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My Role as an African American Yoga Teacher

Molly TobinArticles

It was winter 1993, and I was 27 years old.

All at the same time, I had secured positions in Atlanta as a live-in macrobiotic chef, a corporate marketing database manager, and a yoga instructor.

I was Peachtree Center Athletic Club’s very first yoga instructor, and this was my first professional yoga job.

Immediately, I noticed that some students projected images on to me. Some thought that I could heal their physical ailments. Others thought that I would cross-train their type-A training workouts by adding a deep stretch. Some thought that I would be a spiritual beacon who would guide them toward peace. Still, others thought I would help them attain a body that would look like mine, long and lean.

At the end of each class, inevitably, someone would ask me a personal question about my body. “Saeeda, do you eat vegan or vegetarian? Do you only teach yoga? Are you naturally flexible and disciplined? What do I need to do to get the “yoga butt”? Are you spiritual? Saeeda, did you always want to live this kind of lifestyle?” Each question triggered my definition and redefinition of my life’s path.

I was on display nearly every day and people felt entitled to comment on my life or my body size, shape, and even race while they projected their imagined images on to me, with statements like: “You look great. You are too thin. You must have been a dancer. Was Saeeda always your name?” Folks would comment on whether or not they liked what I looked like; yet, they often asked for yogic-life advice. And that is when it hit me; the role of yoga and the yoga instructor is fundamental to facilitating a yoga class.

For better or worse, the physical body of the yoga instructor is ever-present in the classroom, but what is even more present and powerful is how the instructor can use the physical yoga poses to create an opening for the student and herself to have a conversation with the body and hear its deep internal wisdom. The body might be telling you a story about intergenerational trauma, body image, physical healing, mindfulness, and even how to position yourself in the world while processing all that you are – race, gender, orientation, age, etc.

 

 

When holding a pose, I, the yoga teacher, facilitate an opportunity for my students and myself to hear messages such as:

  • You are living in a perfect vessel that will support how you uniquely contribute to this life, right here and right now.
  • The teacher is only a role model for where she is in the present moment, even if she is demonstrating her own specific productive struggle. Her body is not the goal. She is not perfection. Her goal is to encourage you to accept, love, and appreciate your mind and body while encouraging your essences to do its work.
  • Your mind and body are tools, an organic feedback loop that gives you daily messages on how to live an authentic life and how to define greatness for yourself.

 

Over the years, as a yoga instructor, I’ve grown and learned how to define success for myself. Success for me is to simply go to the mat and show up. This daily, well almost daily, action allows me to show up for life as my full self, a spiritual being having an African American female experience in a human body, no matter the size, shape, orientation, or age. I have the privilege to express my life as yoga teacher with all of its public challenges and joys, that is my role.

 

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