I always enjoyed yoga, but I didn't know its power until I needed it the most.
Before becoming a yoga teacher, I moonlighted as a travel writer and blogger. I explored the world and shared my experiences with people who followed my journey online. I celebrated St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, did yoga on a beautiful beach in Bali, and felt like I was following my passion and living the dream. (Related: Yoga Retreats Worth Traveling For)
That dream shattered on October 31, 2015, when I was robbed at gunpoint on a hijacked bus in a foreign country.
Colombia is a gorgeous place with delicious food and vibrant people, yet for years tourists shied away from visiting due to its dangerous reputation marked by drug cartels and violent crimes. So that fall, my friend Anne and I decided to do a three-week backpacking trip, sharing every amazing step online, to prove how safe the country had become over the years.
On the third day of our trip, we were on a bus headed to Salento, more commonly known as coffee country. One minute I was chatting with Anne while catching up on some work, and the next minute we both had guns held at our heads. It all happened so fast. Looking back, I don't remember if the robbers were on the bus the entire time, or if maybe they'd gotten on at a stop along the way. They didn't say much as they patted us down for valuables. They took our passports, jewelry, money, electronics and even our suitcases. We were left with nothing but the clothes on our backs and our lives. And in the grand scheme of things, that was enough.
They moved through the bus, but then they came back to Anne and me—the only foreigners aboard—a second time. They pointed the guns at my face once more as someone patted me down again. I held up my hands and assured them, "That's it. You have everything." There was a long tense pause and I wondered if that would be the last thing I ever said. But then the bus came to a stop and they all got off.
The other passengers seemed to have only a few minor things taken. A Colombian man who was sitting next to me still had his cell phone. It quickly became apparent that we must have been targeted, possibly from the moment we bought our bus tickets earlier that day. Shaken and terrified, we finally got off the bus safe and unharmed. It took several days, but we eventually made our way to the American Embassy in Bogotá. We were able to get new passports so that we could get home, but nothing else was ever recovered and we never got any more details about who robbed us. I was devastated and my love for travel was tainted.
seven days ago i was looking out at the beautiful views of guatape in colombia. just twenty four hours later i would have never guessed that i would be held at gunpoint by six people with my friend, and robbed of every last thing i owned. anne and i were traveling on a bus from armenia to salento, colombia around 7 pm on halloween. about an hour into the ride, people began to stand up with guns, snatching everything from right up under us and waving the guns in our faces. all i can remember is seeing little girls in their costumes crying, praying to God these people would not begin shooting us all, and trying to guard my head in case they decided to open fire. unfortunately our trip to colombia has been cut short, but by the grace of God, our lives haven't. we are both still breathing and able to tell this story. and for that alone, i am grateful. these past six days have been tough to say the least. we had no access to get cash and very little help from people in colombia, including the police. but we were finally able to get our emergency passports and make it out safe and sound. i feel like a fraud because just a few days ago, i put up a picture in medellin telling you all how awesome colombia is, and now i am currently at a loss for words due to this traumatizing experience. as the days have gone by, i've decided however that this experience will not harden my hope for humanity. i know that just as there are broken souls in this world, there are also a hell of a lot of good people walking this earth. i came back to the united states two days ago with nothing but the clothes on my back and my life. no money, no phone, no backpack filled with all my belongings, no computer, no camera, no nothing. not even the hardrive storing every single photo of my travel experiences to date. but one thing i refuse to let those six people rob me off is my desire to get back out there and continue on doing my soul work. when God reveals your purpose to you, no one can take that away. no one! i will continue to love, travel this beautiful world and encourage others to never give up on their dreams. i will continue to look and move forward on this journey.
Once I was back in Houston, where I lived at the time, I packed up a few things and flew home to be with my family in Atlanta for the holidays. I didn't know then that I would not return to Houston, and that my visit back home would be for the long haul.
Even though the ordeal was over, the internal trauma remained.
I'd never really been an anxious person before, but now I was consumed by worries and my life seemed to be spiraling downward at a rapid pace. I lost my job and was living back at home with my mom at the age of 29. I felt like I was going backward when it seemed like everyone else around me was moving forward. Things I'd used to do with ease—like going out at night or riding public transportation—felt too scary.
Being newly unemployed allowed me the opportunity to focus full-time on my healing. I was experiencing a lot of post-traumatic stress symptoms, like nightmares and anxiety, and started seeing a therapist to help me find ways to cope. I also poured myself into my spirituality by going to church regularly and reading the Bible. I turned to my yoga practice more than I ever had before, which soon became an integral part of my healing. It helped me to focus on the present moment instead of dwelling on what happened in the past or being anxious about what might happen in the future. I learned that when I focus on my breath, there simply isn't room to think (or worry) about anything else. Whenever I'd feel myself getting anxious or worried about a situation, I'd immediately focus on my breathing: repeating the word "here" with every inhale and the word "now" with every exhale.
yoga teaches us not to shy away from pain, but to embrace it both on and off the mat. it is through painful experiences that we learn our deepest lessons and experience breakthroughs in our personal growth. when we begin to experience exhaustion in a pose, we are encouraged to focus more on the breath, and less on the challenging moment that will soon be over anyway. we even discover that the more we breathe, the easier it becomes. we may find more room to go deeper into the fullest expression of a posture on the exhale. we can also take this lesson with us throughout life. when we find a way to take a moment to breathe our way through stressful events, maybe the solution becomes more clear on the action we are meant to take. or maybe, as we exhale, we become more comfortable with doing absolutely nothing and learn to accept that which we can't control. maybe we're all just one breath away from true joy.
Because I was immersing myself so deeply in my practice during that time, I decided that was the perfect season to go through yoga teacher training as well. And in May 2016, I became a certified yoga teacher. After graduating from the eight-week course, I decided that I wanted to use yoga to help other people of color experience the same peace and healing that I did. I often hear people of color say that they don't think yoga is for them. And without seeing many images of people of color in the yoga industry, I can definitely understand why.
This is why I decided to start teaching hip-hop yoga: to bring more diversity and a real sense of community to the ancient practice. I wanted to help my students understand that yoga is for everyone no matter what you look like, and to let them have a place where they feel like they actually belong and can experience the wonderful mental, physical and spiritual benefits that this ancient practice can provide. (See also: The Y7 Yoga Flow You Can Do at Home)
I now teach 75-minute classes in athletic power Vinyasa, a type of yoga flow that emphasizes strength and power, in a heated room, as a moving meditation. What makes it really unique is the music; instead of wind chimes, I crank the hip-hop and soulful music.
As a woman of color, I know my community loves good music and freedom in movement. This is what I integrate into my classes and what helps my students see that yoga is for them. Plus, seeing a black teacher helps them feel even more welcome, accepted, and safe. My classes aren't only for people of color. Everyone is welcome, no matter their race, shape, or socioeconomic status.
I try to be a relatable yoga teacher. I'm open and candid about my past and current challenges. I'd prefer my students see me as raw and vulnerable rather than as perfect. And it's working. I've had students tell me they've started therapy because I've helped them feel less alone in their own personal struggles. This means so much to me because there's a huge mental health stigma in the black community, especially for men. To know I've helped someone feel safe enough to get the help they needed has been an incredible feeling.
I finally feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to, living a purpose-filled life. The best part? I've finally found a way to combine my two passions for yoga and travel. I first went to Bali on a yoga retreat in the summer of 2015, and it was a beautiful, life-changing experience. So I decided to bring my journey full circle and host a yoga retreat in Bali this September. By accepting my past while embracing who I am now, I truly understand that there is a purpose behind everything we experience in life.