The Yoga Retreat for Women of Color: An Opening to Spirit

A spiritual awakening inspired me to create the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color in 1998. I had traveled to India with several Kripalu Yoga teachers, to the village of Khayavorahan, the place where Swami Kripalu and, ultimately, Kripalu Yoga, had originated. During the final days of my studies in India, I asked a question of one of our teachers, Guru Mai: “What can I do for my people? There are so many challenges for black and brown people in America. What should I bring home to them? Where should my focus be?”

Guru Mai responded, without a moment’s pause, “Teach the breath, Maya, teach the breath.”

After I returned home, I tried to teach the breath to my people. I started offering yoga classes in my home. Yet something was not quite right. Then I had a dream and a visitation from my grandmother, Betty Thomas. She appeared to me and simply said “You can do it!” I asked, “Do what, Ma?” (I called my grandmother “Ma,” because she had raised me and my brothers and sisters.) She said, “Teach your women!” I was flummoxed, but kept on asking, “What women, Ma?” She continued, “Teach your women, teach the women,” and then she disappeared. When I woke up the next morning, I knew deep within myself what she had meant—and the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color was born.

As you enter the retreat, you may hear the musical strains of soul, jazz, or world music. You know immediately from the welcome and opening that this is a place to explore and practice yoga. Starting on the first night, we use the breath, and, with each breath, women are encouraged to move and listen; they are taught how to meditate and practice relaxation, and how to explore their feelings.

With breath, we learn practices of Ayurveda. With breath, we create collage and self-portraits divining to see who we really are. Through and on the breath, we explore ancient concepts of consciousness, self-awareness, self-love, and how to go within to find out what we really need to know about ourselves. At each retreat, we practice yoga, learn how to breathe correctly, and create a sacred share circle. Did I say we dance? We dance!

With a shy smile, Jane shares about her four-year battle with breast cancer, telling us that she is now cancer free. Ruth speaks of the hard work it took and how wonderful she feels having completed a PhD in history at Harvard. Dr. Roberta, who lives in Chicago, speaks of the difficulty and stress she experiences as an ER doctor who sees a daily loss of life among young black men from gun violence.

Sister Joseba’s husband, Joe, passed away last year, and her plans are to move from her home of the past 40 years to the East Coast, to live with her daughter and family in California. Joseba is grieving the loss of her friends and she hopes the retreat will help her gain courage to make this move. Cleora, who has become a featured presenter at the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color, leads a session focusing on forgiveness after the loss of a loved one; she lost her teenaged son several years ago to gun violence. Carmenitta has been accepted into a work training program that will improve her opportunities for advancement. Leila, who is getting married in three months, is here to celebrate with five of her friends who have accompanied her to the retreat.

Here, women of color freely open up about anything and everything. They share about being alone, all manner of issues within their families, thriving, having financial challenges, loss of loved ones, illness and diseases, dying, lovers leaving, lovers arriving, job loss, retirement and issues in the workplace, aging, health challenges and healing, anger over getting a divorce, and the joy of a new relationship. We open up and share our lives, and we bear witness to one another.

Here’s how one participant, Kiesha, described her experience at the retreat: “The sounds of a group of women of color laughing, singing, crying, praying, dancing, connects me to the past, present, and future. The stories shared among us are pure food for the soul. It brings a feeling of connection to history and to the present conditions of our communities. I feel divine, capable, and ready after each retreat. Divine in my own body, mind, and spirit. Connected to a vibration greater than myself. Capable of wearing the many hats of wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, student, and yogini. Ready to return home to live the best life for me, my family, and my community.”              

Maya Breuer (she/her), E-RYT 500, YACEP, is the Head of Research and Yoga Advancement for Yoga Alliance, cofounder of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, Emerita Trustee of Kripalu, and creator of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color™.

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