Jacoby Ballard (E-RYT 500) has been teaching yoga for 16 years and practicing western herbalism for 12 years. He is the co-founder of Third Root Community Health Center, a worker-owned cooperative holistic health center in Brooklyn that opened in 2008, where he co-directed the Yoga program, Herbal Education Program, and Buddhist Studies program. He also co-founded Bending Towards Justice, which conducts diversity trainings for yoga teachers around the country. Jacoby is Faculty with Off the Mat, Into the World and on the Advisory Board of the Yoga Service Council. In 2015 he received a “Game Changer” award from Seane Corn and Yoga Journal, and in 2016 received a “Good Karma” award for his work within queer and trans communities.
Yoga Center Amherst: Who are you?
Jacoby Ballard: I think at the core, love and connection and energy. Then in more material form, someone who believes in justice, someone who is connected to that in small daily ways – from how I treat the barista here, or biking here rather than driving – to bigger ways, like participating in racial justice movements, or building networks of yoga teachers that are doing work in prisons and schools and hospitals and recovery centers… teaching yoga, teaching Buddhism, writing, creating health centers that didn’t previously exist. Being part of conferences, starting conferences, making connections between social justice work and the body, and the body and mind and neuroscience… some of those things, on any given day [laughs]. I’m someone raised in a rural community in the Rocky Mountains, which both supported and held me, and also excluded and shamed and bullied me, as a queer and trans person.
YCA: What brought you from NYC to the Valley?
JB: My sweetheart’s a professor, and she got hired at UMass. She got offered a job in New Orleans and she got offered a job here. And I’ve been coming here since I came out, at age 20, I always had girlfriends and boyfriends and friends and community here. We already had a few really good friends that lived here. I went to college in the Northeast, I’ve lived in the Northeast for the last 20 years, so it felt more familiar, moving to Massachusetts than moving to Louisiana.
YCA: Where are you teaching?
JB: Here at Yoga Center Amherst, in Greenfield at the Community Yoga Center, in South Hadley at Serenity, and in Easthampton at Eastworks. I’m teaching eight classes a week, there’s definitely more room in my schedule, and I’m looking to continue teaching in prisons, teaching in schools, and doing yoga for 12-step recovery work.
YCA: What’s your vision for what you’re going to do here?
JB: I’ve been having conversations with another yoga teacher in Greenfield about co-teaching a yoga teacher training with her. I’ve been teaching for 17 years and that’s something I haven’t done yet. It just organically arose, we’re really aligned and we feel like kindred spirits. So that, which I imagine is a huge undertaking for a teacher, and I feel so excited to integrate things I’ve learned along the way, and things that I wish were in my teacher training, or things that are different now than 17 years ago. I’ll continue teaching at all the different studios. One of my missions is to change who comes to yoga studios and who’s represented as being yoga practitioners. Coming into any new place, my first practice is to observe and listen, rather than go in and change – so I’m in that phase of noticing, trying to go to as many classes as possible, getting to know all the different studios and communities.
I think something I haven’t seen so much at any of the studios is a community for the teachers, where different elements of being a yoga teacher can be discussed. So that’s been one of my thoughts – whether that is centered around a class I could offer for yoga teachers, or a study group or a book group or something like that that meets monthly. I think there can also be this competition between yoga studios, and I know in the bigger sense we want more people to do more yoga – so if there’s more studios and centers doing yoga, even though we’re all trying to survive in a capitalist society, it serves our larger mission to collaborate.
YCA: How do you help that to happen?
JB: Lots of ways. It could be centered around different community initiatives, whether it’s a street party, or a local conference or festival that brings together teachers from different studios. Just building individual relationships with yogis, where there’s trust and camaraderie and cooperation, and I think trying to raise conversations, for example: when a disabled person walks into your studio, what are your best practices? Or, where is your studio located, and how does that benefit or exclude low income people? In order to have those conversations, you have to build a lot of trust. There has to be a ground, or else it’s going to go awry, because it’s a tense subject and everyone has a different investment in their answers. But I think it’s important. If we understand that yoga is good for all humans and all nervous systems, then we also have to look at who’s not in our yoga studios, and what we’re doing that keeps them out, and how to build connections and go to where they are – where those people are that are not in our studios.
YCA: Can you talk about Third Root, the community health center you founded in Brooklyn?
JB: Third Root I started in 2008. I co-founded it with six other people, it’s a worker-owned cooperative, and that was really intentional, because in yoga and in our political system we get so attached to one leader, or one way of being, or one teacher – we see that in our yoga communities, people flocking to whoever is put up as the most experienced, or offering the deepest hip owners, or the “best teaching on truth” [laughs]. So we tried to counteract that by being like, “No, we’re seven.” Now there’s five owners. There’s acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine. There’s a Buddhist studies program, an herbal studies program, and yoga.
My cofounder, Green Wayland-Llewellyn, and I met at an herbal conference. She was an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, massage therapist, and she was sick of practicing in a spa setting where there was never anyone who looked like her. She’s a working class dyke, as soon as she came into the room she would feel a barrier between her and her clients, and between her and the whole spa setting. And she also felt an obligation to practice in our community, which needs healthcare really deeply and really badly. At that point I’d been teaching yoga for eight years already, and hadn’t chosen to teach in a yoga studio and also hadn’t been hired, which has everything to do with this question of access and representation, and who’s hired and who’s not. As an herbal practitioner, I was struggling with the western herbal community, which wasn’t talking about fibroids, wasn’t talking about sickle cell anemia, wasn’t talking about blood pressure or things that were really affecting low income communities and communities of color – but were talking about fertility and different things that are more common in white communities, yet that wasn’t recognized or talked about. Green and I met at a conference that I co-founded and co-led with other people that had similar critiques. So when Green and I met we were like, “Oh, you have acupuncture and massage, and I have yoga and herbs, we could do something together here.”
Since then, Third Root has become known as a place for practitioners of color, for queer people, for disabled people, for fat folks, to not only go to receive care but also to practice, because of the really intentional beginning.
YCA: You offer a diversity training for yoga teachers, Bending Towards Justice. Did that grow out of your work at Third Root?
JB: Some yes and some no. At Third Root, from the beginning, we had a Queer and Trans Yoga class, and Yoga for Abundant Bodies, and over time we’ve had yoga for disabled folks and yoga for people of color. Through that, there’s been dialogue in the broader community: are those exclusionary and creating divides, or are they necessary healing spaces, so that folks of those communities can eventually come into the whole and feel safe there? Doing more national trainings, coming into a larger network and having conversations more broadly about that – and then also having been harmed in so many yoga classes myself, and my partner also, who is disabled. And a lot of my colleagues and friends are folks of color and immigrants and fat folks, and just seeing, over and over again, how the oppression we see in the world is the oppression we see in the yoga classroom. Unless we specifically bring our awareness to those shadows, then they’re going to be repeated – just because it’s the air that we breathe. It’s not any one teacher doing something wrong or bad or intentional, it’s just repeating the culture as it is. Those harms can be something like going into a twist and assuming that someone doesn’t have belly to move, or assuming that elbows and knees reach each other. Or something like, “Women put the left hand on top, men put the right hand,” or, “A squat is good for women,” or mispronouncing the Sanskrit… There’s so many things that are repeated in the classroom, and it’s not a part of yoga teacher trainings to bring attention to that. The yoga teacher training model right now is just 200 hours. That time goes by really fast, and there’s a lot to fit in. Because the Yoga Alliance sets the standard for what has to be included in those trainings, and because the Yoga Alliance is made up of people with specific identities, that largely have not been harmed in yoga classrooms – they don’t see it as important, they don’t even see talking about trauma as important, which cuts across all kinds of different identities; so many folks have veteran experience, or addiction experience, or sexual violence experience, or family members with those experiences. So that’s eventually the goal – to have both trauma sensitivity, and how to be skillful across lines of difference, included in yoga teacher training.
YCA: Can you tell me about the Queer and Trans Yoga class you will be offering at YCA and Eastworks?
JB: I had been in New York for a few years before I started teaching Queer and Trans Yoga at the LGBT Center in Manhattan. It’s a different process, to arrive in this community and start teaching right away. So I know it’s going to be a slow building process. Part of why I offer it, is because we need a space as a community to come and heal, to come and be with each other, that’s not about cruising each other, that’s not about politics, that’s not about being right or having the right style, or any of the other ways that we can kind of police each other – but in a way that’s really about connection, and being held, and being included. And we need a space that also can address whatever is going on in our communities. I was teaching in Rochester over the last year, and held the class on a Tuesday right after the Orlando shooting, and opened it up for allies to come too and made it a fundraiser, and we were able to send several hundred dollars down to folks in Orlando. I think that’s just going to rise organically, here, depending on what’s going on and who’s in the space and where their attention and experiences are leading them. In Brooklyn, I once had a student who, on the subway on the way to Queer and Trans Yoga, was harassed about his gender, kind of publicly humiliated – so then the whole class becomes this space to heal and hold one another in our grief and in our outrage. Or a class when gay marriage is passed – for all of the limits to it, it’s not the be-all end-all for queer folks, but it is something, and so we celebrate together in our bodies and in our hearts, bring our mental attention to the joy of our community.
I’ve mentored different queer and trans teachers and I offer it as a workshop where I travel. I think I’ve offered it in ten cities so far, and a lot of cities then grew their own Queer and Trans Yoga class. I’m really proud that no one has copyrighted it – which is different than Ashtanga or Anusara or something like that – and something I think that also reflects a queer politic, that we’re sharing this, our community needs this, and no one owns it. No one owns yoga. And it’s taught by so many different teachers of different kinds of experience. I know someone who teaches it in Philadelphia, and his very first yoga class ever was one of those classes that I taught at the LGBT Center, and now he’s become a teacher, and he holds that space for other new young queer folk. At Third Root, one of the people who holds that class now also began a regular yoga practice as a way to support the strain of her activism, and then kind of fell in love with yoga and became a teacher, and now has a job.
And I think that’s important too – so many queer and trans folks don’t have jobs, or struggle for employment, or struggle for secure employment. So if this can be a tool to ground our nervous systems when all that shit comes up, which it inevitably will, and also a way to be employed, I think that that has really exciting potential. It could be offered in high schools, it could be offered on college campuses, it could be offered as an offshoot of what a recovery center might offer, or in prisons. Queer folks exist everywhere, so there’s lots of potential for where it could go.
Jacoby offers Vinyasa Yoga every Friday, 7:15-8:30am, and Queer and Trans Yoga every 2nd and 4th Wednesday, 7:00-8:30pm, at YCA.
Learn more about Jacoby on his website, jacobyballard.com