Yoga can change lives, and it’s not in the way you think

I never graduated from high school. There, I’ve said it. Those of you who know me well are already aware of this fact, and yet I think it might surprise many of my acquaintances.

It happened in senior year — I made a stupid mistake. I let other people’s needs supersede my own. I thought that giving a friend a ride to school (and waiting for that friend to finish blow-drying their hair) was more important than getting to class on time. Once I was more than 5 minutes late it meant that I had an unexcused absence. Five days of my friend’s beautifully straightened hair = one class that I didn’t pass because of attendance.

What a dope. In retrospect I scream at my 17 year-old self: Go to class! Tell your friend to take the bus! Don’t put their needs above your own! Speak up!

And yet I didn’t speak up. I never crossed that stage, never received my diploma, never reached that milestone. Until I was 23. At that point I’d left the U.S. and lived in Canada, Australia, and England. I’d also managed to remain gainfully employed during that entire time — gate agent at an airline, receptionist at a steel company, nanny, reservationist at a travel company, to name a few. I tried to fool myself into thinking that it really didn’t matter, that my ability to get a job was proof that a diploma was not all that it was cracked up to be.

I also conveniently forgot to mention to my potential employers that I hadn’t actually graduated.

But at a certain point my mind (and ego) kept going back to that point of contention. I wanted that piece of paper to let the world know what I believed inside — that I was smart, that I could be a great employee who should be promoted, that I had a lot to offer this world.

So I came back to Michigan, to Detroit. And I signed up for the General Education Diploma exam. And I passed with flying colors. And immediately thereafter I enrolled in Oakland Community College. Apparently when I was a kid I used to say that I wanted to be President. I’m way over that now, but I believe that I have ambition.

Why am I telling you this story, and what in the world does it have to do with yoga? Well, even though I didn’t graduate from high school I still benefited from a great education. When I left school I was literate and numerate; I’d taken business classes, music classes, humanities classes and so on. Our home had plenty of books and my parents encouraged my love of reading from an early age. All of those things are a direct result of where and when I was born.

How would my life have been different if my parents couldn’t read, if my school didn’t have a library, if my school was overcrowded or underfunded? My desire to learn would have been the same, perhaps, my aptitude or potential would have been the same, perhaps, but I would have been faced with what Paul Farmer calls “structural violence” or things that keep individuals from reaching their potential or sometimes even put them directly in harm’s way.

Ok, I get it, but you still haven’t answered the question of what any of this has to do with yoga! — I feel ya, hold on just a second longer.

Right now we’re having a really tough time in the States. We’ve got hatred, strife, enmity, among and between groups. Groups that are — let’s face it — largely social constructs. We judge others by how we look, what our spiritual beliefs are, where we grew up, who we choose to love. So what would happen if we looked at one another as just people? Not part of a group.

I teach Anthropology at a Big Ten University and recently taught a class about race to 450 students. We spent a lot of time just talking. To each other. About our lives. And you know what? We found that it was much more fun to get to know people than it was to judge them. (To get to that point, though, we sometimes had to have awkward and tough conversations.)

I’ll admit, at first I really didn’t want to teach that class. It was actually two sections with 225 students in each. The official name of the course was Time, Space, and Change in Human Society. Pretty broad. And I was allowed to create my own syllabus within those parameters. Typically the archaeologists teach it about human evolution but that’s not really my jam. I’m into social issues (I guess you could say I’m a social justice warrior, and despite what the kids say about #sjw I’m cool with that). So I took on a subject that I wanted to learn more about.

Wait — how can you teach about something that you don’t already know?

If I waited until I felt like I knew enough to teach something, I’d never write a syllabus. Teaching is a great way to read new books or articles that I’ve had in mind but never got around to reading. I typically try to do a mix of stuff that I’ve taught before, and new stuff. It keeps me from getting stagnant without being overwhelming. Anyway, back to the class.

About once every other week we’d do some kind of activity to get students out of their seats and moving around the room. Why? Because studies have shown that we tend to sit near people who look like us when we enter a large classroom. And that’s cool, I’m not judging. But it’s not what I was aiming for in this class.

We started off simple — find someone who did the same thing as you did last weekend. Or find someone who likes the same genre of movies that you do. We then tried to group ourselves based on footwear. Sometimes it was easy to figure out groups (a bunch of students were wearing Uggs, others were wearing Chuck Taylors) but there were other times when it was more iffy. What about low-tops vs high top Converse. What about the color of one’s shoes?

I don’t belong, my shoes are different. (Photo taken by me at St. Clare School in Meru, Kenya earlier this year.)

These activities might seem childish or simple, especially for university students. But stay with me here. The students were also doing readings and research on the history of race in our country. They read about changes in census data, laws about who was considered a person and who could be a citizen. How those classifications affected laws, justified slavery, internment camps and the creation of ghettos through redlining and steering. We analyzed the role that science, politics, and business played in the formation of racial categories and stereotypes.

As we learned more about the inconsistencies in who was considered what race, and which races were considered good, bad, hardworking, lazy, obedient, or insolent we also began to question how to tear them down. We wanted to understand how each of us came to have our own beliefs, and how we could change them.

We decided that one of the best ways was to talk to each other. All of us. Not just those who have similar features, or who wear similar clothes, or who have similar taste in music. All of us. It’s ok that we’re all different. The world would be boring if we were all the same. But if we can’t get over the fear that has been building up in our country, it’s gonna be bad.

(Alright, it’s already horrible and it’s gonna get worse.)

At a certain point the students were pretty much convinced that hatred and ignorance were problems of the older generation, and that once that generation kicked the bucket the world would be a kinder, more open and understanding place.

Until we did our social media project. I had the students do a series of 10 posts about the topic. I gave them free reign. Many of the students decided to use Yik Yak. What they found really surprised them. Since Yik Yak is location based (and anonymous) and typically used by the younger set, the students were interacting with their peers. You know, the enlightened, open, non-judgmental set. Not so much. Eventually there was a counter-campaign against our posts to quickly down vote any post that used our hashtag (#ISS220). But before that happened the amount of hatred online was evident. We have a long way to go, and it’s not just the “old folks.”

Yeah, that’s cool and all. But you still haven’t talked about yoga.

Right! Back on track. In yoga we’re taught that the most important thing is the breath and the intention. You can lie on your back, focus on your breath, and you are practicing yoga. We also call it a practice because we recognize that we can never say we are experts. We all need to practice.

Practice opening our hearts, letting go of fear and anger, practice love rather than hate, and acceptance. We talk about accepting that we may not be able to do a pose that we were able to do yesterday. We accept that change begins within each of us. But we don’t have to accept injustice. We don’t have to accept a social system that has tried to divide us. To break us. To make us so focused on fear that we lose sight of the humanity in others.

I started doing yoga over 15 years ago. It was a perk through my job, right before the dot com bubble burst. Every Wednesday we would have a class on site, and our teacher focused primarily on the breath. Ujjayi breath — deep victorious breath. It was easy to feel victorious when I was in my early 20s, earning a good salary (despite having just a GED), and with stock options for an upcoming IPO.

It was easy to feel that I was in that position because I somehow deserved it. Don’t get me wrong — I was in one of the most junior positions in all of the organization — but I was earning more than I had ever earned before and I thought my salary was just going to keep climbing. It was also easy for me to think that others weren’t in that position because maybe they hadn’t tried hard enough — after all, I didn’t even have a high school diploma.

Boy, was I naive.

What I haven’t told you yet, but you might have guessed, is that I am “white.” The high school that I went to was in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, one of the more expensive places to live in our state. Our family wasn’t rich by any means, in fact, we often relied on the goodness of others to get by. We moved four times when I was a kid — every time our rent was raised — and had lived in much less affluent places than where we ended up. But our skin color wasn’t a factor when we were looking for places to live. Landlords didn’t pass judgment on us because of the way we looked, or because of our names.

In a nutshell, my whiteness helped me succeed. (And later, when I decided to go to school full-time in my 30s it was my family’s early hardships that helped me get into the McNair Scholars Program which helped me to earn my PhD — but that’s a story for another day.) Something that I did not choose, did not earn, did not even think about had been a catalyst.

Enough already! Can you please get back to the yoga?!?

One year ago I launched a social enterprise with offices in Detroit and Benin, West Africa. Benin’s residents face a lot of challenges. The nation ranks 166 on the UN’s Human Development Indicators which measure overall quality of life in 185 countries. It measures things like life expectancy, access to education, poverty, health, and so on. I was a Fulbrighter in Benin in 2010 and wrote my dissertation about the educational system and unemployment. I’ve been doing work there for over ten years and last year I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore watching my friends struggle — not because they weren’t talented or ambitious — but simply because of where and when they were born.

We created an organization to work with local artisans in Benin and market their products in North America so that they can earn a living wage. We then take all of the profits and use them to fund a tutoring program in their communities to keep kids in school. It’s a rewarding, and exhausting, project.

I work with some amazing Beninese anthropologists who attend each tutoring session to monitor and observe the impact that education may have on the extended family. We hold the sessions in homes so that everyone around is exposed to education — even the adults who may not have had the chance to go to school.

One day Judith and the kids were waiting for their tutor and she showed them a photo I had put up on Facebook when I was doing a yoga challenge. The girls immediately started doing the pose and Judith sent me a photo via WhatsApp. Who knew that we would have this common interest?

Me and AllAmericanGold on the left, Rachelle and Heather on the right

The kids were eager to learn new poses with me, and I had a great time trying to learn new poses to do with them. In May we all participated in a yoga challenge for new yogis after my friend Linnea tagged me in an Instagram post. As we got started we put out the word to the yoga community asking for people to pledge $1 for each day of the challenge, to put towards tutoring for next year.

It started off with just three girls, Florence, Rachelle, and Sika (Heather). As the days went on they were joined by Eli, Exaucé, and Crystal. Then Judith’s son Precieux wanted to join in, then Franklin. Pretty soon I was joined by my step kids Aidan and Ava, my niece Fia, some friends from high school Kelly and Phil, and my husband.

Judith then went to Togo to visit family, and next thing you know we were joined by Jules, Faïza, Soudes, Gafar, Nazif, and Édith in Lomé. My friend Anna joined in from Cambridge and a former housemate and yoga teacher Mahan participated in Bloomington. Sandrine’s younger sisters Adile and Ingrid wanted to practice as well. We were really on a roll.

Words of encouragement came in on Instagram from around the world. We all practiced together. I decided to head over to Benin to finish out the month together and surprise the kids and join them on their year-end awards ceremony field trip. Before I left we had a few more friends join in. Paco Perez, the champion of #sportsdiplomacy at the US Embassy in Benin, did a pose along with some members of the baseball team in Cotonou. My yoga teacher Tommy Mack sent good vibes and led a bakasana row with fellow yogis from our class. Students at the Ronald Brown Academy in Detroit practiced with us along with their teacher Rachel.

We were all connecting on this mission, this vision. We saw the potential in one another and wanted to support each other. Sure, we were all doing poses, but it was more than just exercise. It was intention. It was practice. It was making connections, being vulnerable, and being human.

Even though I started practicing yoga a long time ago, I haven’t practiced consistently. When I was struggling to write my dissertation I traded in yoga for Zumba. I told myself that I needed something different, more lively. I didn’t need to think as much, I wanted to do something escapist because my brain was tired from all of the thinking it took to complete my PhD.

Thankfully my sister kept practicing. One day last year she was going through a really rough time with chronic pain. She asked me to go to yoga with her and I remember her leaving a message on my voicemail.

She said, “Please, I really need you.” It stuck with me.

I’m not one to typically admit when I need help. To admit that I’m vulnerable. To realize that I can’t do everything on my own. Yet when we went to that class, I realized how much we all need each other.

We were jammed in, each mat only a few inches from the other. As we flowed Tommy repeated Keep Breathing, Keep Feeling. Just breathe. We all worked to our own ability that day. The room was hot and sweaty, and then when I thought I had reached my limit he had us get into Warrior 3 — airplane pose. So what do you do when you are in a jammed room, trying to balance on one leg, and you’re all supposed to have your arms out like airplane wings at your side? How do you avoid touching the person on either side of you?

You don’t.

Reach out and hold their hand. Grab hold, maybe they need you, maybe you need them, maybe the strength that we have when we’re all tired, exhausted, sweaty, crammed in, can keep us afloat just a little bit longer.

Airplane Motif Wax Print designed by Marjan de Groot

So yeah, I’m a social justice warrior. So is everyone in the TS extended family. We’re fighting for equality, for peace, for education, for decent work, for an end to discrimination and racism and poverty and hatred. We’re peaceful, we’re powerful, and we’re just getting started. Thanks for being with us.


(If you’d like to volunteer with us we could always use some help. There, I’ve done it. Asked for help! Also, if you enjoyed this story could you please spread the love and hit the little green heart down below? It would mean a lot to me.)

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