This week’s Yogi in the Community shows us what happens when yoga and activism converge! zahra alabanza, co-founder of Atlanta’s own Red, Bike, and Green talks about life, community building, and activism through the lens of yoga and offers some helpful suggestions for folks interested in beginning a yoga practice. Take a second to pause for a little Hump Day inspiration! Meet zahra!
Name: zahra alabanza
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
What led you to the practice of yoga? So many things have led me to yoga, it’s possibly divine. In reflection, i can say my mother introduced me to yoga. She was a practitioner, but of course i didn’t notice this till i started my own intentional yoga journey, 20 some odd years later. Growing up in Hawaii during my early childhood I recall my mom meditating, chanting and having an asana practice. Recalling this and hearing stories of her and my older sister’s practices only fueled my personal interest in yoga as i got older. 10+ years ago my sister took me to a few Bikram classes. However, i wasn’t yet moved to start my own practice until around 2006 when of all places i went to Bally’s gym in Chicago to take a class. The class being taught by a young Black woman (who looked like i would kick it with her outside of class) changed my life forever and now i am right here becoming who she was for me. Seeing and practicing with this woman (her name escapes me) once a week was everything. It gave me so much life and eventually became a part of my routine. Yoga, calmed me, changed my breath, and the way i walked. I didn’t become Buddah like but i did become more of the self i wanted to be, a self that my mom was modeling for me so many years prior. When i decided years later to intentionally work on healing myself, yoga was instantly something i knew was going to be part of that journey. In 2012 i enrolled in a Yoga Teacher Training course and the rest is being written. The training actually taught me that i was already living a very yogic life, being in the training and taking my practice deeper was just the fine tuning of what already was.
What connections do you see between your yoga practice and your activism throughout the community? Whew, my yoga is so integral to my activism/organizing in Atlanta. Yoga is a way of life…A way of being that i have learned to incorporate into my existence. My existence includes contributing to a more loving and just world starting with myself, fam and community. Hence my yoga being integral to my activism. First and foremost yoga is part of the healing justice work i call myself doing. As an activist/organizer in Chicago i became burnt out very early on and knew i couldn’t sustain the work at the rate i was going. I decided i needed to work on myself and the traumas i experienced. i had to drastically change my life. I moved to ATL with my two children in hopes of slowing down, connecting to the earth literally by growing food and being outdoors more, getting more into my body, being more physically active and by taking a yoga teacher training course at an urban Ashram called Kashi Atlanta. This i knew was necessary for my own healing but also would allow me to bring yoga and it’s many elements to those who were activist/organizers in the communities i lived and worked in as well as the general public that didn’t normally have access to practicing yoga in its formal sense (asana, meditation classes and the such). Healing Justice work is vital to organizers and activist. We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders and need to ensure we maintain our wellness, but rarely make it a priority just like the poor and working class. Introducing yoga to people and encouraging healing through yoga was my way of offering up a solution focused option to so many people who focus their time on solving the problems or others. By introducing folks to yoga i hoped that it would become incorporated into daily lives and or as a go to trick/solution when all else failed and ones world was collapsing. My yoga offerings are also provided in ways that uphold my political, justice oriented love ethic beliefs and practices.
Through practicing yoga i realize that body movement in general is healing, transformative and brings people together in positive ways. With knowing this and loving bike riding i co-founded Red, Bike and Green-Atlanta (RBG-ATL). RBG-ATL is a community-building collective of Black urban cyclists seeking to improve the physical and mental health, economy and local environment of African Americans by creating a relevant and sustainable Black bike culture. Biking became a fun tool for my activism and organizing just as yoga has and with them intertwined ATL is getting a treat of loving on themselves in fun, sustainable, accessible, communal and transformative ways. Just like i created spaces for people to start or enhance their yoga practices i have along with a core group of committed cyclist, activist, and concerned community members created Black biking spaces. These spaces give visibility of Black people biking and holding positive public space. Black folks who bike for leisure, work or competitively have gone unseen just as those who practice yoga. However, with set intentions on healing ourselves and our communities our visibility gives way and permission to take on practices that transform despite us traditionally not seeing ourselves with these practices.
How important do you think it is to see diverse images and hear diverse voices when it comes to yoga? How do we continue the expansion of this practice in our own communities?
Diversity of images and voices in the yoga community are vital. In the west yoga is a billion dollar empire that has a limited and exclusive face. However, despite the limited images that are associated with yoga we must know that “others” meaning youth, women, people of color, poor folks, people with different physical and mental abilities have lived and practiced a Yogic life more often than the masses choose to report. The media would like to have us believe that we do not practice yoga, shoot it could damn near convince us that yoga originated in the West and not in ancient lands. We know otherwise. And in an effort for yoga history to not be misconstrued we must create our own media/images displaying our truths of its diversity. The portrayal of who is practicing and living yoga must visually display is in the hands of photographers like Sabriya Simon, websites like decolonizing yoga, instructors such as Kim Crosby and Chelsea Jackson. They are ensuring that the current yoga her/history will be written and seen with vast representation and our truths.
In order to expand the representation of who we see practicing yoga we must continue to document our work and the work of those who bring yoga to the communities that go underrepresented. I create experiences and spaces that use yoga as a tool for people to bond, thrive, heal and expand themselves by designing yoga series in unconventional spaces. In April 2012, I developed Yoga @ Charis, a donation based class for all levels that is held every Sunday. Classes are taught by a small collective of local Black yogis who are committed to making yoga accessible to the communities we come from and stand in solidarity with and among. Creating yoga spaces that are accessible are vital as traditionally yoga spaces have not been welcoming or inclusive. Accessibility is vast and encompasses physical ability and body type, being physically located on major transportation lines, financial affordability, inclusive of people of color, expansive gender representation and sexual orientation/preference, intergenerational and youth and child friendly. Not only do we strive for this at Yoga @ Charis, but also in any space that i am responsible for creating.
Generally speaking my thoughts about designing yoga series in unconventional spaces is about meeting people where they are. Students get to practice yoga in places they frequent, already feel comfortable in and want to be. These spaces are welcoming and less intimidating than yoga studios and students can bank of sharing this experience with someone that also frequents the space. It also brings new people to the space increasing business and awareness of other services and resources in our communities. Currently, i am wrapping my brain around how yoga in unconventional spaces allows us to live more lightly on the earth. Trust, the US doesn’t need another single purpose space like a yoga studio. Instead we need to identify ways to use the already existing spaces to bring community together. I want us to rethink how we use space, public and otherwise for our healing. Partnering with business owners and community spaces with the hopes of incorporating yoga is not only about being creative with how we use space, it is also about connecting the dots in our community.
Do you have any suggestions for people who are beginning a yoga practice who may feel discouraged or overwhelmed in the beginning?
DO NOT feel discouraged, it is not of you and if you do have this feeling it is in your best interest to move beyond it. Acknowledge it, look it in the face and say i’ma stay here and continue this practice despite not necessarily wanting to. I promise after your practice you will feel liberated for pushing through. Practicing yoga is for you and your evolution. When you get on your mat it’s you and your mat, not the person next to you or behind you. You and your mat build a relationship that is exclusive and only for you, so please honor that relationship. I also strongly recommend practicing somewhere you feel called to practice. Perhaps somewhere familiar or recommended by a friend or somewhere you have been considering for a long time.
While practicing do not give up no matter what. Poses will be challenging, your breath will be short but eventually it won’t. Eventually, the poses will become easier and your breath will get deeper. You will begin to see your evolution if you continue to practice. My 3 year old Marley reminds me all the time with his continuous effort that we have to practice to get better. The outcome of you developing a practice is worth everything you may experience in your yoga journey. Remember, your yoga practice is a journey with ups and downs, it’s a wavy journey. Things come up on the mat, you face yourself on the mat, you evolve on the mat, your life can changes on the mat if you allow yourself to surrender and hear the lessons you can learn while on the mat. I invite folks to just stay on the mat especially when you are discouraged and overwhelmed. Dedicate your practice to being the best you are on that day. Showing up for yourself is all that matters. That love is everything.
You can keep up with zahra by checking out the following links!
FB- Zahra Ala, redbikeandgreenatl
IG- @Zahra_Ala, @redbikeandgreenatl
Twitter- @ZahraAlabanza, @redbikeandgreenatl