With Believing That WOC Are The "Soul Of Humanity", This Pioneer Transcends Holistic Living Through Yoga, Wellness Retreats & Community Healing
Happy Motivation Monday! We love to talk about sustainable fashion and green beauty but we are elated to start talking more about health and wellness, especially as it relates to POC. We reached out to Crystal McCreary of Crystal McCreary Yoga and she broke down the importance of yoga like it's no body's business! She addresses real challenges along with tangible solutions.
Being conscious has everything to do with what we put on our bodies as well as how we treat our bodies.
Check out this really motivational and illuminating interview:
You believe that "yoga is the most effective technique for cultivating wellness in a stress-filled modern life" - why?
Great question! Ok, this answer is going to be a little long winded because to honor this question with as much clarity as possible for folks who are curious or even skeptical about yoga’s capacity to ease symptoms of stress, I’m going to go in. In my view, there are four core aspects of the yoga practice to highlight that directly impact relief of stress: the body (asana), the breath (pranayama), drawing in of our sense awareness (pratyahara), and meditation (dharana). But first let’s be real about it: stress kills. And it is killing us melanated folks faster than others. Statistics demonstrate this. Diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, mental illness and other imbalances that are common in our communities are typically brought on by stress, chronic stress, and trauma, and these conditions take us down with regularity. Poverty, violence, racism and the innumerable social and economic inequities resulting from a deeply entrenched history of racism remain factors that contribute to profoundly stressful circumstances in our communities. Yoga is a unique tool that supports our ability to literally soothe our body’s stress response, or the Sympathetic Nervous System (aka Fight-Flight Response).
When I speak of yoga, I refer to the 8 Limbs of Yoga, not merely asana, or the pose aspect of the practice. Included in these limbs or elements is the study of pranayama, or the breath, which happens to be our body’s most powerful tool for regulating our nervous system. The emphasis that pranayama places on mindful, slow and deep nasal breathing has the effect of bringing our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) online. When this half of our autonomic nervous system engages, it sends a message to our body that everything is ok, so our physiological systems, those that are vulnerable to diseases caused by stress, can go on functioning optimally. Because the PNS is connected to our prefrontal cortex region of the brain, when it is engaged, this also means that we have the capacity to be rational, empathetic, creative, focused, and capable of learning and growing VS. merely surviving stress.
Most of us are in a moderate to heightened state of Fight-Flight arousal due to modern life’s endless stressors (including politics, the news, violence, and social media), which also means that the body is pumped up on adrenaline, a stress hormone, which makes one more reactive or aggressive in relationship to others or challenging situations, and therefore less likely to make empowered choices for our lives. And of course, poor choices, lead to more stress. As this cycle repeats itself, with no outlet to relieve stress, our physiological systems breakdown making us vulnerable to illness and disease. This brings me to the powerful tool that asana, or the physical pose aspect of yoga, can offer. Moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise, which would include some elements of asana practice in concert with the slow, deep nasal breathing a yoga teacher instructs students to take helps our body metabolize these stress hormones faster, so that they do not toxify our potential for wellbeing. Moreover, the inherently self-regulating and self-reflective nature of all aspects of the yoga practice, but particularly pratyahara (the drawing in of our senses from our exterior environment to look as attentively within at our physical, emotional and mental states as well) and dharana or concentration/meditation, are inherently self-balancing and support the ability to see ourselves clearly, as if through a lens unfiltered by what can often feel like the muck or drama of our lives.
When one attends a yoga class, students can almost always count on being challenged physically, mentally and/or emotionally. A skillful and compassionate teacher is supporting students simultaneously to find resource in themselves by breathing slowly and deeply, by focusing their awareness inward on sensations in the body, thoughts in the mind, and by remaining present with these challenging experiences without disconnecting from him or herself or the moment. All this makes yoga a powerful practical alternative in a culture that typically encourages folks to run from discomfort and anything remotely unpleasant, which can adversely cause what we are resisting to persist. When we do not get opportunities to practice finding resources in ourselves when times get tough, we are left overwhelmed and less skillful when we are most in need of tapping our inherent capacity for resilience. Yoga technology supports a skilled and healthy way to respond to stress while also strengthening our relationship to our body, mind and heart in the process. A glass of wine, a joint, or a pint of ice cream or other comfort food might be great stress relief in the short term, but over time they take a toll on the body-mind relationship. On the other hand, it is clear that yoga is life-affirming in so many powerful ways. I am by no means suggesting that yoga is the only effective tool for managing stress, but the measurable impact that research on breath, movement, mindful awareness and meditation demonstrate to have on stress supports my claim. Moreover, my anecdotal experience of being acquainted with yogis (myself included) who are vibrant (and often a lot younger looking and acting than peers who don’t do have practices to relieve stress) also affirms the notion that yoga may be among the best tools out there for supporting those of us whose lives are exceedingly stressful.
What are the challenges of wellness in urban environments like NY? What do you believe are the first steps to living a healthy lifestyle?
I love me some New York City, but living here takes tremendous resources, and artists and yoga teachers like myself find ourselves in a perpetual state of hustling, however “sacred” that hustle might be, and this is a challenging way to live. When I moved to New York in 2004, my initial reaction to being here was overwhelm. Getting used to the smells, the sounds, the strenuous nature of doing everything from riding the subway to work, to getting groceries from the store to my home, to attempting to furnish my apartment brought on intense physical exhaustion while at the same time overstimulation of my mind. I was often desperate for more sleep, but seemed never able to wind down enough to actually rest. As an actress who hit the ground running with auditions, I started to find my NY rhythm, familiarizing myself with neighborhoods, good grocery stores and restaurants, and yet still couldn’t get the pause I needed to truly recuperate from NY’s assault on my senses. For me, the nature of the audition, callback cycle, and running from one casting director’s office to the next while pumped up on adrenaline from the thrill of it all was exciting, and yet the roller coaster ride of the prospect of getting my dream job to the lows of not getting cast at all, and then having to repeat that cycle all over again did a number on me in those first few years living here. Acting did a number on my personal life, too, to say the least. My relationship to my career seemed to suck all my energy. I think for most people who are ambitious enough to create a life they love while living in expensive urban centers like New York are constantly challenged to stay physically, emotionally and mentally healthy. I feel so grateful to have been a yoga practitioner of almost 8 years already when I moved here, so I had this tool to help me discharge a ton of that stress and ground myself. Yet, it still took me years before I found the rhythm of work-life balance, and I still have to be intentional about this. I was consciously aware of needing healthier work-life balance, and what the obstacles were on the path to find it. This is the first step in creating a healthy lifestyle, I believe: recognizing what your needs are, and being aware that you are NOT your stress or overwhelm, and that these are a result of the conditions of your life and your reaction to them. The second step is harnessing your personal power to change your internal experience in relationship to your life, to change your environment, and to connect to others in your community as a source for support.
How do you define sustainability? And what does a sustainable lifestyle look like for you?
I define sustainability as a state of being consciously aware of the inherently fluctuating qualities of being alive while being able to adapt with skill to moments that are pleasant, neutral and unpleasant alike. Sustaining a life including work that I love, close, trusting relationships, access to nourishing food, regular exercise and yoga, rest and play, activities that challenge me to learn and grow, and delicious sleep are my idea of a healthy lifestyle, but actually sustaining the balance of all these is super tricky. When I was actively pursuing acting in New York, riding the up and downs of the audition circuit, I recognized the need to shift some things in my routine in order to be healthy. What made sustaining that tumultuous time was a community of close friends, a women’s circle that I belonged to, and my sister who lived near me in Harlem all as resources and a sounding board for how to adapt and still be intentional with my life goals. But it still took me looking at my life and acknowledging that if I didn’t have the time to be healthy and light-hearted in my life, I would simply have to change my life. I did change my life, significantly, and left the country to live abroad for two years as I worked, soul-searched and traveled. During that time, I had tremendous faith that the pieces of my life would fall into place exactly where they were meant to. And believe me when I say that faith is critical to sustaining a life you love. I rarely act anymore, and for that matter, I rarely sing or dance either, which I also used to do. This is a tough thing for me to accept at times because being fully self-expressed is part of my soul’s purpose. Yet I also love being a yoga teacher and through this work have created alternative ways to “perform” and share my creative side through this empowering healing art, and acting is not going anywhere. If I want to drop everything and go down that road again, I can. I also feel the most holistically healthy that I’ve been for several years. Do I vacillate from states of stress or frustration to joy and overall wellbeing? Yes, of course. But what makes my lifestyle sustainable is having the tools today that I once did not to support myself when life inevitably goes awry. It’s not a question of, “Will things get tough?” It’s a question of “When will they get tough, and what tools to do I have (my body, mind, and spirit, and my family, friends, work, home, rest and play) to support my return to a healthy state again? Well-being is a constantly fluctuating state, and sustaining it requires attentive and radical self-care. Through yoga, I definitely have a solid self-care practice and ritual that serves as a foundational element of sustaining my lifestyle.
You host retreats all over the world - tell us about that!
It is such a treat for me in the recent past to have begun hosting lovingly curated wellness retreats all over the world! I do my best to combine elements that I value most about traveling and self-care because this is one fundamental way I enjoy spending my time. I also come from a family that loves to travel, are curious about exploring this phenomenal planet we live on, but are resourceful about doing so. I have always desired my own opinion about countries and people that I read about in books, magazines or the news, and I see myself as a citizen of the world, not merely America. All this insular, fear-based talk about regions of the world that are different from ours is maddening to me. When you start to travel, your eyes open to the enormous varieties of ways to live, to be faithful, and organize ourselves as human beings, and this is the blessing of a vast and diverse planet. I also believe that our ancestors suffered so we could be free, not merely in body, but in mind, location, and in dimension, if you will. If I have the funds and a curiosity about going somewhere, I will get up on a plane and go because it is a blessing to be able to do so. My first trips abroad were to Quebec and Paris for a French-immersion and study-abroad program as a child and in college. I will never forget how on those trips I learned more about myself than I learned about those countries, in some ways. When I was isolated from all things that make up my identity, all of a sudden I really showed up and became aware of my own human complexity: I was a woman, an African American, an adolescent, a college student, a middle child, from a middle class Mid-Western Black family, well-educated, etc. All these elements and more collectively shaped the lens through which I see the world, and that lens was at times enriching and limiting to my experience of life and in relationship to others. That self-knowledge was unforgettable and life-changing. Creating yoga retreats provides an opportunity for me offer the gifts of true freedom, self-awakening, the art of self-care, community building, exploration and adventure for people who desire to explore these experiences with my guidance. I have an Iceland trip coming up in February, a yoga and travel adventure trip to Morocco in April, both with my friend Tracy Hogarth of Bluezaria (a Black women’s travel company) and a self-care retreat for women of color in upstate New York in May with my girl Marla Teyolia. All are different, but each in an exquisite location with wellness and/or travel programming that will be transformative for all who attend. I can hardly wait! Please do visit my website if you want to join me: www.crystalmccrearyyoga.com.
This is a very abstract question ... But what are your thoughts when it comes to WOC and wellness? Where do we excel ? What are our challenges?
I believe that women of color are like the soul of humanity. We have a moral compass and a kind of magic and inner and outer beauty that drives us to deeply love and care for everyone and be fabulous at the same time. However, that tremendous service for others can take a severe toll on our bodies and minds. Much of this is addressed above with regard to the illness and disease that we are vulnerable to. We are also from a people whose bodies and very existence were ascribed no value, no humanity whatsoever, except ironically, the exceptional economic value they might yield when put to work for others. Our bodies are still the last to be searched for when they disappear, still discriminated against in hospitals when in need of medical care, and on and on. For this reason, self-care for us is a radical form of activism, as Audre Lorde argued. By pausing to show ourselves love, to demand the time necessary to care for our bodies and be well when no one else will is a powerful way to preserve ourselves and stand powerfully in our glorious humanity and potential.
If you can provide one suggestion for WOC - what would it be?
Set five alarms to go off throughout the day. Each times it rings, pause and set a timer for one minute. During that minute, become aware of sensations in your body, thoughts in your mind, and emotions as you breathe, slowly, deeply, and attentively. When the timer goes off, resume with what you were doing prior, while noting any changes that occur in you. This deceptively simple practice is a powerful tool. It is the equivalent of training your body and mind to regulate as a response to stress rather than react unskillfully. It also costs no money and will take 5 minutes out of your day! So no excuses about not getting it in.