Yoga and social activism intersect in Asheville

BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE: Chelsea Jackson Roberts, front and center, a presenter at this year's Asheville Yoga Festival, stands with students from her Yoga, Literature and Art camp at Spelman College. Photo courtesy of Red Clay Yoga

The yogi’s work is to create liberation for the collective good, says Michelle Johnson, a yoga instructor, licensed social worker and presenter at the July 27-30 Asheville Yoga Festival. Johnson has focused on the intersection between social justice and yoga since 2009 and aims to inspire others to do the same.

“So many people are going to yoga, and that space has an opportunity to inspire the collective and to call them into larger action. It is going to be messy, but we need to show up and practice,” says Johnson.

“Yoga is a microlens, and the macrolens [are] social justice issues, which you need to be present to look at in a certain space,” she says. “I am a woman of color in this culture who has experienced racism. I have a responsibility to tell the truth and to make some changes. Wherever I go, I am doing yoga and engaging in social justice work. I don’t take off those hats,” says Johnson.

In America, she says, “People practice the physical part of yoga, only to roll up their mat after class and leave.” That’s different than in Africa, where she volunteered to teach in 2012. There, Johnson notes, yoga is a community-building practice intended as a bridge for dialogue and collaboration about social justice.

“The experience of practicing yoga mirrors their experience in the world,” says Johnson. She asks those in her teacher-training program to start with how their individual backgrounds have affected their access to yoga. “People focus on asana postures and meditation, which is what people expect … when walking into a yoga class. Yoga is so much broader than that,” Johnson says. “I want people to come in and feel something in their bodies and to feel moved to take some action in the world to live in a different way.”

Participants at the July festival will have a chance to explore what she means, in such forums as “Stay Vigilant, Mindful and ‘Woke.’” This festival session will include a panel featuring Johnson as well as Carrington Jackson, the Yoga in Action coordinator for Off the Mat Into the World, a nonprofit that bridges yoga and activism through trainings and opportunities for activism; Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, a movement to mobilize the wellness community into a powerful force for change; and Chelsea Jackson Roberts, who founded a community program for teen girls called Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp at Spelman College in Atlanta.

The panel was organized in response to the November election and current events in our country, says Johnson. “What does it mean to be a black woman teaching yoga and to be in the seat as a teacher, and how is that capacity different for white women versus women of color teaching in yoga studios? Who is the face of yoga?” she asks.

“I think part of what makes people go back to the day-to-day of their lives is that it’s overwhelming to be in the space of the impact of Trump being our president. It means we are in crisis. We can’t sustain that without being burnt out,” says Johnson, who is also a trainer for Dismantling Racism Works in North Carolina. The organization explores personal, institutional and cultural racism.

Johnson continues, “We can’t actually hold the intensity forever; that’s why we need different ways of dealing with it. White supremacy offers people an option to stay in the position to care or not. It’s patterned behavior, and people have to do a lot of work to stay connected to what it means for them and the people in the community to stay engaged.”

Anti-oppression work is a practice, Johnson says, so if we think of it as our yoga practice, it’s one and the same — how to decrease suffering for those who are oppressed.

Fellow festival presenter Roberts focused her doctorate on yoga with teenagers as a form of social action. The research motivated her to establish a camp called Yoga, Literature and Art for teen girls at Spelman College, a historically black college for women (Roberts attended as an undergraduate). Students who apply to her camp, says Roberts, typically identify as black or brown girls. During the camp, Roberts and her staff utilize yoga practices and then study literature and art created by women. “We have cultivated [a place] where they feel safe,” says Roberts.

The teens are at an intersection of race, gender and socioeconomic differences and talk about their experiences through the practice of yoga to understand themselves and their position in this society, she explains.

“We have seen a shift in a lot of trainings and workshops since November,” says Roberts, who was one of 25 yoga instructors invited to teach yoga at the White House in 2016 for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. “People who are gravitating to yoga are looking for ways to understand others and for ways to be understood themselves. The tools we practice in yoga — of taking breaths or pausing to react or respond  — are resources that, when talking about race and class and gender identities, can show up in the physical body. This can usher us into social dialogue and emotional concern.”

Roberts is also offering an online course called Inclusivity Training Building Compassion through Yoga Journal magazine. “There are a growing thread of trainings focused on trauma-sensitive work, inclusivity, body types and working with communities that are not reflective of your own,” says Roberts.

Her advice for anyone who feels compelled to do social justice work with yoga is to enroll in a training course. “We need to make sure we confront all the things we experience in our world … our experience around power and privilege and our relationship with those terms. If the person is not familiar with a term, then pausing before we go into these other spaces to do yoga with people to make sure we are clear on our intention and that we are trained and equipped to do so, especially when working with trauma,” says Roberts. “Sometimes our best intentions can harm the people we actually want to work with.”

It’s great that her work is growing and getting more visibility, says Roberts — particularly in times of political and social shifts. She adds that there is a lot of movement to build bridges versus borders, which continue to block the practice. “The sky’s the limit once those bridges are created. We all have different perspectives to represent larger groups of people,” Roberts says about participating in the panel with Johnson, Kelly and Jackson. She expects to talk about what is working in their communities and to interact with the audience in order to turn ideas into actions.

“The practice can be individual. It can be the mat for people to get away from the world. We see the disconnect. When we step into the yoga space, we bring everything to the mat; it doesn’t just go away,” says Roberts. “Even in spaces that practice yoga, if there are opportunities for people to learn about people feeling marginalized or not heard, then we allow yoga to be practiced. … Why not practice wholeness; why not practice understanding?”

Lyndsey Azlynne, an Asheville yoga instructor, will put her yoga skills into social action in September in India, for example. Azlynne was selected to be part of Rise As One, a program that places yoga instructors in various locations around the world to do community work. In its first year, Rise as One is collaborating with the Bodhicitta Foundation, a Buddhist charity which helps poor and oppressed communities.

“When deepening the yoga practice, there is an innate tug to serve others,” says Azlynne. “That is the heartbeat of yoga. It is going into the wisdom of body and learning to be with what is present with meditation and breath awareness.”

Azlynne will be working in schools that teach trades for women and girls recovering from sexual exploitation. The schools also offer counseling, dance and yoga in a safe space. Azlynne says that one year of education and a skilled trade transform their future.

“I feel like yoga is such an incredible vehicle for self-awareness, and it’s commonplace in the modern culture to not even be in our bodies and see patterns in our lives,” she says. “Yoga is that bridge. It is the journey of first leaning into just being in a body, being human, and then it is from that place where you realize how interconnected we all are.”

Suffering across the world, Azlynne says, can be “bodyfelt.” In the yoga practice, there is a responsibility to serve. “May all beings really be happy,” says Azlynne, “and we really have a lot of work to do.”

A film crew will accompany Azlynne and the other yoga teachers to India to make a documentary. All the people invited on the trip are crowdfunding from July 1 to Aug. 1 to raise money for the schools. Azlynne has organized an auction at a Day of Wellness at Veda Studios on June 24, with local guest yoga instructors Michael Johnson and Cat Matlock.

“Yoga truly encourages every single person to take responsibility for themselves, and massive waves of global change can happen,” says Azlynne. “There are a lot of pointing fingers, but there is a continuous invitation to be in your body and take responsibility for the words you say. It’s a grassroots level push to make global change real.”

More Info

WHAT: Asheville Yoga Festival

WHERE: Various locations in downtown Asheville

WHEN: Thursday, July 27, to Sunday, July 30

COST: $110- $410



WHAT: Rise as One Fundraiser:  A Day of Wellness

WHERE: Veda Studios, 853 Merrimon Ave.

WHEN: Saturday, June 24, 1-3 p.m.

COST: $20



Lyndsey Azlynne

Rise as One Project

Michelle Johnson

Chelsea Jackson Roberts

Inclusivity Training with Chelsea Jackson Roberts


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