Yoga + Activism: Interview with Yoga Teacher Sheri Celantano of Laughing Lotus NYC

Welcome to the Radical Self-Care for Radical Action blog series. This series serves as a multigenre and strategic compilation of ways to avoid or heal activist burnout. During this new era, we need to keep activism and social justice efforts continuous and sustainable; we cannot afford burnout. While burnout and activism have had close relationships to one another, so have healing practices and social change methodologies. Every week, both leading up to and following the inauguration of a president that has Cortisol levels running high for many, expect a post on what it means to heal oneself in order to heal a country. From neuroscience to yoga to meditation to cardiology, learn how to systematically refuel in these trying times.

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Sheri Celantano is a teacher and Creative Director at the Laughing Lotus Yoga Center (my downtown hOMe) in New York City. Her classes are a recurring event in my GoogleCal, and I attend them to stay gounded and get uplifted at the same time. I attended her class the Friday after the election, as I could not imagine a better place to breathe deep, unwind, let loose, and process. What I received from that class – and Sheri’s deep authenticity as a person and teacher – was so much more. She turned off the music and opened the windows so we could let the protests happening on Sixth Avenue fuel our flow, and she – above all – created a safe space for her students to feel the rollercoaster of emotions that emerged. I interviewed her after her FLY class last week. We sat down in the Love Room – one of the studio spaces at Laughing Lotus – and talked activism, election, yoga and spirituality.

Shira E: What was it like teaching yoga leading up to and following the election?

Sheri C: Leading up to the election, teaching felt good because I was surrounded by like-minded people. Teaching the day after felt like an earthquake shattering. You were in the class that Wednesday night, right?

SE: Actually, I wasn’t. I was drawn to do this project because I didn’t go to yoga that whole week until your Friday class; I was so shaken.

SC: I got really sick. I was sick that Monday and Election Day. I wasn’t going to teach Wednesday, but I felt like I had to, so I came in to teach Wednesday and I’m really glad I did. It felt like it was a rock. There were tears from the beginning of class. People were really distraught and hurting and confused, and so I forced myself to come in Wednesday night and I’m glad that I did.

SE: What did you notice around Laughing Lotus the week of the election, and the week after? Did you notice a significant increase or decrease in the number of people in your classes?

SC: Lotus is always pretty full. What I noticed, though, is that people came here as a lifeline. People felt really adrift and this was shore. People were like, “Go to Lotus. I’ll meet you at Lotus,” and so it felt like there were more groups congregating in class and staying to talk after class. There was a sense of camaraderie. It was a place where people could come and be held and feel all their emotions. Throughout the whole week, people were very up and then very down and they were angry and then they were crying. It was really a point of connection for people. I do think that classes were very much crowded. The week right after was very up and down. I think some people, like you, were home, but then a week or so later, I did one Blues class on a Sunday in Brooklyn and someone came out and was like, “I haven’t left my couch in a week, and I saw your post on Facebook and I’m so glad that I did.”

SE: Yeah, I had a whole conversation with Ali Cramer [another Laughing Lotus teacher] about how I felt very kapha the week following the election. What have been your experiences of the intersections of yoga and activism?

SC: I feel as if some become more aware through the practice. Yoga is a practice of action and so it teaches us how to take action. To truly practice yoga, you’re not just at home reading a book. Yoga is an act; it can’t just be passive. I know people who, through the art and philosophy of yoga, have become activists. It has given them fire and purpose. It’s removed enough clouds and shadow from our own selves that we then in turn want to serve. It’s karma yoga. Part of our 200-hour program is that we’re teaching people to serve the greater community. So we have people like Seane Corn who are doing Off the Mat Into the World who do become activists through the practice. It’s a big part of what we do.

SE: How do you keep your center in the midst of chaos? What are some strategies for staying grounded and mobilizing at the same time?

SC: Honestly, the teaching keeps me grounded. There’s an old saying: “I practice for my students and I teach for myself.” For me, the act of teaching is the most healing and grounding act that I could do. The actual teaching and connecting is keeping me sane.

SE: That makes a lot of sense. If you could choose any dharma talk to give courage to this new wave of activism to move forward in a thoughtful and intentional way, what would it be?

SC: The inward journey. The inward journey is the idea of being responsive as opposed to reactive. We often react to the state of affairs or the situation. Instead, what I’ve been trying to do is figure out how to respond. When I respond, I’m going inside and inward and saying, “Where am I most useful? Where can I serve? And, in what ways can I serve that will be most useful?” And so it’s not just a reaction with a nasty Facebook post. It’s a response instead. I need to respond rather than react so that when I do take action, it’s with force, it’s with intelligence, and it’s something that can actually make a difference. We need to move forward intelligently.

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