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Yoga as Food for the Soul: An Interview with Shawandra Ford of Brwnsknyoga

On this episode of Badass Black Girl, M.J. speaks with Shawandra Ford, the owner and founder of Brwnsknyoga. They discuss Shawandra’s journey to yoga and what it’s like to teach yoga to children. M.J. asks her about what it was like to open her own yoga studio. They discuss Shawandra’s childhood in Memphis and the emotional needs of the children she teaches. They discuss Shawandra’s role models growing up and the overall physical and mental health benefits of having a yoga and meditation practice. They also discuss the idea that yoga is an activity meant only for women, and Shawandra dispels the myth that men can’t practice yoga too.

Shawandra Ford is the owner and founder of Brwnsknyoga, located in Memphis, Tennessee. She teaches affirmations to children between the grades of kindergarten to fifth grade in underserved communities in Memphis and she runs a yoga studio. You can find out more about her work here.

*Please note: Because of technical difficulties, the recording of this interview is sometimes spotty. We’ve included the transcript below.

MJ: Hello, everyone. Welcome to a new episode of Badass Black Girl. Today, we have a very special guest. Shawandra Ford is with us. I have so many questions, but before I start, I'm going to ask you, Shawandra, to introduce yourself.

Shawandra: Hello. I am Shawandra Ford, and I am here in Memphis, Tennessee. I am the owner and founder of Brwnsknyoga. I am working with our inner-city kids, our adults and the youth in underserved communities, and I'm very excited about what I'm doing for my community. Yeah. I'm very excited about it.

MJ: I love two things about what you just said. The first thing is yoga. I mean, I'm so intrigued about yoga. I've never done it. I've seen people do it. I've never tried. The second thing is the fact that you're working with kids. I want to know everything. Tell me about yoga first. How did you get to be a yogi?

Shawandra: I started practicing yoga maybe in around 2010. My mom passed away in 2010. I was doing the grief counseling and it was just not my thing really. I started going to yoga classes at one of our local gyms here. The very first class I went to was an ashtanga class and it was very challenging. I kind of pushed myself. It was very outside of my box. The more I started to go to these classes, I realized how much I enjoyed them, how much they relaxed me. I could also start to feel myself changing. I had all of these different emotions going on and that was just a time that I could take for myself to just be by myself. Although I was in a room full of people, I felt like I was by myself. It was a perfect opportunity for me to just kind of come to a sacred place here on my mat and just kind of take my focus away from what was going on at home to more about just what I was dealing with internally. You should try it. It really works. It's very good for you.

MJ: I love what you're saying, because as a Black woman, I know the challenges that come with this idea of being the strong Black woman where we don't really take the time to do some self-care kind of work, the kind where you're at peace with yourself, you're alone with yourself just reflecting on what you're going through. I feel that based on what you just said, you're able to do just that. Just reconnect to yourself.

Shawandra: Yes. That's exactly what I was doing. I think I was taking that opportunity to just reflect and kind of disconnect from what I had going on out in the real world, but to focus a little bit more on what was going on inside of me personally, if that makes sense.

MJ: Now, let's talk about the kids that you teach.

Shawandra: Yes.

MJ: I mean, I'm trying to remember how it was for me as a kid to try to disconnect. It was so difficult. Mind you, I grew up in the 90s, so it was before the technology boom. Now, I'm trying to imagine those modern-day kids doing yoga. Tell me about that.

Shawandra: They're doing an amazing job. I'm very impressed with them. Last year was the first year that I was actually inside of a classroom, teaching them yoga and social-emotional learning. They took to it quick. The first thing, automatically, they want to come here and they want to meditate. Or they want to go right into tree pose because that's one of the only poses that they know. But as I start to push them deeper into the practice, eventually, they relate to the classes. They were teaching back. They did exactly what we did in yoga teacher training. They were given the opportunity to teach back to the class. To watch them lead was very ... It was a little bit overwhelming and just to see how they engaged and how they wanted to be a part of the practice, how they wanted to lead. They want to be the one in class that caught on. I said, "Okay, you get to lead us through meditation this week or you get to lead us as we practice our poses or our breathing techniques." They embraced it all. It was something that they've never experienced before, but they've heard about it, and they actually wanted to do it. And these kids are in an underserved area. They come from all different places throughout the city. But the school that they're attending is not in a very financially stable community. They have challenges and the fact that they wanted to participate, they embraced the practice, and they get something out of it ... It wasn't that they were just going to a particular class and they were going through these movements. They were actually getting something out of the practice.

MJ: Do you work mostly with boys, with girls? Is it a mix?

Shawandra: It is a mix. It's kindergarten through fifth grade. Even the kindergarten babies, when I would put them in mountain pose and they would have to come with their hands down alongside the body, standing nice and tall, engaged in the core ... I made a game out of it, just practicing that self-control. I would walk around the room to make sure that no one was moving. By the end of the year, they had gotten so great at it. They will stand there and they will come, and they will come to standing with their eyes closed. With their eyes closed, now they can't be disturbed by their peers. They're focused and I'm encouraging them to focus more and more and more. Now, no one is out. It's a game, but no one is getting out. They did an amazing job. It's a beautiful practice to watch.

MJ: Something amazing happened recently. You opened your own studio.

Shawandra: I did.

MJ: Tell us about your journey. How did you get here?

Shawandra: I worked for the school district for 22 years. My background is basically IT and finance. After 22 years, I decided that it was time for me to walk away. That was a very hard pill to swallow. I had been in this relationship with an organization for 22 years. Now, it's time for me to move on and do something different. I've always been a yogi. I went through the process of getting my yoga teacher certification. Then I decided that I really, really like working with kids. I also decided to get my kid yoga certification. The studio came into play. There is a church here, a local church, Mississippi Boulevard Church. Their children's director reached out to me and she asked me if I would lead her students in practice. As we were going through the curriculum and what we were going to teach them, I was showing her all of these different things. I was like, "You don't have to go out and purchase any material. I have items." I'm showing her all of these different things. She said, "Why do you have all of this stuff?" I said, "Because I plan to open a studio." She said, "Hold on, I have a friend." She said, "Are you interested in being in Whitehaven?" That's just a local area here. It's where the Elvis Presley mansion is. I said, "That's where I grew up." She was like, "Oh, okay." She said, "Well, I have a friend. They're in the process of revitalizing the Whitehaven area and they just purchased the Southbrook mall. If they have space would you be interested?" I was like, "Absolutely."

Shawandra: I mean, those are my stomping grounds. I probably lived in every apartment complex in that community because we moved around a lot as a kid, and almost every school, because we moved around so much. I went and I met with the owner and he was like, "I have a space for you." He showed me this area. It was not really big. It's a nice space. I was like, "Absolutely, I'll take it." That's also my way of giving back to my community because there is no yoga. There's a fitness center. There's a YMCA. It just feels good to kind of give back to your community.

MJ: I love that. It sounds like all the pieces just fell into place.

Shawandra: It almost feels like everything has just kind of like fallen into place. I really didn't have to do too much of anything. And the support, especially from my family and friends, has just been amazing. I won't make it seem like it's completely easy. I've had some rough days, but I cannot complain. I do not have one single complaint.

MJ: Let's talk a little bit about your childhood growing up in that area. What was it like?

Shawandra: I moved around a lot. I have a large family. I have a huge family. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother, had over 18 kids. I had eight uncles and maybe eight aunts. We had this really huge family. My oldest aunt, I remember as a child, that she was older when I was a kid. My mom, she was in a very abusive relationship so I learned very early on how to protect and defend myself. I've had to do that a lot. It doesn't necessarily have to be physically, it can be mentally, right? Or verbally, when we're engaged in different things. I learned very early on how to protect myself. What does that mean? It could mean going into a shell. It could also mean isolating myself from different people or protecting my space. I have a brother. I haven't seen him probably since my mom passed away so that's something that I think about often because we weren't a tight-knit family. It was very challenging growing up. I don't think people realize that about me. I think people, when they see me, they think that I'm so well put together, but I have all of these other issues going on just like everyone else.

MJ: It's such an important point, right? We never know what someone has gone through, what someone is going through. I think for the kids, particularly, it's an important message. The fact that so many of them compare themselves to others.

Shawandra: Absolutely.

MJ: With social media now, it's all about this comparison game, right? Relying on appearances instead of looking into what actually is. I think that people will appreciate how open you are talking about what you've gone through and it makes it even more amazing to see where you are right now.

Shawandra: I really like to create my own narrative. I know that I have a story to tell and it's up to me to make sure that it is delivered the way that I want it to be delivered. Everything is not always great. I think sometimes we can make things look good without people actually knowing the background, the details. Some of those things are not for everyone to know. We share with whom we want to share with. But yeah, I definitely have a very strong story that I am trying to share with the world. You should always create your own narrative. Never let anyone else tell your story. Do it yourself.

MJ: I love that. That got me thinking about the kids that you teach and how lucky they are to work with you. What do you feel are the things that they need the most? When they come to you coming from underprivileged areas and just spending this time with you, practicing yoga, what are some of those emotions that they may be dealing with? What do you feel that they're asking you for?

Shawandra: I am really big on the affirmations, how we see ourselves, how we appear to others. That goes back to creating your own narrative. I do firmly believe that how I perceive myself is how others will perceive me. When I was working for the school district and we would go into these managers' meetings ... Because I hate going to meetings, I have work to do, I have tons of things on my desk, I have things to get done ... When we would do maybe a loop around the table and our CIO would ask us different questions, "Do you have anything to share?" I would always say, "No, I'm awesome. I got this. Let's move on." I do believe that how we perceive ourselves, people would just assume, "Shawandra thinks that she's awesome." True to a certain degree, but it's how I see myself. I do see myself as being awesome. There's a book called Everything Awesome. I just think that it's very important for, especially our young girls, to have a certain outlook about themselves. How do you want to be perceived? How do you want people to see you? Do you want them to see you as being toxic or do you want them to see you as being beautiful? Ladylike? You don't have to agree with any of my affirmations, but you get the opportunity to come to the table. Each time we have a class, every week, that's the first question I ask them ... The first thing I say is, "Give me your positive affirmation." Sometimes I switch it up, "Give me a positive affirmation about M.J." They never know who I'm going to pick. “Give me a positive affirmation about your teacher. Give me a positive affirmation about someone that you love.” Now they have to start thinking. As I go around the room, they're focused. They're like, "She's going to get to me and Ms. Ford is not going to cut me any slack. She wants that affirmation." I'm awesome. What do you have?

MJ: I love this. That gets me thinking about you as a kid, right?

Shawandra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MJ: Being in their shoes. Who were your role models growing up?

Shawandra: Oh gosh. I spent a lot of time by myself. I would really like to say that my mom was my role model, but I don't think that would actually be true. I spent a lot of time in this fantasy bubble where Whitney Houston would have definitely been my role model. A celebrity could have easily been my role model. But one person that I would say, I have a cousin. Her name is Cassandra. She has always been my role model. She has always been a big sister to me. Even when there were times when I was in trouble, she would sneak me a little stuff. Maybe for my hair, if I couldn't or if I didn't have any money, she would bring through a few dollars. I have an aunt, I call her Lucy Liu. She is my Lucy Liu. She is my aunt. I mean, I love her to pieces. There's absolutely nothing that I wouldn't do for her. I remember she was always so supportive. I worked at Burger King and she would come pick me up. She would drop me off. Just having that type of support where I didn't always feel like that I could connect with my mom because growing up as a young girl, you don't always feel like you could connect with your mom or with your parents. Just to have those two in my corner and to know that I can call them and say, "Hey, I need." And that they would deliver. And Whitney, she came through with the music. She was my soul sister. Her and Mary J.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about those life lessons that you've learned and that you would like to share with the viewers. Things that you wish you had known earlier, that you had to maybe learn the hard way. Or some general wisdom that you have about ways that we should be living life. I know that it's such a personal experience, right? Living our lives. But there are some universal truths that we learn along the way. I was wondering if you have some pearls of wisdom you could share.

Shawandra: I wish, as a young child or a teenager or adult, that someone had told me that it was okay to grow and get to know myself before deciding to start a family. I had my oldest son when I was 20, 21. But if I had known better, I might have joined the military. I might have joined the Air Force. I might have traveled the world. I might have gone to college, and I might have done all of these different things. But I think, just based on my upbringing, that I desired family ties. I wanted this so badly, that that was pretty much my main focus. It was, "You're going to work and you're going to have a family, and everything is going to be great." Well, it doesn't always work that way. Right? As a young girl, I say anywhere between the ages of 15 and 20 or 25, get to know yourself. Get to find out who you are before you to try to figure out who someone else is. Because even when you raise a child, that child looks up to you, and you have to know who you are in order to instill values into them. That's one of the biggest things.

MJ: I think it's very valuable advice because so many of us are in a rush to grow up.

Shawandra: Yeah.

MJ: Usually growing up means, "Okay, you get married and you have kids and you start your life. You have a 9 to 5." Then, after a few years, you realize there is so much more than this. How can I really be of service of others if I don't even know who I am and what I stand for?

Shawandra: Absolutely.

MJ: Or what my personal mission is? But by the same token, you did figure it out eventually.

Shawandra: I did.

MJ: But for those who are in a rush and already have all those things like a family and an overwhelming job ... It's never too late. You can always make time for finding yourself. You can always make time for yoga.

Shawandra: Absolutely. Yoga is everything. Yoga is so powerful that even just taking the time out in the morning to sit and kind of meditate and get your thoughts together and get your day started. Just having that time by yourself, where you're actually in the moment. You're present. No one is up. I normally awake around 4:30 and the house is quiet. I use that as an opportunity to sit and kind of meditate and plan my day. Just taking that time by myself when the house is super quiet, I kind of live out in the woods, and I can hear the birds chirp. I can hear things outside moving around and having that time and just finding peace within myself and peace with the nature, and just listening, and just kind of tuning into who I am. It sets the tone for my day. My oldest son is 21. I get so frustrated with him because he sits and he meditates and he meditates. He could meditate all day and I'm like, "Dude, wash the dishes. I need you to do something. Be productive." But I also have to remember for him how it's making him grounded, what he's getting out of the practice. When we go through the asanas, the poses, that strength that you feel from within, from poses that you say, "Hey, I can never do this." We put ourselves in a pretzel. "I can never do this," I hear. My clients when they get into those poses and they're so proud of themselves or even the students, when they're in the practice poses and they're doing things that they never would have thought they were able to do, it's a beautiful thing. Even with the karma yoga, just giving back, right? Now, someone else is feeding off that joy or feeding off the feeling that you have, just from being able to give back to them. It's amazing.

MJ: I've always pictured a yogi being that person who does yoga and it opens up the door to being so healthy and in sync with nature. Is it true or is it just a perception?

Shawandra: Yeah.

MJ: But tell me a little bit about the correlation because you mentioned meditation too, which is such a healthy thing to do. I'm wondering about physical fitness and how yoga fits among all those things that we do just to be healthier.

Shawandra: The meditation part is very good for the mind. It's very good for the body. It's very good for the soul. The physical part is very good for the body. It's also very good for the mind and for the soul. It all just goes together. Being out in nature, I will say that I absolutely love being outside. I would much rather be outside planting a tree than in the house, mopping the floor. I would see the connection there. I'm very earthy. As for my son, he's very earthy as well. He's really big into crystals and resetting your chakras and the numerology part of it. There are so many different things that kind of go into this practice with the yoga. I feel like it makes you focus more on reality. What's real, what's right in front of you, being outside, seeing everything green. To me, that's a very natural feeling. I also not only do what I want outside, I also bring that into my house. I have a hundred plants. I am not allowed to go back to a Home Depot or Lowe's. I'm very big on green leafy plants, and kale greens.

MJ: There's so much that people don't know about yoga, right?

Shawandra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MJ: The fact that there are different kinds of exercises. Particularly for ... I'm talking about young boys who don't necessarily see yoga as something that is for everybody. The truth of the matter is that in addition to building muscles and in working on your cardio, it's so important to work on being flexible and being more elastic.

Shawandra: One of the things that I noticed last year as I was teaching is a lot of the boys, they were very hesitant to engage in the yoga practice. The first thought was, "This is just for girls." No, sir, no. This is not just girls. Even for my husband, who was an athlete, he played football during high school and college. He graduated from Louisiana College here. Senior year, he blew out his knee. We have to focus on compensating for injuries or to help reduce injuries. Right? I even saw a video of Kobe Bryant. He was doing his yoga. Russell Wilson, yoga pose. He was doing his meditation because he's getting his mind right to get into the game. Kobe getting his body right to get into the game so he can be mentally focused and be mentally present and be there. So, no, it's not just for girls. It's not a girly activity. It's a workout. I mean, you will sweat. You will burn calories. You will tone. You will build up that muscle mass just by practicing yoga.

MJ: Where can people find you to learn more about yoga, to learn more about you?

Shawandra: I am located here in Memphis, Tennessee. My website is www dot B-R-W-N-S-K-N-Y-O-G-A dot com. I am in the schools. I am out in the community. I am out at the Air Force base, the military bases, the Navy base. You can find me anywhere around the city. I am constantly pursuing and pushing the yoga practice, especially in those Black and brown communities where the practice is not normally embraced, trying to get people to be a little bit more open-minded about the practice. I don't practice the religion part. I think sometimes, people, they are a little bit hesitant because of the religious background of Buddhism and different things like that. But that's not all there is to yoga. That's not the only thing yoga offers. Yoga has so much more to offer, especially to our community, especially for those self-care days, those days that we need to be just a little bit more mindful, those days that we need to practice a little bit more self-awareness.

MJ: Thank you so much, Shawandra, for meeting with us today and just sharing your journey. An extraordinary journey, I must say. I'm so proud of what you do. I mean, we're like, "Wow." Thank you for doing it too. Those kids must be lucky to have you working with them.

Shawandra: I love it so much.

MJ: Thank you. Thank you. I will stay in touch and I hope that you'll come and visit us again.

Shawandra: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you for thinking that I was badass enough to be on your show.

MJ: You are. You're definitely one badass black girl.

Shawandra: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

MJ: Until next time.

Shawandra: Thank you.


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