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Black Yoga Teacher's Alliance (BYTA): Jana Long on the Yoga as a Peace Practice Program
Jana Long E-RYT 500, C-IAYT is a transformational yoga teacher, Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant, mediation facilitator, spiritual life coach, yoga therapist, and former media professional with over 45 years of experience practicing yoga. In addition, she serves as the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA). In this interview, Yoga U contributing writer Lacey Gibson Ramirez spoke with Jana on her yoga journey and her leadership of BYTA.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: What inspired you to start practicing yoga?
Jana Long: Yoga changed my life. I went to public schools in Washington DC, and physical education was a requirement. One of the exercises I really loved doing in gym class was called the bicycle. In high school, I had no idea it had anything to do with yoga, nor had I really ever heard of yoga, but I soon learned that yoga had a very similar posture called Sarvangasana or Shoulderstand that was often transitioned into another position called Halasana or Plow. I made the connection between bicycle and Shoulderstand around 1972, my sophomore year of college. One morning while changing television channels, I came upon a public television show on yoga, and just at that moment, the host of the program was demonstrating Shoulderstand. It was the first time I connected a movement I enjoyed to the practice of yoga. I became a regular viewer of the program, and that was my entry into the physical practice of yoga.
Prior to that, I had a very keen interest in astrology—not like your daily horoscope in the newspaper, but a serious study of astrology. Even as a young girl, I was seeking ways to understand who I am and why I am here. Astrology opened up my path to studying Eastern philosophies. There was something about the Western ideals around Christianity and the Abrahamic religions that only led to more questions and didn’t fulfill my spiritual needs. So, I would say first and foremost I was a spiritual seeker, and as the path opened, it led me to yoga from the philosophical standpoint, and then a few years later into actual physical practice.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: How has your yoga practice evolved over the years?
Jana Long: Of course, when I was younger, I would do all the things you can do with your body—Headstands, Handstands, and splits—and all of that stuff. But as I’ve gotten older, my practice has changed.
I’ve gotten much more focused on the philosophical aspects—the actual system of yoga—not just rolling around on a yoga mat, but how to live yoga in every moment. When I first came into yoga, it was emerging from going underground in the 1950s McCarthy era. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was one of the spiritual teachers from India who came to the United States in the late ’60s, and a lot of celebrities were following him like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Mia Farrow, and the Rolling Stones. But because yoga had been underground, it wasn’t the sort of thing you ran around telling people because they thought you were weird.
So it was very much a personal practice for me, and it has remained a practice for my personal development and not something I’m trying to quantify, commodify, or commercialize. I have embraced yoga as a spiritual practice for my personal development. Aging brings front and center that no matter what, I’ve got to leave this body. That’s why I think yoga has evolved into an even deeper spiritual practice.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: What inspired the establishment of Black Yoga Teachers’ Alliance (BYTA)?
Jana Long: There was an organization before BYTA that was called the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (IABYT). Prior to finding this organization, from 1972 until about 1998, I had never encountered another Black person who practiced nor expressed any knowledge or interest in yoga. But one day, I was at my gym, and lo and behold, a young Black man was hired to teach yoga. I thought, “Wow, where did he come from?” I started taking his yoga class and practiced with him for a few years. Then, around 2002, he told me about this organization, IABYT, and I was fascinated.
I ended up going to a conference that they had just outside of Chicago in 2002, where I met other Black yogis from around the country. Now at that time, I was solely a yoga practitioner and not teaching yoga. Nor did I have any interest in teaching yoga, but it was pretty awesome to know there were Black people who taught and practiced yoga. I was always the only Black person in a yoga group practice and the IABYT conference was my first experience being with other Black yoga practitioners. That isn’t to say that I wanted to practice yoga exclusively with Black people, but there was something inspiring and fulfilling about this unique experience.
IABYT lasted about 10 years before shutting down. After the organization ended, a fellow yoga teacher and I started thinking about starting another Black yoga teachers’ organization. She and I met through IABYT and recognized the important role it served to connect Black yoga teachers. So, in the aftermath of IABYT, the idea for BYTA surfaced in 2009 and was started as a Facebook group. Facebook, at the time, was pretty new to the general public, and we invited people to join who thought having a Black yoga teachers’ organization was important. The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance was legally structured as a tax-exempt nonprofit in 2016.
Looking back, I think in that moment of time, we were just talking off the top of our heads and not fully seeing the full potential that would start to unfold from 2009 until now as the number of Black people who are interested in yoga dramatically increases. I think it was an idea that found just the right time to ripen and grow. So, here we are.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: What have been the greatest challenges in running BYTA?
Jana Long: Right now, the biggest challenge is managing growth. We are still very young; this is just our fourth year. We are still building the infrastructure of the organization and learning how to best support members. We have the same challenges as any new startup around funding and programming development. We’re still going through growing pains, but we get stronger each year.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: What are some of BYTA’s greatest accomplishments?
Jana Long: We are really proud of the growing interest in the organization and the number of large-scale events that we’ve been able to produce that have impacted the yoga community. We’ve had three national conferences that have brought Black yoga teachers together to network and connect with each other, and have offered many continuing education opportunities. As a result of that, partnerships have developed among members to work on retreats, workshops, and projects. BYTA also created and curated our signature program called “Yoga as a Peace Practice” (YPP) which launched in May 2017. We’ve been able to produce five YPP events, and right before COVID, we were starting to move the program around the country.
The purpose of YPP is to offer yoga teachers insights and techniques to facilitate contemplative practices to individuals and communities impacted by violence. We teach through the lens of the niyamas and offer contemporary perspectives to implement them in daily life. We developed YPP out of the need to primarily address violence in homes and communities.
The impetus for YPP was when Trayvon Martin was killed. What must it feel like if you are the parents, family, neighbors, or lived in his community? I felt impacted by his death even though I didn’t know Trayvon Martin or his family. It made us acutely aware of the numerous incidents of unarmed Black people who had been killed, more recently, and historically. It was astonishing, and we began documenting the information.
We also recognized that many Black yoga teachers work with people in communities impacted by violence and could use the tools offered in the YPP program to support them. Black yoga teachers often are uniquely positioned to bring yoga to people who have less access. We saw how Black yoga teachers offer yoga—rather than owning storefront studios where people come to us. As non-owners, we make opportunities to take yoga to people. We also have a visceral understanding of these issues because violence may happen in our own families. I have an uncle who was killed by police, you know, this isn’t something that just happens every blue moon. It’s common.
YPP also recognizes there are myriad forms of violence, not just police shooting unarmed Black people, but there are also all kinds of domestic abuse, racism, and economic injustice. YPP calls us to ask, “How can yoga help to build resilience and inspire conscious living in the aftermath of violence?”
We developed a program, based on tenets of yoga philosophy, to immerse yoga teachers in a curriculum designed to develop skills to support and facilitate contemplative yoga practice. YPP is an opportunity to experience Restorative Yoga and delve into our personal observances to make empowered choices. Since its launch, over 250 individuals have participated. They are encouraged to implement what they learn in their homes, work, and communities to find balance and equity in our interactions with each other. We are very proud that we were able to establish YPP. So even though BYTA is young, we’ve done a lot in a short time, and we’re really proud of the feedback that we get from what we’ve put forth in the world so far.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: What are your hopes for the future of BYTA?
Jana Long: We’d like our membership to continue to grow. We are shifting, like other nonprofits and studios in the wellness space, to cope in this new COVID-19 world. We are looking at how we can put forth rich online content. We are also envisioning the post-COVID world and the imagination and innovation it will require. For example, will people continue to offer events if online, and what will be the continuing impact on retreat centers and wellness spaces? Will participants want to incur the cost of travel and accommodations? Will we be willing to spend money to do those things? Conversely, will months or years of social distancing drive a stronger desire to gather and connect in person? We are carefully watching.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: How do you think COVID-19 might shape the trajectory of yoga?
Jana Long: I’m hoping and praying there will be another side of the pandemic, but it will be hard to know what this yoga will look like. For me, one of the beautiful things about this COVID-19 pandemic is having more time for my own yoga practice. Whether or not or how we will continue to commodify and commercialize yoga is perilous and will require new business models. I practiced yoga nearly 30 years before ever knowing yoga certifications existed, and that did not stop me from pursuing the study of yoga. In ancient times, yoga was taught from teacher to student, one at a time. It wasn’t just something like, “Oh, I want to take yoga, and I’ve got $20, so I can go do it today.” I didn’t come to yoga that way.
You have to ask yourself, what is your intention for yoga? What is the inquiry? The answers to these questions will guide you as a practitioner and teacher. BYTA desires to support teachers along their journey of exploration.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez: How do you think the Black Lives Matter movement might shape the trajectory of yoga if it is at all?
Jana Long: I know there are people involved in social justice issues for which yoga can be of great benefit as a restorative practice. The personal yoga practice of people working with the intersectionality of yoga and social justice should inform how they move forward in the world. If they have a comprehensive understanding and practice, their work on matters of social justice will be guided by yoga principles.
BYTA is committed to supporting the personal, educational, and professional development of Black yoga teachers, which is a broad and diverse community of individuals who share the peace and power of yoga. Our hope is that BYTA will continue to offer our members opportunities to be at peace and thrive.
Jana Long, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT is a transformational leader, manager, and former media professional who has practiced yoga for over 45 years and witnessed the emergence of yoga into the mainstream. She serves as the Chief Executive Officer and is the co-founder of BYTA.
Lacey Gibson Ramirez is a Boston-based ERYT-200 yoga teacher and a freelance writer. Through her teaching and writing, she seeks to make yoga accessible, inclusive, and equitable. Lacey has completed certifications in Prenatal Yoga and Barre as well as trauma-informed yoga trainings. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more and connect, visit her website laceygibson.com