When Yoga, Literature, Art, and Service Connect: Chelsea Jackson Roberts

This weekend, I am attending the Asheville Yoga Festival. What is a yoga festival? It is literally a gaggle of yogis and hippies and teachers galore going to yoga classes and workshops all day every day, from 8 to 5:30, for four days straight. It’s intense, crazy, and I can’t believe that I have the opportunity to attend it. I’m not a yoga teacher (yet), but I am a yogi, so this festival, in the unique and exuberant city of Asheville, North Carolina, is perfect for me.

The first day of the festival, Thursday, I only attended one class, a 6 hour long intensive from 9-4. It was called “Finding Comfort in our Purpose: How to Use our Yoga Practice to Reflect, Heal, and Impact Change,” led by the incredible teacher Chelsea Jackson Roberts. Chelsea is the founder of a program on Yoga, Literature, and Art for teen girls at Spelman College in Georgia. She has committed herself to working with young girls who have experienced trauma and have difficult stories by connecting with them through a unique combination of yoga, writing, and art. She has been a change maker in impacting social change though yoga, and in helping the young students she works with build strong foundations, hopes, and dreams for their futures.

This workshop was structured as if us attendees were individuals taking her camp class—we were literally doing what the girls she works with do. We started in a circle, an open and un-hierarchal environment. In a circle there is no inequality or “front row seats.” There is only connection. Chelsea had asked us all to bring something special to us to the class. As an icebreaker of sorts, we introduced ourselves to the group and explained our special something. I was the third or fourth person to go. When it was my turn, I had a split second of internal dilemma. Do I open myself up to these 30 strangers, or do I give a nondescript, vague reason for my object?

It’s always difficult to make a decision on whether or not to be vulnerable, because as humans we often dislike vulnerability. We think it weakens us in the eyes of others, and even more in our own judgmental eyes. Vulnerabilities, though, are only the scariest to ourselves. Others look at them as parts of us that make us human. So, in that split second, I went for it: I shared my story to a group of strangers. And let me tell, you, it has never felt better. As we kept sharing around the circle, others shared their stories too. They were deep, heartfelt, sad, happy, tragic, and miraculous. With each that was told, we got closer and closer, and the large space we were sitting in felt like a much smaller, more intimate environment.

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With this powerful environment around us, Chelsea began to speak about showing up. When we want to help others, to right a wrong, or to give back to our communities, we show up. When we dedicate ourselves to work with a population that is struggling, we show up for them. “Our heart is the action in the world,” she said. Yet, it is still our heart, and we must take care of it. If we cannot take care of ourselves, we cannot fully devote ourselves to others. Showing up for others means showing up for yourself. Treating yourself with respect. Honoring your own mind and body: its wants, its needs, and its health. Chelsea asked us to journal about these two questions: How would you describe your relationship with your body? How does this relationship impact your practice and the ways that you show up in the world?

It’s as if Chelsea had designed this class for me, because the answer to that question, and what I journaled about, is that I have a very tainted relationship with my body. It is one of my greatest struggles, and I know it impacts the ways that I practice yoga and choose to show up in the world. When Chelsea posed this question, I was able to work through some of that on paper, freewriting for five minutes nonstop.

That journal entry finished, Chelsea began to lead us through a yoga practice. It was juicy and slow. Rather than my usual faster Vinyasa flow, we held poses for ten breaths at a time and sat in savasana for what felt like hours. Chelsea wasn’t moving us through a yoga practice to just do yoga; she was leading us more into ourselves and our thoughts and using yoga as a mere tool to get there.

Honestly, I was surprised that I lasted. I normally can’t sit with myself for that long because of all the negative thoughts that come up when I am forced to be only with myself inside my body. Chelsea challenged me to look my relationship with my body in the face and to challenge it head on. It was hard, and even though my body wasn’t sweating, my brain was. My soul was too. At some points, I felt like I had to cry and just let it all out. I could tell the other members of the class felt the same way, because the energy in the air was so charged and full of feeling.

As Chelsea wrapped up the practice, she spoke a quote by Tony Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you have to write it.” If there is a  disconnect in the world that you feel passionate about, work to end that. If you have a wall inside yourself keeping you from showing up for others, break it down. Make your story yours. Chelsea asked us to reflect back on what brought us here, to this class. Where do you see yourself going? She asked us to imagine 10 years into the future when you are grounded in your purpose. Where are you? What are you doing? How does your relationship with your body and your yoga practice impact your purpose?

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This is what I wrote in my journal (word for word): “10 years from now, I imagine myself working in the field of law, hopefully with others who need my help the most. I want to work in human rights or civil rights law or immigration; anything, really, where I can work as an individual to combat discrimination and fight for equality. I am working with my clients not only as their lawyer but also as their confidant and support group. They can talk with me and work with me to get what they want and need.

My relationship with my body is integral to my success 10 years from now. Right now, it holds me back from connecting. I know that I can’t be open and honest with my future clients if I can’t be open and honest with myself. I am not superwoman. Yoga teaches me that. It teaches me patience and forgiveness, something I need and my job needs. Marginalized communities face challenges that I hope to help conquer. For me, like yoga, law is a tangible way for me to help, and continuing my personal practice throughout this experience will keep me healthy.”

I think that it’s pretty neat how this class was able to get me to such awareness with how my yoga practice can impact what I want to do in the future. But if I thought that was cool then I wasn’t ready for the next activity. Chelsea described how throughout the class so far, we had traveled from the present to the future, but that she now wanted us to backtrack to the past, where we are from, and how that contributes to where we are today. For that exercise, she had us flip to a new journal page, title it “Where I’m From,” and write down three things for each category: sights, sound, smell, texture/touch, tastes, and words of wisdom/values. Then, we paired into groups of three, each got a large poster paper, and were tasked with somehow combining our where I’m from notes into one piece. There were quite a few groups, but I think the results from all of them were so fantastic that you deserve to see them all, so here you go:

Group #1 (mine):

A community pool with the smell of cut grass, the feel of cold water. Sycamore trees with their spots on their bark. The smell of rain on the pavement and the noise it makes hitting the roof. Fried chicken and biscuits for lunch, coffee milkshake for dessert, and breakfast for dinner. The feel of the fabrics of homemade clothing. Sand on feet and hands from the backyard sandbox or the ocean. The silky fur of cats and smooth coat of dogs. Their warm bodies sleeping under the covers. Peepers and cicadas echoing through the night, keeping you up until the early morning. Enthusiasm for life. Passion. The human soul on fire. You are the seven people you spend the most time with. Together, we are a community, no matter where we are from, what we see, smell, feel, or taste. We connect. We meet. We gather in space together. We are like individuals at a pool—no matter the background, we are together for the same reason—to live, to love, and to share our time on this earth TOGETHER.

 

Group #2:

We see—farms and ladybugs

We hear—children playing, birds, crickets

We smell—rain, fresh cut lawns, sun dried sheets

We feel—bare feet on gravel and grass, hugs

We taste—watermelon, sweet corn on the cob

Wisdom’s we’ve been told—watch out for deer at night, do unto others as you’d do unto you, you are beautiful

Our values—work hard, love

 

Group #3:

I am from fresh cut grass, trees, and church on Sundays. I am from family traditions joy and sorrow. I am from faith, loyalty, and respect. I am from working hard and a will to always do the right thing. I am from frosty winters and hot chocolate. I am from tar heels and sweet tea. I am from rolling hills and horse scented hair. I am from love.

 

Group #4:

Sight—mist and fog in the mountains. Open fields of hard workers. Clear starry nights. Lightning bugs.

Texture—warm, smooth river stones and cool running water, cool soft bedding and quilts made with love. Bare feet in grass. Sun kissing our skin

Smells—smell of corn bread, bacon, crisp air and fresh grass, kerosene and gasoline

Values—family is everything. Faith and community. Hard work. Overcoming adversity.

 

Group #5:

Sights—rolling hills, trees, flowers, concrete, brick, fluorescent lighting

Sounds—children, playing, birds, sirens, screen doors, basketballs bouncing, high school sports

Smell—distinct city smell, chlorine, family cooking

Texture—soft blankets, chipped lead paint, grandma’s hair, bare feet on grass and gravel

Tastes—roasted/fried chicken, home cooked meals, Kool-Aid, gravy

Wisdom—bless your heart

Values—family, education, faith

 

Group #6:

I am from the flatlands of Louisiana—with swamps, cypress trees, and moss abound. Cotton fields are everywhere. My grandbabies live there.

We love the taste of home and the south—food that feeds the soul and the mouth. Garden fresh tomatoes represent our heart and home…

With Mac and Tomato, Chile, and Tomato Juice we are never alone.

We take home with us everywhere we go

Love, support, encouragement are threads that are woven into every yoga flow.

 

Group #7:

I am from nothing a good meal can’t fix, never return a plate empty, and rough and smooth edges of cookbooks.

I am from tree roots, briar brushes, and stony creeks.

I am from old architecture of an old city, a small city with a big reputation: it’s larger than life.

I am from the creek fed by a drainage pipe that pools and flows over magical rocks.

 

Group #8:

I am from a place I have chosen to be

A place with growing spaces

A place with beautiful faces

Where the air is sweet

And music fills the fabric of life.

The sun shines brightly,

Warming the souls of those who abide.

Awareness and spacious, alive in life.

 

Group #9:

We are from sunshine, kids playing, and American Suburbia.

We are from quiet, laughter, waves crashing.

We are from the smell of Mom’s perfume, salt water air, fresh cut grass.

I am from a leather basketball.

I am from soft and feathery cat fur.

I am from crisp cheerleading uniforms.

I am from chocolate chip pancakes.

I am from coffee.

I am from pizza on Friday nights.

I am from “Rise and Shine!”

I am from “Have I told you today that I love you?”

We are from family, vacation, love, faith.

 

Group #10:

I am from

A place where the horizon expands and the harvest moon hangs like a beacon;

Neighborhoods where children sand show toons and hymns and listened to the chorus of chipmunks and crickets;

A mother who filled the house with smells of homemade bread;

The flesh of juicy strawberries, scales of fish, and the discarded cloth of a grandmother;

The sweet tastes of cotton candy, juicy fruit gum, and carob chips;

I am from a place where hard work was necessary for survival and happiness had rigid boundaries.

And from this place I can see softer horizons.

 

Listening to the sensory memories that the other group members had from their childhood brought up so many happy memories for me. I tend to focus on the bad in the world, and looking back I could have listed the negative and unhappy memories I hold from my past. That’s what I normally do. The past has a lot of pain, and when we know it’s there, we avoid it, looking straight forward and marching on. Yet, it’s okay to pause and look back every once in a while. It’s scary, but it’s okay, because when approached from a gentle perspective, you can make a conscious to revisit the positives of your past, which will in turn conjure up joy rather than sadness or fear.

When we were all recalling our memories to each other, there was not a person in that room who wasn’t smiling or laughing. It’s hard not to when your mind is on something you enjoy, especially when you connect with others on it. I mean, almost every single group mentions fresh cut grass because for some reason, that clean, green smell played a positive role in each one of our lives. We got to think of things like our favorite comfort foods, something that can make anyone happy. We viewed our past from a joyful lens, and it was freeing.

With the close of that activity, we prepared to end the workshop with one more personal journal free write. Chelsea posed us these two questions: what are you taking with you from this experience? What do you want to leave behind? They’re very interesting questions, because after an educational workshop, it makes sense that you would want to leave with something, some knowledge, after, but what would there be to leave behind? Wouldn’t you want to soak up the entire experience and pack it all up with you when you go?

The answer to the question is no. Every time that we enter a space of learning or go through an experience that changes us, we take home what we needed and learned and we also let go of what we don’t. Just like you wouldn’t purchase an item from the store and then ask for your money back, you wouldn’t gain understanding of yourself without conversely giving some of yourself up. That’s how change happens and progress is made.

When I left the class, I took home a sense of community influenced by the incredible group of people who attended. I had just spent 6 hours with a group of 30 total strangers and created stronger connections than I have with people I’ve known for 6 years. I also took home a new sense of awareness in my yoga practice, and how I can expand my personal experience in yoga. I will challenge myself to go slowly when I need it, because it was the slow deliberate movements of the practice that pushed me deeper into self-exploration. In terms of what I’m leaving behind, it is the baggage that I have to close myself off to the rest of the world, because if this workshop taught me anything it is that I don’t need to do that. I am leaving behind the belief that vulnerability is bad and emotional intimacy is scary. I also hope that I’m leaving behind some of my own wisdom, which others can take with them and use to help heal themselves and others.

This workshop was a combination of delving deeper into myself while also learning about the ways in which we can use yoga and the concept of yoga to help others. Chelsea is an incredible teacher and I am so glad that I was able to take her workshop!

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