The Journey Begins
This year I celebrate my 10 year anniversary as a certified yoga teacher. In April 2015 I became eligible to upgrade my Yoga Alliance registry designation to E-RYT 500 ( Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher 500 hours). I have taught over 6,000 hours of yoga since earning the initial 200-hour yoga teacher certification in Integrative Yoga Therapy in 2005.
But certifications only go but so far in telling the full story of the teaching life. I have invested far more than 500 hours learning, training, and growing as a yoga teacher. The path to yoga opened for me over 40 years ago. I am very proud to acknowledge that I have practiced yoga for most of my life. The teaching life I lead is a reflection of all my life experiences, relationships, education and travel. I search for yoga everywhere I go and have been fortunate to observe the ways of being in diverse people and cultures as well as those at home. My experience as a yoga teacher grows from years of self-study, financial investment, austerities, meditation, discipline and above all, practice.
My journey began at a time when the practice of yoga was obscure compared to how it is today with yoga studios every where and, when anyone with a few dollars and a spare weekend might earn a certification to teach. In 1971 when I first began my practice, there were no yoga studios in Washington, DC where I grew up. On occasion yoga would be offered at the downtown YWCA or in the basement of one of the more progressive ecumenical churches. My regular yoga practice was influenced by Lilias Folan’s PBS program, “Lilias, Yoga and You.” I enjoyed doing yoga with Lilias and especially loved Sarvangasana, the shoulder stand, which reminded me of an aerobic exercise performed in gym class called the “bicycle.” Lilias often transitioned from shoulder stand to Halasana or the plow pose, where the legs are lowered and extended overhead with feet to the floor. I always felt deep relaxation and well-being after releasing this pose. I was hooked!
When Lilias’ yoga program went off the air, my focus moved from hatha yoga to Eastern philosophy. One of my college classmates, DeWitt, an older student recently returned home after serving in Viet Nam, fed my curiosity about the East with conversations and a copy of the Tao de Ching. He also introduced me to Tai Chi. One evening, I accompanied him to the home of our humanities professor for an evening of pot smoking and conversation. Our professor’s beautiful Indonesian wife played Alice Coltrane’s record “Journey in Satchidananda.” The first time I heard it, I was transported on beams of light and sound. I bought every record I could find by Alice Coltrane and saw that many of her compositions reflected aspects of yoga in their titles, such as “Shiva-Loka,” and “Sri Rama Ohnedaruth.” She pays homage to her spiritual guru, Swami Satchidananda, on the album’s liner notes (the time before CDs and digital downloads). She clearly was on a spiritual path and I wondered whether the other musicians who played with her, as well as her husband John, practiced yoga. Years later this would be confirmed when I learned that Alice Coltrane was, in fact, a Swami and spiritual adept. Through her music and that of musicians like Pharaoh Sanders, John McLaughlin, Charlie Haden and others, jazz and yoga became synonymous for me — both represent freedom, transformation and being present in the experience of Now.
The first book I read on yoga philosophy was The First and Last Freedom, by J. Krishnamurti. The foreward was written by Aldous Huxley, a writer whose work I admired. At the same time, I came across a little Dell paperback called Introduction to Yoga, by Richard Hittleman, published in 1968, that highlighted the most basic of the standing, sitting and reclining yoga postures. Different books flowed into my purview — The Kybalion, The Science of Breath, Kama Sutra, Kama Kalpa and a hardback copy of the Baghavad Gita given to me on the street by a Hare Krishna disciple. All focused on aspects of spiritual life.
The decade of the 1980s left me very little time to devote to personal pursuits. These were the austere householder years. My marriage had dissolved and had three children to raise. I worked many jobs, wore many hats and did all the jobs required to run a household. I became an ardent student of astrology and studied books by Marcia Moore and Mark Douglas, Grant Lewi, Alan Leo and others. I delved into the esoteric writings that came from the Theosophical movement of the early 20th century and expanded my library to include books by Alice Bailey, Madame H.P. Blavastky, and Edgar Cayce to name a few. I was honing my skills as an intuitive interpreter of horoscopes and had the opportunity to learn from black astrologers Jertha Love and Robert Plummer, neither of whom were famous, but both highly experienced with developed interpretive skills. I had an unquenchable thirst for African-American literature and history, which in a symbiotically unusual way, was contextual to this adjunct focus on yoga. After all, isn’t the journey of yoga simply to attain self-realization and to seek understanding of the most profound question, “Who am I?
The path of my teaching life widened in 90s. My nest emptied as one-by-one the children left home for college. I regained time for myself and time for my yoga practice. One day while working out at the gym, I noticed a handsome, young black man sitting in one of the studio rooms. His name was Ras Omar and he was the new yoga teacher. Nearly 30 years had passed before I encountered a black yoga teacher. I started attending Ras’ classes. We were kindred spirits who liked to talk about yoga, spirit, transformation, not the usual topics of conversation I could engage with most friends and family members. After two years of yoga with Ras, he suggested that I become certified to teach. I was content to be a practitioner, but as I was getting older and thinking of what my life might be like after I retired, the idea of being a yoga teacher was appealing.
Ras Omar also told me about the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (IABYT). He had attended their annual retreat in 1999 and had joined the organization. Upon his suggestion I joined, too, although not yet a trained yoga teacher.
On a magical night, October 25, 2001, in one cosmic moment, I saw clearly the steps I would need to take to teach yoga. I started writing the business plan for the Power of One Yoga Ministry. The catalyst for this moment of clarity was a two-way talk show called “The Community Health Beat,” on Morgan State University’s radio station. The show was about three culprits that undermine health in the black community — diabetes, obesity and hypertension. As I listened to the callers talk about their health problems, I decided to call in and offer a comment about the benefits of yoga. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but it sounded authoritative because the show’s host asked me to remain on the line. While I waited, my intuition told me that she was going to invite me to be on the show. Sure enough, she asked me if I could come on the program to talk about yoga and its benefits. I agreed to do it. The interview was scheduled for December 8, 2001, which gave me a few weeks to prepare.
The very next day I asked a friend, who was a graphic artist, to design a tri-fold brochure using the content from the business plan I had written the night before. My first order of business was to attain a yoga teacher credential before going on the radio program. An Internet search led me to a distance course offered by the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association. I ordered their training manual and completed the requirements for the Sport Yoga Certification. I ordered business cards and invested in six yoga mats. I launched Power of Yoga Ministry with an investment of $200. The marketing strategy I used to start teaching was offering yoga parties in people’s homes. The yoga party concept replicated the Tupperware parties that I remembered my mother hosting. The host invited their friends or family members, and I would bring the mats, music, candles and lead them through an hour-long yoga practice in the privacy of their homes. This concept proved to be quite lucrative and before long I had yoga parties booked every weekend around the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Within the first year my yoga parties gained national coverage when featured in USAToday and as a segment on “Back to Basics,” a weekly program on the Style network.
The Sport Yoga Teacher certification was enough for me to say I had a certification, but I wanted to have credentials and teacher training that would be beyond reproach if I were going to take the teaching life to the highest level. I spent a year exploring yoga teacher training programs to find an approach or lineage of yoga for my certification. Ultimately, I decided on Integrative Yoga Therapy for the 200-hour level. I chose this approach because it bridges ancient wisdom with new directions in mind-body health and healing. I wanted a foundation in the therapeutic application of yoga where I could focus on preventive health and disparities in health care.
In August 2002, I attended my first IABYT conference. There were about 50 yoga teachers and enthusiasts who had come to Chicago for the five-day event. I met Krishna Kaur, who was the president of the organization, Maya Breuer, who would later become my friend and business associate, Caroline Shola Arewa, Walter Beckley, Robin Downes, Heather Greaves, Chris Hoskins, Teresa Kay Aba Kennedy, Dinndayal Morgan, Harold Rose and many other black yoga teachers from all corners of the globe. I took a yoga class with Becky Love, who at the time was 86 years old and the only woman bold enough to teach in a leotard! Swami Kuruananda/Bonnie Bunch, also in his 80s, was there and I was able to photograph the two of them. It was an uplifting experience and a powerful asset to engage with the IABYT community.
After the conference, I attended an open house at the Yama School for Yoga, Ayurveda and the Meditative Arts in Baltimore City and met the lead teacher, Diane Finlayson. I instantly connected with her and decided I would enroll in her training program for the 200-hour certification in Integrative Yoga Therapy to begin in September 2003. However, the path forked when it was time to pay the fees. IABYT was organizing a trip to Ghana in November and I wanted to go. It was important to have a foundation for my teaching life based on roots and practices of yoga in Africa, particularly West Africa, where many African-Americans have ancestral lineage. After much consternation, I decided to put off the yoga teacher training for the next year and take the trip to Ghana with the black yoga teachers.
The trip to Africa brought new perspectives to yoga that would inform my teaching for years to come. It also unveiled ways and approaches to Ayurveda that incorporate West African concepts of health and spirituality. The practices I learned from the spiritual teachers I encountered on the trip would become a core component of my teaching life. My focus on hatha yoga, or physical postures, shifted slightly to equally include practices of mind and spirit. The journey to West Africa brought clarity to the importance of Spirit and ways to work with and heal the subtle body and the ethereal self. Africa gave me a foundation and filter for all my future trainings. I had made the right decision to begin my teaching life there. I was ready for the yoga teacher training in Integrative Yoga Therapy. I paid the $1,995 and started the 9-month weekend program in September 2004.
Coming soon . . . The Teaching Life, Part 2, Finding The Way