Originally published: Jul 28, 2015
Angela Abiodun and I met in either 2010 or 2011 when we were both enrolled in a (what I remember to be incredibly rigorous) Black Feminist Thought course at the University of Michigan. We didn’t really talk much, however, until recently. Through the synchronicity of the universe we crossed paths in a few realms of our lives, and I think we each realized how our interests in yoga, academics, feminism, and activism might overlap. We’ve been in touch over the past year as Angela explores how she would like to cultivate her yoga teaching practice. Though we have only just begun to get to know one another, I have been aware of Angela’s intelligence, wisdom, and grace since that class in my junior year of college. When I decided to start this interview series, she was one of the very first people I knew I had to get involved. Below is the bulk of our conversation on July 7th. Because of the length of this dialogue, I’ve chosen to leave it as is, instead of closing with my reflections. I hope my readers will enjoy learning from her as much as I did!
Raina: So, how did you come to start practicing yoga?
Angela: When I graduated I joined Teach for America and I was in Louisiana. My roommate and I realized that the reason we got hired was partially because of a desegregation mandate in Louisiana and they wanted more black teachers in their classrooms. And so that kind of was the backdrop for my teaching experience, especially the first year, and that first year was so stressful. I was over a thousand miles away from home, in the country - rural backwoods Louisiana, where they would film ‘Swamp People’ - in a community that really wasn’t open to me, and constantly having to battle a very misguided interpretation of what racism means. And so I found myself doing what everyone else in Louisiana did, and to pass time it was eating and drinking. I knew that I needed to find alternative ways to cope. And before teaching, before college, I was a dancer. I loved movement. So I had come across yoga in a variety of ways and I ended up finding a studio and it was a hot vinyasa. I remember I came home and the next day my body completely released - I was on the toilet all morning, and I was like “oh, this is what I need.” There was so much there, and my body just let it go.
R: I’m surprised they had yoga there!
A: Yeah. Actually, I’m not surprised, with the way that yoga is becoming a lot more commodified, because it’s the new exercise.
R: And did you share that experience with other people?
A: I immediately began to do stuff with my classroom, because I had a lot of classes - one in particular - that was high energy. It got to the point where they would be asking to do yoga to start the class off. And then I brought my roommate with me to one session and she was surprised. I think when most people hear yoga, if they’ve never experienced it before, they think of slow, a cold room. But I continued my practice because I believe it has such power, especially for black and brown youth and mothers. I want to be able to provide it in spaces that it otherwise wouldn’t be, either because of access - not being able to get there - or money.
R: Can you talk more about what components you see being beneficial and how you’ve actually used them or would like to use them in those communities?
A: For me, it didn’t come through classes that I realized the benefit, it came through conversations with other people who were also engaging in holistic, more spiritual ways of understanding their body. I feel like yoga is one of the ways that I’ve been able to understand my body. I pay attention to what parts of my body are flexible and how that flexibility changes over time and how that reflects what I’m experiencing in my life. Sometimes in yoga class I feel myself on the verge of tears, or I will start crying because I’m sifting through something. So the reason I view it important for people of color is that when you start to learn about the energy systems as well as the ways that our energy systems are out of whack, yoga is one way to support the shifting of our energy systems, so for me it pushes me to go internally.
What would it look like for us to go internally, to find our power and strength to change the ways that the world manifests for us? I believe if [people of color] had a lot more of that how they engage with social justice would be different. When you shift from yoga being strictly about the exercise, when it becomes a holistic engagement with yoga that also manifests with how you deal with yourself. You see yourself as unable to be compartmentalized and when that compartmentalization begins to fall apart you see your opportunities they way that you would see the world shifting as well.
R: What has been your experience sharing that with friends and family?
A: My core group of friends, all of us connect around ideas of yoga and holistic healing, and we all want to work in the community or are already doing work in the community. So on the regular we have conversations about mindfulness, transforming our thoughts, challenging discourses about what it looks like for those two worlds to merge because they tend to exist in isolation. But we see this inside of all of us - they exist in unison. We were talking a lot about creating spaces that don’t reproduce the detrimental power structures that we all claim to be wanting to change. You see people saying a lot of, “this is wrong, we should be doing it this way,” and the alternatives tend to be very reactive, but in being reactionary you’re losing your ability to really be transformative and sustaining something that would actually work for people. A lot of conversations around compassion and accountability. So what does it look like for us to recognize that in a lot of ways we are all victims of what the system produces, but also recognizing that we have all made choices and to engage with and not engage with certain things in yourself? A lot of things that exist we draw to us, and that becomes a hard conversation when talking to black people. It’s like, “did I ask for this?!”
As I’ve been working on my healing, I wanted those around me to be a part of that process. With my father, I realized I want a lot of validation from him, and in seeking that validation, I invite him into conversations, I look for his affirmation to what I’m thinking about and they’re never there. I’ve realized that honoring a person’s process is really important and that I don’t need to look outside of myself for what I’m doing. If I feel good that’s all that really matters, and that comes across in how I engage with people, how I live my life, and how I look. That’s been one thing I’ve really had to realize and part of that is trusting myself. What does it look like to truly trust me, and trust my thoughts and my desires and follow them without caring about how anybody may respond to that?
R: That sounds really frustrating. It’s always interesting, especially with family members, when you know you deserve their support, but also respecting their process. I was watching Oprah once... *sighs*
A: Oprah has some good stuff sometimes!
R: There was a show where she was interviewing three young spiritual leaders and one of them [Gabrielle Bernstein] was talking about when you go through the process of enlightenment people fall away and it can be a really painful process. And I think it's also interesting that you bring in the comments of how reactive we can be. Reacting to things we think we did or did not bring into our lives and it's always been a touchy space to figure out how to have those conversations. When do you know you can challenge someone on that? How do you “pick your battles?”
A: So I’m not good at picking my battles! For me it always starts with a conversation about energy and autonomy. Energy is never destroyed nor made, it is always just shifted and transformed. So that means when we - energy and the law of attraction - think about things, our thoughts are energy. If someone is interested in healing, I want to see if they’re interested in being autonomous, interested in having control, if they’re interested in being involved in their healing process. If they’re not, then we don’t want to have that conversation because reactions are where you’re at right now. And that’s cool - I’m not there [right now].
R: So there’s autonomy and then there’s involvement - and you don’t see those as separate?
A: No. I think my two layers are autonomy and healing in regards to that conversation about being reactive. So first, being autonomous. How involved do you want to be in your healing, if healing is what you’re seeking? Many people want to be passengers. The passenger’s seat does not require you to be very reflective, it does not require you to be engaged, it does not require you to be conscious at all. If you want the healing where you have control and where you change and shift things, it requires you to be very invested and very autonomous and very engaged. If [people] ask me, then I’ll give it. But if they don’t, I won’t. Some people are so hurt and so not autonomous that they end up hurting others and they feel like they don’t need to take responsibility. That thing about hurt people hurting people is so real.
R: So, now you’ve been practice for four or five years. How would you define your practice?
A: It’s funny that you ask, because I hate definitions. I think definitions can be incredibly limiting, but I see the need for them. [My practice] is one that’s holistic. It’s one that requires me to listen to my body and listen to what it’s telling me. When I say holistic, I mean my nutrition, my actions, where I go and spend my time, what I do with myself outside of yoga, my thoughts, my all of that impacts my yoga practice.
R: And where do you see your practice going? Do you have desires for it? Or is the future of it open?
A: I’ve been having this internal battle about ambition and success. I feel like ambition is just self-competition and competition is bad because it’s saying that for you to be valued you have to beat somebody, you have to stand over someone, [or your] past self. Using that as a defining mechanism for my world has got me into the emotional and physical pain. I’m trying not to be ambitious. [My practice] is very open. I do want to share it more. What it will look like inside of me, I don’t know.
R: I think a lot about, even on my mat or watching my students, there can be elements of ambition in the physical practice of yoga too. So I’m really into the “that’s yoga!” moments of life Or vice versa when you’re on your mat and you’re having an experience. Like when you were talking about using your flexibility to understand and interact with what’s going on with your life. Are there other things for you where you’re like, “that’s yoga!” or “that’s life!”?
A: I think I have it more during my physical practice, where I’m like, “that’s life.” I feel like as long as you’re breathing and in touch with your breath you're doing yoga. When I say that people tend to laugh, because I also say it usually responding to them saying “I’m bad at yoga.”
R: That’s my biggest pet peeve!
A: That’s a manifestation of how we view everything - you’re either good or bad at it.
R: Do you primarily practice on your own?
A: Yeah. [I’ve been going to a studio] like twice a week. But I’m primarily at home.
R: I ask because I’m curious about studio culture. I don’t want to polarize or put things in categories, but I am curious what experiences have felt really good for you in studios, and which ones not so great?
A: My best studio experiences have been recently at my new studio [Iyengar Yoga Detroit]. The women who own the studio are both of color. They know everyone who comes in. They have a kitchen in the back where a couple people make food for various venues. It feels like a home and a community. I see them out often and randomly. I appreciate that. I wish more places cultivated that. But they are also a small studio and it’s in Hamtramck, so it’s in a specific community.
My worst yoga experiences have all been in Bikram studios. The first time I went, the guy said, “If you feel dizzy, that’s good. Just fight through it.” I was like - no...if you feel dizzy, sit down! But the worst situation - I went and played volleyball and had skinned my foot. I came in the next day for yoga and I was really tired. The woman leading the session called me out, she said, “You’re already taking a break? We’ve only just begun.” If I come in there and lay in corpse pose the whole time, I paid my money, let me sit here and have my sauna day! I was completely baffled that she responded like that. And the rest of the people there laughed. What kind of culture have you built that you do not expect a person to honor what their body is telling them, even if it is two minutes into the practice? And that the rest of the people in the space think it’s important to laugh?
R: I’m also curious what you think about yoga and cultural appropriation?
A: As a black woman I see it very differently than how it’s discussed. I’ll give it two layers. One, you have the typical idea of what a yoga student looks like: 20s-30s, petite, white, the most updated yoga mats, fancy yoga clothes, maybe some yoga shoes, yoga gloves. Even though most of the people in the world who practice yoga don’t look like that. It’s also difficult that it’s inaccessible on a monetary level. And it’s also crazy that you’ll have people who have grown up practicing yoga in their home and when they go in a studio it’s directed and lead than in a different way than they’ve ever seen it in their home practice. On another level, it’s always interesting to me when you credit yoga somewhere. Especially things out of India or Asian culture, because a lot of it has origins traced back to Africa, but no one talks about that. The idea of appropriation is interesting to me, because that means that there’s ownership. And what does it mean for that ownership to not truly be reflective of all the hands who impacted what it looks like today. I definitely think it has been appropriated, it’s become an exercise class. And I wish that if it does look like that you’re honest about that. [But cultural appropriation] becomes a complex conversation for me [as a black woman] that not all parts of it’s origin are honored.
R: That articulates questions and thoughts I have about how things evolve. There are definitely two layers: it’s been commodified in how much it costs and everything you can purchase and the barriers to being able to practice, but then at the same time the sense of connection that I think we feel when we practice is something everyone should have access to. I think when we connect with the self, we connect with everything, so I want to be honoring that. So thanks for that. I think I have some Googling to do.
A: It’s hard to find! But it’s out there.
R: I often get stuck thinking about the face of yoga and how I see it being commodified, but also knowing how I’m a part of that, but also knowing I'm a woman of color, so I wonder how does that play into it? There are so many layers, it’s hard to tease out. Sometimes there’s not always a perfect answer or way to talk about it!
A: I don’t think anything should be given for free. You should be compensated. I personally would like to create spaces for barter. I think [commodification] really is a reflection of the ways that capitalistic systems are. Exchange is necessary, but when you put a dollar amount to it it cheapens it. It removes the community, or relational aspect of exchange.
R: I approach my teaching as a reciprocal process, so I like that how you explain your perspective, it brings you up to being peers. Will you do a teacher training eventually?
A: I see the value in certain spaces, but I don’t think I’ll be in a space where I’ll need a certification to teach yoga. You can become certified in anything today. On a certain level, we need to make sure people have a certain level of knowledge, but this idea that you can take a class and all of the sudden be an expert is weird to me. Especially if you engage with yoga on a solely physical and material level. [Teacher training] would push my knowledge in ways in which I’m not there yet, but it feels like how I’m growing in yoga doesn’t align with a lot of teacher training spaces. I haven’t found a training I’m interested in. Maybe, but right now I’m just practicing and living and sharing.
R: Yeah, I thought of you the other day because I read this article [I have sadly lost said post in the interweb abyss, otherwise I would link to it] about how the process is now you go for a certain amount of time, you pay, and then you leave. Whereas for centuries - Iyengar [and Ashtanga are] the only practices I'm familiar with that even resemble the more traditional method of training - you would train and train and train and the teacher would decide when you were done and then the student would be expected to give something to the teacher when they were done. So it’s that exchange element again.
So, another question I’m asking everyone is how you identify - or what your most salient identities are?
A: A lot more of my identities are salient now than they were before. My race, my blackness. My ethnicity, the fact that I am a child of immigrants. My ancestry takes me back to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, specifically Mende and Yoruba people. My gender, my status as a woman. My status as a woman, I identify as queer because it allows fluidity. My socioeconomic status, because it has shifted continuously since I was born.
R: We’ve kind of talked about this, but are there ones that feel more salient to your practice?
A: There are a couple that are salient for me in this practice. I will add a salient identity: my spirituality, I don't have a name for it, but that is also very salient to me. It ties to this question. Honoring of the earth and nature and love and how that manifests. And understanding the development of my appreciation of the energy systems that exist. When I practice I notice how my body feels in those areas. Also, more tied to ethnicity: my ancestry, I think a lot about that when I practice. I think about how [chakras and karmic impact are] impacting what I’m able to do and feel and practice.
R: I know for me my intention with my practice, which often connects with life in general, will go through phases. Do you have a favorite theme, yoga sutra, focus, or mantra right now?
A: For now, my personal mantra is “I trust myself.” One of my instructors told a story of how extended handstand was a hard pose for her to get into. Getting into that position required a lot of internal trust and knowing that one, you can do it, two: you're not going to hurt yourself and . that you will protect yourself. I think she said it because that was a hard time getting into that position, partly because I didn’t trust myself. I recognize how this is tied to things I'm dealing with my father and my general healing, so that’s my focus of the moment.
R: Do you have a favorite pose?
A: Sarvangasana. (shoulder stand)
R: How come?
A: I hold a lot of stress in my back, so my ability to fully perform that shoulderstand - into halasana (plow) as well - allows me to tap into how much length I’m giving to my spine. And with that, how much support I’m receiving, how much support I’m feeling.
R: Do you have any questions for me?
A: How are you feeling about your development in yoga - your personal practice and how you’ve been sharing it with others?
R: I feel good about it. I feel grateful for it. I think it’s helped me be more peaceful and content with life. Trust is often my intention. To be trusting of the things that I want, but also trusting that I don’t need those things, whether it be handstand, or losing weight, or doing well in general. I think trust, and I think vulnerability is the biggest thing that I’ve gotten from my teacher. So I’m very vulnerable in my practice, I adjust it to fit the day, instead of thinking that I need to have the same practice or one that is challenging exponentially over time. So that’s how I approach my teaching practice too, is to be vulnerable with my students, and to inspire them to be vulnerable. I do my best with what I say and how I teach and the options I offer so people feel like they can take the foundation of what I give them and mold it to fit their day, and not feel like they have to accomplish. I think I’m aware lately that there is more for me to learn so that I can share and more for me to learn from other people about their own practices so that I can have a different perspective. I have an increased energy sense these days about how people feel, but I don’t want to make assumptions. So, that’s one of my goals with these interviews is to not make assumptions. To really hear and process all of it. It’s exciting.
A: One thing I always hope is that it remains exciting for others. Because depending on how you approach it it can become daunting. But with more control over that it looks very different, depending on the purpose. So that's good that it’s still exciting.