Meet Chelsea Jackson, Janelle Monáe's Yoga Instructor

Chelsea Jackson is a yogi on a mission. When the Spelman College alum isn't teaching R&B singer Janelle Monáe how to "do that yoga," she's putting her Ph.D. from Emory college to great use through her yoga, literature and art camp for black and brown girls.
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Chelsea Jackson is a yogi on a mission. When the Spelman College alum isn't teaching R&B singer Janelle Monáe how to "do that yoga," she's putting her Ph.D. from Emory college to great use through her yoga, literature and art camp for black and brown girls from marginalized communities. With all that on her plate, she also finds time to manage her website, a platform she uses to discuss racial disparities and privilege within the practice.

We talked to Jackson -- who recently joined a short list of black women to grace the cover of Yoga Journal -- about her mission, working with Janelle Monáe and the explosion of yoga among black women on social media.

BCB: How did your journey with yoga begin?

CJ: I started practicing yoga around 2002 and I initially came to the practice from a purely physical approach. I wasn't really clear on the spiritual aspects of yoga just yet. I went to school at Spelmen and came here to Atlanta and during my freshman year I just really got out of shape in many ways. I was really athletic in high school and once I came to Spelman I didn't really participate in any sports or anything really. Though that adjustment and transition I just started to really not be as engaged and as aware of my health. I had high cholesterol and there were just a lot of different things going on. I wanted to do something about that and it was really difficult for me to commit to going to the gym and all of that so I decided to try yoga.

BCB: How did you go deeper into your practice?

CJ: It wasn't until around 2004, 2005 that I started to go deeper into my practice. I lost my best friend. She was murdered in 2004. I always like to share this story because yoga was something in combination with a lot of other different things, that really contributed to my spirituality in terms of how to be compassionate with myself through the grieving process because I was very confused, angry, hurt, afraid, all of these things. Yoga was this thing, along with praying and meditating, that really helped me begin to get back to who I was.


Of course who doesn't want to hang out with a rock star once in a while, but I didn't know that the thing that I did, that I love, that I chose as my profession would be something that would connect me with an entirely different field like entertainment.

BCB: Since then you earned a PhD with a focus in yoga integration in marginalized communities. How have you been able to use yoga as a tool to encourage people in such environments?

CJ: I went to Emory and I was in the division of educational studies. I'm a former elementary school teacher. I taught school for 8 years. During the process of grieving after I lost my friend, I was in a really challenging school at the time. Not just the issues and experiences that the children brought with them to the classroom, but the administration was really hard on its teachers. It was really standardized and very test-driven. So I wanted to retreat from that. The children were burned out, I was burned out and there was no way we were going to make it to the end of the school year sane without us having to make some changes. So that's when I decided to slowly integrate and work on breathing for 5 minutes. So bit-by-bit, we worked up over the course of my time teaching, I ended up going to a charter school that had a lot more freedom. I began an after school program teaching yoga. The children were going home and telling their parents about it. My school paid for me to go get an extra certification specifically for children so that's when I knew there was something to yoga and youth. Especially youth who have been in vulnerable communities. So we're talking about black and brown children, we are talking about children that come from communities where the majority of the students are below the poverty line and they are getting free and reduced lunches.

After I taught for all of those years I decided to go in deeper because I had more questions about what I was noticing when I began to integrate yoga into the school day. I wanted to really be guided and have a mentor through that so there was no better way for me to do that than to go through an entire research process. That's why I went to Emory. It was within the division of educational studies. My concentration was actually language, literacy, and culture.

BCB: Do you have any stories from any of the students who may have talked about how it affected them or changed their life?

CJ: I know one in particular who is a returning student to Yoga Literature and Art Camp, she had a lot of fear around making friends and she had a lot of anxiety around social situations. Her mother was working with her to try to get through that nervousness and anxiety of just like interacting with people and she said that it was really helpful for her to be in a space with other girls. She was in there with 13 girls and it was easier for her to come from the space of practicing yoga together and then engaging, so it helps her open up and get through the anxiety of just social interactions. Other girls talked about how it really relaxed them. They talked about the specific stresses that they encounter each day. And I think that we take for granted because they're children or teens that they don't have stress and things that adults tend to have. The children that I've worked with are just as stressed unfortunately as adults are. And they have been yearning for a safe space to just be theirs unapologetically. We even do yoga nidra, like yen yoga and restorative yoga practices where the girls can be in savasanas for 30 minutes. That's almost taboo especially in westernized societies where it's always work, work, work. And if you're not working, you're not successful or productive. But what we found was the more they had this time to restore themselves when it came time for us to write and for us to discuss issues that would come up in our practice or in our real world lives that we would bring to the circle with us, it opened and made more room for them to be more honest and authentic with their words.


BCB: You were involved in Janelle Monae's "Do That Yoga" video. Tell us how.

CJ: We work together for private yoga classes. I've been her instructor since the beginning of the year. After we were working together she asked me if I wanted to participate in her video. I worked with Fatimah Robinson and Sean Bankhead to choreograph the yoga portion when they're actually doing yoga in the red and white outfits. We worked on that together. I also had a little cameo in the video. That was a cool experience because that was something that I didn't even dream--that yoga would take me to those spaces. Of course who doesn't want to hang out with a rock star once in a while, but I didn't know that the thing that I did, that I love, that I chose as my profession would be something that would connect me with an entirely different field like entertainment. So that was really cool.

BCB: That must have been a lot of fun. It's interesting because a lot of people associate yoga with affluent white women or women who are well off, but nowadays it seems like it's becoming more democratized. You see a lot of black women on social media doing yoga. How do you feel about that?

CJ: I think that it's great. I think it's great for us to be visible. I think that when I started practicing yoga, I didn't see my reflection at all. And I say that because I think about Yoga Journal and I was just on the cover of the June issue of that and that was like a dream come true because I can remember when I began practicing in 2002, calling a friend of mine who practiced yoga too, any time we would go to a yoga class here in Atlanta, we were definitely the only girls of color. Especially having a curvy body, that was another part to it. So there were all these intersections that I would go in with that I didn't see my reflection. But being on the cover of Yoga Journal was full circle for me because I could literally count on my hand how many times I've seen a woman of color on the cover of such a major publication for yoga. So I was happy to even have the opportunity to talk with the editors about that when they asked those questions about how we can improve diversity. Because I think just with the world we live in now culturally we can't separate the changes we see in yoga with the changes we see in society. So I think just having more talks about equality and not marginalizing people and not making people invisible has started to spread into the world of yoga.

So I think that seeing women and men of color practicing yoga on social media is great, but at the same time, me being a yoga practitioner who came through a yoga lineage--my teachers go all the way back from India. There's even history that shows that yoga was practiced on the continent of Africa before India or during that time. Either way, I think that element is really important to remember where we're coming from with yoga. I think that with anything that capitalism gets its hands on, it can change the practice. You have yoga clothes, yoga mats, you know, and even with myself, a store will give you a pair of pants and say can you just tag that we sell the pants. It's complicated for someone like me who came into this practice with Instagram not even existing.

So on the one hand I'm really excited to see the diversity to see the diversity and to show that there are so many different people practicing yoga. But at the same time I think that it's important that we don't get ahead of ourselves and lose the richness and the fullness that can exist in yoga for all of us by making it this thing just to get popular or just to get famous. Or even this newness of seeing people go and teach classes and charge for classes and have never gone through a teacher's training.

BCB: Talk a bit more about the Yoga Literature and Art Camp

CJ: Yoga literature and art camp has been taking place inside of the Spelman College museum. What is so unique about that museum is that this is the only museum in the world that houses primarily art from women throughout the African Diaspora. So that was important for me for us to be in that space because the girls all identify as either black or brown. They really felt welcomed. They saw their reflection. All of our teachers were a reflection of them. They were a reflection of one another, so that is where that literacy piece really began to open.


BCB: A lot of people want to be a yogi these days. For those who want to get to your level, what would you say?

CJ: I would say as long as you can breath you're practicing yoga. I would say to don't allow these images of these really flexible people, like people standing on one finger, [to intimidate you] {laughs}. People are doing some wild stuff that I may never do in this lifetime. But I know that I practice yoga every time I try to disconnect from the world in many ways and get closer within myself. Yoga is not a competition. It's not even a competition within yourself that I may be able to do a handstand one day and not come close to it the next, and that's not going to be an excuse for me to beat myself up. Yoga for me is something that makes me feel good about myself. It's healing and I think it's important for people not to use it as a something to damage us. Not to be judgmental of our bodies. Not to say, well I'm too big to do yoga, or I'm not flexible enough. I think we have to meet ourselves right where we are in order to transform whatever it is we're trying to let go of. And that is yoga.

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All photos courtesy of Chelsea Jackson,