Marjorie Grievous started practicing yoga as a little girl when she and her mother followed along with Lilias Folan on the 1970s PBS television show, Lilias, Yoga and You. In Marjorie’s 30 years of practice in over three states, she says she never encountered an African American yoga teacher. That changed two years ago, when Marjorie left her high-paying, high-profile career to enter a volunteer program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lennox, MA. There she met Maya Breuer, a senior teacher at the center and founder of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color™.
Maya invited Marjorie to attend the retreat. She did, and it changed her life. She says it was a unique experience for her to be in a space where women of color felt safe enough to be open and vulnerable. It was in this space that Marjorie found her own healing. “I came to Kripalu broken with nothing but the love of my spouse and a tattered career. Now a year later, I am in a yoga teacher training program, building my yoga teaching business, and marveling at all the new opportunities that continue to appear,” she says. “It’s all because I had a reflection of what I could be in Maya Breuer and the other sisters who led us to the deepest, truest part of ourselves.”
By seeing her reflection in the eyes of other women who looked like her, Marjorie said it was easier to envision the possibilities available to her.
One of the well-known benefits of yoga is its ability to decrease stress by evoking the relaxation response, which has a healing effect. But this can only occur in a physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe environment. That is exactly what Maya Breuer intended when she created the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color. The retreat is an experience that invites women of color of all nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures to come into deeper connection with themselves and in community with each other.
“Women of color learn how to survive, how to make it professionally and socially in America, but what’s been lost in the shuffle of acculturation is a focus on self-love and self-care,” Breuer says. “We know how to fit in, how to work hard to get ahead, but in the process we have left ourselves out of the equation.”
The Retreat teaches women about self-love and self-care through the lens of yoga. It teaches women that making yourself a priority is not being selfish, it’s being self-aware.
Octavia Raheem, formerly a middle school educator who taught language arts and yoga to 6th and 8th graders in Atlanta Georgia, now teaches yoga full time to adults. “Being in this body. Brown. Black. Small. Woman. Country. Rural. Me. has not always felt safe and protected. The practice of yoga in a greater sense, at least for me, is about coming home to me. Home being a place that is safe, nurturing, loving and freeing. It’s about being me. Quiet. Shy. Loud. Sweet. Bossy. Calm. Stormy. Beautiful. The Shadow. The Light. Me. The retreat is a place for women of color to be. And in that being, be safe and welcome.”
Raheem states her experience eloquently when she says, “At the retreat we are not bound by anyone else’s perception of who and what we are. There is no partner to attend to, no child or children, no work, no intricate story of grandiose proportions to weave and/or uphold. In our greater society, how often does it happen that brown girls just get to be? That we let ourselves be? That we feel free, open, raw, affirmed enough to tell our stories?”
In year eight of her 22 years of teaching yoga, Breuer became concerned about the absence of women of color in yoga classes, workshops, or yoga events she attended. She tried for years to get women of color to practice yoga to no avail. She knew from her research that regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or culture, most women of color are susceptible to stress, depression and a plethora of illnesses that disproportionately affect their health and well-being. Many can be life-threatening, including hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, HIV. She knew that with the practice of yoga, these health challenges could be abated and sometimes even eliminated through consciousnesses, awareness and lifestyle change.
One night she had a dream. In the dream her grandmother told her, “Instead of trying to get women to come to yoga, take yoga to the women.” Maya had always been an activist. The dream helped her realize that she needed to take her yoga off the mat, become an advocate for women of color, and provide them with an opportunity to experience the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of yoga. The Yoga Retreat for Women of Color was born.
She proposed the idea to Kripalu and the first retreat was offered in 1999. Eighty women attended. Maya has offered two retreats a year at Kripalu ever since. In 2013, she intends to offer the retreats in three other cities: Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
The next Yoga Retreat for Women of Color will be offered at Kripalu the weekend of May 4-6, 2012. The theme is “Stir Up the Pot and Bring on the Light.” It is an invitation for women to come together to relax, renew, play, dance, heal…and to share their hopes, dreams, and deepest desires with one another. The retreat offers an opportunity to simply be you with no other agenda. You can enjoy healing massage, learn meditation, practice restorative yoga and enjoy nourishing meals. There are also opportunities for walking on beautiful retreat grounds, stimulating conversation, and learning ancient practices for self-love and self-care.
I have been invited to offer a segment on Taking Yoga Off Your Mat™ at the May 2012 retreat. The segment is designed to reinforce ways you can practice self-love and self-care and continue to make yourself a priority when you go home and re-enter the busyness of daily life.
Since its inception in 1999, the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color has attracted women from all walks of life, from all over the U.S. and abroad. Attendees have included performing and visual artists, writers, teachers, physicians, lawyers, educators, students, homemakers and a variety of other occupations.
No prior knowledge of yoga or meditation is necessary to enjoy the retreat. Participants range in age from their mid-20s to 70-plus, and include all body types. Many retreats attract mothers and daughters and other female family members. I hope you’ll be able to join us. Bring a friend. Bring a relative. Bring a neighbor. It will be great to see you there.
Register on line http://www.kripalu.org/program/view/yogamed/YWC-121/.
Kripalu offers scholarships to women in need. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for an application and information.
I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to Maya Breuer, Octavia Raheem, and Marjorie Grievous for so generously offering their time and perspectives and agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post.
And a special thank you to Maya Breuer, for her pioneering work in the yoga community by seeing a need for women of color to be introduced to the healing powers of yoga, providing an opportunity for this to occur, and inspiring them to take yoga off the mat into their lives, into their families, and into their communities.