Leadership Lab: Chelsea Jackson on Power, Privilege, and Practice

A community activist finds that the more she practices yoga, the more she finds her voice.

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Chelsea Jackson, Ph.D., E-RYT is an educator, yoga instructor, and facilitator of online yoga community Chelsea Loves Yoga. She relies on yoga and restorative justice when working with youth and marginalized communities and is an advisor to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and contributor to the Yoga and Body Image anthology. Find out more and connect with her on Facebook. What first brought you to yoga?
Chelsea Jackson:
I wanted to try yoga for the first time because I was physically uncomfortable with my body. I have confronted body issues with regard to shape, size, and weight throughout childhood, my teens, and adult life. Initially, I approached the practice with emphasis on asana. Simply put, I wanted to lose weight. I began with a local Bikram yoga studio and literally practiced every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. As I look back 14 years later, I realize that my approach could be interpreted as narrow and one-dimensional (not to mention a little compulsive); however, during this process of practice I was cultivating techniques that would later help me heal from the death of my best friend. It was during this time of trauma that I relied on my yoga practice to remind me how to breathe, how to surrender, and how to be whole after loss. What inspired you to become a leader?
C.J.: Being a leader was never my intention. There have been countless times dating all the way back to my childhood when I have been silent and wished I would have said, or could have said something. These regrets usually pertain to some type of injustice I observed, both toward myself and/or others, that left me silent. What I have noticed is: the more I engage themes, or guiding principles of yoga into the ways in which I interpret the world, the more I speak. People often talk about the “yoga community.” What does that mean to you?
For me, I am not sure if the “people” who often talk about the “yoga community” are necessarily thinking of me or my image being reflected within the community. It is challenging to feel a part of something when you don’t feel represented. Very similar to things that appear imbalanced, you have to wonder: Who or what is being silenced? On the one hand, when I think of the term “yoga community” visually and in general, I think of how much my image is not represented in publications, advertisements for teacher trainings, and the message that conveys. While on the other hand, when I think of yoga communities that have been created because of this exclusion, I am reminded that imbalanced representation cannot define yoga or community for me; instead, it offers opportunity for understanding and perhaps a chance to sit at the same table with multiple yoga communities and really begin to practice yoga. What visible or invisible barriers work against diversity in the yoga world?
C.J.: The most visible barrier I see that works against diversity in the yoga world is invisibility. As a Black woman who has practiced yoga for almost 15 years, I am aware when reflections of my body are excluded from publications, advertisements for yoga classes, etc. Privilege and power will always play a factor when thinking about diversity. So when a particular body type, race, or ability level is constantly privileged, it serves as a barrier against embracing the fullness of not only yoga, but the multiple people who contribute to yoga communities. What does yoga miss when it lacks diversity?
C.J.: For me, the practice will always be diverse because it can never be isolated from the lived experiences each practitioner brings with her/him to the mat. I think that when perspectives and worldviews that lack diversity enter yoga communities, yoga communities are not immune to marginalization, segregation, and exclusion. What do people miss when yoga doesn’t speak to them?
C.J.: I’d like to speak for myself on this one. When I have days that my yoga practice is not speaking to me, it is usually a day of complete imbalance. If I truly allow myself to be open to the teachings of yoga at all times, I imagine I would feel total self-acceptance. Instead of being hard on myself for not getting enough accomplished for the day, I could trust my yoga practice, which ecourages me to remain present. So when I have difficulty listening to my yoga practice, I am missing an opportunity to practice compassion with myself, which can potentially impact the ways in which I practice compassion with others. Paint a picture of an amazing yoga class. 
One that is led by an instructor who is very aware of all of the needs in the class. [It] makes me feel like I am a unique wave within a vast ocean that is essentially one. Okay, lightning round. Fill in the blanks:
YJ: Today, yoga is ___
… evolving

Tomorrow, yoga should be ___
C.J.: …
continuing to evolve

Yoga communities need more _____
… conscious and authentic dialogue around diversity

YJ: and less ___
C.J.: … “colorblind” mentalities that dismiss and silence non-dominant voices and communities.

YJ: I encourage all yogis to ___
C.J.: …
practice Self-love by confronting those unknown and scary places within ourselves first with compassion and to eventually use those understandings as tools for transformation both on and off the mat.

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