Rose: How has your upbringing contributed to the woman you are today?
Valerie: I was born and raised in Haiti in a single parent household with my mom and brother. My mom worked incredibly hard to provide us with everything she could and to give us the best education — my brother and I were very lucky.
Family was a big aspect of my life growing up. My mom has eight brothers and sisters and everyday after school, my cousins and I would go to my grandmother’s house together while we waited for our parents. We spent the weekends together rotating between each family’s home, so the memories of my childhood are filled with this strong sense of togetherness, of being surrounded and supported by family.
Growing up with such a tight knit family deeply instilled in me this notion of taking care and supporting others, of giving back and lending a hand to someone who is in need.
How did you discover your interest in yoga?
Yoga unfolded in my life in two ways. The first was to heal my body when I had a shoulder injury as a track and field athlete. My coach recommended it as part of my rehab during the off season. So initially, I started yoga purely for the physical aspect of getting healthy and becoming better at my sport.
After university I continued exploring my fascination with yoga as a form of physical therapy. It wasn’t until I moved to a new city and began to feel homesick that my true love of yoga came to be. I started going to a hot yoga studio and the heat, the sweat, it reminded me of summers at home. The more time I spent in the studio, the more I fell in love. Even though I was amongst 30 strangers in a room, there was a sense of home and comfort whenever I was on my mat. Just saying that makes me a little emotional.
You started a foundation back home in Haiti, can you share the story behind the work you do through Karma AYITI Yoga?
The acronym of Karma Ayiti Yoga is KAY, which in creole means home. The mission of the foundation is to bring yoga to disenfranchised schools and marginalized neighborhoods in Haiti. Through our work, with yoga as the vessel, we try to create a place of ease and peace — a sense of home. We want to be the bridge that offers the children a space and activity that gives them stability and the perspective that there’s no limit to what they can achieve in life
I’ve practiced yoga with you and the way you teach is imbued with love and compassion. How does this way of teaching extend outward into your daily life?
Who I am as a teacher is exactly who I am in my daily life. The genuine excitement of meeting someone new in class or witnessing someone nail a pose they’ve been working on is the same genuine excitement and giddiness I have when I’m hanging out with friends.
There is this idea that as yoga teachers we live our lives a certain way, as though we have it all figured out. There is still an aspiration and a daily practice to show up for myself in the same way I show up for others. I find that there are always lessons for myself that are present whenever I teach.
There is a tremendous amount of work and unlearning to be done across the wellness industry in making sure that it is accessible to all, especially the BIPOC community. What would you like to see in the wellness and yoga industry to make these spaces more equitable and inclusive?
I want to see representation that’s fully integrated into all aspects of the yoga and wellness industry — from yoga teachers, to studio owners, to those who practice. We need to change the narrative and the diversity of our knowledge so that we are able to approach, teach and support people from different backgrounds, body types, abilities and ages. Having this awareness would help shape the language we use, how we conduct ourselves within teams, how to expand the imagery of what and who yoga is for, and how we welcome people from all walks of life into our spaces.
It takes a lot of strength for someone to walk into a class. We don’t know their story and why they are here. The space should be welcoming for everyone. I want us to learn how to be aware of our biases so that we can be better to one another. I say we because I know that I have a lot to learn too, and I want to be part of finding a way forward. Having representation that is fully integrated would teach us how to create a more inclusive space overall.
What would you ask of those who practice with you?
That we all continue to educate ourselves so that we can truly learn to be unbiased and show each other compassion. I will use myself as an example. When I come into a yoga or fitness studio, there are automatic assumptions, questions of whether I’m actually at the right place. People are wondering if I’ve practiced before, if I am looking at retail items, there’s extra scrutiny on my every move. There are all these biases and microaggressions placed on me as a Black woman. If I were to make a complaint addressing this, I am seen as aggressive or told that I am overreacting. I view this defensive reaction as a lack of compassion. Instead of listening to my experience, it is negated and not valued.
Living through our current situation — being confined due to COVID-19 and the highly televised death of George Floyd — I am using my voice to speak up on inequalities and the continued injustices that the Black community faces. That being said, in the studio I am still the same yoga teacher who takes care of you even if I say, “Yes, there is a lack of representation in the yoga world.” I continue to be the same knowledgeable and experienced teacher that will guide you in your practice. Using my voice is not about pointing fingers at anyone nor is it about being righteous. It is about education and awareness — for us to see humanity in all of it.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The environment that I work in is unique in that it gives me the opportunity to interact and create connections with people from all walks of life. While I may only have brief interactions with each person, the more they come to class, deeper connections begin to form.
Stepping on the mat brings me joy, but there are times when it is hard. I am not someone that openly shares what I am experiencing in life — a loss or other hardships. I try to keep things compartmentalized. What students often don’t realize in class is that in being present through the practice, there is an exchange, a giving and receiving of energy that is healing. That brings me so much joy.
As a teaching director, I am also able to support other yoga teachers and help guide them to reach their dreams — there are so many things I could go on forever.
What are achievements you are most proud of?
I’m a Black yoga instructor succeeding at her job and in her craft. I don’t want to sound boastful but the reason I’m succeeding is not merely by chance. I work very hard at my craft. I decided not to get my masters in physiotherapy and instead focused on becoming a yoga teacher, dedicating myself to getting these “little” diplomas for massage therapy and sports therapy, all to be equipped, knowledgeable and educated at the level that I want to be. I'm not fully there yet but I’m constantly working on it, finding joy and happiness as I do so.
What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome?
My fears. Overcoming the fear of telling my family that I was not going to become a doctor and would instead pursue a career in yoga. And then overcoming the fear that I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t good enough.
I have to constantly remind myself that I have something to offer, that I am qualified, that my experience should be my calling card, and that the color of my skin should not stop me at the door. I have to trust that my experience and what I have to offer is enough.
Part of overcoming my fear that I didn’t belong was confronting this cultural clash within. I moved to Canada when I was 19 for university, lived there for 10 years, and then moved to NYC. I had to constantly remind myself that I grew up and was educated in Haiti, which meant that my experiences were completely different from those who grew up in Canada or the U.S. For example,when books we read as children came up in conversation, I would say, “Hmmm I’m not familiar,” I’d get looks of disbelief which always made me feel inadequate. I’d place this pressure on myself that I needed to educate myself more. But I realized, if I were to talk about books I grew up with in Haiti, they wouldn’t be familiar with any of those authors so why should I feel bad that I don’t know more about the authors they grew up with? I had to constantly remind myself that I grew up in a different setting, in a different culture and that I have an abundance of experiences that’s unique to where I came from. That my life experiences are not going to be the same as someone who grew up in Canada or the U.S. I had to work on saying I don’t know something without feeling ashamed.
Fear is such a personal and powerful feeling. Sometimes it takes hold of you and you don’t know how to take a step forward, but it is a feeling that the yoga practice teaches us to channel.
"Fear is such a personal and powerful feeling. Sometimes it takes hold of you and you don’t know how to take a step forward, but it is a feeling that the yoga practice teaches us to channel."
Where are you on your journey?
I’m at the intersection of questioning whether I am actually on the right path or if it is time for change.
What are some of your goals?
On the top of my list is for KAY to thrive where in addition to yoga, we are able to provide scholarships for children to be able to get the best possible education available.
The next would be to take a month sabbatical without feeling guilty. There’s so much I want to learn about Haiti, our history and to dive deeper into my ancestry.
Lastly, I would love to open a health and wellness studio that interconnects yoga to spiritual and mental wellness.
Through your work, what do you hope to instill into others?
I think instilling a sense of humanity. We are afraid of things that we do not understand, however if you close your eyes and just listen to someone breathe, all you hear is their breath, there’s nothing else. You can’t tell where they are from, what their life experiences are, and you can’t question if they have a right to be in the room with you. You are “blind”, removed from the visual elements or biases that we draw assumptions from. All you hear and know with certainty is that you share that sameness of breath.
This is bringing me back to something I’ve never really shared with anyone before, but it was the first time I really questioned my sense of belonging in the yoga world. At my first yoga teacher training, there was an instructor that was talking about the yoga philosophy, the karmic experience, and the Indian philosophy of rebirth. I’m paraphrasing here but the instructor said, “The karmic energy of someone who has done bad deeds will be born into a poor country like Africa.” It shook me to my core. I remember standing up and saying, “Maybe I misunderstood. I’m from Haiti, and although I am privileged, perhaps someone in my family experienced this misfortune coming from Africa. Do you mean to tell me that this child, who was born in poverty, helpless, and dying from hunger, was born this way because they did something wrong in their past life?” That teacher replied, “You are taking their words too literally.” It made me feel so empty.
This experience changed my way of seeing the world and there was a sense of this tremendous growth in speaking up. As a Black woman, it is hard to be vulnerable — there's a layer of protection that you have up at all times. It’s difficult to drop this protective layer, but I share this story to highlight the power of our words.
How would you like to show up for yourself?
If I am being honest with myself, it’s definitely a struggle to stand in support of others when sometimes you can’t do that for yourself. I wear many hats and I tend to find myself maintaining the peace and keeping everyone happy, at the cost of my happiness. I want to show up for myself where I don’t question my reactions, where I am not stifling my voice.
When life begins to feel off balance, how do you recenter yourself?
I go home to Haiti to my mom, to the water, to the food, to my family, where I can drop that protective layer and I can fully be my true self. I can visualize it — that feeling of the water on my skin, the sand in between my toes where no one thinks you are different and you feel like you belong.
What are some of the things you’ve learned about yourself?
In general, our identities are based on labels that are derived from society. I’ve come to realize that if you accept these labels as who you are, it can actually prevent you from evolving and growing. At times I resist growth because I don’t allow myself to evolve beyond the labels. What I continue to learn is that it’s okay to change and to not place limits on yourself; that this time next year I could be a completely different person.
A philosophy you live by…
Take someone with you on your rise up. If you can lift someone up with you and share the experience, it’s almost always better.
How does chasing sunshine manifest in your life?
I am living it as I navigate through my journey with this profession. There are experiences that bring me joy, and I'm curious to discover more.
In thinking about chasing sunshine, what image immediately comes to you?
Standing on a beach in Haiti in front of my beach house, enjoying my life and the work that I do. The beach house is the pinnacle of all of my accomplishments, the ones I dreamed of and ones that I didn’t know I wanted for myself, for KAY and for the children.
Advice to those who are in the pursuit of self - discovery.
Learn your biases early on and continue to learn as you evolve. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on yourself when people doubt you. Do the work so that you are able to put yourself in the best position to protect yourself while you are taking risks. Enjoy it. Don’t lose the joy.
* Since our interview, KAY has paused their work due to Covid and the rising tensions in Haiti.