"It's OK Just to Start": Yoga for Black Lives and the Sweetness of Life

Stephanie Hicks (she/her/hers) is one of those people who I met once or twice and then proceeded to see all around town, but have never really gotten to connect with, even though I always knew she was really cool.

Born and raised in Chicago, Stephanie began practicing yoga, at least consistently, in 2011.

At the time, Stephanie was in graduate school. It was a decade-long endeavor, which she captures with such realness when she explains how she thinks that anyone who has been to grad school “needs a recovery from it.” On top of that, Stephanie was still in the throes of grief - her mother passed away suddenly in 2007 and the years that followed were “rocky and rough.”

Stephanie grew up dancing and says that “movement has always been an important part of my life...and closely connected to spirituality for me.” In the midst of grief and grad school stress, Stephanie wondered if “that yoga thing” she had dabbled in before could be helpful in some way. Eventually, “trying to find or trying to connect to a sense of stability” led her back to the practice with more regularity.

Stephanie puts words to, I think, many people’s introduction to yoga when she says: “The idea of moving in this particular way wasn’t far off for me, but I think as with many people who come to yoga...you get there when you get there. You may move in and out of it - I still do move in and out of it - even in that kind of stop and start kind of way you find it when you're ready to find it as all wonderful things in your life, or it finds you, or you find your teacher, or they find you when it's supposed to happen.”

Knowing she needed something convenient that she could hold herself accountable to, Stephanie decided to try a class at Moksha Yoga in Chicago, which offered an easy commute from her place. She started with a restorative class and found she appreciated it far more than she anticipated she would. From there she explored other teachers and styles, eventually connecting with yoga teacher Amber Cook whom she studied under and considers a friend to this day.

Stephanie’s teacher training took place during the summer of 2016 when the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile happened back to back. She was actually on her way to apprentice a rooftop yoga class that Amber was teaching when she learned of one of these men’s deaths. The juxtaposition between the feel of the rooftop class and the violence being perpetrated against black people sat heavily on Stephanie during that class, and she and Amber took time at the end to address the unsettling news with the crowd.

Throughout our conversation, Stephanie spoke to the experience of being a Black woman in the world of westernized yoga. Even though she wasn’t the only person of color at the studio she says, “I would think a lot about what my physical body in the space meant to people coming in.” Stephanie developed important relationships with people in the studio community, but she’s also aware that her “individual experience as one black person obviously doesn't take care of all the structural stuff,” which she admittedly struggles to reconcile still. (Me too).

Stephanie explains how “for all intents and purposes” the studio was for “everyone.” However, she continues, “if you think about how yoga studios have to run [to stay open] it becomes necessarily a place where black and brown folks, queer folks, etc., may not have access to.” So, in actuality, the studio being for “everyone” included primarily “white people who are able to afford the practice, are able-bodied, and have the time.”

During teacher training, Amber encouraged all of the trainees to hold a class focused on a social justice issue and Stephanie landed on the perfect idea: ‘Yoga for Black Lives’ classes. Recognizing the critical need, Stephanie wanted to create yoga spaces that centered and celebrated black and brown bodies in more ways than one: she wanted the actual yoga classes to be safe spaces for people of color to gather, and she wanted to collect donations to support grassroots efforts resisting state and police brutality. People really rallied behind the class; they helped her promote it and many studios and provided space free of charge. Eventually, the completion of her PhD moved her out of Chicago and to Ann Arbor.

Stephanie hopes to revive the Yoga for Black Lives classes at some point, but life has otherwise kept her pretty busy! She is currently faculty at the Program in Intergroup Relations; a social justice education program at the University of Michigan.

When it comes to her own practice, Stephanie lamented how teaching more frequently tends to hold her more accountable to practicing regularly. However, she says, being home during the COVID-19 outbreak has actually brought her back to a more daily practice, and one with a new perspective.

Compared to previous expectations that she “should” dedicate an entire hour to practice, for instance, Stephanie has realized that “I can do whatever I want!” If she only has 20 minutes in her, that’s fine! She uses lots of props and listens to her body. The amount and type of movement she engages in is “enough to keep me coming back,” she says before adding “it’s the best kind of ritual...I don’t feel pissed off by it!” Stephanie also enjoys walking, and excitedly described to me the important role Zumba has played in her self-care!

Stephanie has felt empowered in realizing the “ripple effect” that doing what she truly wants to do with her body has on the rest of her life. She stays open to what she learns not just during her practice, but how she interacts with it and thinks and feels about it. She says that it’s “only through living your life” that one can understand its meaning and “sweetness.” To that, she says, “it’s OK to just keep living.” And when it comes to yoga, and what she wants other people to know about the practice she says, “It’s OK just to start.”

Find out more about Yoga for Black lives here.

Listen to our full interview here (59 mins).

Full disclosure - I am still working out some kinks with the podcast. Stay tuned for episode #4 for way better audio!




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