Calming the Mind Through a Storm of COVID and Police Executions: a Q&A wit’ yoga teacher Shaka Jamal

by JR Valrey

In this time of a pandemic/’plandemic,’ including constant televised police executions of Black people, regular rebellions against police terrorism, mass unemployment, Black businesses closing permanently in droves, shelter in place, and distance learning drama among other issues in a hotly contested election year, the stress, tension and trauma run high for Black people. 

Many in the Bay Area use a myriad of healthy techniques, such as yoga, to calm and focus the mind, and tune the body. Shaka Jamal has been a wellness advocate that I have known for over a decade, and he has been consistent, committed and dedicated to his life work of promoting healing in our traumatized Black communities. 

During COVID, while many of us have more time on our hands, yoga may be something worth studying for the sake of mental and physical health, since life has changed drastically from what we knew six months ago, and some of us are still catching up and adapting to it. If we want new conclusions, we have to be willing to try new tactics to reach new plateaus.

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to get into yoga? 

Shaka Jamal: I was first inspired to get into yoga in 1999 when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps in South Afrika. I was in the fourth group of American citizens to serve in South Africa and the only Black man in my group. I was chosen to shadow another volunteer named Hy Vu who had started his service the year before, and like me, was living in the Northern/Limpopo Province. 

While shadowing him, he showed me the sun salutation and it immediately stuck with me. To this day, I still practice the sun salutation and have even developed my own unique sequence of it.

JR Valrey: Can you talk about yoga’s connection to African culture? 

Shaka Jamal: What I have been taught is that yoga is indigenous to Afrika and is practiced in all parts of the continent. The most prevalent Afrikan style now is Egyptian/Khemetic yoga. More and more of our people have committed to learn and begin to teach it. I have taken a few powerful Egyptian/Khemetic classes at Yoga Love in West Oakland. Someday I hope to teach it. Many of the poses and techniques can be seen in the hieroglyphs on the walls of the pyramids in Egypt.

What we must also understand is that yoga is the synchronization of our focus/meditation, breathing and movement into one. Therefore, anything we do that blends these three is yoga. It just doesn’t have to happen on a yoga mat, it can happen whenever and wherever we happen to be. Once we bring our full consciousness to it, magic can happen. 

If you think about it, our people have been doing this in many artistic and scientific forms for a long time. Terms like “mindfulness” are just rebrands of our indigenous practices that brought us closer to our Higher Power, closer to being One with nature, the Universe and our true selves. This practice is our birthright and we must not be confused by the smoke and mirrors of “New Age” Western marketing. 

JR Valrey: What made you want to become a yoga teacher? How long were you a practitioner before that? 

Shaka Jamal: Truthfully, in 2013-2014, I originally decided to attain my yoga teaching certificate to save my own life. I knew I needed something deep to bring healing to the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of my life that were in and out of turmoil. 

I stumbled upon Niroga Institute and I knew I had found the right place. They specialized in trauma-informed yoga, had an emphasis and mission to change the zip code of yoga and teach BIPOC. I applied for and received their Integrative Health Fellowship, and dove in head first.

In the 200 hour course, I had to take 100 hours of classes, and then offered 100 hours of free classes to the community. The first 100 hours were so intense I completely forgot about having to teach 100 hours to the people. I also simultaneously came to the profound realization that what I learned I could not keep to myself. I then went on to complete my residency at the EOYDC, Roses In Concrete Elementary Charter School and Alameda County Juvenile Hall.

JR Valrey: How long did it take for you to learn the different yoga stances?

Shaka Jamal: My training with Niroga lasted for a year and truthfully, I am still learning. Learning yoga is a lifetime journey.

JR Valrey: What is yoga’s connection to mental health? How has it helped you?

Shaka Jamal: Yoga allows the body, mind and spirit to come more easily in alignment. I’ve heard many people say that yoga helps manage diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health conditions. Personally, yoga allows me to shed the stress and weight of life more easily and have more strength to handle the rest. 

I am a person that sometimes over commits and allows things to stack up in an unmanageable way. Yoga allows me to manage responsibilities, emotions and triggers that make it hard for me and sometimes prevent me from achieving my goals. I notice a big difference in my day-to-day when I do or don’t do yoga. 

I notice that I become irritated more easily when I don’t do yoga, and my body and my thoughts tend to become more rigid and less flexible. I definitely have a more positive outlook on life when I practice regularly and feel more of a depressive state when it’s missing from my daily routine.

As a people, we have a lot to be angry about. Anger is sometimes needed to fuel and achieve a mission and get from point A to point B. It doesn’t always mean it will allow us to get to point C. 

What I learned from my teacher Bidyut Bose (aka BK), is that at some point, anger blinds us and in this world of constant conflict, what we and other people need is vision from visionaries. If we hold on to too tight to anger, our mission becomes cloudy. At some point, we have to decide on what is more important to us as a people, our anger or our commitment to a clear mission and vision, and then act accordingly. 

The trauma that has been inflicted on us is a part of who we are, but it does not define us. There is an aspect of our existence that no trauma and no colonizer can ever touch or get close to. When we practice yoga and create space to be still in meditation, this becomes more and more evident.

JR Valrey: Have you been teaching during the COVID quarantine? How have yoga classes changed since the pandemic started?

Shaka Jamal: All of my classes have been happening virtually during the quarantine instead of in a shared space. I haven’t done any face to face classes, but I look forward to beginning some outdoor classes soon. 

One of the most impactful classes I taught during the quarantine was through my organization Namaste Ready. We collaborated with Spear of The Nation and put on the Black Men’s Yoga: 21 Days of Readiness Class where we met every day for 21 days straight practicing yoga, meditating and building trust and brotherhood.

JR Valrey: What do you hope people get out of your yoga classes?

Shaka Jamal: I hope that people can find peace, healing and inspiration in my classes that they can then take to their families and all aspects of their lives. I hope they take the best of what I offer and implement it into their own life so that they can become their own healer. Namaste Ready exists to activate the healing powers of the Black community, and encourages us to Stay Ready for Spirit, Stay Ready for Community, Stay Ready for Family and Stay Ready for Self Care.

JR Valrey: When are your next classes? How do people stay in touch with you?

Shaka Jamal: I don’t have any classes lined up at the moment, but to stay updated on future classes, please email me at namasteready.lyfe@gmail.com and follow me @namasteready.life on Facebook and Instagram.

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