The yoga class I signed up for started at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday.
The very first position was a resting pose called Savasana. I lay on my back, legs apart, breathing. We did leg lifts to warm up, followed by a series of standing poses. Quickly, I noticed that I was the only one who could not hold the yoga poses for the instructed length of time.
I stared at my crestfallen face in the large studio mirror and watched myself struggle, lose my balance, and have to release a pose before everyone else. I heard the instructor say, “Go at your own pace… Listen to your body.” Her words soothed me. The next pose was a basic side bend. I leaned over to the left and then took a deep breath. My lungs contracted and I coughed. Once again, I had to come out of the pose, yet everyone else seemed just fine. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it earlier but, looking around the room, I realized I was the only black student in the class, and everyone was either double or triple my age. I was 23. I was pretty sure I didn’t belong. At that point, I was ready to quit. Joining a health club and signing up for yoga classes were symbols that I have now entered the middle class. But perhaps I should just learn how to use the treadmill.
“Watch me first,” the instructor said, interrupting my daydream. She held both arms straight out in front of her and began to lower her torso, bending her knees. She looked like a human chair. We followed her lead. Then we placed our hands on the floor, extended our legs, and sat in an L-shape. I felt my toes tingling. Then she told us to reach towards our toes. I folded forward and actually touched them. This stretch felt good. I wasn’t coughing or uncomfortable. For the first time since I was a kid, I was enjoying my body. It opened up. But, most of all, folding forward released something that allowed me to relax, and to surrender.
“You’ll be teaching this one day,” I heard a voice say. I lifted my head slightly and looked around. No one was speaking to me. In fact, no one was talking at all. Then I heard it again.
“You’ll be teaching this one day”
I stayed in the pose. My head was down and I didn’t dare move. I thought might be going crazy? Mental illness might run in my family, particularly with our history of intergenerational trauma. What was happening to me? My attention snapped back when the instructor moved us out of the pose. I looked around suspiciously, not knowing if this experience should frighten me. But I didn’t feel afraid. I simply felt open and curious. At the very end of class, we did a longer Savasana, for twenty minutes this time. I felt vulnerable, but I finally closed my eyes and surrendered. It was dark and black. It was a place I had never been to before. I didn’t have to be anything or anyone. When the teacher brought us back from that place, I sat up and wondered where did I just go and how do I get there again?
A few years after hearing that voice, “You’ll be teaching this one day”, I quit my corporate middle-class job and moved into a yoga ashram to become a certified yoga instructor. My friends and family couldn’t understand why I would leave a “good job” to live a “hippie” lifestyle. Some even said, “That’s for white people”.
When I started teaching professionally, I was in disbelief that others found yoga beneficial, even though I was personally benefited. I had a cognitive dissonance, it was hard to reconcile that clients would pay me to tell them to touch their toes. One night on my way to a private client’s home, I vacillated between teaching and canceling. At the end of class, I confessed that I was going to cancel. “Noooo,” my client said. “This is my only hour of peace a week.” She explained that she just told her therapist that she was contemplating suicide but her weekly private yoga class was the one place where life seemed possible. My eyes welled with tears. I had no idea this class was so meaningful.
Over the next several years, I’ve experienced the power of teaching and practicing yoga all over the world, from teaching a few film stars to many low-income youth. I even returned to that Sunday morning class as the instructor. Because of my yoga training, I’ve woken up to countless 6 a.m. yoga classes in places like India, Cyprus, Beijing, the Bahamas, Panama, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Budapest, Istanbul, London, and even Easter Island. This road has taken me on an inner and outer journey that I never knew existed. I know that yoga is not a panacea, but a profound life conversation between my inner world – body, mind, and spirit – and my outer world of race, class, and other social determinants of health.
This yoga life may have started at 9 a.m. on a Sunday, but now it continues well beyond an entry point into the middle class. This journey is about the traveler, a spiritual being in the body of an African-American woman who is having the human experience of a lifetime.
Om Tat Sat!
Saeeda Hafiz is a yoga teacher, author, and wellness expert who recently published a memoir entitled “The Healing: One Woman’s Journey from Poverty to Inner Riches”. As a holistic health educator with the San Francisco Unified School District, she focuses on sharing her knowledge of physical and mental wellness with diverse groups. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more about Saeeda and purchase her book HERE.