I started learning yoga, pranayama, tai chi chuan and chi kung when I was 14. Our school, the Temple of the White and Gold Lotus, Shrine of Amen-Ra, was housed in the parlor floor of a pre-gentrification, Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone that our teacher had reclaimed from abandonment by squatting in it with his family. The tightly-woven, blue rug covered the tattered and well-worn wood floors underneath.
Our bathroom was downstairs in the back on the ground floor. We walked past a mass of junk that resembled the exterior set of Sanford and Son to use it. Cold in the winter and cool in the summer, I can’t remember doing anything but urinating in the bathroom, washing my hands and quickly escaping to cleaner air upstairs. If you didn’t wear your clothes for class to Temple, then that’s where you changed–quickly. I think there was a litter box down there too for the family’s several cats–guardians against any mice or rats who wanted to take up residence in the building through the many access points a building in that state afforded.
As young as I was, I didn’t realize or understand the implications of our school as an abandoned building that squatters had taken over. Imagine practicing pranayama in that kind of environment–breathing exercises in a space with years of dust and neglect that my teacher’s family had countered with moderate amounts of cleaning and minimal level of repair. For the family that lived there, pranayama was probably a necessity for cleaning the lungs as much as it was a practice in physical culture.
All of us in the class were black and brown kids from working class and lower middle class families who managed to find the money to pay for this privilege. As my practice developed, I became a senior student and assisted our heri or master teacher–first in the youth class and then later in the adult class. When he started a youth class in East Orange, New Jersey, he took me with him to assist. Again, the students were the black and brown children of working and lower middle class families.
This was ‘hood holistic health approach reminiscent of the martial arts classes my father and uncle, my first martial arts teacher, attended in the 70s. Working class, black and brown people found any available space to share life-sustaining wisdom with others in the hope that they could help liberate people from white supremacy and its impact upon physical, mental and spiritual health–people like Professors Florendo Visitacion, Moses Powell, and Ronald Duncan. My yoga and tai chi chuan teacher Heri Heru Amen Hapi Khafra Ndongo was in that tradition.
I have benefited from their legacy and emerged as a teacher in a very different climate. My first teaching experience outside of the temple was in the intramural program at the University of Southern California, where I was an undergraduate student. Teaching students at an elite institution on one of the many manicured lawns or the multimillion dollar athletic center of the university was a very different environment than the ones in which I came of age in the arts.
My roots kept me grounded and I also taught a class for Black students to help them withstand the onslaught of microaggressions and white supremacy that were a constant occurrence for us on campus. I taught a class off campus for young boys whose families were residents of the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project and had a member of the Crips street gang as a private student to help cultivate his revolutionary consciousness and ability to successfully confront the challenges of daily life as a Black man.
Over the nearly three decades since I took my first class, I have had periods of more and less consistent and intense practice. Periods in which I was a health club instructor. Periods when I had no students at all. Periods when I only taught privately in a one-on-one context. And periods when the practice was the focus of my doctoral studies.
With a current private teaching practice that includes one-on-one and group classes in a climate in which middle class, teachers of European descent and others are asking themselves critically self-reflective questions about the politics of their involvement with these practices, e.g., cultural appropriation, neocolonialism, white privilege, and Orientalism, I have an even clearer understanding of what decolonization looks like for me as a teacher and practitioner.
I dedicate my practice of yoga, pranayama, tai chi chuan, and chi kung to liberating my Self in the context of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. I was born into a set of circumstances that have made it necessary for my survival, development and wellbeing that I have tools–such as my practice–I can use to feel my feelings, own my desires, speak my truth, and live my destiny within the matrix. In my teaching practice, I commit to helping people liberate themselves, not merely from the confines they have come to believe in as the boundaries of their lives but also from the system of oppression that has become a seamless part of our world.
For me, decolonizing yoga and tai chi means more than a critical self-reflective approach to our practice and teaching; it means practicing and teaching as a form of revolutionary struggle to dismantle imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy and birth a socially just, ecologically well reality for our world. This is what Paulo Freire meant by the concept of conscientização or conscientization. It is what Frantz Fanon indicated was a necessary feature of decolonization. When I observe my students being more embodied, attuned to their balance, centers of gravity, inner peace and connections to the universe, I see beings who are becoming maladjusted to oppression in the way Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King suggested:
And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry .I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence. In a day when sputniks and Geminis are dashing through outer space and ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war…. Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment…. Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. – 1966 Ware Lecture: Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through a critical mass of the maladjusted, we will bring the current system down. From the nutrients of the soil that consumes its rotting carcass, we will harvest a world that is more just. From the flames of its funeral pyre, we will conjure a world that is more ecological and sustainable. In this I truly believe. It is the reason why I teach and the basis for how I teach. It is the meaning behind my trademark valediction: peace, pleasure and passion.