Foreword by Rob Schware, Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation
I first met Dr. Gail Parker through a webinar series which Give Back Yoga sponsored with the Yoga Service Council, Yoga from the Inside Out: Shining a Light on Racial Wounding, which we considered an overdue discussion to be had in the field of yoga service. Her forthcoming book, Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma, could not be more relevant given our racialized world. It is powerful, and timely. She asks us to explore very honestly our own feelings and reactions to race and racism, however painful, conscious or unconscious, in order to stop contributing to separation and suffering.
Now, here’s her interview:
You say your yoga practice offered you a pathway into your interior life when you were struggling to leave a forty-year practice as a psychologist. Can you share what you meant?
In the West, psychology is primarily taught and practiced as the study of the mind. “I think therefore I am.” It is an approach that tends to keep us on the surface level of thought and emotion. Yoga takes us into a deeper level of experience to the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit. It supports cultivating an inner gaze through contemplative practices that help still the mind, reduce stress and recover from trauma in the body, and restores our connection to the soul. We know that stress and trauma are not cognitive but are embodied experiences. The thinking mind cannot access an embodied experience. It has to be felt. When we learn to sit with ourselves and observe our thoughts and emotions as they arise, rather than reacting to or analyzing them, we clear a path for clarity of mind to surface and for wisdom to emerge. A comprehensive yoga practice, one that includes Yama and Niyama, asana, pranayama, and the meditative practices of yoga, when practiced regularly helps cultivate an inner gaze that goes beyond thought and emotion. It supports present moment awareness, clarity of thought, and the energy of freedom. I experienced all of that as I sat in contemplation about the wisdom of closing my private practice as contrasted to the agitation I felt when I was trying to figure out what I should do by thinking about it.
My favorite chapter (Spiritual Activism—Yoga from the Inside Out) is where you discuss the role spiritual activism plays in healing racial wounding. What’s a daily practice of spiritual activism look like to you?
Every day, whether I want to or not I begin my day with a minimum twenty minute meditation. Next I read or listen to an inspirational message. Sometimes that is in the form of a book, it could be a lecture, of just a brief inspirational message. I sit with it and marinate in it and carry whatever message I glean from it into my day. I make sure I spend time in nature every day, between thirty-five and sixty minutes, usually walking which is another form of meditation for me. I spend time writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about words, their meaning and how I use them. I regard the use of language as part of my spiritual practice. I respond to any communication I receive as soon as possible, usually within the same day. I am very aware of what triggers me and when I get triggered I try to pause first, and ask myself if what I am about to contribute to the situation or the conversation can elevate it. If not, I wait until the agitation passes and then respond.
Now I must tell you that I am not running a perfect game here. I can have a short fuse, but over the years I am much less reactive than I was as a younger person. And remember, this is a spiritual practice, not an accomplishment. It is ongoing. I resist the temptation to act out of fear and anxiety, which means I have to know when I’m scared or anxious. Self-study is a daily practice. When I have a strong emotion, I sit still until the feeling passes before I take any action. I practice accepting reality as it is, not as I’d like it to be. As I have matured, my contemplative practice has become more important to me than my asana practice which I now do three times each week rather than the six days a week I did when I was younger. I am very intentional in taking my yoga practice off of my mat and applying what I learn in my daily life.
You also say that “yoga really is for everybody.” Agreed. But how do we overcome the fact that wealth and disposable income play an important role in access to yoga classes, workshops, and training?
What I have always done is taken my work to where it is needed, rather than waiting for people to come to me or trying to figure out how to get people to come to me. You have to be willing to go where the people you choose to serve are. That also includes a willingness to charge people what they are willing to pay for the services being offered when they cannot afford to pay what is being charged.
Are there some ways you would suggest yoga therapists and teachers working with unserved populations become greater agents of and advocates for positive change?
What I teach is that each of us can change the world through individual personal transformation. Gandhi did it. Martin Luther King Jr. did it. Nelson Mandela did it, and countless others did it too. You cannot change other people but you can change yourself—and, by your example, inspire others to become the best version of themselves.
Are there any small victories you’ve experienced recently that you’d like to share with us?
I’ve actually had some pretty big ones that I’d like to share. Finishing my book was quite a victory. Being elected to the President of the Board of Directors of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance in January 2020 was quite an honor. Becoming familiar with and learning how to function on online platforms without being terrified is another.