What It’s Like to Be a Black Yoga Teacher

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“When someone walks out of my class before it begins, I often wonder if it’s because of who I am or what I look like,” shares Chelsea Jackson Roberts, who leads Yoga Journal’s new Inclusivity Training course.

When I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the ’8os, I did a lot of quintessential “American” things: I was a cheerleader, a ballet dancer, a gymnast. And yet I knew that I was not the ideal American woman. She did not look like me; her image in the media—white, super thin—did not reflect me, a black girl with a very athletic build. Our differences were only reinforced by what I experienced in my world every day. Constant remarks from my gymnastics coach, like “Tuck in your butt, Chelsea,” made me feel like I had failed—by no effort on my part other than walking in a black girl’s body. And when I traveled to national cheerleading competitions, the girls who won and appeared on the cover of the competition magazines did not look like me. It was not a surprise, but I also knew early on that it was not OK.

As a teenager trying to meet the standard ideal of a cheerleader’s body type, I developed an eating disorder—one I carried throughout high school and even returned to in early adulthood. In fact, the first time I walked into a yoga class, I was there because I wanted to lose weight. I had recently finished my master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the stress from working as a public-school teacher combined with my unconscious relationship with food caused me to put on pounds. So when I heard that hot yoga would help me lose weight, I said, “Sign me up!”

It was not necessarily love at first sight—I fainted! I’m not really sure what happened, I just woke up with cold towels on my forehead. I can’t believe I ever went back, but I’ve always had this attitude of “I’m going to see this through.”

I dabbled in yoga for a while, still focusing on the physical benefits. Then, in 2004, a very good friend of mine was violently murdered. That’s when I really turned to yoga: I knew something more was happening during the physical practice, and I wanted to use it to get through that tragic loss. I started going deeper into meditation and discovered Kashi Atlanta ashram, where I eventually became a certified yoga teacher.

I began to use yoga as a tool to reveal how much of an effect the loss of my dear friend was having on me, and it taught me how to use this practice as a way to feel in order to heal. Yoga led me to reflect more on how I was treating my body—the ways I accepted and did not accept myself—and it began to transform me. I became more conscious and loving toward myself, and I realized yoga is not about weight loss at all. I now use yoga to uncover and understand the layers of experiences I encounter in the world, including those that continue to make me feel like I don’t belong.