There’s something about the practice of yoga that feels like a bit of a mystery, right? The postures, the breathing and the spirituality of yoga make it feel like more than just exercise- it’s an experience. I was lucky enough to interview a friend of mine, Shirley Johnson, a certified yoga instructor, to learn about wellness through yoga and to dispel some myths about yoga practice.
1. Tell us about yourself!
Born into New York hip-hop culture, a neighborhood full of various nationalities, and a family of musicians and social activists, I grew up exploring spirituality through the lens of arts, culture, dance and music. After graduating from Brown University, I went to work in corporate finance, only to find myself unfulfilled. The unfulfillment eventually encouraged me to engage in the practice of yoga. Today I am a practicing astrologist, reiki healer, yoga teacher and write on astrology and holistic health and beauty for a number of websites and blogs. For more info and my teaching schedule, please visit www.soulisticwellness.com/events/ or follow Kali on Twitter @LadiosaKali
2. How did you first become involved in yoga for fitness? What attracted you to yoga?
I first went to yoga with my mother. Her chiropractor had suggested it for her. I was in college, and I would go when I was home on breaks with her. She was paying for it and it seemed like an alternative to going to the gym. I did not have much desire to practice yoga, as much as feel like I had done some exercise for the day. Being in college, I definitely put on the freshman fifteen, and was drawn to most things that had the lure of weight loss or slimming the body. I would go to yoga class occasionally, but it wasn’t until I graduated from college and was working at real estate development firm that I began a solid yoga practice. I went because I was in constant stress and began to notice illness accompanying the stress. I knew I needed ways to manage my stress, and it seemed that this was something yoga could help with.
3. For someone who has never been to a yoga class, can you tell them what they can expect?
Expect nothing. Let go of the expectations of what you think yoga is. There are many different styles and limbs of yoga, so one class can be a completely different approach or focus than another. A Kundalini Yoga class is quite different from a Bikram Yoga class, although they all are rooted in quieting the mind. I suggest coming with an open mind and to not be afraid to voice your needs or concerns to a teacher. Yoga is not a competition, it is a personal practice. Let go of comparing yourself to person next to you. Read up a little about the yoga class you are taking if that makes me you feel safer, but be open to that description being a bit different from what you expect.
4. What do you think are the 2 greatest health benefits of practicing yoga?
There are lots of health benefits, for me the top benefits have been the ability to manage stress and keep a balanced perspective and a healthier and more aligned posture. I will be practicing yoga for the rest of my life – it will be interested to see what health benefits I observe in the next 10 years! Other folks notice increased flexibility, more awareness around the body, weight loss, less aches and pains in the body, more strength and inner peace.
5. You mentioned that yoga can be effective for weight loss. If so, is there a specific type of yoga that is most effective for weight loss? Why?
Great question! Initially a lot of what drew me to yoga and going to the gym was weight loss. I was nothing short of obsessive and quite self-critical regarding my body and weight from the time I was a child. It is not uncommon in our society for people (both men and women) to be bombarded with ideas about what a good body is and what weight we need to be.
When people tell me they want to lose weight, I often ask them why. The why is where the answer lies. Have you ever met someone who thought they were overweight and they were not at all? It is all perspective. There are people who truly feel great about their body and wear a size 10 and people who are miserable about their bodies and wear a size 2. That is their perspective, and without a perspective shift, it does not matter how slender you are, you can still be miserable. It is up to us to feed the perspective of unfulfillment or fulfillment (gratitude). You can do all the exercise, eat all organic, count your calories, but if you are operating out of unfullfilment, then you will be dissatisfied and nothing will be enough. That is what yoga has taught me. As long as I am not accepting myself the way that I am, I will never be any different.
There are many styles of yoga including Bikram Yoga, Vinyasa Flow Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that are designed to keep the body moving. This moving will lead to a cardiovascular exercise and burning of calories that should physiologically help with weight loss. However, yoga is not just the physical poses, it is a holistic lifestyle. The principles of yoga teach us moderation. Much of the obesity issues we are facing in our society are being caused by a lack of moderation. We are addicted to extremes as a society.
6. Many people think that they can’t do yoga because their bodies aren’t flexible enough. What encouragement would you give to people who have ruled yoga out for this reason?
Yoga is not actually about the body, it is about the mind. The body is something we experience through the mind and our upbringings. Well known yogi and Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Patabhi Jois says, “Body not stiff, mind stiff.” It is not that your body is stiff or anything not flexible, it is that your mind thinks that it is. Your mind is experiencing stiffness in the body, because it is experiencing stiffness in itself. Once you change your mind about something, the thing changes. In the words of En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow!” But don’t believe me, try it out for yourself and see how it goes.
7. Back in January, there was an article in the New York Times called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body“. What response would you give to the article’s criticism of yoga as a form of exercise?
So much I could say about this. First of all, how yoga can “wreck” the body. Let’s dissect that. The author discusses or presupposes that the body is supposed to stay a certain way. We know through nature and life that this is not true. It is not a bad thing, it is life. It does not mean that we suffer because we get older or because things change. Our society perceives physical pain and injury as a punishment rather than a message or lesson. Anything and everything can wreck the body. To some people, peanut butter provides nourishment and energy, and to others it is fatal. Not every exercise is for every person. I got more from yoga than any other exercise, not because it made me lose weight or tightened my abs, but because it gives me a forum to explore life and existence. Much of the way that yoga is depicted is that it is supposed to look a certain way or that it is all about the exercise. Yoga is exploration. It’s not forcing your body into every pose, or doing exactly what the instructor tells you. It is listening to your own wisdom and remembering that just because a teacher did a certification in yoga does not mean they know your body more than you do. Yoga teaches us personal responsibility for our actions and life. So be the expert on yourself. Learn about your own body and abilities, and do not give away your power or intuition to anyone.
8. What is your experience as a woman of color who teaches yoga? Does your identity at all impact/inform your practice?
In some ways yes and in some ways no. Yoga teaches me that there is oneness in all and reminds me that so much of my feelings and experiences are universal and experienced by many. At the same time, being a woman of color and my personal background impacts and informs my practice. I bring the joys, rhythm and beauty of my heritage to my yoga practice.
Also, the collective psyche of the woman of color is constantly being discussed without her voice included. I don’t need the New York Times telling me about women of color, I live this existence everyday! So much of our culture is dominated by the voice of the white, heterosexual man, and in many ways I am part of a new group of women of color who are reclaiming our voice in matters of health and the body. The body of the woman of color has historically been objectified, and in many ways our collective psyche has absorbed that. At times, we think it is okay to eat scraps because historically that is what we had to do in the past. My voice comes out in my teaching. I teach not only for myself but with a huge connection to my ancestors and herstory. I am here to cherish my body despite all the messages that I should hate it. And I would love to share that journey with anyone else who is interested.
9. Do you have anything else you want to add?
**Do you practice yoga for wellness & fitness? What’s been your experience?**