Self care as Liberation
Can yoga and self care be practical tools for the liberation of a people? Is the concept of Black people doing yoga a radical idea? Is it revolutionary in any way?
Today there are many more spaces for people of color to practice self care and healing and more are beginning to see the benefits of developing a ritual of healing practice. However, are there practices that are geared towards this specific end? Are there practices that can fight through the years of generational stigmas that have paralyzed our progress and brought us to believe that healing practices like yoga are too white, too feminine, too black, or too mysterious?
For so long the African experience has been relegated to reactions to slavery and colonization, both of which have sought to strip the humanity from Black people across the world. The lenses of oppression held dually by Black and non-Black alike rarely suggests that an alternative way of living could exist for descendants of slavery, colonization, apartheid, and Jim Crow. Rarer still do the qualities of health, well-being, healing, and regeneration become attributed to these same descendants.
We ignore that these descendants are founders of kingdoms, creators of sciences and great systems of healing. This past is is rarely known other than to true scholars of the Black experience. The mere concept of Black self care has never been widely known or promoted though has always been practiced through residual generational inheritance. Wives’ tales, Grandmother’s remedies and intuitions that give guidance, Grandfather’s innate “know how”, all give witness to our ancestral wisdom. There are many who would say of Black self care, that it is the ultimate revolutionary tool of liberation.
During the mid-1970s in Chicago, yoga pioneers Master Instructor Yirser Ra Hotep and Dr. Ausar Hapi were doing research to rediscover and reconstitute healing practices they could use inside their communities. They saw yoga as a tool in the quest for liberation, a very useful tool for developing the mind and freeing the body from destructive generational habits. They also saw, however, a need to have a yoga philosophy, practice and meditation that was based upon African principles. «We saw the need for creating something that would serve those who did not have access to the mainstream forms that were becoming more commercialized and exclusive to those who are white and with money. We saw a need to fulfill the desire of those who sought an African based spirituality and connected with the spirits and concepts of divinity closely aligned with our immediate lineage. We had nothing against India or that spirituality that we recognized in its original form was of Black creation».
Yirser and Ausar studied the great yoga masters of the past, Iyengar among others, but also the great writers of Black liberation from Franz Fanon to Malcolm X and Guyanese writer Ivan Van Sertima, who wrote the seminal book They Came Before Columbus.
The ideology they developed can be described also in terms of what Brazilian author Paulo Freire, an educator and contemporary of Franz Fanon, regards as «The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, [however] the oppressed must be their own example». Freire went further to argue that the oppressed also could change their own thinking: «those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly» [Pedagogy of the Oppressed].
Fanon himself urged «Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it» [Facts of Blackness].
Yirser and Ausar realized that centuries before what has been imported and promoted as yoga, there had been systems of health and healing with roots in Africa. Kemetic yoga, as it has become known throughout the world, is such a system of healing based upon ancient research and depictions of restorative movements, philosophy, and Kemetic “laws” taken from writings, drawings, hieroglyphs, and scientific background.
Kemetic yoga is based upon the ancient principle of MAAT, which is used to describe a harmony with the universe, and the idea of a lifeforce or SHU which is primarily the internal breath and how it navigates the body. The movements take influence from the angular, geometric postures as seen on the walls of pyramids and temples. Poses are developed with a sense of slow movement and are sustained through ‘geometric progression’ often manifesting an ancient belief or sacred character of the pantheon of Kemetic literature. It is a practice that develops a “perpetual state of meditation” for the practitioner and uses the breath and the body to restore and rejuvenate the spirit.
Though it began slowly in close-knit corners of self care culture, over the past 50 years Master Instructor Yirser has transcended this ancient future system into what is now known as THE GLOBAL KEMETIC YOGA MOVEMENT which has spread nationally as well as internationally to Europe, West Africa, The Caribbean, and even as recently and far off as New Zealand, Australia, and Brazil, practiced by thousands of instructors and practitioners world-wide.
I discovered this ancient future practice of Kemetic yoga in very much in a 21st century way, through social media. Yoga for me had already become a tool of my own self liberation helping me gain a deeper sense of self, introspection and control while I was trying to free myself from decades of abuse from alcohol. It’s a common problem in many communities and a particularly disabling one for so many in my community, and though I was sober through a treatment program, I came to yoga separately and it became the most useful activity I could do for my sobriety.
I began with Bikram yoga. This is a series of 26 postures done in a heated environment which by the end produced an effect of relieving anxiety and focusing the mind. It is extremely challenging and effective. Yet I found it not to be so accessible for those that I, in turn, wanted to help. My original studio was an exception, yet many spaces for yoga were catered to mainstream white audiences and watered down with gym culture and frothy new age sensibility.
I turned to social media and became engaged regularly with yoga communities online and finding other yogis who looked like me (Black) and were on similar journeys of self discovery and care. It seemed we all silently heard the bells of liberation of yoga and had taken up arms on Instagram. Black Instagram yogis from all over the world had one hashtag in common, #kemeticyoga. I sought to find out more and soon discovered that Yirser was actually based right in my city of Chicago! What a sign! How could that be? I almost had no choice but to follow this destiny and meet this master of self care liberation.
Yirser and Ausar were also working in their communities to heal traumas and develop wellness programs. Yirser was actually a social worker involved in substance abuse programs and teaching yoga professionally and Dr. Ausar had begun to pursue professional bodywork method similar to chiropractic work. I found Yirser’s teacher training in a modest space on the southside and immersed myself in the practice.
Lifeforce (SHU) and MAAT
My immersion seemed to recall much of what I learned in my Bikram classes about yoga and the connection of the breath. The 26 postures in a heated room makes a reliance upon the breath mandatory, though it is not always indicated in an instructive way how to move the body with the breath. Simple as it may seem, breath is our lifeforce though we barely notice its presence or activity; however, its absence would surely be noticeable. Our movements through Kemetic postures highlighted a reliance upon the principles of inhalation to cause the body to rise and an exhalation to allow the body to descend and move deeper into poses. There’s often a natural rhythm to this method. I also began to learn more about the harmony breathing can bring to unifying the internal elements that had always felt in conflict. Breath was actually unifying my body and beyond.
The ancient Kemetic word for breath is Shu and it is seen in many depictions as the goddess Ausar (Isis) giving an ankh to another subject through the mouth. As one of the tenets of Kemetic yoga, cultivation of the breath is central to calming the body, regulating the nervous system, and ultimately providing ascendancy and enlightenment.
The nervous system, which is central to our lifeforce, is actually a pair of polar opposite systems of the body, best described as the sympathetic and parasympathetic. We know of these systems because the sympathetic nervous system, which is the one meant to protect us, is known as our “fight or flight”. The opposing system, the parasympathetic, is the one we don’t often think about but usually brings us calm and regulates other systems, such as digestion and circulation. These can be seen in a familiar symbol known as the caduceus, also known to us as the modern symbol of medicine. This is an ancient Kemetic symbol and has its roots in ancient Africa as a dual symbol of the two complementary forces of the nervous system. In Africa, it depicts two serpents revolving around a staff, representing the ascendancy of our lifeforce energy along the spine. When these forces are aligned, a practitioner may experience an enlightened state of being known in the Indian tradition as Shushama, and in the Kemetic tradition as MAAT.
MAAT, however, has a more contextual meaning as an ancient Egyptian philosophical idea, sustaining that the underlying nature of the universe is predicated on a discernible order that each individual person is obligated to strive for. According to MAAT, the true nature of everything is order, balance, harmony, justice, and reciprocity. This is also the basis for Kemetic yoga.
Ancestor Wisdom & Connection
After my training, I imagined what these principles I had learned could do for my communities. I see so many neighborhoods blighted with vacant buildings, riddled with “food marts” yet also many communities that are transforming in ways that are good and bad. Cultural institutions that are giving way to Uber stores and new generations growing up immersed in a virtual electronic world and an increasingly violent real one.
I wondered what connection our Grandmother’s remedies and intuitions and Grandfather’s innate “know how” have to these ancient principles that are re-emerging as ancient future practices. What lessons could our communities reclaim by remembering our ancestral wisdom in this new and changing century, and in the future? In this sense, Kemetic yoga is afrofuturistic, meaning that, as a method of healing, it opens the possibility of harkening back to the African past in order to imagine a better future.
When I practice and teach this ancient method, I see such regality in my students and myself. The wisdom of the postures automatically transforms the beginner and veteran yogi alike into a modern reincarnation of an ancient, royal, spiritual being.
The fundamental aspect that distinguishes Kemetic yoga from other forms is a connection to ancestry. It is a uniquely African trait across the continent and of ancient Egyptian spiritual science. “In ancient Egypt,” says Master Instructor Yirser, “which is properly called Kemet (Egypt is the Greek version of the word), connecting with the spirits of the ancestors through meditation, prayer and ritual is a pillar of Kemetic Yoga practice. The purpose of meditation is not only to transcend the boundaries of the material world but also to connect and communicate with the living spirits of those who have gone before us.”
Kemetic poses have names that recall the ancestors, “pose of Ausar”, “pose of Anpu”, Goddess pose, “Heru Em Akhet”, that seem to embody the power of that deity yet also combine a physical benefit to the alignment and circulatory system.
There is practical knowledge here both for the body and the mind allowing students to connect with the practice both for healing and also for history.
Pose of immortality
Revelations From King Tut’s Tomb
When the King Tut exhibit came to Chicago in the mid-1970s, one of the artifacts Master Instructor Yirser and Dr Hapi found in the tomb of King Tut was a chair that contained a uniquely ancient Egyptian Yoga posture and various hieroglyphic inscriptions.
They were inspired to figure out how to perform this posture, translate the hieroglyphic writing and interpret the symbols. Their investigation of the artifact revealed the following:
The Sun Disk at the top of the head represents the crown chakra. The two serpents on each side of the sun disk represents the two primary energy channels (Ida and Pingala) represented by the caduceus.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions make reference to eternity and the achievement of immortality (ascendancy).
The “person” or deity pictured in posture is called Heh or Shu and is associated with life energy, the breath and the life force found in the air (prana).
He is seated on a platform that means “Nub” the ancient Egyptian word for gold. Gold is a metaphor for the highest level of consciousness that a person can reach, that is, the ultimate purpose of the practice of yoga.
They called his posture “Pose of Immortality” and it became the starting point for the other postures.
The Goddess is MAAT, which is both the principle and the deity who personifies the concepts of order, balance, harmony, justice and reciprocity, the goddess also regulates the stars, seasons, and the actions of mortals and the deities who brought order from chaos at the moment of creation. She is represented by the outstretched arms that drape feather (feathers represent truth and ascendancy) as wings from either arm.
Heru em Akhet
The Sphinx pose is also well known in hatha yoga as a restorative asana.
The name roughly translates to “Heru in the Horizon,” Heru being the warrior god and son of Auset and Ausar (Isis and Osiris).
It is a monolithic monument more popularly known today as the Great Sphinx of Giza, it is the head of a Pharaoh and the body of a lion seated and gazing towards the horizon.
The posture promotes active breath and contemplation while aligning the spine in a restorative manner.
Yoga as liberation
«Today Kemetic Yoga is emerging out of its infancy». Yirser claims. «It has reached a tipping point along with African consciousness in general where it will continue to grow and spread due to the hunger of individuals and groups seeking truth across the globe».
I’ve personally seen an eagerness and welcoming of this practice as I teach around the city of Chicago. At a recent workshop at the University of Chicago, an older woman of Indian descent was in my class. She approached me afterwards to tell me she felt a real sincerity with the postures and she wanted to know more about the roots that extended beyond postures and the common belief that yoga only originated in India.
Another gentleman told me it felt so comfortable to him, “like home”, as he described it. He really felt the “ancient power” and the effect of breathing consciously.
This is a practical knowledge here, felt and gained both by the body and the mind allowing these students to connect with the past and use this ancient wisdom as a tool of modern health and healing.
Yoga in all forms serves as an entry into the quest for liberation. A liberation of the mind and also, a very useful tool for developing and freeing the body from destructive generational habits and instilling self love, awareness, and self confidence.
Kemetic yoga, however, also embraces the need for a present and future generations to embrace a yoga philosophy, a practice, and a meditation that is rooted in African principles.
The past is becoming the ancient future.
Frank Mitchell is an art director, multi-disciplinary artist and dedicated yogi and teacher. He holds a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts) BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a certification with Yoga Alliance (200RYT). He has studied Bikram, Ashtanga, and Kemetic yoga. Based in Chicago, he regularly holds classes and workshops with The University of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Kusanya Cafe, and Haji Healing Salon. Of Kemetic yoga he says, “For me there is a subtlety and regalness to this practice of yoga concentrated on the breath and developing and channeling the internal energy that has roots in all African systems of healing”