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Chelsea Jackson Roberts is full of emotions as she stands on the open stage in Times Square. Before her and behind her are rows and rows of people–thousands of them, lined up on blue yoga mats nearly as far as she could see. They’re cheering for her, waiting for her instruction to begin.
“I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years and for as long as I’ve been practicing, I knew that this existed,” she says. “This is a dream come true for me.”
“This” is the annual Solstice in Times Square event, when yoga enthusiasts gather in Manhattan to celebrate the summer solstice and International Day of Yoga. The 2022 event is aptly themed Mind Over Madness. It is the first time people had been able to gather for the annual event since the COVID pandemic shut the city down. Crowds stream into busy Midtown from 7:00 in the morning until after the sun went down, for yoga, wellness advice, communion, and camaraderie. And Roberts gives it in spades.
“This is wild, right?” she says. “We’re in the middle of Times Square. And what’s so beautiful about that, to me, is that there’s so much going on around us–the movement, the sounds, the energy, and yet and still we can find our place in this world, in this space, in our community together.”
A bright light; a role model
The Atlanta-based yoga teacher first came to prominence as the founder of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp at Spelman College. A former classroom teacher with a doctorate in educational studies, Roberts developed the program for teen girls in 2013. (She’s currently piloting a program for boys as well.) Meanwhile, in addition to operating Red Clay Yoga, she became a Lululemon ambassador, was an instructor for Off the Mat, Into the World, and has taught yoga across the country and around the world. (She’s been a YJ cover model twice!) These days she leads classes for Peloton, where she has more than 230,000 online students. More than 1000 people registered for her Times Square session.
Roberts’ draw is not just because of the quality of her yoga instruction; her warmth and enthusiasm are contagious. Even at this yoga session in one of the busiest intersections on the planet, she exudes a sense of calm, joy, and playfulness. At her encouragement, participants greet and engage one another. Before the hour is over, some people are hugging their neighbors, a sight that she says brought her nearly to tears.
Yoga for all—tailored to you
And if she seems to have an extra glow, it may be because she and her husband Shane are expecting their first child. She lovingly rubs her blooming belly during the hour-long yoga practice. She modifies her practice to honor her new shape and condition—and encourages students to take care of their bodies in the same way.
“We want you to know that this is for all levels, all people, all walks of life,” she says to the crowd. “Whether you are able to move standing, sitting, whatever you need to do, we want to meet you exactly where you are.”
In a setting like this–where there are literally thousands of people with a wide range of abilities, and no way to individualize instruction or even see every student—it’s important for a teachers to give options when cueing. Though Roberts is assisted by two other Peloton teachers, Mariana Fernandez and Kirra Michele, she offers suggestions for people who needed to ease into yoga, as well as encouragement for those who might appreciate a more energetic sequence.
Her pregnancy makes her a role model for modifications. She skips the Vinyasa flows that would have brought her onto her stomach, widens her stance to accommodate her belly in forward folds, and uses props to help extend her reach. Her spinal twists are gentle and slight, but she brings mobility to the spine in a series of body rolls.
Throughout the practice, she cues participants to practice with ease and self-care. “If at any time you need to pause and bring the body down, please do that,” she says.
Being in the moment; being in the element
Just as her session is winding down, rain begins to fall. Ever smiling, she takes the weather in stride.
“The elements are starting to remind us that we are alive,” she says. “Take it in y’all…. We’re here now, so you might as well enjoy it. By the time you get to your destination you’re gonna be wet anyway, so why not?”
And as she brings the practice to a close, she looks out over the sea of people moving together.
“As we sit here in a moment we may never, ever experience again …. may this practice remind us that we are worthy of this breath, of this support, of this community,” she says.
Solstice In Times Square: Mind Over Madness
Practice with Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts
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