“We hold [traumas] in our body...let’s leave some of this on our mat, leave it here, shed a tear if you need to, cry... Let’s physically try to refresh so we can come back and be as efficient and effective as possible. From my own personal experience, you really can’t help other people without helping yourself first.”
Wise words from Aabi Abdun-Nafi, a yoga instructor who leads free, restorative classes at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC.
“Hold your own mental health and wellbeing paramount; it’s just as important as you showing up to the protest,” she continues. Afterall, she says “we’re in this for the long haul.”
Click play to watch an exclusive yoga flow from Aabi, recorded especially for Youth To The People, and read our full interview with Aabi below.
For more restorative self-care, check out the latest issue of To The People zine, Dream Beyond, shipping free with all orders while supplies last.
Alyssa Shapiro: How long have you been practicing yoga?
Aabi Abdun-Nafi: I've been practicing for around eight years. Initially it had nothing to do with mindfulness at all, I'll be honest. I wanted to learn how to do a handstand, I wanted to get stronger. There are some spiritual and mental benefits to yoga, and I thought that’d be great. That wasn't what initially got me going to it at all, but that's definitely what kept me coming back.
AS: How has your practice benefited you?
AAN: It has given me a space to be still for a second. Like a lot of other people, I can have a very overactive mind. I can get high anxiety, get overwhelmed, and it gave me a moment to just be still and to just be okay with where I was at. It wasn't about working towards anything or, “I need to do this better, I need to do a handstand.” Where you are right now is okay. I can just sit there with my own mind, with my own body, and be okay with where I am, and know that I'm still doing the work of becoming better—a better person, a better friend...
AS: Has what you’ve learned through yoga helped you cope at all with trauma and stress in your life?
AAN: Oh, absolutely. During college, I had a couple of breakdowns. I was extremely depressed and I had even gone so far as to start kicking into depressants. I had even checked myself into the mental ward of the hospital for a few days, because I had just kind of reached a level where I just couldn't function past my depression and anxiety.
The drugs helped me for a little bit, but it wasn't a long term solution for me. I couldn't feel sad, but I couldn't feel anything; I couldn’t feel happy either. Yoga definitely helped me; instead of stuffing it down and putting a bandaid over it, I was able to sit in it and feel it and then let it wash over me.
Like I said again, to be still in those moments of chaos and moments of just a lot going on in your mind and your body, it helped me be able to move through that. Even to this day when I have that high stress, it definitely helps me kind of release some of it, and it offers me a place to be kind to myself once again and to let myself just feel what I feel.
Wherever I'm feeling, I have every right and reason to feel, no matter how ridiculous it is or how ridiculous I think it is. Just feel it and then it'll go away faster. You know, the more you beat yourself up about it, the more it keeps on regurgitating itself, like, “Hey, you still haven't dealt with me yet.”
AS: That’s such a good learning—sitting with something, letting it wash through you, seeing what it has to offer, and then letting it go.
AAN: I think that there's a lot of pressure, societal pressure, or social media pressure, what have you. Even though we are opening up a lot more about mental and emotional wellness, there's a lot of pressure to kind of always feel like you need to show up in a certain way. Which is not true, you know?
That has definitely taught me that however you show up is okay, cause even on the mat, there are some days when I'm in class, I'm like, yes, I'm awesome. And then some days I come in, I'm like, I'm just gonna lay here. I can't, I can't. Really a better yogi knows to be where they are and if that's what you need for the day, to just be there and lay on your back and pretty much just take a nap for an hour? Then that’s your yoga process for the day. That's fine. It's what you needed.
AS: Personally I find a lot of benefits in child’s pose and staying there as long as possible.
AS: Tell me about your involvement in Occupy DC.
AAN: I am one of the organizers for the yoga classes. I also help with some logistics and organizing with our other events. We all are jacks of all trades. Mainly what I do is put together the yoga classes that we offer. They originally started as a way to decompress after the protesting and stuff that we have organized, or just being out there processing in general for weeks on end, especially for those people who have been out there doing the early protesting when things are very violent, very aggressive, high energy.
You have every right to be angry, to be upset. You can't always react in that space without exacerbating the situation. You know what I mean? I'm basically lead instructor for those classes. I help to screen any of the other teachers, as far as organizing everything that we have to set up, all that jazz. Aside from that, I just help out where I can fit in with whatever else we have going on.
AS: How did a yoga class at Black Lives Matter Plaza first even come up as a possibility?
AAN: It had initially been arranged through Occupy DC and another organization that we partner with called Bartenders Against Racism, led by a bartender here in DC. The first class was actually not taught by me at all. They were just like, Hey, we're collaborating on this event. I'm like, “Yeah, that's totally up my alley.”
I was one of the first people there. I was talking to one of the organizers and it was led by a white woman and she did a great class. Like, it was awesome. But, I approached her after class and I was like, “Hey, thinking about the tone of everything right now, I definitely think that this should be led by a Black person, especially if this is meant for Black people, as well as in the spirit of what we're doing, amplifying Black voices.” She was completely on board and was like, “Yeah, you can do the next one.” And the next one took off. And then I pretty much just took it over from there.
AS: As an organizer and a yoga instructor, how does physical wellness help you take care of both of your emotional and mental health? And for those people taking your yoga classes during the protests?
AAN: I will say that for me, being a part of these events and organizing this program actually was a kind of a check in for myself to remind myself that you can't always show up 100%. There were definitely times where I've gotten burnt out, especially when we were doing four events a week. It's exhausting. Like it's extremely hot. It's extremely humid. We're outside all day. You know, you get frustrated. So I have to constantly remind myself that I am human too, and I'm allowed to feel what I want to feel and also to remind myself when I need to step back, to step back and to not feel guilty about it.
Me taking care of me is also taking care of the people that I take care of, because I can't show up for them without showing up for myself. Something that has helped a lot is not overexerting myself, not trying to stretch myself too thin, especially when it comes to holding space for emotional and mental health and wellbeing.
Taking days off...sometimes if I'm feeling overwhelmed, like I'm going home to just go cry in a corner...that's what I need right then. I'm being very, very honest with myself about that.
AS: Why was it important to make the classes free?
AAN: Well, it was free because I'm not gonna ask protestors to give me money or to ask them to pay for classes when people have been out there daily, overnight, in this weather. I felt like that was kind of me paying them back, honestly.
I've been out there as well, like, you know, you're standing up for me, you know, as part of the collective of who we're fighting for. You’re standing up for me. You're standing up for my family. You're standing up for my nieces and nephews. Over the past eight years, I have put in a lot of work and money into being trained in this. Like, let me use it, let me use this skill that I've acquired, to help other people.
We were accepting donations for our organization, but I don't feel right accepting any personal money from this, especially when I have other resources to make income. This is purely community service work for me.
AS: It’s about giving back to your community. Okay, switching gears a little bit, can you talk more about what it means to hold emotional trauma in a specific part of our body and what we can do to begin to release that trauma?
AAN: Absolutely. Specifically with the hips, the bottom of our lumbar spine is where our sacral chakra is. That's where we hold a lot of things that have to do with pleasure, with how we see ourselves, feelings, emotions, trauma, sexuality, things of that nature.
I'm sure you can see how with everything that's going on, a lot of things can be held there in your hips. I know for me personally, whenever I've done any type of hip opening exercises or things like that, it can be very challenging for me because I hold onto a lot of emotional trauma.
When I have gotten that release, I've actually just sat there and busted out crying on the mat. We hold things in our body in different ways, whether your shoulders are always up by your ears or you're always clenching your jaw.
With everything going on, [hip opening] was pretty much hitting the nail on the head. Like let's kind of just leave some of this on our mat, drop it here, shed a tear if you need to cry. It's hard. It's hard. And especially because most people's hips are not super mobile, like that's a very tight space for a lot of people. The average person can’t just bust out into a split, like, no, absolutely not. I just wanted to make sure that the class that I was teaching was not just a workout class. We were having a theme that was actually helping you along your protesting journey.
What I was noticing was that as we were out there for longer periods of time and longer periods of time, we were getting more irritable, less compassionate to each other. Working with people in close quarters with no sleep for a long time, you kinda get a little agitated, so let's just kind of drop some of that off, let's let some of this go, let’s physically try to refresh so that we can come back and be as efficient and as effective as possible. From my own personal experience, you can’t help others without helping yourself first.
AS: What advice do you have for those who are fighting for racial justice when it comes to their own health and well being?
AAN: If you're about to go for a run, you gotta make sure that you are eating the right foods, you're gonna make sure you're hydrated enough, you're gonna make sure that your body is prepared for what you're about to put it through. You also want to make sure that your mental state is prepared for what you’re about to go through.
Make your mental health paramount, however that looks for you. If it's just meditating a couple of minutes when you wake up, doing a little ten minute flow or just having a second to yourself when you first wake up, outside with some tea, when you're not on your phone, you're not thinking about anything, you're not always having to be on top of current events all the time, all the time, all the time... It gets depressing. Something that I do is, when I wake up, I will not go on to any type of social media for the first hour that I'm awake. I'm going to sit there and in my natural state and not look at my phone and get upset and just ruin my whole state of mind for the rest of the day.
Hold your own mental health and well being as paramount, just as important as you showing up to your process, just as important as you standing out all night, just as important as anything else you're doing, your mental health should be up there. I know initially it sounds selfish, but it's really not. This isn't a new fight. This isn't something that just happened this year. This has been happening for decades and for hundreds of years. You're in this for the long haul, pretty much. You have to make sure that [you’re] in order.