Black Yoga Teacher Alliance Conference at Kripalu, August 25 – 28, 2016.
I just returned from a family reunion! Had no idea I was even going to one. I registered for the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance Conference at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Stockbridge, Mass. I have been to quite a few workshops and conferences in my 6 years of practicing Yoga, and I’ve had some mind-blowing experiences, but nothing like this. I discovered that Yoga belongs to me too.
I arrived a bit late on the opening night, after a five-hour drive from Delaware, and a pit stop in Neptune, NJ for the funeral of my best friend’s grandmother. I missed the opening event of the evening that was a sunset Agni Hotra Ceremony. I heard from other participants it was very magical and moving. The Kripalu staff greeted me at the door with an enthusiastic welcome and proceeded to get my dinner from the cafeteria so I could go straight into the BYTA Dance Medicine program.
I entered the dance still wearing the black dress and accessories from the funeral. I showed up in low spirits and emotional, but the dancing and rhythmic vibrations of the music helped me to move through my emotions. Everyone seemed to float across the floor, swaying in fluid like motions. We approached each other, made eye contact, greeted with smiles, introduced ourselves, and sealed it all with warm compassionate hugs before moving on to the next person. Some of us held hands and danced together for a while. It was a great icebreaker, and an excellent way to get acquainted, setting the energetic tone for the weekend.
Just like at other conferences, I was torn between which workshops to choose. There was Introduction to Philosophical Perspectives and Practices of Yoga for Daily Living, by BYTA Director Maya Breuer, and Yoga for Self Love and Care, a movement class with Dana A. Smith. I had to consult with my body and ask, “What do we need right now?”, and after missing the sunrise yoga class, my body was in need of some movement.
The workshop with Dana, (Spiritual Essence Yoga) was very open and inviting. She asked the participants (at least 30 or more) to go around and introduce ourselves, what brought you here, and what self care practices you use? I heard stories of not being accepted in classes, teachers not knowing how to address ethnicity or body types, and the number one story of them all, being the only person of color in yoga classes. I was surprised that a presenter would use so much of their workshop time to do this, but by the time the last person spoke, I felt more connected to each person in the room. That exercise allowed you to get a little view into each other’s personalities, and their personal life, that by the time we left the class, we definitely felt like we all knew each other. Dana spoke about self-love and care rituals, how to feng-shui your home, and setting up altars in every room. She also shared a lot about herself before we moved into an asana practice specifically designed to open and release with focus on the hips and heart. Just about everyone got a copy of her book, “”Yes! Yoga has Curves” at the end of the class.
The afternoon workshops were, Receive, Restore, Renew: The Art and Skill of Restorative Yoga, by Dr. Gail Parker, and I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up: Yoga Therapy for Seniors and People with Disabilities, by BYTA Director, Jana Long. I chose the restorative workshop with Dr. Parker, whom I had the pleasure of practicing next to at Dana’s class. Dr. Gail is a renowned media personality, educator, author, thought leader, and lifelong practitioner of yoga. Her expertise is in behavioral health and wellness and has been a practicing psychologist for 40yrs. She is a pioneer in her efforts to integrate psychology, restorative yoga and meditation as effective self-help strategies that can enhance emotional balance. She had us partner up during the workshop, and we taught the restorative poses she demonstrated to each other.
Lift Every Voice: Calling Your Higher Power with Meditation Songs, was a workshop that opened heart and throat chakras in unified love and healing. Monique Schubert and Emiliano Garcia led this workshop singing songs from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. We sang together, we did call and response, and before it was all over we broke into groups of 5 to create our own songs that we shared with open participation.
The highlight of the Friday evening was the BYTA Honors, which debuted the screening of the documentary, “The Uncommon Yogi: A History of Blacks & Yoga in the U.S.” This film was groundbreaking and monumental, as my mind became flooded with new information. It was like going to school all your life and discovering a large part of your education was not received. When I was in YTT I struggled with finding black female yoga teachers that I could relate to. The face of someone like me. While walking through the lobby of the yoga studio one evening I discovered Faith Hunter on the cover of a Yoga Journal magazine. I couldn’t wait to tell the other black YTT in my class about her. I held her close to my heart as inspiration. So as I watched the documentary, in a room filled with about 100 or more other black yoga teachers, I became overwhelmed with pride, fascination, and joy. There were some role models of color in yoga after all, and they were from all around the country, with roots embedded from Africa.
The rest of the weekend showcased some really phenomenal workshops by more BYTA Honorees, Krishna Kaur Kalsa, Caroline Shola Arewa, Parusha Hickson, and Yirser Ra Hotep. The finale entertainment was the Bamidele Dancers and Drumming performance followed by an old school, Rhythm Nation DJ Dance Party, that was open to all Kripalu guests.
By the end of the conference, I felt opened and more rooted in my field. I felt I was given more information and tools to integrate with my teaching of yoga. I had adopted Yoga as an ancient principle that was not my own, but the property and way of life of yogis from Asia, and accepted the Western version as my base for teaching from. I even traveled to India to tap into the authenticity of yoga.
I am so grateful for the BYTA conference for giving me something more, for adding a richness, and connecting the dots. Gone is the feeling that I am one of a few, I walked away from the conference with the strength and pride of a nation. Coming from a small family, and living with the loss of my parents, uncles, and grandparents, the BYTA conference was an unexpected family reunion. As I felt united with a family of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins I didn’t know I had, who reminded me of the greatness of my ancestors and the power of the work that we do. The practice of yoga also belongs to me, and has been handed down through the roots of my lineage. I now walk into my classes with more confidence and the knowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of my ancestors of color in yoga, and all those that came before me. Sat Nam.
The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance Conference is an annual event at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, Mass.
Please check the link for more information. Blackyogateachersalliance.com
Charlene A. Sams, is a 500hr-RYT Hatha yoga instructor and a practicing Reiki master. She considers her greatest accomplishment, and area of expertise, to be as a yoga teacher in the field of teaching yoga and mindfulness to adjudicated youth, having implemented curriculum based mindfulness and yoga programs at five juvenile detention centers in Newcastle County, Delaware. She serves on the board of directors for Yoga Service Council, director of Empowered Community, and the founder of POSH Yoga in Wilmington, De.
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