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Teaching Yoga

What It’s Like to Be a Black Yoga Teacher

“When someone walks out of my class before it begins, I often wonder if it’s because of who I am or what I look like,” shares Chelsea Jackson Roberts, who leads Yoga Journal’s new Inclusivity Training course.

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When I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, 
in the ’8os, I did a lot of quintessential “American” things: I was a cheerleader, 
a ballet dancer, a gymnast. And yet I knew that I was not the ideal American woman. She did not look like me; her image in the media—white, super thin—did not reflect me, a black girl with a very athletic build. Our differences were only reinforced by what I experienced in my world every day. Constant remarks from my gymnastics coach, like “Tuck in your butt, Chelsea,” made me feel like I had failed—by no effort on my part other than walking in 
a black girl’s body. And when I traveled 
to national cheerleading competitions, the girls who won and appeared on the cover of the competition magazines did not look like me. It was not a surprise, but I also knew early on that it was not OK. 

As a teenager trying to meet the standard ideal of a cheerleader’s body type, 
I developed an eating disorder—one 
I carried throughout high school and even returned to in early adulthood. In fact, the first time I walked into a yoga class, I was there because I wanted to lose weight. 
I had recently finished my master’s degree 
at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the stress from working as a public-school teacher combined with my unconscious relationship with food caused me to put on pounds. So when I heard that hot yoga would help me lose weight, I said, “Sign me up!” 

It was not necessarily love at first sight—I fainted! I’m not really sure what happened, I just woke up with cold towels on my forehead. I can’t believe I ever went back, but I’ve always had this attitude of “I’m going to see this through.” 

I dabbled in yoga for a while, still focusing on the physical benefits. Then, 
in 2004, a very good friend of mine was violently murdered. That’s when I really turned to yoga: I knew something more was happening during the physical practice, and I wanted to use it to get through that tragic loss. I started going deeper into meditation and discovered Kashi Atlanta ashram, where I eventually became a certified yoga teacher.

I began to use yoga as a tool to reveal how much of an effect the loss of my dear friend was having on me, and it taught me how to use this practice as a way to feel in order to heal. Yoga led me to reflect more on how I was treating my body—the ways 
I accepted and did not accept myself—and it began to transform me. I became more conscious and loving toward myself, and I realized yoga is not about weight loss at all. I now use yoga to uncover and understand the layers of experiences I encounter in the world, including those that continue to make me feel like I don’t belong. 

See also Why Every Yoga Teacher & Practitioner Needs Inclusivity Training 

For instance, despite my 10 years of teaching yoga, students regularly seem surprised that I’m the teacher in the room. Maybe they’re making an assumption that someone named Chelsea doesn’t look like me. Maybe it’s because they’ve never seen 
a yoga teacher, or an image of one, who wasn’t a white, thin woman. When someone walks out of my class before it begins, 
I often wonder if it’s because of who I am or what I look like. When I roll out my
 mat and take the seat of the teacher, do they suddenly realize that they are in the wrong class or that I am the wrong teacher for them? And then there are the students who stay, and at the end of class say things like, “Wow, I cannot believe that you’re such a great teacher!” 

Through my practice, I’ve realized that this is not about me; this is not a reflection of who I am as a yoga teacher. More than anything, it reveals how necessary it is 
to have opportunities for connection. Because for every person who walks out 
of my class, there are dozens of others who do not look like me (with regard to race, gender, or class) who stay to hear what I have to say and to share their own stories. And so my sadness and frustration is more geared toward those people who left—a missed opportunity for connection and what yoga was intended for in the first place, union. 

See also 4 Ways Teachers Can Hurt Students with Language

About Our Pro 
Chelsea Jackson Roberts is the founder and director of Yoga, Literature, & Art Camp for Teen Girls, in Atlanta. She earned her PhD in education and has dedicated her career to bringing yoga to marginalized communities and researching the ways in which power and privilege are impacting lives at the intersection of race, class, and gender.

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Sign up now for Yoga Journal’s new online course Inclusivity Training for Yoga: Building Community with Compassion for an introduction to the skills and tools you need as a teacher and as a student. In this class, you’ll learn how to better identify student needs, make compassionate and inclusive language choices, gracefully offer pose alternatives, give appropriate assists, reach out to neighboring communities, and expand and diversify your classes.