Force for Change
Serita Colette is highlighting the yoga community’s need to encompass queer folx and people of color
Photos by Bryden Giving
Born during a monsoon in Kerala, India, Serita Colette has become her own force of nature—a yoga teacher committed to social justice, equal access, and a distinct dharmic path.
Nearly four years ago, Colette established one of the first People of Color yoga practices in the Twin Cities. When asked where she lives, she replies: “In the occupied Dakota territory of Minneapolis.” She’s fought for seed sovereignty, worked to redefine our relationship to climate change, studied gender sexuality, and choreographed dance performances centered on queer womxn of color and racial justice.
She is constantly learning, immersing herself in studies related to biodynamic craniosacral therapy, meditation, and Ayurveda. Through it all, though, her primary drive—to make yoga accessible to all—never wavers.
“There is something within that allows me to bear witness to injustice,” she says. “That’s a perspective we need in the yoga community here. My own practice changes and evolves through time, but my commitment to expanding access to these healing practices for everyone will always be at the heart of what I do.”
Colette notes that she was raised as an intersectional feminist by her mother and aunt, an experience that tied her not only to the women in her family but also to her ancestors. “These two powerful and independent women pushed me to also be independent, to do what I wanted to do,” she says. “That allowed me to tap into this healing component that’s deeply ancestral. I am from a lineage of healers and I bring that to my work.”
Colette started volunteering as a teenager, first at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles and then at a needle exchange program there. Many individuals served by both organizations were young, queer, and people of color, including a significant number of people in the black trans community. The experience deepened a desire in Colette to learn more about how injustice impacts our bodies and our health.
After studying classical Indian dance and hatha yoga in India, Colette returned to the U.S. ready to bring her healing and justice work to yoga studios here. But the white-dominant nature of yoga in the States was unsettling to her. She tried to balance it out by doing community outreach among people of color, to build awareness of the importance of mental health, but then Philando Castile was killed. The effect on Colette was profound.
“I remember that I was at a retreat in the Boundary Waters, and I had chest pain, and I was so hot with anger,” she says. “I had to go into the water to try and heal myself. I was just struck by how quickly so many white people went back to their normal lives while many of us still struggled with the trauma of that murder.”
After sinking into a depression, Colette spoke with one of her teachers, who emphasized that she had to care for herself if she wanted to show up for others, and that being a teacher is an important responsibility but also a heavy one. Heeding the advice, Colette redoubled her efforts to find peace through her own practice. The experience ultimately informed her teaching at a new level, leaving her feeling better able to articulate her belief that the yoga community needs some major change.
Need for Transformation
These days, it’s not difficult to find yoga images (not to mention real-life examples) of white, cis women in expensive leggings doing a “yoga-plus” type of practice involving weights, heat, or even wine. Another trend is GOOP enthusiasts—the kind who do yoga for the Insta likes rather than the effect—“practicing” Ayurveda and defining themselves based on their pitta or Vata dosha. All of these things are hindering access to yoga and healing, Colette says.
“It’s very clear that people of color are deeply impacted by systemic racism in this country, and we need to talk about how that shows up in access to healing practices,” she explains. “Those who are queer and/or of color need spaces to heal. But what happens is we go into these white, cis spaces and ‘otherizing’ happens. There’s the white gaze, which causes many to avoid studios completely.”
Pricing is an issue as well, she adds, with some studios in town charging $60 to $125 per month. “Finally, you have these elements like alcohol or weights, which have nothing to do with the practices within the yogic tradition of freedom from suffering,” she adds. “Similarly, Ayurveda is getting misinterpreted thanks to identity politics and simplification. This is a science meant to bring balance to our lives, not about how we look and act.”
Working Toward Change
Colette doesn’t use words like “wellness” or “self-care,” as she believes they have become synonymous with privilege and money. Instead, she uses more powerful, equal-opportunity terms like liberation, dharma, freedom, fearlessness, and love. She is passionate about cultivating these ideals for herself and for her students and is working to ensure that access to yoga and Ayurveda is never an issue for her students.
Part of her efforts includes building a fundraising campaign for people of color to study with her in the Boundary Waters since she feels that significant healing and self-mastery can happen in nature. She’s also doing pro bono Ayurvedic work with some clients as a way to expand access to that healing modality.
Having witnessed numerous people burning out while doing social justice work, Colette is also focusing on finding ways to improve mental health access and sustainable healing practices.
“We don’t need more yoga teacher training programs; this country is saturated with those,” she says. “What we need is for people to be better to each other and to understand how what we’re doing in our physical bodies translates energetically into our hearts and our spirits. That’s the work I’m doing.”