Lyz Riley + the Power of Inclusive Yoga Spaces | By Lexi Reich

Last Updated: September 4, 2020By

Lyz Riley had just moved to St. Louis for law school, and as a seasoned yogi, was on the lookout for a new yoga studio to call home. The night before, a white officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man was given a non-guilty verdict. The news sat on Riley’s shoulders like thick sand.

She walked into a nearby studio to flow and feel her body. She rolled out her mat. Everyone in the room kept to themselves and their mats. Riley let the silence draw herself inwards.

The rigor of the practice was soothing. But during savasana, the instructor spoke up. She spoke on the officer’s lack of choice in the situation and shared her opinions on the victim’s background.

Lying on her mat, Riley felt shocked and upset. She was supposed to feel at peace and safe in this moment.

Lyz Riley

“After class I went to speak with the instructor, and she told me that I don’t understand the cultural dynamic because I had just moved to St. Louis. When I pushed her further about cultural awareness and sensitivity in yoga classes, she suggested that I practice elsewhere. I have never been back to that studio,” the Denver-native says, adding she preferred to not name the studio.

“I believe the lack of communication, the lack of acknowledging the human beings sitting right next to you, creates a sense of disconnection from others and lends to the racial divide as well. When I walk into a room, where no one looks like me and everyone is silent and no one looks at one another, it feels unwelcoming and is really antithetical to the way black gatherings take place,” she adds.

Right before moving to St. Louis in 2017, Riley had earned her yoga teacher certification through the Satya Yoga Cooperative 200-hour POC Yoga Teacher Training program in Denver.

“It’s a unique program,” she explains. “Our teacher, Lakshmi, is focused on healing the impact of trauma from racism; that’s her orientation to yoga — inner work, external learning from each other and community learnings.”

Riley discovered the healing power of communal yoga spaces in 2011 when she attended her first yoga class with Im’Unique, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering healthy lifestyles in underserved communities.

While working for a nonprofit in Denver, Riley joined some of her coworkers for a free yoga class at the Denver Zoo one night after work. She walked into the large community room. Ready or Not Here I Come by The Fugees was on full blast. Kids were doing somersaults.

“In all my other experiences with yoga up until that point, this was the exact opposite,” she exclaims, drawing on her yoga experience usually being quieter, with dimmed lights, shoes off. “I’m like, ‘this is kind of cool, I dig this vibe!’”

The instructor, Tyrone Beverly, founder of Im’Unique, walked into the room, and Riley’s jaw dropped.

“He’s the yoga instructor? A black man? I was shocked,” she says.

It was one of the best classes Riley says she ever took. Her favorite part of the class was entering tree pose with everyone in the room and using one another for support.

“Black yoga spaces allow people to bring their full, imperfect selves to be seen and to be heard. Their breath can be loud, their children can laugh and be present, and afterwards, we shake hands or hug or cry — whatever humanness comes to us in that moment. And all people are welcomed,” she says.

Black yoga spaces allow people to bring their full, imperfect selves to be seen and to be heard.

Today, Riley spends her time flowing and growing with The Collective STL community in St. Louis, which she found shortly after her discouraging experience at the unnamed studio. Her community at Satya Yoga connected her to The Collective STL, and she says she’s “hooked.”

The Collective STL is a yoga community founded on the principle of improving the health and wellbeing in black communities in St. Louis. They offer donation-based yoga classes, mindfulness trainings and self-care workshops to the community.

“Through yoga, I’ve met many beautiful people who have connected me to many opportunities – things like jobs, board positions, volunteer services – and I’ve also met myself more deeply,” she explains. “I wish we better remembered that yoga is not only an embodied practice — that yoga incorporates breath, mind and spirit, and also, community. Without all of these elements, we are spending time on an empty practice.”

Riley admits even the most welcoming of spaces with POC are struggling with the growing divide in our country today.

“Focusing on more inclusive spaces is important and a worthy pursuit,” she says. “It’s going to be hard right now because emotions are so raw. When we’re practicing together, we can’t hide that. Being honest about how we’re feeling and what we’re going through collectively is the only way to have inclusive yoga spaces. Be open to hearing and caring about other people. It needs to be intentional and honest. Once you built it, people will come.”

Photo by Eternal Happiness from Pexels.

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