Yoga isn’t just a physical practice: it promises mental and spiritual benefits that can pay dividends in its devotees’ every day lives. Below fayemi shakur, who teaches a free yoga class on Saturdays in Military Park here in Newark, discusses what drew her to yoga, and why you should consider trying it too.
What about yoga drew you into the practice?
I started practicing yoga about seven years ago. I took my first class at a gym I went to with my sister. I was pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. The sense of peace I felt after class was evident from day one. But, it wasn’t until I met my teacher, Jennifer Kohl from Lotus Yoga, that I really began to deepen my practice.
At her former studio, she often gave dharma talks and chanted in Sanskrit. My spirit was really drawn to that. That’s something I didn’t get in yoga classes that were geared more towards fitness. Independently, I read and studied the I-Ching – a form of Chinese divination and philosophy – for years, which continues to be a part of my practice.
I was attracted to learning about yoga philosophy as a way of life. I didn’t practice any particular religion, and I needed a disciplined spiritual practice I could relate to that was universal and holistic. It grounded me and continually gives me balance and personal goals to work towards incorporating into my life. The thing that really got me open was learning about the yamas, the niyamas, and the five causes of suffering.
There are lots of yoga styles – which do you practice, and why?
I’m open to all styles and paths of yoga. There are many yoga systems and paths across the globe of course, so I haven’t tried them all yet. Some paths go beyond a hatha yoga practice consisting of asana and meditation. For instance, karma yoga practices include volunteer work, and it is a path of service. Nada yoga is the yoga of deep inner listening. It’s the yoga of sound, which includes meditation, listening to good music, and turning off the television and other distractions. Other physical yoga styles are Kundalini, Kemetic, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Restorative and Bikram, or hot yoga — all considered Hatha yoga.
As it’s said in yoga, “Many paths, one truth.” I haven’t tried one yet that I didn’t like, although vinyasa is my favorite style. Vinyasa is so beautiful. The poses are sequenced in such a way that one pose flows to the next. It’s like poetry to me. All yoga is beautiful.
What motivated you to share your yoga experience with others through teaching?
I’m a 500 hour certified yoga teacher, and I’ve been teaching for almost three years. I’m at the very beginning of this journey. I was encouraged by Jennifer Kohl and fellow yogi Danielle Mastrogiovanni to enroll in Lotus Yoga’s teacher training. They kept telling me they thought I could be a great yoga teacher, and I was sincerely puzzled by that. Like why? Honestly, when I started practicing I was just trying to find a way to eliminate stress and anxiety. I never would have thought I would be teaching yoga today. I’m grateful they encouraged me to do it.
Teaching community classes was a required part of my teacher trainings, so I couldn’t shy away from it. I completed two trainings where I studied yoga sutras, The Gita, Sanskrit, anatomy, alignment, and so much more. The trainings lasted for months at a time, and they were hard. Some of the concepts were so intense, it was difficult to come back afterwards and engage in the real world.
My perceptions started changing. Our Sanskrit teacher, Manorama, told us that yoga was an ego bashing process and I found that to be true. I learned that yoga is not for pacifists. I read something that said what Americans need most is more humility, and that arrogance will forever keep us separate from each other and from the Divine. Arrogance and spiritual ecstasy can’t go together. So we constantly have to balance these things. I learned a lot about anger and how yoga could be used as a tool to foster healing, strength and improved focus.
I decided to start teaching as a part of my karma yoga practice with the hope that others could apply yoga to their lives in their own way. It only works if you do it. I started to learn what I needed to embrace from within and how to be still so I could hear. I’m still learning. A good teacher can sharpen your practice by jarring you out of complacency and self-satisfaction so that new possibilities appear.
What can newcomers expect from a session with you at Military Park?
I’ve been teaching a Saturday morning class at Military Park for about a year since the park re-opened. I always want newcomers to feel at ease in their bodies and abilities, even if it is their first time. It’s an open level class, but I teach mostly beginners.
It’s not a religion. I teach in a way that complements students’ religious beliefs. I think it’s important to de-mystify what yoga is and teach it in a way that’s relatable. We’re also living at a time when we are seeing and experiencing a lot of change, violence and stress all around. I want to share my practice and how I use it to confront and deal with those things while practicing a sense of calmness and balance.
It’s important to see people of color engaged in yoga. Yoga is for everybody and all shapes and sizes. I think when people see me doing it they realize it’s something they can do too. I’m not a heavy promoter when it comes to yoga. Most teachers aren’t. Only if someone asks. It should come naturally.
We begin class with a dharma talk and silent meditation. We have a goal to work up to 20 minutes of mediation every day but for now we are at five minutes. It takes time and effort to learn how to meditate and engage the breath work required in yoga. The class serves as a group practice, and I provide some simple guided instructions. Sometimes I share the wisdom of the yoga sutras, some days I might share an inspiring poem by Maya Angelou or Nayyirah Waheed. Any wisdom I share really doesn’t come from me. It’s an ancient wisdom or universal truth.
I love music and incorporate it into the class as well. Sometimes I teach a restorative class, sometimes vinyasa, or if the students say they want power yoga, I’ll give them that. The restorative classes seem to be the favorite among the students, which essentially is a centering of the breath and the body, aligning the physical and the mental by practicing stillness and gentle movement. There is something special about being in the grass, under the sun, practicing in nature that feels so good. The remodeled park is truly a beautiful space. The class I teach in the park is open to all and parents can bring their children. The little ones love yoga too. It’s a special kind of sweet peace.
Yoga’s health and wellbeing benefits are highly touted by people in the know. What are those benefits?
Yoga helps alleviate stress and anxiety, but it also can provide greater clarity and awareness mentally and spiritually. The benefits of meditation and its effect on the brain are incredible. Yoga and meditation should also go together. The asana – the poses – are what help prepare the mind for meditation, because the body is both stimulated and relaxed in way that activates the analytical and intuitive abilities.
These benefits improve mental clarity and help us make better decisions. Physically yoga helps increase strength, balance, focus, and flexibility. Practicing yoga can also alleviate pain and discomfort, aid digestion, improve the nervous system, circulation, posture, cardiovascular health, and provide relief for asthma. Every yoga pose has a health benefit which I discuss in class.
I love to think of the poses too as metaphors for other things. For instance, feeling the feet rooted into the ground and the sense of balance and awareness that it inspires. Holding your eyes on a focal point, knowing that you must or you will lose your balance. Maintaining a pose and keeping perfectly still when you feel like you just can’t hold it any longer. Some days you will fail to practice – we all do – but you try again and get better at it. Everyone comes to yoga for different reasons, but the spiritual component of yoga as a way of life is just as important as the physical benefits.
Lastly, what type of work do you do outside of yoga?
I work at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Newark a few days a week as a consultant and marketing manager. I’ve been at Aljira for about three years. Essentially, I’m a cultural worker.
My job there entails strategic marketing and communications, public relations, content management and development for the Aljira blog and social media, sharing news about what’s going on in the arts and supporting Aljira’s exhibitions and programs.
I’m also an independent writer. Writing is my first love; organizing is my second. My work has been published in The New York Times, The International Review of African American Art, Nueva Luz photographic journal, Ebony.com, UPTOWN, and HYCIDE Magazine. I initially started writing political and cultural news stories in 1999. These days I write more about art, which gives me a new way to explore various topics. Short story writing or curating exhibitions and programs may be the next thing I try. Who knows? But, ArtLife Media is my consulting company through which I make money and provide a range of services.
I believe in supporting and valuing the arts, cultural institutions and programs in our communities, and most work I do is a part of my social and creative practice which includes community service. In the past year, I also taught yoga at N.J. Regional Day School for special needs and autistic youth. I just do what I love and I appreciate having that freedom. Still, I’m very discerning and mindful of what I say yes to.
fayemi shakur’s “Sweet Peace” family yoga and meditation class is held every Saturday from 10:30am to 11:30am in Military Park. The class is free and mats are provided. On inclement weather days, the class will be held at The New Jersey Historical Society at 52 Park Place just across from the park. To check out more free classes and activities, visit www.militarypark.org.