Melanie Holst-Collins Offers Black Healing Through Yoga
This is an extended version of Real Talk: Yoga in Color from Issue #02. Read more interviews and stories like it here.
Conscious lifestyle expert, certified professional coach (iPEC), and yoga teacher Melanie Holst-Collins moved to Austin four years ago. Taking that leap helped her progress into her current role at Yoga in Color, a community built to encourage, connect, and empower yogis of color within a safe space.
We sat down with Melanie to discuss yoga, race, and the joy of healing through community:
Where are you from?
I’m originally from St. Paul, Minnesota. I moved to Austin in 2013. I just knew I wanted to kind of do something different and be a little bigger. As intuition would have it, I just was led to Austin—I didn’t have a job; I didn’t know anybody here. The city just spoke to me.
I had never been here. So, I took the leap and that was a really big transition for me. And it helped me to kind of move into what I’m doing now.
Are you a big believer in fate and signs?
Anyone who believes in a higher power, they call it whatever they want to call it—for me, it is the universe. I do believe that everything here is energy. That includes our thoughts, our beliefs, and everything that we do. If we’re wanting to manifest something, all we have to do is just ask for it and be open to receiving it. I do believe that there is no such thing as coincidence. No such thing as random. It’s just a matter of listening, paying attention, and saying yes.
When you meet people in your daily life, outside of your work, do you find yourself noticing things you wish you could tell them?
All the time. I notice little things like language. I have a lot of friends who say, “I have to do this” or, “I need to do this.” That’s really disempowering. Or [they say], “I don’t have a choice.” Yeah, you do. I always want to say those things and sometimes I do, when I feel like it’s appropriate. But sometimes I just have to let people rock. You can’t be doing work all the time, you can’t be in coach mode all the time.
What are some of your favorite ways to recenter yourself?
Number one thing is to go out and be in nature. For me, it reminds me of how small I am. I feel overwhelmed when I’m out in nature—in the best way possible. I’m actually connecting with what sustains me everyday, which automatically brings me into a space of gratitude, which then automatically re-centers me. Literally just having my feet on the ground, looking at all the greenery sometimes makes me feel like everything’s fine, everything’s okay.
How long have you been practicing yoga?
I’ve been practicing yoga since 2010 really. My first class was a Bikram yoga class. [laughs]
Did you see fellow women of color in those classes? Did you have awareness for that then?
Nope. It was a very white studio. I didn’t really notice it was a thing until they [brought] in a random guest instructor and she was a black woman. That’s when I started to look around like, I’m so excited about this. Never ever had I seen a black instructor and then it was a black woman—that’s when the veil came off and I thought, oh my gosh, this really isn’t normal in the yoga community.
Over the years, she was probably the only black woman instructor that I ever saw. And then I really started to notice how I was usually the only brown dot in a class. But it wasn’t until the last year or so that I started to be like, this is really interesting and devastating at the same time. That you [can] talk to people, even now, who have never seen a black yoga instructor, male or female. Or they’ve practiced yoga for 6 years and have never seen another black person in their class.
How do you work against the misconception that yoga is only for white people?
One, that’s how yoga is advertised. You look [in] magazines, you look on the tv, you even try to go buy a dvd—look who is represented. Look who is representing yoga. Then, on top of that, when you go into religion, there is also this idea that if you practice yoga then it means you can’t be Christian. Or it means you’re a non-believer. This is a huge thing in the black community.
So, a lot of people in the black community shy away from practicing yoga because they feel like they’re betraying their faith. Knowing that, I made it a point to demystify that and to let people know that this is actually a way that you can deepen your faith.
Yoga isn’t a religion. It is just a way of life that you can practice deepening your connection to all aspects of your life. And you can come in believing whatever you want to—it doesn’t matter. So, there’s definitely a lot of education that has to happen just around that.
When you first began teaching Yoga in Color, what was the male to female ratio?
I get emotional just thinking about it. There’s always been more women than men in my classes. But, literally, since my first class, there’s always been at least 2-3 black males. Even that in itself is mind-blowing and mind-boggling. Already in—mostly white—classes you don’t see a lot of men.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had 5 black men in my class. That's so beautiful to me because they’re represented in these shitty ways. They’re represented as human beings who don’t have feelings or aren’t even human. Or they have to be so strong and so stoic in everything that they do. So, for them to be in a class where they’re practicing their own self healing, amongst black women—and just because they’re on the mats, they’re supporting these men—I can’t even. It’s amazing.
In the black community especially, there’s a stigma against men seeking mental health guidance. It’s a stigma that is created by racism and systems of injustice but it does exist.
A friend of mine came to my class a few weeks ago. I looked up and blinked at the end of class and then he was just gone. Well, he came to my class again last night and he stayed. I was like, oh, you’re still here. Last time you were here, you dipped out—I made a joke. He was like, “Yeah, I was going to cry and I did not want to cry in front of everyone here.” He was like, “Just being in this space opens me up to deal with stuff.”
This is a black man speaking to me about his emotions and his feelings. I’m so glad that there’s a space for him to feel that and to be open to it.
What’s the most difficult thing about creating a safe space when race is involved?
The toughest thing for me is making sure that it stays a safe space by not bending on who it’s for. So, I [get] a lot of questions like, so then what if a white person does show up for the class? Are you just going to tell them they can’t come? And my answer is yeah. I’ve had to have those conversations. I’ve had to say hey, I do have a ‘Rated Everyone’ class next Monday and this is not the space for you to be in this week.
What becomes difficult, of course, is it’s like, everybody should be able to be in the space and it’s yoga and everybody’s welcome. And you’re absolutely right. However, you have to think of what the dominant dynamic is in a yoga class and in the modern yoga community. You have to understand why just having this space for men and women of color is so important and so sacred. And I do have a responsibility to make sure that it stays safe by making sure that I stay true to what I’m saying this space is—that’s hard and a little uncomfortable.
People know, intellectually, that they can go into any yoga class that they want to, but it doesn’t always mean they feel comfortable there. It’s so important to know that you can take up space, that you belong in this community, you can practice yoga and feel safe. Even just doing this class where it is very exclusive can then build confidence to just go into any class and not feel uncomfortable.