture so that I might know that each moment of discomfort is temporary, surmountable. In these classes, as we moved between poses that generated discomfort and those that brought ease, I could begin to understand the fleeting nature of pleasure and pain. I glimpsed how discomfort could be transformed over time. How poses that originally caused panic, anxiety, or pain could lead to a blissful release, a sense of freedom. All I needed was the courage to stay with it. To keep coming back to the class, back to my body, back to my breath.
I went back to southern California to finish my degree. This time, I was going to know my freedom not through running, but through staying when I was being told to abscond, to disappear. I joined grassroots campaigns and became active in campus-wide initiatives for diversity and inclusion. Many of the things we fought for, we won.
My weekly yoga practice kept me grounded in these times. I sat in silent meditation in the opening moments of a yoga class. In the stillness before the asana, I felt no concern over completing my studies in an environment that—save for my incredible team of advisors whose generosity seemed boundless—would often feel hostile. When the asana began, I felt reassured in the knowledge that the trial presented by this moment—like graduate school—was surmountable.
Yoga helped me to find liberation within myself. After years of running, of pursuing freedom and validation externally, it taught me to turn inward for my strength. In so doing, I was able to stay with the difficulty, to begin to transform it. I got to know myself, so that I might be better prepared to face the challenges that often fall upon those of us from marginalized groups.