A former corporate executive turned yoga teacher, community organizer, and political disrupter shares her method for finding and activating your unique passion on the yoga mat and beyond.
This is the final in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work.This month, Corn interviews Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, a group that activates communities to focus their collective energy toward transforming our planet into a place that ensures well-being for everyone.
Seane Corn: What first brought you to the mat and why did you focus on mobilizing the yoga community to create leadership?
Kerri Kelly: If I’m being perfectly honest, what first brought me to the mat was my obsession with being fit. My wake-up call came on 9/11, when I lost my stepdad, who was a firefighter in New York City—that’s when my practice became so much more. Everything until that moment had been quite ordinary, expected, and individualistic. I grew up in a white, privileged suburb, excelled in overachieving, and was on the path of corporate domination. September 11 disrupted that story and forced me to engage with the world around me. In that moment, whether I liked it or not, I understood what interdependence really meant—I could no longer just stand by and let it happen. My practice enabled me to navigate that chaotic time, see a new perspective, and chart a new course.
From then on, it just rolled. My practice led me to my purpose, and my purpose led me in 2oo7 to Off the Mat Into the World. Through that work I bridged my practice, my business background, and my passion for personal and social change. At the time, we were asking the question, How do we engage in the critical issues of this moment through the lens of our practice? It was a question that deeply resonated for me, personally, as that was my experience. And so I became curious about the relationship between personal transformation and social change, and what was possible if we could lift up a new kind of leadership—one that was conscious, connected, and courageous. My journey was a step-by-step process. You don’t go from o to 80. You go from o to 1o, and then you discover a new thing about yourself—and that creates more capacity to step in, be courageous, and make change.
SC: How did Yoga Votes inspire you to become more politically involved and ultimately launch CTZNWELL?
KK: Over the years, I had witnessed yogis, meditators, and mindful practitioners waking up through their practice and translating that into their lives—even if it was a small thing like transforming the way they ate or how they parented. This awakening started to inform our social views of one another and of the world, and my colleagues and I saw people get actively engaged in conversations about social change. That was the inspiration for YogaVotes. In 2o12, we launched the campaign as a grand experiment of what’s possible when the yoga community finds its voice, comes together, and votes for change. It was an incredible experience that ignited conversation about the relationship between our practice and political engagement.
Coming out of that experience, we dug deeper. We found that the well-being market—the aggregate community of people in the United States who are committed to healthy eating, sustainable living, and conscious practice, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or mindfulness—includes 5o-plus million people and is a $29o billion dollar industry. But while these people are energized and committed to their practice, values, lifestyle, and local community, that engagement isn’t necessarily translating politically. We knew that this community was a latent power that was ripe to be mobilized around social and political engagement that reflects their values. That is where CTZNWELL comes in.
SC: Some people were excited and recognized that to be a yogi, engagement and participation were necessary. Yet a lot of people pushed back and did not want politics in the yoga room. Can you address that?
KK: At CTZNWELL, we’ve been listening across communities to better understand what is holding people back from bringing their practice into social change and politics. What we heard is that people are disengaged because they don’t see themselves in the process. Because they don’t identify with being a Democrat or Republican or a liberal or conservative, they don’t know where they belong. Also, they see politics as a corrupt, broken system, which reinforces their decision to check out.
So part of our work is creating a home for this community. We encourage communities to reorient their political engagement around the values they live by. When individuals and communities remember and reclaim that sense of purpose, it makes them lean in and engage differently. It’s not necessarily faster, but it’s more potent and courageous because it says that anyone can participate, and that you don’t have to be perfectly educated about issues to vote.
SC: That is an example of a campaign the community got engaged in?
KK: Our first issue was minimum wage, because while poverty and economic injustice are less prevalent in the yoga community, the discussion about minimum wage is core to our values and our collective well-being. In 2o15, CTZNWELL organized yogis and meditators to join the Fight for 15 campaign and supported the largest gathering of underpaid workers in US history. The movement forced a political response that, in September, resulted in a pay raise for fast-food workers that will lift 2oo,ooo New Yorkers out of poverty. Over the next few months, we will be expanding into issues of food justice, paid leave, and voting rights as we ramp up to the 2o16 election.
SC: How do you respond to people who say they just want to be at peace within themselves and that your work is actually creating more agitation?
KK: I think that agitation is really healthy. On the yoga mat, we deliberately create tensions. We create contrast so that we can heal wounds and become more integrated, and I think it’s not that different in the larger culture. This moment in the world is calling us to go to our edge, to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, and to stand for what is right and fair.
SC: Tell me how yoga fits into this work.
KK: When we ask ourselves what issues the world faces right now, the root of the problem is always disconnection, whether it’s disconnection from our bodies or disconnection from one another in relationship or disconnection from the system itself. And the social cost of disconnection is massive. We see it playing out in rising rates of diabetes and obesity, in the way structural racism and white supremacy are bubbling to the surface again, in the environmental crisis. Yoga is about reuniting, remembering, and reengaging, so the practice meets the problem at the root level. The inner practice of yoga feels central, but the practice without engagement and action feels like a myth. If we can take this work that we’re doing on the inside and translate it into relationship, service, and social engagement, we’ve got a powerful tool for navigating the complexities of this moment with grace, compassion, and patience.
SC: How can people find their passion, dream, or desire and turn it into action?
KK: Everybody on this planet has a purpose, has an authentic contribution to make, and that’s core to the kind of change-making we’re trying to accomplish.
The first step is to speak your purpose: Tell it to others and let it become a part of your narrative. Let your friends or family know who you are and what you stand for. The more we tell it to others, the more it sinks into our tissues and our bones. Next, practice self-awareness and be clear about what you’re good at and what you need help with. Then, take inventory of who in your life can be an ally and ask him or her for help. Sometimes following your passion feels lonely and isolating. Being in community will help bolster your courage and give you peer support. Once you know your purpose, be committed to activating it, and be patient so that you grow, evolve, expand, and express it in a way that is authentic to you. Apply yoga principles to how you embody and activate your purpose: Set up your foundation, then reinforce your alignment, then fully express the pose. The practice will enable you to thrive in your purpose and in your project.