TY: Starting a yoga practice can take a bit of courage and experimentation. How did you get started practicing yoga? What drew you in to your practice? When did you know you wanted to continue?
KBJ: I have several beginnings to my yoga practice story. First, at 13, I found a book by Raquel Welch at the library. The book was called Total Beauty and I was a young teen, recently immigrated to the US and feeling lost in a new culture and environment. Pursuing “total beauty” sounded like a good way to fit in. I don’t remember what else she recommended, but the yoga portion, which was the majority of the book, really spoke to me. I roped my younger cousin in, “teaching” him the poses, and we started practicing yoga after school. I remember us loving Savasana.
That didn’t last very long (I had to return the book) and it took another celebrity, Ali McGraw, to draw me back to practice. She has a great beginners video (which someone has uploaded to Youtube). I learned breath exercises and flow from this video, practices I very much needed during my first year of graduate school. I later felt comfortable enough to attend some classes at my university, but I didn’t commit to a regular practice until I moved to New York and met the first yoga teacher who inspired me to make yoga an integral part of my life. Fleuretta taught at my local YMCA and she treated her students as though just by walking into her class they had agreed to be yogis and yoginis for life. And, well, most of us did because of her attitude. She guided me through my first teacher training and classes. Even though I don’t make it to her class very often now, I can still hear her voice in my head when teaching or practicing certain poses.
TY: Did you try different things, or did you find your yoga right away?
KBJ: I did try different things – I’m still trying different things! I don’t know that I’ve “found my yoga” because as I grow and change, my body and mind require different types of practice. In New York I had so many options it was sometimes dizzying. Here in Williamstown I have been going back to basics and focusing my home practice on the Ashtanga primary series, with an occasional dash of spice from an Instagram challenge.
TY: What about your yoga practice has sustained you to keep going? What have been the biggest challenges for you along the way?
KBJ: Feeling both the physical and psychological benefits of the practice has kept me going back to my mat. I especially like the repetitive nature of old, familiar sequences that can simultaneously feel new and like home. You know the saying you can never step in the same river twice? Well my yoga practice feels like that. I might know the shape of the poses, the landscape so to speak, but when I actually “step” into each pose, I have a new experience. That is, if I am paying attention. One of my challenges is in not just going through the motions, especially when I have been practicing regularly and my body moves more easily through the warm up portion of my practice.
TY: Are there particular people, ideas, communities that have been important to you on your path?
KBJ: Yes, so many it’s hard to list them here. I’ve been lucky to find the teacher I needed just when I needed them. First Fleuretta, who helped me see that yoga was not just a world of thin white women (like Raquel Welch and Ali McGraw) and that there was a way to navigate various yoga communities without losing myself or my connection to Caribbean and African Diasporic cultures. My 200-hour teacher trainer, Jeanmarie Paolillo, was nearing fifty when I met her and she had a very physical practice, which taught me about commitment and consistency. Jeanmarie was very grounded in meditation, which I had never really thought much about before; I began my regular meditation practice with her and have stuck with it through the years. At about this time I also discovered advanced classes with Sherman Morris. Sherman became friend and mentor, especially in terms of how to make the transition from student to teacher. Both Jeanmarie and Sherman were part of my Yogaworks community and they, along with my 300-hour mentor Heather Seagraves, helped me define my own teaching style, which is influenced by the many hours I’ve spent in their classes but also reflects my own path.
TY: It’s been said that the best students make the best teachers. Is this idea true for you, and if so could you comment? Are there ways that for you being a student is part of teaching?
KBJ: I don’t know that the best students make the best teachers. Being a good student requires such a different skill set than being a good teacher does. As a teacher, you need to be focused totally on keeping your students safe while enabling, and allowing, them to grow in their practice. A student is more focused on individual growth. I do think that the related adage is quite true: The best teachers are good (and forever) students. So, yes, being a student is a necessary part of teaching for me. I can’t foster growth if I, myself, am stagnant. And, this may sound contradictory, but sometimes being a student means learning from yourself. So the best yoga teachers often have strong home practices where they can continuously explore their own relationship to asana and meditation and pranayama. Whether in a self-led home practice or guided by a teacher, being a student helps me not only to “progress” in my practice (whatever that might look like) but also to foster a beginner’s attitude to the practice, which keeps it fresh. There is a concept in Zen Buddhism – shoshin – that often gets translated as “beginner’s mind” and means openness and eagerness and freedom from the preconceptions that may limit learning. The best teachers regularly cultivate shoshin so that they can meet their students at every level.
Kelly will teach at Tasha Yoga on Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:30am through November 2016, and Feb-May, 2017. She is also offering Sunday Slow Jams 10/30, 11/20, and 12/11. This is a 90-minute level 1/2 class that focuses on warming and lengthening major muscle groups. In essence, a laid-back, down-dog-free, Sunday morning practice to ease students into the week to come. Class led with music.