Finding My Seat in the Circle at the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color

In the first session of my yoga teacher training, which consisted of about 25 women, I noticed that I was one of two people of color in the room. Both of my teachers and all of the guest teachers were white women and one white man. The other woman of color, Marianna, was from Venezuela. 

At the time my family had relocated from the Northeast to the South. The diversity I’d grown up with in school and the workforce seemed to disappear when I entered yoga practice spaces. I don’t recall the conversation specifically, but remember being asked, “Why do African-Americans not practice yoga?” 

These questions led to the topic of my final project in the training program, “Yoga and the African-American Community.” It also led my heart to find and practice with black yoga teachers. That’s how I discovered Maya Breuer. Maya’s name displayed in the results of each and every search I conducted. She was one of fewer than a dozen black yoga teachers whose names came up.

So in 2011, for Mother’s Day, my husband gifted the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color to me and my mother; my most memorable Mother’s Day gift to date. By this time, I had been practicing yoga for 10 years, and Mom about five. We arrived at Kripalu, with our Lululemon mats and new outfits, ready to simply practice, practice, and practice with a group of black women.

As we entered the dimly lit room, we saw flowers adorning the altar, and heard the strains of jazz in the background. There was a circle of seats, no yoga mats, and there was Maya. After two hours of talking, laughing, sharing, and even tears from some of the 35-plus women in the circle, I told Mom, “She’s my next teacher.”

I felt like a child sitting at my grandmother’s feet as she sat on her couch watching and talking about the news with me. Once, I interviewed my grandmother for a 7th-grade social studies project. I was mesmerized by each and every word and story. The history and wisdom that she shared about my family, our world, and being black were life-altering. I felt the same way listening to Maya teach us about yoga at the retreat. She may not claim the title just yet, but when I describe Maya to my yoga community, I say, “She’s the grandmother of yoga.”  Today, I’d also say Maya is a master teacher of yoga and of self-care.

Self-care has become a recognized movement in the wellness world. I was introduced to it in 2016 by Anana Harris-Parris, author of Self-Care Matters: A Revolutionary’s Approach, who I met at a Yoga Retreat for Women of Color in Atlanta. Self-care is also one of the key teachings that Maya offers at each retreat. She gives us a simple toolkit for practicing yoga as a form of self-care. As we start each day, we ask ourselves, How do I nourish my body (tapas)? How do I nourish my soul (svadhyaya)? How do I nourish my spirit (ishvara pranidhana)?

During the retreat, we also nourish our bodies with sunrise yoga practice, drumming, and dancing, which might include Afri-salsa dance, African dance, contemporary twerking, and other styles. We eat healthy meals, and our minds are nourished by poetry and by workshops with a host of guest presenters. Mom and I have explored Ayurvedic practices, how to deal with grief and loss, building rituals (pujas), alkaline diets, creating head wraps, yoga-dance, life mapping, healthy movement, creating art for healing, making a connection back to the playfulness of our youth, and the Native American talking stick ritual. Most of all, our spirits are nurtured by listening to the voice of each woman in attendance, and being heard in turn.

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a family” sums up the community that is built during these weekends. Much of what we learn and experience goes home with each woman. We are encouraged to continue the practice of yoga and to selectively choose and integrate some of the other teachings into our lives and within our communities.

As an experienced yoga teacher, I’ve learned more about the practice of yoga and the tenets of the eight limbs of yoga at the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color than in any other program or training I’ve taken. I’ve developed a strong practice that goes beyond the physical postures to include elements of yoga philosophy. Yoga has become a lifestyle, not just something I do on my mat. I have found my voice as a teacher and leader in my yoga community, and Maya and the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color have been—and remain—integral to this process.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

—from “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou

Kiesha Battles (she/her), E-RYT 500, R-PYT, is a full-time yoga teacher, trainer, and codirector of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color™.

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