As I sat before this group of spirited, emerging yogis and one smiling yogini, who were engaged in a weeklong intensive program about anatomy awareness, only life could have prepared me for the complexity of questions that they were about to present me.
My captive audience is comprised of 95 % Rasta aspirants who are also embracing the path of yoga under the expert tutelage of Paige Elenson, Executive Director of Africa Yoga Project, www.africayogaproject.com, based in Nairobi Kenya.
Inhaling deeply, I acknowledge the weight and responsibility of my blessings – to be amongst such curious and impressionable minds, as well as a representation of so many labels – Jamaican, yogini, female, black, Rastafarian. Combined, these labels create and attach yet another; teacher.
Across Africa, a teacher is [still] a largely respected profession. More than a mere profession, teaching is the ultimate act of service. His or her role forms an integral part of the societal structure, especially when one takes into account the fact that access to education is a privilege that the vast majority can ill afford let alone contemplate.
Today however it is clear that change is eminent. Africa understands that education is the key that unlocks the shackles of poverty.
Being deeply reverent and mindful of this immense honor that has been bestowed upon me, I field the myriad of questions that I’m being presented with – from “is it true that every Rasta does not eat meat, to what has yoga done for me, to does everyone in Jamaica imbibe in the goodly herb?” Pointedly, is the consumption of cannabis a pre-requisite for following the path of Rasta?
Question 1: Is there a correlation between yoga and Rasta?
In response, I share that both yoga and Rasta ultimately share the same ideal; unity consciousness. Both are born out of a level of awareness. The ability to accomplish challenging asanas or to grow one’s mane to unprecedented lengths is to a large extent an incomplete depiction of both ways of being. As I am further prompted to give a finite definition for Rasta, simultaneously my intention is to encourage these budding minds not to limit themselves to definitions as we run the risk of being imprisoned by the sheer virtue of them [definitions].
Both Rastafari and yoga are for me, movements, in and towards consciousness, ways of being that share the following basic tenets; proper breathing, proper diet, proper exercise, positive thinking and meditation, ahimsa or non-violence and proper relaxation. How an individual then chooses to invoke either in their lives may take different shapes and forms. From a [conventionally] religious standpoint, Rastafari holds great reverence for the teachings inscribed in both the Bible and the Torah. When asked, “how does yoga impact or affect [my] Christian [imposed] beliefs?” I respond by stating that God is alive each and every one of us. Within the Rastafarian context, I and I refer to exactly this – the oneness of God – which is ultimately unity consciousness that is yoga.
Observing their demeanor as they arrive to the afternoon session of the anatomy class where they watch a video featuring Leslie Kaminoff, I am awe struck by the intensity of their concentration and focus. Little do they realize, these young yoga warriors are my teachers.
Throughout our entire exchange I set the intention to illustrate the oneness and connectivity that unites us. In the words of Jamaican legendary musician, Peter Tosh, “no matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black [man], you are an African.”
Wherever I have traveled throughout the vast African continent – from South Africa to Morocco – from Sierra Leone to Sudan – from Chad to the Central African Republic and especially in Kenya, being from the small island nation of Jamaica has attracted the utmost admiration and respect. Even in the most remote, forgotten villages of Africa, the mere mention of Jamaica raises eyebrows and opens hearts.
This latest Kenyan adventure evoked within me a deep sense of joy and freedom; a re-connection to my ancestral spirits. As conflicting and confronting as my time spent living and working in Africa can sometimes be, I regard this experience and opportunity as a deeply sacred one. I’ve often shared with friends in Jamaica and elsewhere that to journey to the Motherland answers many unanswered questions that live inscribed in our DNA.
As America is considered land of the brave, home of the free, for me Africa is the conscience of humankind. For some, it pricks deeper than for others however no one travels to Africa and returns unaffected, one way or another. I will always be grateful to Mama Africa for pushing me beyond my levels of comfort, for her lessons in how to be courageous and most importantly, for helping me to remember.
I am saddened and surprised to learn of the uprising against Rasta youths in Kenya. I share with them that this is part and parcel of the system of Babylon, a Rastafari term that refers to systems usually rooted in the patriarchy – such as governments. Babylon can be expanded to include all and any entities that keep disenfranchised people and communities economically and politically powerless. Many who choose to embrace Rasta are drawn to do so as it speaks to their quest for inner as well as community peace.
Several of these participants agree that for them Rasta symbolizes freedom, peacefulness and all that is good. Clearly the powers that be beg to differ! Rasta and whatever ism (Jamaican parlance that in this instance translates to mean stereotype) that it provokes amongst the authorities often results in these young men being captured by the police and having their locks chopped off with a knife. Many are forced to cut their locks in order to get their identification cards. Once they have them, they begin the process of once again growing their natty, a Jamaican term used to refer to dreadlocks.
One student asks me whether in Jamaica children are allowed to attend school with dreadlocks – it is apparently forbidden in Kenya. I respond that to the best of my knowledge, it is only recently where there is no restriction in schools regarding how a child chooses to wear their hair. Certainly during my primary and secondary education years in Jamaica, dreadlocks in the classroom were unthinkable! In the crudest of mindset – one that exists to a declining extent today – [a] Rasta was viewed as a crazed, unkempt, dope smoking menace to society.
Many of these young men enrolled in the AYP program are emerging leaders for their communities. They are concerned about the resistance that they potentially face – as yogi and a Rasta. I console them – or at least attempt to – by sharing that it is human nature to fear that which we do not understand. “So, part of your own learning and initiation will be to understand as you aim to be understood,” I share from my own experience.
Ten years ago when I consciously decided to grow my hair I knew then that society would perceive me differently and as such, I’d also present myself differently. In this context, different translates to going against the status quo, potential fear of exclusion from communities that previously embraced me and even the potential of resistance in the workplace. Thankfully, I did not suffer and in fact the only instance where reference was made to my hair being a potential obstacle came from a colleague/friend who was living in my home at the time; a person of Afro-Caribbean descent I might add.
For me, the choice to grow locks wasn’t simply about a hairstyle. It was a conscious decision to live authentically, from my heart. As I share that our locks can at times act like spiritual antennae, Paige contributes, “remember [that] Shiva, the Hindu deity that is both destroyer and creator had dreadlocks.” “It was shortly after I began growing my hair that yoga found me,” I state. Upon reflection, it was more of a natural progression as in essence, I was already to a large degree leading a yogic lifestyle. Yet, in the words of former Jamaican band Morgan Heritage, “you don’t have to dread to be Rasta.”
As we are about to conclude our session one young man shares how before coming to class how depressed he was feeling and how, through our time shared together, an immensely profound shift occurred for him. I try to re-assure him that oftentimes when we are in transition, it is not uncommon to feel somewhat dejected.
I am almost brought to tears of humility and joy when the group unanimously decides to re-name itself Team JAMAICA. A huge outburst of applause and acknowledgement erupts when Paige shares with them that she will be traveling to Jamaica in February 2012 to be a part of the Caribbean Yoga Conference, www.caribbeanyogaconference.com – the first of its kind taking place in the region – and how through them, she will be able to share a piece of Kenya with Jamaica as I have shared Jamaica with them [today].
Anyone who dares to walk a path of conscious awareness must accept that there will be moments of darkness as there will be moments of light. As the traveler, we trod faithfully, in the knowing that we are guided and protected, even in those moments when it may seem otherwise. It is this spirit and universality of consciousness that is the essence of yoga.
As we release ourselves from values and ideals that we’ve inherited that may not be in current alignment with our present way of being, resistance is inevitable; both within as well as from such authorities who wield power over tactics like the cutting of hair without one’s consent. To a Rasta, this is tantamount to spiritual rape.
To be truly free requires the un-learning of much that we’ve been indoctrinated with. Within the African context, this is further entrenched due to the lingering remnants of slavery.
How Africa and Africans were once defined by their former masters is no longer relevant or applicable to the re-emergence of this Motherland.
Robert Nesta Marley, regarded as a prophet across Africa (and the world) once said,
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Inclusivity, Oneness, Unity, Universality; these are the hallmarks of yoga.
Africa is waking up, one breath, one love, one heart at a time.