Mon 17 Jan 2022 Ella Wroath

Black Lives Matter, the Pandemic, and Everything in Between


Amidst the growing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ella talks to Maxine Reid about what it means to be a Black woman in the yoga industry, how she’s been handling the pandemic, and beyond. 

Ella: How was lockdown for you?

Maxine: At first I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. In fact, I think I probably did. I did a lot of crying during my morning meditations. I'd have good days and bad days. I need people! I need the interaction. I got love to give, like a puppy, I've got to get it out there and I felt like it cut me off from all of that. But I think people began to be nice to each other and re-evaluated their priorities. They decided that they wanted to make bread with their children and go for walks. It gave people the opportunity to stop or pause. I think the world needed to stop running at corporate speed because it wasn't sustainable. To have the chance to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to continue doing things in the way I did before?’

Ella: Will you change parts of your life now because of it?

Maxine: I think the main change will be incorporating my visions, dreams and fun projects into the main fold. Before lockdown I made space for yoga and I made space for my other teaching job but there are so many other things that I want to do with my life too! But, oh my goodness, I thought I was going to die if I didn't have a hug. It went eight weeks without one. It was a long time. Once I started having hugs everything felt much better. No wonder everyone was going crazy.

Ella: I was so frustrated throughout the whole thing because I could see from a holistic point of view, a humanitarian point of view, that the things that help strengthen you and keep you sane is human connection. When you feel held and supported you feel 100 times better. You don't want to hurt yourself and you don't want to hurt anyone else. During lock down there were these moments where I felt so disconnected from myself and everybody around me that I just couldn't see the point anymore, it was really bleak. But it got me thinking that the world needs to be run in a different way and I think more people are seeing that too. For example, New Zealand has a female prime minister. I read an article where there was an element of surprise in the voice of the writer. It describes this amazing woman, Jacinda Ardern, who’s running her country using empathy and compassion and it seems to be working! Whilst we’re all here thinking, “Hello! Of course it is!”

Maxine: I know! Lots of past civilizations all over the world were female-led, matriarchal societies. Mother Nature, Mother Earth, The Goddess was venerated and appropriately respected. That respect was then extended out as standard operating practice amongst all beings. But, I think, things changed when it moved into the patriarchal system we know today.

Ella: That ties in really well with White supremacy and how it all became male dominated and White dominated. Different tribes, cultures and the feminine were pushed aside and destroyed. Now we’re seeing the anger of that bubbling up. This is the start of some big changes, I believe.

Maxine: I'm glad that we can have these conversations. I've had a couple of conversations with friends where they've told me things that I wouldn't have expected them to share. For example, one White friend told me about a time when her son was involved in a minor accident. She arrived at the scene and there were two men arguing: a Black man and White man. My friend instantly went to stand next to the White man because she presumed the Black man was in the wrong. But she was then informed that the White man had hit her son with his car and the Black man was helping and defending her son. In that moment, she realized that she'd been operating under unconscious assumptions. I think that is the progress: we can now discuss and analyse our behaviour around race. We’ve opened up the dialogue and the space where we’re not afraid to speak, we’re not afraid to be heard and we’re not afraid to listen. It feels like respect.

Ella: I think personally up until now I've felt quite defensive if anyone's said anything to me about race. I immediately jumped to conclusions and associated being racist with being a really bad person and took offense from it. But now I realize that we all have elements in ourselves, like your friend, that are completely unconscious. It is there in our shadow parts. Unless you look at it, you can't do anything about it. It's not easy, it's not comfortable, but it's really necessary. We're at this point now where we are part of creating a new world. The old patriarchal powers want division, they want violence and chaos and they want everyone to hate each other. Social distancing is convenient for them because it causes distrust. But I feel like it's one last desperate push because too many people are waking up now. It gives me hope. Even though some days are really hard, some days feel amazing. I am honoured to be part of this even though it's tricky and difficult. It’s progress. What a time to be alive! Also, depending what you believe, I think we all chose to be here, to help with this transition.

Maxine: It's our karma.

Ella: Yes! How old are you?

Maxine: Thirty six.

Ella: I’m 38 and we've seen the change of going from a world without the internet to an online world. We were there at the start of a new millennium. We remember a time before mobile phones and now we’ve seen a worldwide pandemic. Our brains must be wired differently from bridging all of those gaps and there will be value in all those experiences. They are really big jumps all before 40! I feel like you don't really know yourself until you get to your late 30s. I couldn't have had a conversation like this ten years ago.

Maxine: I wouldn't have been able to actually convey my points. Not because I didn't have the language, but because I didn’t have the courage yet.

Ella: We’ve had to learn a lot in our short life span and now it's time to put it all to use.

Maxine: From a young age, I spent most of my childhood in foster care when my mum was poorly. When I was young, it was my dirty little secret, nobody knew. I would have died of embarrassment if anyone knew. I wasn’t able to accept it or process it. My foster mum was a very lovely lady and I know the meaning of love. I can add a detail: she was White. But I think that’s incidental and irrelevant. I know what it is to be cared for unconditionally.  It's a blessing and now I've got it to give back. There's beauty in struggle. There's an educational value in grit, in hardship and in struggle. It's either going to burn you alive or forge you into something bigger and better. There's a value that comes from that kind of experience: I got a little something you can't buy. I love being Black even though it comes with the unnecessary negative ‘extras.’ I really love it! It feels fabulous and I'm grateful for that.

Now, George Floyd, bless him, it’s so sad that he died the way he did but we're not just protesting for him. We can’t help him now. We’re also protesting for those of us that are still walking, breathing, living and trying to live. There were so many before him and it hasn’t stopped yet. What about the people that don't die? What about the people like myself? This is part of our everyday life; dealing with the extreme negative bias is something we have to consider every day. The only time I feel like I don't have to is when I go to Jamaica. When you go to a place and no one stares at you it’s bliss. I was born in Gloucester (UK) and I’ll always love it. Coming back can be heart-breaking because it doesn’t always feel like home here.

Ella: I was approached recently by a high profile teacher and asked to host a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) tipi at Soul Circus. The teacher made the point that if you're a person of colour, your yoga practices is different. The heritage is inside the body energetically, in the muscles, in the bones and in the psyche. BIPOC have had different life experiences to White folk and therefore she wanted to create a supportive space that fully embodied and fully understood that right down to the core. It’s an interesting concept but I was uneasy to have a space at the festival that was just for BIPOC, as it felt like segregation. What are your thoughts on that?

Maxine: The teacher wants to reclaim a space which I understand. I'm a British person, in another man's land. The history here doesn't tell our story. But if my White friends had to go and practice in a different tent to me that might feel strange? That doesn’t feel like Soul Circus!

Ella: What is your truth? What do you want to see in the yoga world? Is there anything that you can think of that would bring more joy to your heart and your practice?

Maxine: Thank you for asking that question. I'm going to take a moment just to think! I'm shocked that you asked the question, no one has ever asked me that before.

Maybe a discussion circle, to reclaim the space. Or maybe a group of Black people practicing yoga by themselves! That would feel good, I have to admit! It’s taken me a few minutes to actually realise and admit that! Because it feels bad to say it somehow.  I’m worried about White people feeling excluded.

Ella: But you've had that your whole life. So f**k it, claim that space Maxine! Let’s celebrate you.

Maxine: [Laughs] I've got nothing to say to that!

Ella: What is your experience of being a Black woman in the wellness industry?

Maxine: I don't know any different. In some ways, it's hard for me to compare it to anything. However, I can compare it to the rest of my life. I've been qualified for a couple of years now so it's not a long period of time, teachers with more experience might say something different. But I find the community to be very inclusive, welcoming and friendly. I have not felt or perceived overt racism or even covert racism. The covert racism is worse and I do feel it in the rest of my life. I suppose what I'm saying is, I haven't felt it inside my yoga sphere, my yoga bubble, my yoga community. Obviously there are different sorts of people everywhere. It doesn't matter what colour they are, what sex they are or how tall or old or short – those I’ve met on my yoga journey are amazing people. I think also it might be that if anything has been there, I probably haven't noticed because the practice is transformational in a way that strengthens you. Once you know yourself, things might be uncomfortable, but they won't necessarily knock you off balance.

I used to live in Thailand, and…..disclaimer! I met many wonderful Thais. But it's an inherently racist country. Most of the time I just didn't notice. Because I was just being me and the only times I did really notice was when I felt a little bit unwell or if I was very tired.  Or when my energy was a bit lower, smaller or just less resilient. But I know that other people wouldn't have been able to let it bounce off. They would have taken the insult as an insult and felt the need to respond, probably with aggression. Not to say that you should meet aggression with aggression, but some people do. So that's how those situations can escalate. Then people will say, "Well, the Black person, just kicked off." But it's not the case.

Ella: Do you feel ‘tone policed’ because of how you look?

Maxine: Yes. What you say is ignored. Because of the passion or feeling behind it. You're not heard because people are listening to the colour of your skin instead of what you’re actually saying. It's as simple as that.

Ella: I read something that made me so sad the other day. They did some studies and White people can look at two children who are exactly the same age and feel more sympathetic and empathetic towards the White child. They viewed the White child as younger than the Black child. To them the Black child appears older, more robust and gets treated in a different way. I found that devastating and that's how we got to this point where we even view children so differently.

Maxine: I don’t think there was ever a point when that wasn't the case. I don't know how far back we'd have to go. My mum was in mental health institutions when I was growing up. I think she got postnatal depression but she was treated as if she was mad. One time she was taken to hospital by six White policemen who tackled her to the ground; I think this was standard treatment. But it is the system and we can't change the system. Well, we can't change it on our own. I think this is the thing I'm actually realizing, we can only complain about it, but we need everyone to come together to instigate real change. We need people to stand by us as fellow human beings regardless of race and tackle it from all sides. Progress matters. I would never have said any of this before publicly the death of George Floyd.

Ella: How does it feel?

Maxine: Scary. I think am I going to lose friends or followers for being honest about my experience? Is it going to affect who comes to my classes? But then I think, f**k it. If I don’t have integrity, I have nothing. I have something to say and I need to say it. It is empowering but as much relief as it provides, it is scary too.

I had an epiphany that I want to tell you about. Throughout lock down I have been meditating every morning as part of a group with a teacher named Lisa Harley. We’ve been doing a lot of work on our shadow selves: the parts of ourselves we try to hide. On one occasion we were looking at love and compassion. We looked at different parts of ourselves: the angry, the happy, the sad, the parts that have love and the parts that don’t. I realised in that moment that the person who killed George Floyd is missing love in his life: he’s missing compassion and love. I realised that he's missing parts of the full human experience to be able to actually do that and walk away from it. I pity him. I genuinely felt FOR him. Then I realized that I've got room in my heart and I've got love in my heart for him. It's not pain free but that's what the world needs, more love and I can bring that and it's a wonderful thing. I also realised I'm not forcing this. I wouldn't want to force it. I couldn’t. I know if it is possible for me to do it then it's possible for other people to do it. It is not easy, but that is what it's going to take.  Because if those officers could get the love that they are missing, then maybe they might behave differently and see people differently.

Ella: That's what we're being presented with right now. That full spectrum of being human and no one is exempt from it anymore. You can't hide from anything. We're having to process everything, and that's what lockdown was all about. It was a chance to stop and take a look. To really examine the world and everything in it, to figure out how you want to move forward after all of this. Because things are not working as they are. It’s getting worse and worse. We are more and more distracted.

Maxine: I completely agree.

Ella: This has opened up an interesting conversation, things that, as a White woman, I have definitely shied away from. It’s in our history. It’s in our life experiences. It’s so ingrained. I hadn’t considered until recently what White supremacy has done to people of colour and Black people. How the entire history is written from a White point of view and so much of your history and your culture has literally been burnt to the ground. It hasn't been taught, it hasn't been communicated.

Maxine: That’s why Black people appreciate getting together because we are the history, we are the record. It's a more complete record when there's more of us. It feels nice to say that. It makes me think of those TV adverts of companies who trace your history by looking up your family tree. Black people that descend from enslaved, displaced Africans can’t do that. It doesn’t exist, it’s not there.

Ella: [Crying] I’m sorry for crying, I’ve never thought about that before. I’m so sorry.

Maxine: No, don't apologise. Progress matters, remember. We have a space now, where we can meet, do you understand? This is the progress. This is happy, painful, awful and wonderful. In my meditation practice, I’ve been calling on my ancestors and they come. Their spirit is there; it's not a broken line anymore. It can feel disconnected on many levels. You’re aware of the stereotype that Black people have broken families. But when you cut the lines so far down it’s true. They were displaced, killed, tortured and generally appropriated for others’ desires. People think that colonisers went and got slaves from Africa. No! They went and stole free people from Africa and dropped them off somewhere else. And that’s how they became slaves. People weren’t born in chains in Africa, they were doing their own thing, living their lives. So I've been calling on my ancestors and I do feel more connected, like I have re-established the line and the links. I personally feel like it's my duty to make progress, I'm working for resolution for all of them.

Ella: That’s amazing and that's the power of yoga. The power to tap into that ancestral line and heal it.  It’s beautiful to have this narrative now, of ancestral healing and connection, calling on our guardians or angels. That is the beauty of the practice.

Maxine: Healing brings it full circle. It's brought me to a point where I can think about the police officer killing a Black man and still extend love. It’s not easy or enjoyable but I think it’s necessary. If I can do it, then anyone can do it. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind; I just trying to walk a new path. Hopefully, I might be able to inspire somebody. I'm just going to keep doing me and maybe, that might make a little bit of a difference.

Let me tell you about my new venture with my friend, Jenny. It's called ‘Habits for Health’ and it's a community interest project. ‘Habits For Health’ will teach people how to establish regular healthy habits such as meditation programs. Keeping it short, about fifteen minutes a day, in order to instil those habits for a healthy, holistic and balanced life. Encouraging people to have the courage and develop the skills and insight to sit with yourself, to look inside, to be okay with being happy or be okay with being angry. That's one of the things I'm learning now more than ever.

It's important to hold space for people. People have held space for me, like my foster mum and so many other friends and family. I want to give that back. I want to create and forge a space where people can be free to explore. To sit and learn about themselves. To just breathe. To feel free. That space becomes a bedrock amidst the tornado. In the eye of the storm the wind whirls around you as you hold fast in the centre. Metaphorically speaking, you could be sat in the middle of an earthquake but still feel grounded and stable.

Ella: We’re in the eye of the storm right now, our job as Yogis, Lightworkers and Spiritual Practitioners is to ground down and offer as much love as we can. Because what we're going through is energetic. It's an energetic purge. It's all the shit coming up to the surface. And that's why it feels so awful. But it's also a good thing. We are here now to create this new world, this new way of being. It’s not physical yet, it all has to start energetically, inside of all of us, to then be manifested into our reality. That is our mission.

Maxine: This is it. When the situation happened with George Floyd, I wanted to see more love in the world. All I wanted to see was more love, not people hurting each other. I realised that I have to bring the love that I want to see. Not only do I have to bring it, I realise that I've got it. Not only have I got it, I've got loads of it. My cup runneth over. [Laughs] Regular meditation practice has allowed me to discover or rediscover this.

Ella: Do you think there’s anything we can do to be better at Soul Circus?

Maxine: I don't know. I think I'm the wrong person to ask about it. I've got plenty to say, but I find it hard to see things differently to how they are.

Ella: You've been with us since the beginning, haven't you? It's your happy place.

Maxine: I would defend Soul Circus to the ground and I’ve got some serious muscles! [Laughs]

Ella: Thank you. You are one of my people, Maxine. I just want to make sure everyone feels welcome.

Maxine: I would agree that it's a very ‘White’ event. I mean, we live in Gloucestershire!

Ella: It’s geographical, as well the yoga industry being very White in the west. But also, I don't just want to make excuses. We definitely need to work on being more diverse and inclusive.

Maxine: I have an idea for a class I would like to see. Black Power Yoga!

Ella: Consider it done! An empowering class for BIPOC to celebrate Black yogis and yogis of colour. Dedicated to the power of different cultures. Remembering the ancient civilisations where humans were aware of their extraordinary powers, before they were hidden from us and forgotten. When we were magical gods and goddesses intricately aligned with nature.

Maxine: When we knew about and respected the changes of the seasons and we weren’t all running around at ‘corporate speed’ making ourselves sick. It would have been a joyous world. Like that feeling in yoga when you realise how huge and how powerful you really are. When you realise your true nature. We need to hold that image in our hearts.

I have a book I’d like to lend you called ‘Black and British’ by David Olusoga. Black people have been in Britain in many capacities over many, many centuries. His book helped me to fill in parts of my backstory that I didn't even know existing. It helped me to heal the broken link between me and those who came before me. It creates a line where there was none. I really felt the break in the ancestral line and I suspect that most Black people feel it but don't know what they're feeling.

Ella: How does it feel, how does it come up?

Maxine: Empty. Disconnected. Alone. Like you’re stood on a little rock. There's water all around and it's just you by yourself, on that rock. But I remember now that even if I am on that rock by myself, I didn't get there by myself. I have come from somewhere. I have come from someone who came from someone and so on: it’s a long line. I might not know their names or who they were. But, if I want to see and feel them, all I have to do is look inside myself.

We want to thank Maxine for her openness, her authenticity, her heart, and her willingness to give us emotional space to discuss diversity in the yoga world with us. We look forward to continuing this conversation and keeping Maxine’s point of view top of mind in all the Soul Circus happenings in the future!

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