"Gettin' Personal" w/ Joanna Brooks of Embody Yoga
The journey to becoming mentally and physically fit can be difficult.
In beginning, you have no idea what you're doing or if you're doing it the correct way. So you lean on the intelligence of Google or a wellness influencer on various social media platforms. After a while, you realize relying on someone/thing on the internet (although a great option) isn't quite the same as having a physical person guiding you or being surrounded by a community of women who may be on the same journey. Some may seek a religious leader, a therapist, a life coach, a physical trainer, some may even go and sit on Big Mama's porch. Whatever your preference, having a yoga instructor is a fundamental part of your physical, mental, and spiritual growth. Having a yoga instructor is like having a personal trainer and life coach wrapped in one package. They can whip your body into shape, give you a few mantras, and remind you that God and light inside of you. You'll be blessed with extra magic if that instructor turns out to be a black woman. Not so often do you find black women leading a yoga class, so they're literally unicorns.
I had the delight and pleasure of speaking with Joanna Brooks of Embody Yoga about her wellness journey and the origin of her business. I was allowed to be behind the scenes of a photo shoot and filming of her (soon to be released) commercial held at Walnut Way. Ms. Joanna is one of the few black yoga instructors based out of Milwaukee and she's probably one of the best yoga instructors that I've practiced with so far. I've been to several of her all-inclusive classes, with women (and men) of different ages, shapes, colors, and sizes. She has this soothing yet firm voice that awakens your soul and the way she arranges her sequences makes the hardest poses seem like a piece of cake. Read what she had to say below.
Aja: Tell me what you do, who you are, and what you want the world to know about you.
JB: My name is Joanna Brooks. I am the owner of Embody Yoga. My business is focused on sharing the practice of yoga with people of color and that was something very important to me because I understand the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional benefits that come from a regular and consistent yoga practice but unfortunately when I go to other studios either here in Milwaukee or in other cities, I didn’t see other people in those spaces that looked like me. Understanding a lot of the stresses that people of color go through as a result of racism, discrimination, disparity gaps, I thought it was really important that I share the practice with people and it was my hope that by becoming a yoga teacher and kinda being that model or a person of color in front of the room that I could encourage other people of color to come in and share in the practice. It’s been a joy to me to watch our community here grow and to see my students develop a personal relationship with the practice.
Outside of that, what should you know about me? I like to practice yoga my way, I like to be authentic so when I’m front of the class teaching I play the same things that I would play at home during my personal practice. So a lot of Beyonce, because that’s my best friend but then also I like a lot of Jay Z, especially 4:44. Sometimes I like to play a little Trap Music, a little Neo-soul, India Arie, Lauryn Hill, things like that. It’s just something I like and something that’s familiar to me.
Aja: So can you tell me about your personal self-care or wellness journey? What do you do for self-care?
JB: So yoga is a huge part of my personal self care only because I realize how it sustains me and how it balances me out, physically, emotionally, mentally. I can be kinda like Type A and I also feel strongly about what’s right and wrong. So when I see things that goes against that, it makes me very upset and so there was a time before I started doing yoga when I was bothered by something or hurt by something, I would hold onto those things. Since I started practicing yoga those things just kind of roll off my back. They don’t cause as much anxiety, anger, or stress which has been really freeing for me. Also the practice sustained me through a major break-up that was really painful for me. Not just the break-up but during the relationship itself there were a lot of times where I would get on my mat and I would receive this confirmation or conviction that I needed to end the relationship that I was in. Every time I stepped on my mat, but you know sometime you don’t want to listen and you continue to move forward so I kept getting that conviction to end the relationship and then when I finally did, I needed my practice to help me get through that and to kind of reveal myself emotionally through that process. I think that’s really where I developed a strong commitment to the practice because I know what it’s done for me and how it sustained me. So I make sure to practice at least 3 times a week and more if my schedule is a little bit lighter. It just makes me feel good in my mind, body, and spirit.
Aja: It’s interesting because I think a lot of women go through that (toxic relationships) too. I know for me personally, yoga has done that for me. I say all the time “yoga saved me” I really don’t know what I would’ve done without it. I started when I was a student at Marquette and just being from the inner city here (Milwaukee) and going into that type of environment (at Marquette) was a major culture shock. So I definitely struggled with self-esteem and depression in general and it (yoga) helped me. So I do want to thank you because you were a major part of my journey. As soon as I saw you I was like “oh my gosh, I black yoga instructor”.
I do want to touch on that because we are in a very segregated city here in Milwaukee and we rarely see WOC who are yoga instructors. I know you touched on it in the first question but can you touch on that just a little bit more. What have you gone through being a WOC in the yoga (wellness) community here? How is the community here?
JB: Sure so, as you already mentioned or referenced, I would look around a studio or a classroom that I was in and be the only person of color on a mat practicing. It was even more rare to see a person of color at the head of the class. In fact there was only one other time during my entire practice experience, going to other studios, where I actually came across a black yoga instructor. For me it kind of like opened my mind to the possibility that I can do that too. I think we take for granted the messages we get from the media. You know, telling us this is who does yoga, this is how much they make, and this what size they are, and this is what color they are, and this is what gender they are, and we start to believe those things and buy into it whether we realize it or not. So seeing her at the front of the class was eye opening for me. It was in her class, (at the the end of her class) I was in shavasana and I received that confirmation like "I want to do this, I want to be a yoga teacher, I want to help people feel this way". So going through teacher training I had an awesome experience with Meg Galarza at Yoga One. I went through her teacher program and even though I was the only student of color in that program, I never felt like an outcast, like I wasn’t included, or like I wasn’t meant to be there. I’m grateful for her for that and for the other students that I went through the program with. Then once I became a teacher, it was Meg at Yoga One who created a lot of the opportunities for me, she allowed me to teach in her studio and that helped me gain the experience that I needed. When I decided to start Embody Yoga I had some people who told me “don’t do this, don’t target people of color, you won’t be successful” but for me that was the only reason why I wanted to teach in the first place. So I was strongly committed to that and I feel like the community in general has been very receptive and very open to Embody Yoga , what I have to offer, and how I offer the practice of yoga. I haven’t run into any issues in the yoga community either.
We still have a ways to go getting people to understand that because we live in one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. that those issues can also show themselves and present themselves in a yoga class, in a practice space. We can’t ignore that those things, those ideas, the stereotypes still come into play. Yogis are not perfect, so I think that the larger yoga community has a little bit of work to do to make sure that they have and create spaces that are inclusive and reflective of different cultures.
Aja: How do you stay inspired?
JB: My students inspire me alot. There are times where I feel burnt out and really tired but I can’t show up and not give them my best. So just knowing that they’re waiting for me, that they’re going to show up helps me kind of show up as a yoga teacher or physically show up to the space to teach the class. Also, the support and the encouragement from them and from the rest of my community is really mind blowing to me, just to see and receive and feel all of the love and support that I’ve gotten in the past two years that I’ve been in business.
Aja: From the perspective of a yoga instructor, why do you think self-care is important?
JB: Self care is important because if you’re not taking care of yourself you can’t tend to other people or other responsibilities you need to do in a wholehearted and centered way. I think it’s far too common, unfortunately especially for WOC, we tend to put a lot of other things before taking care of ourselves. I think in general, not to stereotype, we do a good job of taking care of the outside. So we try to keep our appearance up. We make sure our twist out is poppin’, we’ll go get our hair done, nails done and stuff like that and we’ll look good on the outside, but I think sometimes we neglect what’s happening on the inside. We’re taught that we need to be strong all the time or we need to avoid or ignore feelings of sadness or anger or depression. We even tend to mask or hide those things, especially anger so we don’t fit into any stereotypes that other people have created for us. So in terms of what I think of self care, it can be going to get your hair done, make-up done, and stuff like that but I think what should be really central to self care is making sure we take care of the inside too. So whether you’re just carving out some time for yourself, getting on the yoga mat, journaling, meditation, praying, whatever it is that works for you and feeds your soul I think that’s one of the most important things.
Aja: What would you say to person who’s just starting off their yoga journey and is a little hesitant?
JB: First of all, try to let go of those images in your mind of what a yogi looks like, what size they are, what color they are, how much money they have. Even if you can’t afford to take a yoga class because they can be expensive, now there are so many good yoga teachers available online that you can access. If you’re more comfortable, you can start off at home but I would encourage you to start with an open mind. Be open to receive whatever the practice has to offer you for that day or that season in your life and beyond that just try to be consistent with it, you have to try it more than once. The first time I tried yoga (as an adult), I hated it and then I didn’t come back to it for a few months but then the second time around something clicked for me. So it took a while for me to really connect to the practice but once I did it’s been life changing but it’s definitely a relationship. There’s some give and take. There’s days I love it, there’s day I don’t like it so much but I’m committed to it.
Aja: Because we’re here at Walnut Way, can you tell me the role that Walnut Way and this community in this area has affected you, your business, and your practice?
JB: Had it not been for Walnut Way, Embody Yoga probably would not have been in existence. When I started out, my business motto was that I would teach throughout different places throughout the city, primarily on the north side and also occasionally on the south side to target people of color. That motto didn’t hold up, I was renting space from different businesses or organizations and eventually those doors or opportunities closed to me. Luckily, I had added in Walnut Way as a third space so when those other opportunities ended and pretty close to each other in time too, I was able to move all of my classes over here. Walnut Way is really big on supporting entrepreneurs of color, small businesses, especially those that center their services around health and wellness and so not only did they provide space for me but they’ve supported me in so many other ways that I couldn’t even list off completely for you. Down to marketing my classes for me, offering advice and guidance when I needed it, even down to the former executive director now who sits on the board Mrs. Sharon Adams showing up when nobody else would. She would see that there were nobody else’s car outside but mine and she would come over and practice and I think she did that just to keep me encouraged. So literally if it had not been for Walnut Way I don’t know if Embody Yoga would still be in business.
Aja: I think that’s so beautiful. I feel like the biggest misconception is that WOC can’t get along and I feel like we support each other the most.
JB: Absolutely, that’s where my support comes. I would say like over 85% of my students are black women and even the ones on social media who never show up to my class they still like my posts, they still share, they refer people to me. I don’t believe when people say, your own community won’t support you because if it wasn’t for my community, if it wasn’t for black folk Embody Yoga wouldn’t exist.
Aja: Yea I think that’s the biggest misconception that we’ve been programmed to believe. Is there anything else that you want me to know or Heal + Glow’s audience to know ?
JB: Yoga is for everybody, it’s now being taken more seriously now in the health and medical field to the point where now there are some doctors who are prescribing yoga to help people who are suffering from non specific chronic low back pain and other ailments as well. So don’t be late hopping on the yoga train. Find a place where you feel welcomed, where you see yourself reflected. Develop a practice, develop a relationship with this practice and I believe firmly that it will change things for you.
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