Kerri Kelly: Hi, my name is Kerri Kelly, and welcome to another episode of CTZN Podcast, where we dare to ask hard questions about who we are, and what's possible when we show up for the wellbeing of everyone.
We're here today with Chelsea Jackson, teacher and yoga influencer, as we talk about breaking the silence, real allyship, and how to live up the promise of oneness and unity.
KK: Check one, check two.
Chelsea Jackson: Check one, check two.
KK: Sounding good. All right, today we are here with Dr. Chelsea Jackson. How are you?
CJ: I'm doing well.
KK: Chelsea is founder of Chelsea Loves Yoga, co-founder of Red Clay Yoga, a nonprofit that is working within communities that have experienced marginalization, and with the teachers and educators who are working within those communities. She is a former teacher and a doctor – that's so fancy – of education studies. And she's doing profound and provocative things in bridging both education and yoga, but also social justice and yoga. And you have become a real force, I want to say, in the yoga community, especially over the last couple years. And so I am so grateful to have you here with us today.
CJ: Thank you, Kerri. I'm very excited to be here. This has been a dream of mine to sit down and have a conversation with you. We have many conversations-
KK: I know.
CJ: ... but to be so focused and really excited, especially how timely it is.
CJ: So thank you for having me.
KK: Yeah, you got it. I love talking to you, and any chance I get to talk and teach with you has been such a privilege and pleasure.
So I want to hear just a little bit about your point of entry into yoga. We all, I think, have a moment where yoga enters our lives. For some of us, it's through the body. For others of us, it's through something that happens in our lives. Sometimes we're born into a community or family where yoga is central, but I find that that origin story is often really significant in forming who we become as yogis.
KK: So I'd love to hear about that for you.
CJ: Yeah, so I am originally from Dayton, Ohio. I was born and raised there, and left to go to school in Atlanta, Georgia to Spelman College, which is a historically Black college for women, right next door to Morehouse College, which Dr. Martin Luther King actually attended.
And so for me, I started my yoga practice at a time when I felt very fragmented in my body. I had just graduated from college, I had actually gone to Teachers College, Columbia University-
CJ: ... after I finished my undergraduate studies. And the time I was there was actually during 9/11, so I moved to New York September 1, 2001.
CJ: And then 9/11 happened, and so that was my first experience of really being aware of the ways I felt fragmented. I felt very disconnected, I felt scared, I felt confused. I grew up in this kind of small town, it was a city, and then went to the South and then came to this big city, and then this tragedy happened. And so I realized that there was not, there was something that wasn't quite right in my being, in my feelings and how I moved in the world.
And so I decided to leave New York. I thought that I would've been here for the rest of my life, I saw myself in New York. However, I decided after I finished my program to go back to Atlanta and become a school teacher. I've been in the field of education for quite some time, so I decided to start my school teaching there.
And so during that time, I really started to come into connection with issues I had around my body. And so you had this experience of coming from New York, experiencing trauma, then coming back to Atlanta and realizing that this is living inside of my body, because of the ways that it was showing up in my relationships, it was showing up ... And how it had a relationship with the work that I was doing.
And so I heard about this thing called yoga, and I started to read. I picked up my first book, which was a Rodney Yee book.
KK: Oh wow.
CJ: And so he was like my first teacher in many ways. And so I just started to self-teach and explore, and then I decided to go into my first hot yoga class. I'm very intense still, and my yoga practice has certainly evolved in a way that has allowed me to balance a little bit more. But I started going with hot yoga. I only understood yoga at the time from a physically perspective, and I was like, "Oh, I want to get in shape, so I'm going to go to yoga." But I think-
KK: Yeah, I totally relate to that. I think so many of us came into yoga through hot yoga.
KK: 'Cause it matched the intensity of our culture.
CJ: Exactly, it was certainly the gateway for me into exploring this relationship with my body. Well, things started happening when I looked at myself. My eyes in the mirror, I started to notice the conversations I was having. Not always the most, I guess, healthy for me, in my understanding of what a healthy conversation with myself was.
And so my yoga practice started to take a turn, and I didn't even realize it, 'cause I didn't have a teacher to tell me what was going on. And so during this time, I was also a school teacher. I was an elementary school teacher, and then I was met with another tragedy. My best friend from college, Misty Carter, was murdered. And it was really hard for me to understand again, because I don't think I even paused after the 9/11 experience to reflect on what it did to my life.
CJ: And then this other tragedy that was deeply intimate happened, and I was working and teaching in this elementary school that was a Title I school. So Title I, the majority of the students' families are below the poverty line. So I'm experiencing this individual trauma on my own with this huge loss, but then also observing the collective trauma that was happening in the families and the lives of the students that I was serving. So I started going deeper into my yoga practice, and then I found a yoga ashram that was super intense, and I found my teacher there. And that's when I really started to see the components of even social justice starting to enter my life, because I then started to reflect on the trauma that I experienced along my lifetime, and how it related to my identity as a Black woman.
And so that is how this journey began, completely physical, and has led me to a space that I never knew was even possible.
KK: Well, and it sounds so unexpected, right?
KK: The apertures and the openings-
KK: ... that sort of break us open to seeing more clearly.
CJ: Yes, yes.
KK: And I hear so much of that in your story.
CJ: Yeah, yeah.
KK: I want to hear a little bit about what you were just mentioning around ... You were saying you were having this personal breakthrough when you lost your best friend, but you were also seeing very clearly a system in place that was reinforcing that, that was not creating the conditions for children to thrive.
CJ: Right, right.
KK: And that was really putting kids, especially in Title I schools, especially kids who are living on the margins, in a one-track path.
KK: Tell me a little bit about how that started to reveal itself for you, and how the yoga started to seep into that work.
CJ: Yeah, so for me, I began to get really frustrated. I had an experience where I was in this Title I school, but then I had also had an experience where I was in a predominantly white school. The majority of the parents were upper middle class in an Atlanta suburb, and so my experiences were vastly different, where I started to get angry and frustrated as to why these students had access to certain resources, and the other students didn't.
KK: Right, of course. And that's a story playing out all over the country.
CJ: Absolutely, and so it started to show up into my yoga practice as well, when I would go to yoga studios, or when I would go and seek out yoga magazines to find, well, who else is practicing yoga, 'cause I wanted to ... My heart was on fire with it. And what I noticed was that the people who looked like me were not present, but I knew that we existed, because they were there in spaces and community centers and basements of churches. They were in spaces that we had to create as a space of refuge, to really reclaim the voices that had been silenced as Black, in the context of the United States, as Black Americans.
So for me, I was hypervigilant and aware of my image, my voice, not being included. So it was deeply related to what I was experiencing in the classroom, and being in an under-resourced public school, and then going into spaces of yoga, which are supposed to-
KK: Which are indulgent.
CJ: Right, right, which are supposed to be healing, and I'm supposed to feel great, but I could not separate what I was experiencing in the world and how it started to show up in my yoga classes.
KK: Yeah, and I love what you were just saying about how these healing spaces have really always existed for people of color. They've just forged new paths and new structures and new spaces to find collective healing.
KK: And how those spaces are really segregated.
KK: In our country, but specifically in wellness.
CJ: Right, right, absolutely. And for me, when I started practicing, I also started my blog, Chelsea Loves Yoga, as you mentioned earlier. And that was really for me. It was the most selfish act of trying to start a system that would support my practice, because I would open up a magazine and I would say, "But I know that we're here. I know that teachers like Maya Breuer exist.
CJ: I know that teachers like Dr. Gail Parker exist. Jana Long. But I did not see their stories being shared, and so I started Chelsea Loves Yoga, and the yogi in the community segment, simply to interview people of color who have used this practice as a tool, not even just for healing but for social change. And that's when I started to have some major "aha!" moments.
KK: Yeah, yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about that, the ways in which our yoga spaces are changing. And I want to read something from Octavia Raheem, who is a friend of yours. She's in Atlanta, yes?
CJ: Yeah, she's in Atlanta, and actually the co-director of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for teen girls.
KK: Nice. And I didn't even know that. I think I just stumbled upon her on your Facebook feed, and now I can't get enough of her. But I want to read an excerpt from The Future of Yoga, which was featured in Yoga Journal that I think speaks to how our spaces are evolving right now. It says the following: "We are being called to practice advanced yoga on and off our mat right now, and forward. It can be profoundly uncomfortable and will likely put some at odds with old narratives and environments that have gone unquestioned and unchallenged too long. We will ask the questions, 'Who is missing from my class or studio? Who is missing from my experience? Who holds the seat of the teacher? Who is not on this conference roster? Who is missing from this festival, who is missing from this publication? Why? What within me hasn't missed the other until now? What am I afraid to notice?'"
And this really hit me, because as a white woman, I have always had the privilege to move in spaces where I have been a part of the dominant culture, and wellness is certainly one of those spaces. But I feel that something is amiss, and I feel like I have become more aware of it through my relationships with people like you. And through exposing myself and expanding my exposure to the teachers of color that you even mentioned – Gail Parker, Reverend angel Kyodo Williams – and really learning, I think, so much more than I would have, had I stayed in my bubble.
And so I want to hear a little bit about your perspective on this, and what you think the yoga community has to do to live up to the promise that we often say within yoga of oneness – we are all one, we hear that all the time – and the unity that is inherent to yoga.
CJ: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, yes to everything Octavia said. She's a brilliant trailblazer, not just within the Atlanta community, but across the globe, I feel like, in many ways. The ways that she can really harness the experiences that we go through and use it as a way to reach so many different communities in a fierce, very fierce energy-
KK: "Fierce" is the right word.
CJ: Yes! So I just needed to pause just to say yes, and take that all in, and for me, when I started the practice, as I mentioned, it was very frustrating, because I kept hearing this narrative of, we were all one. And that wasn't necessarily my experience. I did not feel included all of the time.
KK: That's right.
CJ: I did not feel seen, heard, or valued when I would step into spaces. I think there's a lot of assumptions made that our yoga practice or a yoga studio is just a space of refuge, and that everyone who goes in here is going to have a great time, and they're going to find peace. Or the only thing that you have to be concerned about is your physical body, and that's not the case for everyone. As a woman of color, as a Black woman in the United States, I have to be very deliberate about the way that I move. That is not a privilege I have, to not think about, well, can I go into this certain area of town with this body that I live in, and people not make assumptions about who I am? Or, can I go into this space? Do I not have access to certain people's ears because of who I am?
And so I think for yoga, that this is a space where these assumptions are carried out as well. A lot of times you'll see that yoga spaces can actually perpetuate the injustices and inequity that we see in society.
CJ: And what makes it the most frustrating is that you can walk away thinking that you are unclear about what's going on, or perhaps you're overreacting as a person of color, because everyone else seems so very happy about this practice, right?
KK: So cheery, yeah. Look on the bright side.
CJ: Exactly. And it's all about what you think.
KK: Go to the light.
CJ: And you can change, and for me, that is not my reality. That is not the reality, and I even acknowledge the privilege that I have now as I move through different spaces and have been invited entry and access, and also know that that is not the reality for everyone else. And I still experience the spaces where the door is closed in my face.
And so when I think about yoga and I think about this embodied practice that does not remove, the oneness for me is that. And I always go back to what Seane Corn reminds us of, that it pushes back on any illusion of separation.
KK: That's right.
CJ: And so we cannot think that when we step into the yoga studio that all of our issues around exclusion and oppression and privilege and power will just go away for our hour and 15 minute class. Actually, it gets even larger of an issue if it's not addressed.
CJ: And so for me, I think the yoga-
KK: Like the shadow.
CJ: Exactly. And so yoga, yoga teachers, yoga practitioners who have been able to tap into the mind and body connection, we are in a very unique space that we can actually impact the ways that people process injustice. And because our practice is so focused on being in tune, being aware, having integrity within our body, being honest, practicing ahimsa, practicing satya, practicing all of these things, that hopefully are really what yoga's all about ... If we actually applied all of those principles, if you think about the yamas and the niyamas, if we apply those principles to what we're seeing in today's society-
KK: It would look very different.
CJ: It would be very different.
KK: Yeah, that's right.
CJ: And so I think that that is the task that we're met with. The more understanding, the more knowledge that we get through this sacred practice, the more responsibility that we have to pass it along in that way.
KK: And I really appreciate that context, and I ask this question all the time of my community. How are we not in alignment with the principles that we teach? And that's not to say that we need to be perfect, but how do we lovingly hold one another accountable to more fully embodying those principles?
CJ: Right, right.
KK: And as a white teacher, one of the things that I have come to learn is that my experience of yoga, my experience of being alive, my experience of community, my experience of truth, is just so limited when I don't include the whole of who we are.
KK: So I think in those spaces where there's an illusion of bliss and joy and enlightenment, where people ... Instead of embracing the pain and the complexity and the messiness of who we are, sort of go around it, or go above it, I really don't think they're actually experiencing the full essence and depth of who we are.
KK: And that makes me angry, and it makes me sad. It makes me sad.
KK: You, I know, this past weekend, had the privilege of speaking at Riverside Church, the great Riverside Church.
KK: At an event called Breaking the Silence: Beyond the Dream. And I believe you spoke. Who were some of the speakers that were there, that you were in the company of, just to name a few?
CJ: Yeah, I couldn't believe it, honestly, Kerri. And I can't believe it, because I'm stepping more and more, walking, knowing that this practice is real, and so what I'm experiencing is real, so-
KK: And just roll with it, because your practice is evolving.
CJ: Yes, yes.
KK: I mean, if your yoga practice takes you to Riverside Church, keep going.
CJ: Right, right, right. So I was in the company of Reverend Al Sharpton, as well as Soledad O'Brien. Forest Whitaker actually said the words that Martin Luther King said 50 years ago in that same space, using the same podium that Dr. King used. There was the Howard University gospel choir, who had a tremendous, beautiful showing of just, through the words and through that soulful expression of, just the Black church in general, who has been very much a pioneer in social justice-
KK: That's right.
CJ: ... throughout so many different communities. So just having all those different elements there. There were a lot of youth performers there, performances. There were a lot of people. Nelson Mandela's grandson spoke.
KK: Oh wow.
CJ: And so for me to be ... I'm getting chills thinking about it right now.
KK: I am too.
CJ: So for me to be there was quite full circle. One, because it was just down the street from Teachers College, where I was studying international educational development, where I'm like, I'm doing that now. It was full circle to be associated with something that had to do with Martin Luther King as a Spelman graduate, and he went to Morehouse. It was full circle to have some of the young ladies, the young girls, at Bronx Elementary School Girls Prep, Bronx Elementary School, there, because they practice yoga daily at their school. So all of it was just an experience that will live in my heart forever, and actually gave me the fuel to go out into the world again and continue to ruffle some feathers.
KK: When we were together the next day, and I remember feeling the energy of that day just off of you, you mentioned some quotes from that speech, that famous speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave. "Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence", I think it was called. And one of those lines was, "There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal," that I think really speaks to the theme that we're talking about.
KK: And there was another quote that you had mentioned that really hit me.
CJ: Right, and it works directly with breaking the silence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, during the time of this speech, he was even reflecting on his position of his platforms, where he has the ability for his voice to be heard. And he said, "Well, it's time now. By breaking the silence, I move to really share the burnings of my own heart." And really to speak about the injustices that are happening locally, across the world. And so for me, the other thing that stood out for me that Dr. King said was that a lot of times when a dreadful conflict comes about, or we're at war, or we have social injustices that are pervasive across continents, really, we're always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
CJ: And for me, this is where yoga becomes this tool that we can use as a tool for social justice, connection, being understood, seeking understanding. All of these things that my practice has been for me on an individual basis. Now it's time for us to do this, the work that we do with each other and communities.
KK: And it sounds like even Dr. King was speaking to his own practice.
KK: Of, I need to hold myself accountable to break my own silence.
CJ: Right, right.
KK: And I think we're all feeling that. It's incredible to me how timely this speech is-
KK: ... for these times in particular. But I'm just thinking, in the wake of Charlottesville and the nonstop killing of Black and brown bodies by law enforcement, Dreamers potentially getting deported, healthcare, literally in this particular moment, trying to get ripped from the hands of so many Americans, leaving us really vulnerable ... I think my question is, what is the message of this speech in the context of our practice? What does our practice ... 'cause I really heard that in his speech, that he was in his own practice, and it is ongoing. But as we face these uncertainties, as we face constant suffering, as we have to grapple with the inequities that ... the real wellbeing gap that exists in our society, and how we move in the world is really different.
KK: We may be one as humans, but we are having a really different experience of being on the planet, based on the color of our skin or our religion or our sexual orientation and so on and so forth.
CJ: Right, right.
KK: So what do you think? What do you think is the role of practice as we lean into these very overwhelming things that are in front of us?
CJ: Yeah. It's so tricky, yoga as a practice right now can be really tricky, 'cause it's really, for me, has been a way, as I mentioned, a solace. And so you mentioned it, Kerri, as far as you have to work not to stay in your bubble, because you leave a yoga class, and you're like, "I feel great now, and I don't want anything to take this feeling away, so I'm not going to turn on the TV. I'm not going to watch the news. I'm not going to look at the newspaper." But for so many people, myself included, that's not my reality-
KK: That can't be.
CJ: ... and I don't have that convenience, right?
KK: Right, right.
CJ: Yeah, and so-
KK: You don't get to turn it off.
CJ: No, I don't get to.
KK: You live it.
CJ: I don't get to, and that's where these courageous conversations, this courageous, radical practice of yoga has to be put to task. It has to be put, now, to work. Now, this is when the yoga practice actually starts.
KK: That's right. This isn't for [crosstalk 00:24:26].
CJ: Yes, us getting in tune with our bodies, our breath, all of this is for this moment of connection, of speaking up for those who have been silenced, especially when it's super scary. When you mentioned Charlottesville, that was a very scary time. A time where people of color who were under attack, we need support right now because a lot of times, we are on the front lines, advocating for ourselves. I am grateful to be in partnership with allies and friendships like you, Kerri, like CTZNWell, like Off the Mat Into the World, like all of these different spaces that see the value and the worth in having allyship.
And I think that in these spaces, where we combine and integrate a physical yoga practice and have these courageous discussions, that's when we're going to start to see us making a lot more ground and a lot more movement when we continue to use the two together and not in isolation – when we continue to use the two together and not in isolation. Because we sometimes use our yoga practice and meditation in isolation, and again, I don't even want to go back and turn on the TV or look at my Facebook feed, because I'm just like, "Oh my gosh, another Black man was killed. Oh no, another hate crime has happened against a person who has immigrated to this country."
So these are the things that we have to be mindful of, that we don't get caught up in using our yoga practice as a way to disconnect, but as a way to fuel ourselves for courage in order to make these really hard and radical connections, and open our awareness.
KK: And I love that you say that, because I'm a doer and I'm addicted to action, and I'm all for the words of Dr. King when he said we need to move beyond uncertainty. I know that for myself, I feel that for our community. We need to move beyond the words and the intentions and pay more mind to impact and action.
CJ: Right, right.
KK: And I know recently you spoke as a part of that Future of Yoga conversation, and so I sort of ... I kind of want to end here. What does that movement towards action look like for us? What are some ... And I feel like it can happen along a spectrum. There are the radical conversations that we can have that change ourselves and one another, and there are things that we can be doing at a studio level that change the face of what practice looks like, and that allows people to feel more included. And then there are certainly the things that we can be doing on the street, the things that we can be doing politically.
And so what do you think, where are the pathways for us as yogis, as spiritual practitioners, as allies, as communities, to move beyond?
CJ: Yeah, for me, personal experience of an example for what it looks like to be an ally or to be in support of ... I was involved in a conference, and a very well-known yoga teacher had the opportunity to deliver the keynote, and she chose not to deliver the keynote unless I was invited to do so as well, because I am a woman of color and because it was a conference that was focused on inclusivity, body awareness, body image. And to have only this face of a white woman who looks very ... The normalized image that we see representing yoga.
KK: On every magazine cover.
CJ: On every magazine cover.
KK: In every advertisement.
CJ: Exactly. There's small steps that are starting to move, but we still have a lot of work to do. And so what it looks like is saying that going to major festivals and not seeing the presence of any people of color, or a variety of body types being in the seat of teacher, and all of these different ways that we understand yoga to be practiced, those are the questions that we have to ask.
So on this particular conference, I was invited to be on this platform. And on a certain magazine cover, I was on the cover of Yoga Journal Magazine in 2015 and 2017. To have that door open, I use it as an opportunity to talk about inequity. I use it as an opportunity to allow the entrance of voices that have been silenced. What it looks like for people on a local level in your own yoga community is to go back to what Octavia Raheem questioned in the Future of Yoga and that article. Who is not here? And whose voice is missing? And are we okay with this? And if you're not okay with it, what can you do and how can your yoga practice feed into you making this more known to your local communities, that you've heard of a yoga teacher who you would love to bring into your community to share. Or perhaps you go to a yoga class that is led by a person of color.
A lot of times, Kerri, what's funny to me is that when I go to a yoga class, most times, I'm the only Black woman. Most times. There may be a few. I've taken yoga across the country and even outside of the country, and for me, that's normal. But if a white person were to go into a Black-led yoga class, and there's a majority of Black students in there, then you're going to a Black yoga class. So it's like-
KK: Not just a yoga class.
CJ: Right, it's not just a yoga class. But because people of color or African Americans are now the majority in numbers, it is very obvious, right? And so now you see this shift.
KK: Well, it's that we see color, often, before we see whiteness.
CJ: Right, exactly.
KK: As a part of the dominant culture, it gets to be invisible.
CJ: Exactly. So my hope is that the future of yoga will begin to reimagine what a normal yoga class looks like. I don't think that white is the normal way that it should be understood, and if it's majority people of color, then it's a people of color class. So I think we need to reimagine who, where, why. All of these things when we're going into these spaces that are saying to be grounded, and intentionally working to practice oneness.
KK: Yeah. By rebuilding new structures.
KK: And I really love this as a call to action. I really appreciate what you were saying about, you're in a constant contemplation about, how do I use my resources and my platform, whether I'm on the cover of Yoga Journal ... And I can imagine that's quite a burden for you at times.
CJ: It's hard. It's hard.
KK: But I really want to say this, especially to white allies within spiritual spaces, who have influence, who are part of a dominant culture. What are the ways we can disrupt old narratives, old systems, old structures? So as to not just reimagine, but to rebuild. What does it look like to rebuild?
KK: And I think there were some great ... You gave some really, really great, tangible examples. And I think we need to challenge ourselves and one another to do better.
KK: Because we can't just lean back and wait for some people to do the work for us, and hope that it's going to get better, and someday we'll get to oneness. It's going to take us to move beyond uncertainty-
CJ: Right, right.
KK: ... and to do the hard thing and to break the old structures down, and build up ones that really have the capacity to hold everyone.
CJ: Right, right.
KK: And so I love that.
CJ: And for me, Kerri, if I can just say this ... I always like to bring it back to our yoga practice, and thinking about the first time we stepped onto the mat. And for me, it wasn't the easiest thing to do. It was scary, it was vulnerable, it was messy in many ways, because things started coming up that I didn't even know existed. And I think if we return to that first time ... So all the yogis who are listening out there right now, think about that first time you stepped onto the mat.
KK: That awkward, uncertain beginning.
CJ: Awkward, uncertain, scary.
KK: That's right.
CJ: I got angry at the teacher because I heard things that didn't resonate with me. And so it's the same practice.
KK: It's the same practice.
CJ: And we have to remember that. And it didn't happen overnight, and we had to be deliberate, intentional. We had to make room for it. And so I think that, I know that if we apply those same principles to the ways that we are in the world with each other, and our advocacy for justice and equity for all, then it'll be a lot less daunting.
KK: I think that's a perfect ending for this conversation. Mic drop. Chelsea, I love you. Thank you.
CJ: I love you, Kerri. Thank you.
KK: Please keep doing what you're doing, and keep calling this community up, and keep challenging me and all of us to do better, because I can feel that things are shifting when I'm in spaces with you in particular.
CJ: Thank you.
KK: And I do think that there is a future to this practice and to our community. So thank you for being a trailblazer in that.
CJ: Thank you, Kerri.
KK: Thanks for being here today. You can stay in the know and engaged by subscribing to our weekly newsletter WELLread at ctznwell.org.
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