With more and more Black people practicing yoga testimonies about its benefits can be seen and heard everywhere. For Alicia Dugar Stephenson, a teacher/trainer of yoga instructors, yoga literally saved her life.
The Defender recently spoke with Stephenson about her life both before and after her introduction to the ancient practice.
DEFENDER: Please introduce yourself to the Defender family.
STEPHENSON: Hello. I’m Alicia. I am a believer in self-connection. I have been all around the world studying yoga because I had a lot of challenges physically health-wise. That’s what really fueled me to learn all about yoga, to study with some of the best teachers all over the world, and then to eventually feel called to teach yoga teachers. So, I own a yoga school, Mastermind Yoga I’ve written books. I’m working on my second book right now. I talk all over the world. I share the practice. I lead challenges. I show up online, on YouTube, on Instagram, and it’s all because yoga has changed my life. And so, I feel like it would be selfish not to share it. I wake up at night thinking about how many people can benefit from yoga. So, I always share it. I wear clothes that say yoga. I’m like a walking yoga fan.
DEFENDER: You just said that yoga changed your life. Can you talk about that?
STEPHENSON: I was diagnosed with lupus in 2009. And at the time I was a freshman at Rice University. It was not common for 19-year-olds to being diagnosed with lupus. And my doctors were very hesitant to diagnose me. The specialists would always say, “Oh, you’re so young.” And I just wanted a solution for my problem.
I was waking up and all my joints would be swollen. It was hard to walk. It was hard to hold things. Luckily, I had all of the major issues during the summer, so I wasn’t also having to deal with the rigorous academic schedule at the time. And, when they finally diagnosed me, they were like, “Okay. Here’s some pills. Just take those for the rest of your life, and you might get more things and you might die from it. But just take these pills and take 800 milligrams whenever you want of ibuprofen and you’ll be fine. We’ll take care of those symptoms for you.”
And for a while, that was okay with me. I was just like, as long as I’m not hurting every day, because that was rough. There would be times where I would just sit in bed like “I can’t do anything without pain except lay here.” I was okay with that. And then I started to say, “Well, let me look this (lupus) up. Let me do research.” And I saw that so many people of color were dealing with lupus. We’re the highest diagnosed group with lupus. So many people of color were dealing with other things, diabetes, all of these things that are preventable diseases. And I was thinking, “Let me look more into this.” I started to get into forums and see a lot of recommendations. The people recommended doing movement, doing some type of exercise. So, I tried running and swimming and my hair was not having it. CrossFit? Not for me. And I tried everything I could think of.
So, my mom, she was a national dragon boat person. She would travel around the world, dragon boating with her team, the USA team. Part of her training was hot yoga. I was like, “Ooh, I haven’t tried that yet.” So, I tried it. Literally, I walked through the threshold of the door in the yoga room and immediately felt like “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!” And I realized this feels good to my body. So, instead of just having the pain from the lupus and the numbs from the pills, I finally felt good. This was back before people were scared to be close to each other. We were packed in the room and it literally felt like I was the only person in the room. And I’m like, “Look at how wide I can stretch my arms, like wow.” Just feeling my body in a different way. That changed my life forever. I was hooked. So, I just kept going and kept going until people started to ask me, “Alicia, you’ve been in such a good mood lately. You’ve been so nice. Wow. You’re smiling.”
So, when I’m feeling good, I’m nice. I actually enjoy being around people. And so that really gave me a lot of insights. And I went even further into the non-physical side of yoga. Because there’s a physical practice and there’s a non-physical. I’m a nerd. So, I was like, “Let me learn more about the yoga.” And it just started to grow and grow my interest until I finally took teacher training. After teacher training, I traveled to Thailand and back, anywhere I could find anything that felt right for me. And that led me to teach yoga, then eventually to teach other teachers.
DEFENDER: Can you speak more about the various “sides” of yoga?
STEPHENSON: One of my teachers used to always say, “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” So, when I’m on my mat and a lot of people say, “Oh, I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible,” and one of my favorite ways to respond to that is, “Okay, mentally or physically?” Because there’s a lot of flexibility, like being open to a new idea, being open to meeting people, trying things. And if I’m feeling resistant and I’m feeling shut down physically in my body it shows up on my mat in my yoga poses. I might not open my arms all the way. I might not feel as stable in a pose. I might not open up in my life in that way. So, it shows on the mat and it shows in real life. There are some poses that are challenging.
There are some poses that require me to take a deep breath. If I can breathe through the physical challenge, I am able to remember that and store that physically, that muscle memory in my body. And I can bring that energetically and breathe through the challenge in my business. I can breathe through the challenge in my relationship. Yoga literally has changed my marriage. It’s helped me because in my past, I had two abusive relationships in my old life, where I was in the toxic. I was fueling that. There was a part that came from me and not from me.
And when I was able to recognize and connect with myself like today, yesterday in a middle of a disconnect with my husband, I can take a deep breath and I can choose something different. I can choose to approach it in a different way. And just like I would on my mat, if I’m feeling challenged, in that moment I can take a deep breath. That’s how yoga can show up in our physical and in our non-physical. And that’s how we can use yoga as a tool to change things in our lives.
DEFENDER: If anyone reads or hears your words, they are going to be running to start practicing yoga.
STEPHENSON: I hope they do. Back in the day, when I was struggling, but right before they diagnosed me with lupus, was like some of the darkest times in my life. And I remember being laid out in my bed because I couldn’t walk and do anything without pain. And I remember I had this moment of wisdom. I’m sure this was God speaking to me, like, if I can get through this and I can make a change and I can heal, then this will be something that changes the world. Because when I have inner peace and I share that, world peace is possible. So, the saying that came to me was “World peace through inner peace.” And that’s really the mission that’s been pulling me all these years of teaching yoga and sharing this message.
DEFENDER: What are two to three main benefits that yoga provides to its practitioners?
STEPHENSON: I would say self-connection. If you think about it, your body is already communicating. It doesn’t speak English. There’s like this body language, body connection. You’ve learned the signs of your body over time, like, “When I feel this, that means I’m hungry. When I feel this, I go to the bathroom.” But your body communicates in so many other ways, like your intuition. All of those things, you unlock that possibility by practicing yoga, because you are essentially taking the time to become fluent in the language of your body. More than just those desires to be fed and to be released, you get to actually feel, “Oh wow, this is what it feels like to let go in my fingers and to open up across my collarbones and my shoulder blades and my hips. You get to be fluent in that. That’s self-connection, self-communication. That’s really the key that has helped me to improve my relationships. Because I noticed like, “I’m feeling like I need some yoga” because my body is feeling like it’s curling up or it’s becoming stiff. That’s a communication that I need to go to yoga.
When I feel like I’m holding back or I’m not doing something that I really desire in my life, that’s my communication to tune in deeper. That’s the first thing, self-connection. I also speak French. When you go in and you immersed in a language, that’s how you become fluent. The more you practice, the more you get into yourself, that’s how you become fluent in the language of yourself. And then because I have that self-connection, I can give myself the tools. So that’s the second thing. I can take a deep breath and I remember. Like, if we had pressure in a tire, we would let some of that go. Our breath is literally how we come into this life. And when there’s no more breath, we’re no longer in this life. Our practice of yoga of yoking and connecting to our physical and nonphysical can be used by this breath. So, when I noticed I’m feeling overwhelmed, stressed, whatever, about my projects that I’m working on, I can take a deep breath and a deep breath can be just feeling my breath. That’s actually a tool that you can use to help you to, instead of letting all the pressure build up, build up, build up until finally you’re like, “Arrrrrggggggg. It’s all your fault,” and you’re in that energy and it feels like life is happening to you, like, “Why does it always happen to me,” I can breathe and then from that point, I can say, “What are my choices? What are my options?” instead of feeling like I’m stuck in.
DEFENDER: What about the importance of Black yoga teachers?
STEPHENSON: There are so many yoga teachers that look like us. And that’s why I started Masterminding Yoga School, because I wanted to put more yoga teachers out in the world that looked like us. If you look online, if you Google, if you go to the social media platforms, you will find a yoga teacher that looks like us because Black yogis matter. Find a yoga teacher, connect with them and maybe just follow them. Sometimes they teach little free things, and you can just do along with them on the videos online or something like that. And that’s enough. If you want to go in deeper, then maybe reach out to them. Watching this the first step. Then if you feel called, reach out to them as the second step. Then if you feel called, maybe become a teacher. When you learn and you teach something, you learn it twice. Really follow what you feel called to do.
Defender: Why should Black people practice yoga?
STEPHENSON: You’ve got to go there and take care of yourself so that you can show up and be the person that your family needs you to be. You can show up and be the person your physical body is calling for you to be. If you’re in pain, if you’re struggling, if you’re feeling like you keep hitting these blocks in your way, if you feel like you keep having these abusive relationships, these toxic relationships with yourself, with your addictions, with people in your life, whatever it is, this is a calling for you to connect to self and whatever else is feeling right for you, feeling aligned for you.
And I would say the biggest thing is don’t ignore the signs. Because when I ignored the signs, there were signs, I’m sure, before I was ever to that point where it would hurt so much, I couldn’t walk. There were signs that I was like, “Oh, it’s okay if my feet hurt a little bit. They’ll be all right. I’m just going to wear these shoes anyway. I’m just going to eat this food anyway.” I ignored the signs until my body made me listen. So, if your body is asking you to listen, then this is the sign that you might want to look into yoga.
DEFENDER: Have you seen Blackfolks’ participation in yoga increase? And if so, what do you think has led to that increase?
STEPHENSON: I am a firm believer that any time we see each other it’s like, “YES!” So, when I started, I was teaching, I was managing at a studio and I noticed that whenever I taught, more people that look like me came to class. And I was happy that everyone was there, but I was really happy to see my brothers and sisters. I’m like, “I don’t even know your name, but Hey, I’m glad you’re here.” So yes, I have seen the numbers have improved. However, based off of like shut downs and everything, the world has just changed in general. And online they are huge communities. There’s #BlackYoga, #BlackYogis. There are so many communities online of people who look like us, who are doing yoga, who are hosting it in the park, who are hosting online, on zoom, all of these things. So, there are people who are seeing it like, “Okay. I didn’t think yoga was for Black people, but I see all these Black people doing yoga. It must be for us.” And especially since I opened up the yoga school, more people feel like they can be teachers. When they see teachers that look like them, they realize that it’s possible. They realize that it’s okay. And historically, a lot of people say yoga came from India.
But let’s recognize that everything came from Africa. It was that yoga was recorded in India, was popularized when Indians brought it over to California and all the rich white people started doing it. That’s when it became popular. However, it’s literally etched in stone in Africa. Like, come on. You get to recognize that you belong here. This is something that you intuitively do when your shoulder hurts, roll your shoulder. That’s yoga. You don’t have to have any poles. You don’t have to have a teacher. You can literally practice yoga without needing a guide because it’s intuitive. If your wrist hurts, if your fingers hurt, do something that feels good. Stretch out like you do when your body asks to be stretched in the morning. That’s yoga. When you recognize and you listen to your body, that self-connection, that yoking of self, the physical and the mental, the physical and emotional, it’s yoga.
DEFENDER: Is there a particular form of yoga that you teach to teachers?
STEPHENSON: I studied quite a few and I feel like what’s popular right now in the industry is to make bodies fit the poses. However, that sh*t ain’t practical. Because our bodies are different. And even for myself, sometimes I feel like a lot of energy and I’m like, “Yes, I want to do all the challenging things, all the hardest things.” And sometimes my body’s like, “Let’s take it easy. I want to relax. I want to take a slow breath. I want to go easeful.” So, I teach alignment-based yoga for that reason. That means I give options in the classes. You can choose to make it something that feels really challenging. You can choose to make it something that’s more easeful, more gentle, compassionate. And I feel like that’s where we really get out of competition. Because many of us are like, “I’m in the top percentile of my class, or I’m better than so-and-so.” That can translate and bleed over into yoga. But really, because yoga is so personal, it’s hard to compare. I’ve been practicing yoga for a decade and I don’t do handstands because that’s not something that resonates with me. But some people would think, “Oh, I need to do a handstand so I can be good enough.” So, when you practice yoga, you get to step away from that. When you practice alignment-based yoga, you get to step away from that needing to compare and really be tied into what does my body need today. “If my wrist hurts, then maybe I don’t need to put pressure on my wrist. What else can I do?”
WAYS TO CONNECT WITH ALICIA DUGAR STEPHENSON
YouTube Channel: Mastermind.yoga
Alicia’s Book: Yoga Best Life: 5 Keys to Unlock Abundant Health, Wealth and Happiness