Why Organizers Think It’s Okay to Host Yoga Class at Black Lives Matter Plaza

"It seems like we're just giving up and trying to yoga away our issues, or that we're gentrifying the area, but that's absolutely not true."

All photographs courtesy of Mahadi Lawal and Occupy DC.

Occupy DC, a group of activists that formed to keep racial-justice issues front and center in the local conversation, has been hosting a series of events and protests in Black Lives Matter Plaza throughout the month of July—a candlelight vigil for Congressman John Lewis, sign-making events, meditations at midnight and sunset, and live yoga classes. But some have wondered about the implications of turning over a newly-symbolic place to activities that might read as commercial/corporate/bougie. Is it right to gather and down-dog in a space meant to commemorate Black lives lost?

In a q&a, Occcupy DC organizer Mahadi Lawal, 26, explains the group’s rationale:

How did you all decide to host yoga classes in the plaza?

“[They’re] for us to decompress after weeks of constant stress and being attacked. It was a collaborative idea. We had been occupying that space since July 3, which is when we did our sit-in. We were approached by one of our Bartenders Against Racism and they suggested a yoga session right there. It went pretty well and after that, we realized one of our organizers [Aabidah Abdun-Nafi] is a yoga instructor. She’s doing one or two classes every week, and we’re getting a lot of requests from other instructors that want to donate their time and teach a class. A bunch of people helped us out. We’ve gotten over 60 mats donated.”

How many people have come out to classes?

“On the weekend sessions, probably at least 100 people. And then on Tuesdays I’d say like 50 to 60. [The group is] quite mixed. There are a lot of people who haven’t been down there and we use that as an opportunity to draw more people into the movement. We do take some time at the end [of every session] to speak to people and really explain to them why we’re doing this, what we’re fighting for, and why it’s so important to us.”

What’s significant about providing yoga for free to these groups?

“Yoga does seem like a complacent act [compared] to protest. It seems like we’re just giving up and trying to yoga away our issues, or that we’re gentrifying the area, but that’s absolutely not true. The reason we started this is because a lot of us are in pain physically, mentally, and emotionally. We’ve all been through a lot these past two months and Black people in general have suffered a lot our whole lives. I know that many of us can’t afford or don’t have access to any form of physical or mental care or support. I figured if we can’t stop protesting because we’re so determined and dedicated, if we can’t stop and get a break or get some self-care, we can totally bring the self-care that we need to the protest and maintain the message without leaving that space. So yoga and all that other stuff doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly going to stop fighting or we’re giving up, it just means that we need a way to decompress so we can come back and be stronger for the next fight.”

What are you hearing from the people who have come out to these events?

People are happy that they have a space to express themselves and let out stress, but also to support basically the most important movement of our lifetime. They are grateful that we’re doing something to bring others out and educate people that otherwise would not be in that space on the issues that we’re tackling. I don’t expect everyone who comes to yoga to be a protestor or freedom fighter or a radical, but I see it as an opportunity to convert some people that might be on the fence. To show them who the protestors are and that these aren’t criminals [or] terrible people. These are normal people that want to survive in America.”

How long will Occupy DC be in Black Lives Matter Plaza?

“As long as it takes. The yoga sessions are really just a small part of our plan and our occupation. We’re going to keep bringing people out there for as long as it takes. We can’t stop until the fight is won. Until we see some sort of substantial change, not until the DC Council starts listening and the mayor.”

To attend an Occupy DC event or donate to the group, check out the Occupy DC Instagram.

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.