In this #AmplifyVoices feature, we asked Pittsburgh-based Repair the World Fellow, Sarah Scherk to interview Felicia Lane Savage, an incredibly inspiring yoga teacher, small business owner, social justice activist, and all around human being. Read on to find out how she integrates yoga and justice and invites students to relate better to others, and to themselves.

How would you describe the work you do?
I’m an integrative yoga therapist. I teach yoga full-time, and I’m also a trainer. I’ve been working on a curriculum called YogaRoots on Location for about eight years now, and it just got approved by the Yoga Alliance. The curriculum speaks specifically to all that I have done in the last twenty plus years.

I work to promote racial justice in yoga class, specifically as I’m teaching as an African-American woman. I play music that challenges people’s thinking, and am always trying to challenge people in subtle ways during class. For example, I noticed that when my students would gather in a namaste circle at the end of class, the white folks would tend to stand on one side, the black folks would be on the other, and the South Americans and Europeans would be grouped together too. We have such an eclectic mix of students in class, and I was just like, “Hmmm, we need to mix this up.” So I ask people to be aware of their skin color during class. It really presents a platform for us to be able to have vulnerable conversations. The only way I feel we can make change is through us first being aware. And self-awareness ties back to the yoga practice.

Wow, that sounds powerful.
The Namaste circle gives people permission to talk about race, which is something you usually don’t bring up in yoga class. Because it’s all about butterflies and roses and rainbows, right? No, it is an intense practice of self-reflection! I have worked very hard at creating a sanctuary where people can feel safe. Some people come here for the physical work, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger part is really seeing our own humanity and seeing the humanity in other people.

While standing in the circle, I ask folks to look around and make eye contact. We stand together, our hands at our heart center, and recite “I honor that place in you that is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, then we are one.” So it’s our prayer, so to speak. It brings us together. One of my students saw the work I do here and said, “Felicia, you’re a social justice worker!” I may be more undercover as a yogi, but it was like yes – this is what I feel passionate about.”

Tell me about the curriculum.
I have two children, and my third baby is my yoga teacher curriculum. It is a culmination of all that I have learned. It brings together my teacher side, my creative side, my social justice and racial justice sides – the multiple intelligences, all together. It is based on raja yoga, an eight-limbed path that goes through the yoga sutras and picks out certain passages so folks can get a better understanding that this work is a journey. I’ve taken those eight limbs and woven social justice issues into them. For me yoga is all about self-awareness and self care. I know, being a single mother for 21 years, that I can’t be on top of my game if I’m not taking care of myself. It focuses on understanding the dance between self-sacrifice and self care, which is something I have realized a lot of people struggle with.

So it is about making a practice – and also making purpose and asking the question, “What is it in the world that I can be a part of?” So, reproductive justice, gender inequities, racial justice – I’ll have folks who are well-versed in all of these areas talk to my students during the training. At the end of the training, they will have had an experience with them. Because oftentimes we find ourselves standing in front of people who may have totally different perspectives than us, and totally different gifts. And it’s easy to relate to folks like us, but we also need to be able to relate to those we are different from – to find that humanity.

Can you share the most powerful example you have seen of these vulnerable conversations taking place?
Woo! Ah, Sarah, that’s going to be hard! A while back I was invited to come to Seattle by something called EPIC – Eliminating the Prison-Industrial Complex and also the organization Youth Undoing Institutional Racism. They were having a tribunal where they were looking at the way our kids get put into the juvenile justice system. It was intense, you know, talking about how many kids are in jail, how many adults are in jail, how many of these folks are African-American, Latino, and so own – intense statistics.

They came to me to do the healing justice work that I do – so integrative yoga, aromatherapy, meditation. I was able to set up a room, and people really used it! We did line dancing at the end to help people work through the trauma of what we were talking about, and really work ourselves out of our joints so we could feel healthier when walking away from these conversations.

Last question: What is your own definition of racial justice?
Love. I’m a child of the sixties and I believe that forever and ever. Love. Because we really need to get that as humans. We are going to become extinct if we don’t. We can’t do this work in our own homogenous pockets. We need to integrate, come together, love each other because that is the most revolutionary thing that we as humans can do.

Find out more about Felicia Lane Savage and her work with Yoga Roots on Location at her website.