"I think you need to celebrate what you were able to do and grieve the things you couldn't."
~ the wondrous Jay Fields in a recent coaching session
This post has been a long time coming. How do I write about eight years, hundreds of people, and thousands of hours comprised of a spectrum of intimate (and huge) moments of connection and devastating lessons around listening, collaboration, shared vision, dignity, respect, and love?
Project Yoga Richmond was born into my life at a time of great optimism. Having successfully worked on the 2008 Presidential campaign on behalf of Barack Obama, there was a groundswell of good feeling about the possibility of collaboration- all those phone calls, rallies, conversations, speeches, late night sign-making sessions, and rumination on what it means to be an American citizen- at this time, in this century- gave me a sense of place and purpose. My yoga practice had waxed and waned over the previous 15 or so years and I was in an "on" moment with asana.
I'd survived a traumatic brain injury in 2007 and rehabilitated myself in seclusion, away from group classes, since I could not practice in synch with the fast-paced cues offered by most teachers I'd met. My balance, language comprehension, memory, and mood had been severely impacted- though I'd tried to give the impression at work that they hadn't- and among the few bits of solace I'd had during the months following the initial recovery from the accident were these short audio classes I could put on my iPod and follow along, teetering and tottering all the way.
I'd entered teacher training in 2008, completed 200 hours in 2009, and began my 300 hour training with Rolf Gates in 2010, finishing in June 2011. Looking back, I can't believe how fortunate I have been to come under Rolf's tutelage. At the time I was not sure I could trust my mind or body, since the injury had left me feeling foggy and confused and unsteady- but Rolf's clear, calm instruction, lessons about self-compassion and non-reaction and steadiness and ease all gave me a foundation I could truly grow from in my practice and teaching, and later, in my personal life. Rolf's transparency around addiction recovery gave me the first of many examples I'd need later- people who had what I wanted and was willing to go to any length to get, as we say in the rooms.
At the time, in Richmond at least, many if not most yoga experiences were happening in gyms- we only had a tiny handful of studios in the area- and my teaching had prepared me to teach safe classes in a larger setting, with a focus on meditative presence, thanks to Rolf. In my experience though, people wanted a "workout." With time as a precious commodity, people wanted their asana with sweat, speed, and intensity. I understand this- it seems a continuance of our culture. We do what works and often, how we are on our mat is how we are in life and vice versa. (It's just the human condition. I'm clear around non-judgment about this.) Further, as a teacher, I noticed that most people who came to yoga looked like me: young-ish, white, female, slender, and, based on the clothing they wore, most likely affluent. Where was everyone else?
What I had glimpsed in the early stages of my own healing was the possibility that slowing down yielded greater awareness, less injury, and more translatable skills off the mat. This was not always easier at all! And by grace, my primary teachers were African American. Their perspective broadened my own, and this was a very good thing.
Around this time, in early 2010, I became good friends with Jonathan Miles who had started this tiny Facebook page: Project Yoga Richmond, just a notion back then. A few of us decided to energize that page, come up with a vision and aim for yoga to be accessible, affordable, and focused on the possibility that individuals and communities could heal and be empowered. I only needed to look in the mirror to see the changes that were starting to happen for me, and at the faces of the other founders to see the compassion and dedication to the deeper aims of this practice as a way to create interpersonal connection, if not divine union. We were five: four female; one male; three white; two African American. This, to me, boded well.
We opened our doors officially in November 2010 to huge crowds of people. I could not believe my eyes. I saw diversity of bodies, ages, gender expression, races, abilities- it was magnificent. People were hungry for community connection, common purpose, and embodied practices. I had found my tribe, in a way.
Of course, nobody hands you a manual when you embark on a venture like this. What followed was often a comedy of errors, and a roller coaster reaching simultaneous highs and lows: dedicated partnerships, inspiring vision sessions, stunning miscommunications, unexpected successes like The Amazing Raise, gut-wrenching losses, time-intensive planning and ever-evolving interpretations of our shared vision, leading sometimes to creative collaboration, other times to a parting of ways. I made a lot of mistakes. (A lot.) And I was uncomfortable, often, with the amount of introspection I needed to do to be effective as a leader.
But through it all, the mission and vision did persist. Our community grew, and with it our ability to sustain ourselves and my sense of hope that perhaps, when people unite around shared values, with a focus on selfless service and a lifelong commitment to the practices of yoga- all eight limbs, so to speak- we just might be able to start a movement that would last. Our practice would truly have power. And it does.
Over the years PYR has meant a lot of things to a lot of people- a place to teach, volunteer, or serve on a Board; be a student, or an employee; engage in partnership or donate financial or in-kind support. I'm grateful to all of the founders: Jonathan Miles, Michelle Martello, Pam Cline, and Wendy Warren. I am so indebted to Natalie Gianninoto; to Stacy Abbott; to Sue Agee; to all of the Board members past and present; to Amanda Kennedy and Rebekah Holbrook; to Sandi Grivat and Jillian Jones; to Minima Designs and McAbbott Photography; to Susan Milne of Epiphany Studio, to Kevin Daley, to Stephanie Quinby of RVA Massage and Wellness, and to Ken and Kelly Kostecki of Om On Yoga; to lululemon Short Pump's Here To Be program; to DJ Mikemetic and Bhakti House Band and Mighty Joshua and Lobo Marino, and to NO BS! Brass; to all of the PYR donors, students, and volunteers, and supporters; and to our teachers Rolf Gates and Nora Pozzi and especially to the late Arlene Bjork, who brought the original founders together.
I'm full of gratitude to all of the teachers who, as current and past Ambassadors, have advanced the mission of PYR to make yoga accessible and affordable. I can't possibly name them all- but they're out there, teaching and leading this community in the many yoga spaces that now exist- not only at PYR but in parks; at studios, both shiny and new and time-tested favorites; in senior centers and area schools; in recovery spaces and correctional facilities; and even in breweries and other gathering spaces around town. These are the heroes and she-roes of Project Yoga Richmond.
I'm especially thankful to instructors and organizations who have traveled to PYR once or many times to share their work with the Richmond yoga community: Y12SR, Street Yoga, Connection Coalition, Sacred Root, Bending Towards Justice, Leslie Lytle of Nurture RVA, Mateo Daniel, Melissa Smith, Hari-Kirtana Das, Jay Fields, Rolf Gates, Nikki Myers, Dr. Melody Moore, Bernadette Birney, Faith Hunter, Hawah Kasat, Leanne Carey, Ariele Foster, Jacoby Ballard, Kate Johnson, Amber Karnes... and the list continues, with many more contributors to PYR I am surely omitting here.
I'm indebted to the Yoga Service Council for their annual conference at Omega, which over the past five years has helped PYR tap into a global movement of yoga service that is rooted in self-inquiry, conscious relationship, and deepened personal practices; to Off The Mat, Into The World and CTZNWELL for their continued commitment to education, to justice, to challenging the yoga community to examine trauma, inequity, violence, and poverty as systemic forces that we as yoga practitioners should not ignore but rather turn toward. Thank you to Rob Schware of Give Back Yoga; to Michelle Cassandra Johnson, author of Skill In Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World; to rev. angel Kyodo williams, co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation; to Seane Corn, to Suzanne Sterling, and to Hala Khouri and all the faculty of Off The Mat; to Kerri Kelly of CTZN Podcast for her work, which challenges me, disrupts the comfort of privilege, and inspires me to take my next steps on this path.
I'm clear that each of us is a spiritual being having a human experience- so I honor both the science and the spirituality that underlies yogic practice. This perspective lets me invite in the lessons of all experiences- everything has a purpose, and nothing is ever wasted. I'm also clear that both the spiritual and the ground-level, human-being work that we have to do is not done- not even close. And that energizes me.
When PYR started, I was certain about yoga, my place in the world, and where we were headed as a culture. Boy, has that shifted. The one thing I have come to learn for sure about yoga is it sensitizes us to the possibility of change- if we are paying proper attention. The world is changing- all the time- it's always been so. We are standing on a rock spinning in space, as Nikki Myers says. When I cling, which for me shows up as getting too comfortable, assuming, isolating, judging anything or anyone as good or bad- living in a binary, right/wrong framework, it's my experience that suffering is inevitable. And the ethics of my practice today make it unsustainable for me to actively participate in perpetuating suffering. It's much more sustainable to stay curious, engaged, and awake (and, on occasion, to take naps)!
Yoga, and especially working within PYR as a person practicing yoga, has taught me, among so many other things, to trust in the process- which includes a willingness, when challenged, to engage in inquiry, become more adept at listening, and to integrate lessons, neither coercing nor abandoning any part of my experience, welcoming the next lesson. I live much more in a "both/and" orientation, most of the time. That's where the real work of yoga happens- so I'm more comfortable with uncertainty. This is more valuable than gold to me, truly.
I'm excited at the possibility to continue to support PYR Ambassadors and others in very specific ways around community engagement, peer-to-peer mentorship, training, and self-inquiry and radical self-healing. What that looks like is becoming clearer- but at the same time, leaving the Board now, at a time of great uncertainty about the world and the society in which we find ourselves, I'll admit, is a little uncomfortable. What's true though, is that every time I have faced discomfort on this path, my practice has carried me forward. I trust it completely.
I also trust the individuals carrying the vision forward: our wonderful staff, Nadia Gooray, Holly Zajur, Stacy Abbott, and Natalie Rainer; our amazing Board of Directors which includes local teachers and change makers; former Board members offering their continued support and wisdom; and individuals and organizations in our extended PYR family that help us find the most valuable, effective role in the era we're in. Turning toward relationship, toward challenge, toward inequity- not away from it- and doing so in collaboration with each other and celebration of every perspective. That's where I see us now. And so, the horizon is bright.
Rolf Gates writes at the end of his first book, Meditations From The Mat: "We show up, burn brightly in the moment, live passionately, and when the moment is over, when our work is done, we step back and let go."
Amen and Hell Yes.
For me, time on the mat starts and ends, but the practice continues, on and on, in every moment. I'm letting go of these eight years of service through PYR- my term is soon over- and I'm experiencing a return to optimism that this work will continue for a long time to come. So really, there might be nothing to grieve after all.
In celebration and love (and with a few messy weepy tears),