Why Yoga Teachers Say the Practice Is Essential for Challenging Times
Yoga teachers who work with oppressed communities say the practice is a key way to navigate stress, trauma, and disruption.
Like many industries, the yoga industry faced major upheavals due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many studios filing bankruptcy and closing their doors, some of them permanently, in 2020 and the following years. There was a mass transition of classes to online formats. Yoga teachers, the majority of whom are self-employed contractors, according to Yoga Alliance scrambled to restructure their livelihoods and navigate the changing landscape. In the meantime, many teachers offered free meditation and movement classes on social media and over Zoom, aimed at helping people cope with and move through the traumas and challenges of the pandemic.
“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,” wrote Dani Mackey in an email to Independent Media Institute (IMI) in 2020. 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 wrote in 2020. “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 noted that Yoga Alliance’s director of research, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa of Harvard Medical School, 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 rose nationwide. A health tracking poll published in late April 2020 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 led to such groups to experience mental health impacts at slightly higher rates.
Also during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass protests erupted across the country against long-standing systemic racism and oppression of Black Americans, catalyzed by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 (which came on the heels of the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and too many others). Black Americans, in particular, experienced re-traumatization, PTSD and heightened mental health impacts of systemized racism.
As the Black Lives Matter protests aimed 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 also came to light. Efforts grew to build a wellness industry by and for Black Americans and other people of color that might heal and support people experiencing the impacts of racial injustice. A discussion of the need to break down inequities within yoga and movement spaces also grew out of the moment.
For example, the organization Black Boys OM shared an Instagram post by Black to Yoga in 2020 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 started 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 spoke about how the practice is key to navigating difficult times.
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, noted in 2020 that 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 said.
Yoga for Children and Adults facing Systemic Trauma
Crystal McCreary, who has taught yoga to children, adolescents, and adults in New York City from a variety of backgrounds, said in 2020 that 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 said. “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,a trained professional dancer and actress with a master’s in fine arts and acting, has appeared beside her sister Kelly McCreary on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” She said 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 said that approach is “misaligned.” Yoga at its core is always a mindfulness practice—and that is what makes it such a powerful tool, she said.
McCreary said 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 said 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 poor areas and have experienced racism and systemic oppression throughout their lives. Others come from wealthier backgrounds. She said 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 said. “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 said 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 said.
According to McCreary, COVID-19 brought to the surface many issues of racism and class divides that have always existed. There were significant racial disparities in America when it came to deaths and economic strife experienced due to the pandemic, as detailed in a 2020 Atlantic article.
“One thing that this pandemic is showing is we are only as healthy and safe as the most vulnerable among us,” McCreary said in 2020. “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 said the unequal 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 said in 2020 that as a white person coming from a place of privilege, it was especially important to acknowledge that while there was a shared collective trauma occurring at the moment due to the pandemic, there was 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 said. “For some of us it's an 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, said 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 said 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 said 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 said, “the imprint of that narrative… lives within our flesh.” Corn added 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 said the practice of yoga teaches us how to address the tension that lives in the body and become comfortable with difficult emotions like rage, grief and shame.
“This will help us to develop empathy,” she said. “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 said, and people globally face life and death, financial instability, enforced isolation, and racial inequities.
“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,” she said.
Yoga and Race
McCreary said 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 said 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 said, in reference to the first two of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. “But I have always been stunned by this. The pandemic, the protesting and rioting, and our corrupt national leadership did not wake me up to this.”
She said yoga is not meant to exist in a vacuum, but to inform who we are, who we become, and how we interact with others locally and globally.
“Therefore, these ancient tools are the very technologies that need be engaged with 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 said 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 said. “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 said 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 said. “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 said the COVID-19 era 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 said 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 said. “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 said 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 said. “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 wrote in an email in 2020 to IMI 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 said in the 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 pointed to the examples of teachers in North Carolina, Kiesha Battles and Candace Jennings, who offer virtual yoga classes for people of color.
Also in North Carolina is Kelley Palmer, a yoga teacher from Charlotte whose yoga business, Peace Filled Mama, focused on motherhood and wellness for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). 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 said in 2020 that 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 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 said. “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 acknowledges the true end of slavery, when people enslaved in Texas learned two years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were actually free. Palmer said the nonprofit aimed 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 said 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 focuses 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 said. “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 offered 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 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 said. “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.
Palmer said 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 said. “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.”