The Collective STL Builds Community and Reduces Stress through Yoga in Old North

 In Culture, Feature

In a world where athleisure is a fashion trend and a search for “#yoga” yields results that are uncannily similar to results for “#model,” it can seem as though yoga has become more about projecting the image of yogi than actually embracing the practice. But for teacher Terry Harris, building a yoga practice isn’t about holding a picture-perfect downward dog or looking great in leggings, it’s about reducing stress and building connection in St. Louis’ black community. 

The four-person leadership team of The Collective STL—Harris and his wife, Ericka, plus Melinda Oliver and Alonzo Nelson Jr.—operate a nonprofit yoga studio with a social impact mission. The Harrises met Oliver and Nelson in yoga teacher training classes, where they connected over a similar interest in providing accessible and uplifting donation-based yoga classes to the communities they grew up in. “We all agreed wanted to bring yoga to black people in the city of St. Louis,” Harris says. “That was the nucleus, that was the central concept.”

Guided: St. Louis spoke with Harris about accessibility issues in the wellness industry, cultivating community in The Collective’s studio space in the heart of Old North St. Louis and why he believes yoga can bring healing and better health to St. Louis’ black community. 

The Collective STL Builds Community and Reduces Stress through Yoga in Old North

Guided: What is a yoga collective, as you define it?
No one has really asked that question, and I’ve been wanting to explain it. … It’s the four of us, we’re the collective, but it’s larger than that. The collective is the community. So you are part of the collective, too.

The responsibility of the health and well-being of the people of St. Louis, specifically the black people, is the responsibility of the collective. It’s all of us. We all have to be concerned with how people are doing. … If St. Louis is going to survive, that is the responsibility of us collectively to ensure that it does. So that’s the concept of our Collective. The four of us are the subtitle, but the larger title is the community. That’s what our program is all about.

Guided: What is your personal connection with yoga?
I think my personal connection is a connection with the breath and with the fact that everyone can do yoga. I can sit at my desk at work and do a yoga pose. I can sit at home watching TV and practice yoga in one form or another. That’s the accessibility piece. … When you think about yoga, you probably think about a block, or straps, or a yoga mat, but the invention of the yoga mat came in the 1970s. So you have this practice that is thousands of years old, but they didn’t have yoga mats. That was a Western invention. You don’t need props to do yoga. You can use them, but you don’t need them. You can take yoga with you. But what are you really taking with you? You’re taking your breath. That’s what yoga is really about: It’s about breathing. You always have your breath with you, which means that you always have yoga with you. That’s a really important concept that we’re trying to teach the community we work with.

I had a person in class yesterday who is adamant about doing a handstand. She was asking me all these questions. I simply looked at her and said, “Why?” Why do you want to do that? I can tell you how to do that, and I can support you in it, but I just want to know why.” Sometimes people think they want to do handstands because that’s yoga. … We can get to the handstand, but first you need to learn that yoga is about the breath and you always have it with you. 

The Collective STL Builds Community and Reduces Stress through Yoga in Old North

Guided: New organizations and businesses often launch because they see a gap that they can fill. What gap is The Collective STL looking to fill? 
There were three gaps we were trying to fill. All four of us practiced at yoga studios, and we all had this experience of being the only black person in that space. The only time I wasn’t the only black person in the space was mostly when my wife, Ericka, was with me. Or often I was the only black male.

The second gap was that yoga is so great, but there wasn’t a yoga studio in North St. Louis. Why are people not coming down? Is it that these individuals think these people don’t or won’t practice yoga? Or that people who do practice yoga won’t come down to the North side?

The third is the expense. And so we wanted to dismantle those things. We wanted to create a space where people of color in St. Louis, specifically black people on the North side, can access yoga at a reasonable cost.

Guided: What can yoga do for the black community?
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a four-part series article about toxic stress, particularly about toxic stress in urban communities. For the most part, the diseases that people die from stem from stress. Stress is a killer. If we were to look at research on people who are stressed, people of color and black people are probably at the top of the list. We know that. If you take a look at Washington University professor Dr. Jason Purnell’s The “For the Sake of All report, or if you look at Mayor Krewson’s equity indicator report, those show that the black community is really stressed.

What yoga can do is reduce that stress so that you can breathe. When you’re really stressed out, you can’t give your child the love and attention they need. Hell, you can’t give yourself what you need. I could care less if you can do a handstand, I could care less if you can do the best warrior two pose. What I care about for this one hour and fifteen minutes that you’re here with us is that you were able to calm your breath down, that you were able to go down inward and breathe. Did you smile? Did you reduce your stress? That’s what I care about. Stress is killing black communities across the board.

Guided: That mindset of always taking yoga with you is something that makes practicing more financially accessible than a lot of marketing in the yoga and wellness industries makes it seem.
Yes, yoga is 100 percent a multi-billion dollar business. Who is able to access that? People think they aren’t able to do yoga because they don’t have the right pants. Really? You think in 2000 BC when people were doing yoga in India, people were saying, “You know what, you don’t have the right pants.” [Laugh.]

I think that’s the reminder these are newly invented things, and the reality is someone is going to invent something else for yoga that people will think they need. That’s really what we’re trying to dismantle. You don’t really need all those things. It’s your breath. Our model is a donation-based model, because in the area we have our studio in, 70 percent of the people are living below the poverty line. So we’re not asking people who are struggling to eat food to pay $25 for class. 

The Collective STL Builds Community and Reduces Stress through Yoga in Old North

Guided: It seems as though, in a donation-based class, there’s automatically a collective spirit, because you’re asking people who can afford it to pay a little extra to help fund classes for people who aren’t able to pay.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. When we talk about community, we’re talking about collective spirit. We talk about this concept called Ubuntu, which is a South African philosophy that says “I exist because you exist” or “I am because you are.” Said differently, it is we’re all family, we’re all connected, we’re all part of a community. That’s the concept of the collective. 

Every single class, we always have fresh fruit. At first, that was something that was coming out of our own pockets. I wouldn’t say we were losing money, but it was coming out of our pockets. People saw that, and all of a sudden we’d come to class and there would be two pineapples or a case of water. One of the students said, “Hey Terry, I don’t really have money to put into the donation bucket, but I can make sure I bring a case of water for the next five weeks.” That’s the collective. That’s cool, and that will work.

There are people who come to class who can donate more money. If you’re making $200,000 per year, maybe you can pay $100 a month to participate. If you’re working at a temp job making $9 an hour, maybe you can only donate $2. We’re not shaming anyone. This practice is not about shame, it’s about love and healing.

Guided: How do your classes differ from other yoga classes?
All four of us are dope-ass teachers. If you come to one of our classes, you’ll be doing yoga, but the experience will be different. The flow and the sequence is very much yoga, but the flow of time and space and energy won’t feel like a regular class. Part of it is because regular classes are so detached from the collective spirit and building community. It can be very robotic. In our classes, someone could be throwing a baseball; people laugh at themselves in the middle of class; if someone sees someone else doing something cool, they may smile and say, “Good job.” It’s very interactive. In African culture, there’s this call and response. It’s very recipirocatory, and that’s what class is like.

I’ve been to yoga studios where you do a hard, hard practice, and people didn’t speak to each other. You go into the locker room to shower and you’re all sweating and breathing hard, and you didn’t say “Hi,” to the other people. You didn’t say “Good job,” or “Hey, we made it through.” No small talk. But at The Collective, we were intentional about not having that happen. We wanted to say to people, “I see you. I see you. You’re a whole human. I see you right there.”

The Collective STL Builds Community and Reduces Stress through Yoga in Old North

ALIVE: It can sometimes feel like it’s an unspoken rule that socializing isn’t allowed in a yoga studio.
Which is insane, right? [Laugh.] I used to get so upset when I passed someone on the street and they didn’t say anything, or if I said something to them and they didn’t speak back. Now I know they might be going through something, but I want that human to know that I saw them. They might not have seen me, but I saw them. I think that’s what the collective is really about: creating a space where people know and understand and feel they have been seen. 

ALIVE: Would you call the work you’re doing through yoga activism?
It’s activism, it’s advocacy, it’s love, it’s community-building, it’s healing. I would call it all those things. If I were to go for the easiest term, I would say it’s just about seeing people. All activism is about seeing people. When people are fighting for transgender lives, that’s because people that transpeople are not seen. When people are fighting for poor people to get $15 per hour in wages, that’s because they feel we need to see people can’t live off of $7 per hour. All activism and advocacy work is about seeing people.

This image has been edited for clarity and length.

Images courtesy of The Collective STL.

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