Getting Through ... With Mominatu

At just 26 years old, this free spirit moved to Dakar, Senegal, to open up her first yoga studio.
Illustration: Isabella Carapella/ HuffPost; Photos: Nicole Sweet

At just 26 years old, Mominatu has lived many lives. She’s traveled the world — Puerto Rico, Portugal, India, Tanzania and Ecuador — and through it all, she has cultivated a deep yoga practice that has allowed her to stay grounded no matter where she is. This year, the model-turned-yoga instructor embarked on her biggest adventure yet: moving to Dakar, Senegal, to open her first yoga studio.

Of course, she couldn’t have anticipated the emergence of COVID-19, but rather than throw a complete wrench in her business venture, the past several months have created opportunities for Mominatu to learn how to adapt and grow. Nine months after moving to Dakar, she’s birthed a beautiful community of mostly Black women, teaching virtual and socially distanced yoga classes to local clients who are discovering a new way of finding peace amid mayhem.

In this interview for “Getting Through,” Mominatu discusses finding community, the key to mastering meditation and, after years of jet-setting, what she’s learned about the power of being still.

OK, first: How are you, really?

I think we’ve all been quietly going through it. As a Black woman in a patriarchal world, you’re always quietly going through it — on top of a pandemic, on top of racism, on top of the world sliding, falling apart. On top of people not honoring Black bodies. It’s like everyone is walking around with this weight on their backs. And any single person who is saying they are “OK” and that “everything is fine” has either not tapped into themselves — spiritually, emotionally or mentally — or are too privileged to acknowledge anything because it doesn’t affect them.

On your Instagram, you’ve talked a lot about how yoga has helped center you during the hardest times. Right now you are in your studio in Dakar, getting ready to lead your first yoga class for the day. How did you find your way to Senegal, and how did you find your way to starting this yoga practice?

Well, for some background, I’m Liberian and Senegalese. I went to school in America for broadcast journalism and a minor in fashion business. And then I was like, “Mmm, this ain’t it for me.” I decided I wanted to start traveling the world. I moved to Puerto Rico from Chicago with my best friend. I just followed my intuition and have been blessed along the way. I was doing marketing in Puerto Rico, and then I got signed to a major modeling agency. It was always my dream to model, so I did that. Then from Puerto Rico, I was like, “All right, I’ve made it here. I’ve done billboards here. I’ve done commercial campaigns. Maybe I’ll go to New York and see what that’s about.” This was after watching this movie, “Begin Again.” I was like, “These motherfuckers are on the rooftops and shit, following their dreams!” I’m like, “What am I doing sitting in Puerto Rico? I want to go to New York.” [Laughs] So I went to New York, and I got signed with this management team and started modeling there. But throughout it all, for the past 11 years, I was always practicing yoga. I got a yoga teacher training certification when I was 18.

I always had the intention of deepening my own practice because it was something that I needed. I never called it anxiety because I’m African and “we don’t have depression and anxiety,” right? [Laughs] That’s a white people thing, right? But I never, ever felt good. There was always this underlying trauma. I always needed yoga, and I always needed meditation or working out to find an equilibrium. And whenever I fell out of my practice, I found that I was not OK. It has always been a medicine for me, and I’m sure maybe it would have been better for me had I found, like, actual medicine, but that was the holistic approach [that] has worked for me and has allowed me to not only heal myself, but to use this practice to heal others. And that’s what brought me to Africa this year. I have decided to come back to Senegal, which is where my mom is from, and to bring yoga from a Black woman to the Senegalese people.

And how has that experience been for you? What has the response been from the people who take your classes?

I’ve been here for nine months now. I’ve been teaching the community classes for about five months, and people are loving it. Senegalese people are loving it. They wanted it. They wanted it! I had a class on the beach just the other day. Let me tell you: My first-ever class, I was scared shitless. I had my friends — who are social media influencers and they’re very powerful people — and they came, they’re like, “Bitch, if you don’t teach this mothafuckin’ class...” [Laughs] And they’re like, “We’re just gonna sit in class and we’re going to put you on the stories. Teach a class.” And so I’m there and my class was full, and it was all Black women. It was all Senegalese women, Senegalese diaspora, Africans.

And when one of the girls left the beach, a guy came up to her. He’s like, “You know, I have never, ever, ever seen Black people doing this. It’s always the white girls that come from America.” And that was so powerful for me. And now, fast forward, all my classes are Black. I mean, of course I have Lebanese clients and my private clients, but my group classes are African. They are Senegalese. And even African men are taking my classes. These men are coming in and stretching, and they’re not here for the fine girls. [Laughs] They’re here to find their peace.

What are your self-care rituals? Not just yoga, but other things that you do to stay grounded and centered?

I wake up in the morning at like 5 a.m., and I use a tongue scraper. Are you familiar with those Ayurvedic tongue scrapers, to get out all of the bacteria? And then I do oil pulling with coconut oil for 20 minutes. I just walk around the house. It changes everything. Everything. And then once I’m done with the oil pulling, I love herbs, so I’ll do an herbal tea to warm up. And then I do this specific massage called Abhyanga, and that’s an Ayurvedic self-massage. I love Ayurvedic science, and I treat my body on those philosophies. But the idea, basically, is pouring love into yourself. You take hot oil and you rub — it’s almost like lymphatic drainage. You rub the oil going down in strokes and then circling around the joints to [do] lymphatic drainage, but also as a self-love ritual. As you massage yourself, taking the time to really moisturize is an act of love. It’s like cleaning your temple. So I do that. And then I will go to the gym or train my first client that day. But those are things that, truly, no bullshit, I’m not the same person if I don’t start my day with those things. And then, of course, meditation.

How has yoga, meditation and all these practices changed your outlook on your life, and specifically during this time, how have they aided you in dealing with the chaos of 2020?

So for me, I like to say that yoga and meditation is very selfish, right? It allows you to deal with your own shit, but it doesn’t really show you how to deal with the world around you. So meditation allowed me to realize I wasn’t OK. And in that awareness, I could say, “All right, so what am I going to do about not feeling good right now?” ... We got a pandemic. We got to stay in the house. We can’t go anywhere. All right. That’s that. Now you got Black Lives Matter, the racism. All right. Then what? It’s just like, you’re constantly just — [takes three pronounced gasps] — taking in all these gulps until you’re like, “I. Can’t. Breathe. Anymore.” You know?

So I think having the awareness of what was going on allowed me to feel it. I know that sounds really weird, but I think the knowing and the grieving and being able to know what I was crying about [helped a lot], whereas a lot of my friends were just like, “I don’t know why I’m so upset.” It’s like, “Babes, open your eyes.”

You can’t solve a problem if you can’t name it.

Exactly. And that’s what meditation did for me. It allows me the space to have stillness, to understand what’s going on and how I respond and react to that. And to find a little bit of peace under pressure.

What was the worst thing that happened this year, so far?

The worst thing? [Laughs] I’ll be deadass. I was messing around with this one dude who was just devil dick. We’re all quarantining. We had a curfew here, so you couldn’t leave the house past 7 p.m. You couldn’t be on the streets. In Senegal, they were beating people [for breaking curfew]. So, you know, you had your little quarantine bae. Just that loneliness of having to be home all the time, you’re sort of blind. There was this heartbreak from having this nigga over all the time and realizing that I was just his nice little house to chill at, you know what I mean? So that, for me, was the worst thing that happened — but also the best thing that happened, because it propelled me to focus on my yoga and go into super-drive for work. But the quarantine bae situation, I got played. [Laughs]

And then on the flip side, what would you say is the best thing that’s happened this year so far?

Launching my business and being able to ground in a space. I think corona has been a blessing because I’m always on the move, and that’s something that I learned in my meditation — that when shit got difficult, I booked a flight. I was like, “You know what, let me just go to Bali for a little bit.” You know what I mean? “Let me like find my zen.” But it was like, what the fuck is that? Like, if you can’t find zen within the space you’re at, you don’t really have zen. You’re just escaping. Because home is within you. You take you everywhere. So if at any point you get a little uncomfortable, you’re jumping and running — you’ve got nothing concrete.

What would be your advice to anyone who’s struggling? And when I say struggling, I mean, struggling to cope with everything that’s coming their way, struggling with their mental health, struggling to be happy and content in this really chaotic time.

I would say, don’t fake it. Acknowledge where you’re at and don’t let anyone tell you how you’re supposed to feel. But most importantly, community and finding people to just talk to and listen. It could be a therapist or it could be someone that’s one step ahead of you. Someone that genuinely wants to listen. ’Cause oftentimes, people — especially yoga instructors — say, “Well, do some meditation, do some yoga, eat some good food.” Like, “Bitch, it’s serotonin. It’s not kale.” Sometimes, it really does require Lexapro, you know what I mean? There are other tools.

But I think the first step is acknowledging where you are and not faking it, because you’re living in your own prison because you have no integrity to your soul. You’re showing everyone this nice and pretty version of you when, inside, you’re crying and dying and no one can see your pain. So the only way that someone can help you or that you can get out of your situation is by one, acknowledging where you are, and two, understanding that you don’t do this life alone, so ask for help. And after asking for help, saying, “All right, so what are some tools that I can take to get to where I need to be?” It can be professional help or could even just be a friend. But I think the biggest thing with people suffering right now is that it seems like it’s a collective thing, [yet] no one wants to place their burden on someone else. When in reality, through us being able to discuss suffering, we’re able to be like, “Oh, it’s you, too? Oh, OK.” And that collectiveness, that — [takes deep, intentional sigh] — that collective sigh is enough. So I think that’s what I would recommend: finding a community.

Yeah. I think that dovetails with this other idea I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past several months, which is that it feels like the world is ending in a lot of ways, but not in a bad way. It feels like a lot of institutions, systems, structures that have oppressed us are crumbling or have the potential to crumble. And that is inviting the possibility for imagination and imagining a new world. I’m curious to know what world, what portals are you imagining, what are you manifesting for the rest of the year and the years to come?

Radical self-thought. In a way, I’m very, very thankful for Donald Trump because he showed us we weren’t bullshitting. We weren’t lying. Racism was real.

I’d like to see more authenticity. More people just standing [up against injustice], but I also just want the whole fucking thing to deconstruct. I would like to see everything flipped upside down. I just want the whole cup to be poured over. I want to see the world tap into itself in a way that is not what we want to see necessarily, but what it is. And I think that it’s going to get so much more ugly before it gets good, but that’s how we build. That’s how we grow.

It’s necessary, yeah.

Suffering can be ugly, but it isn’t necessarily bad. I’m sure when you were in school and you were like, “I’m not trying to do this motherfuckin’ journalism class. This is hell on Earth!” [Laughs] You know what I mean? It was suffering for you at that time. But maybe you look back on that now and it’s like, “Wow, I’m so thankful for that because that’s what made me who I am. These situations, this trauma, this whatever put me into the space that I needed to be.” So I think it’s just shifting the narrative and shifting our perception.

Finally, what are the books, movies and music that have fed you, that have centered you during this time?

Wow. That’s a beautiful question. I love that. “Purple Hibiscus” was a treat in lockdown. I listened to a lot of Ethiopian jazz, so Dexter Story, the “Bahir” album. Florence and the Machine, her latest album. A lot of Osho — I love Osho. I know he’s so controversial, but I love Osho’s books. I love his talks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

More recommendations from Mominatu

Books: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, “A Course in Miracles” by Helen Schucman

Movies: Ponyo,” “Tableau Ferraille,” “Touki Bouki”

TV shows: Ethos, The Crown Season 4, “The Queen’s Gambit”

Music: “Black Rain” by Rhye, “Dearest Alfred” by Khruangbin, “Come Over” by Jorja Smith, “Time Flies” by Burna Boy, “Chamber of Reflection” by Mac DeMarco

“Getting Through…” explores the ways in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting and taking care of themselves and others during these wild times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them. Read the first installment with author Fariha Róisín.

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