“People aren’t broken. It’s our society:” An interview with Felicia Savage Friedman

I rolled out my mat and gathered yoga props for Felicia Savage Friedman’s class at the Kingsley Association Center, a community organization in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. The class operates with different rules than I’m used to; people can come and go as they please. We are about 15 minutes into the practice when the last student walks in. Everybody stays until the end.

During the class, she sits everyone down and gives a short Dharma talk. She was out of town when Antwon Rose, Jr., a 17-year-old from East Pittsburgh, was shot by police. One of the students says, “the police need some yoga!” Felicia responds, “Zone five needs yoga.”

Her response seems intended to take a good idea and ground it in the community’s reality. It’s her call to action for a very specific social justice.

After a few seated practices, we stand up. She puts on music by Trombone Shorty and demonstrates simple dance that we students mimic. We dance to the back and the front of the room. As someone who doesn’t dance well, I feel a bit bashful, but her encouragement gets me moving.

After more postures and movements, she leads a deep and restorative final relaxation. She offers us an essential oil if we would like it, first reviewing each ingredient in the oil to make sure no one is allergic. She then describes the procedure: if we’d like, she will put a few drops of oil on a Kleenex and place it on our chest. I’m able to relax knowing exactly what was going to happen. This level of consent- and trust-building is much needed in the yoga world.

We ended the class in a circle. Those who didn’t want to participate in a group hug stood outside the circle with arms outstretched. With eye contact, everybody acknowledged each other as fellow students and human beings.

Felicia teaching yoga in Market Square, Pittsburgh

Felicia Savage Friedman has been practicing yoga for 28 years and teaching for 22. She’s performed clinical hours at Beth Israel, NYC, Hillman Integrative Cancer Center and St. Luke’s ER in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her inclusive and adaptable approach has led her to teach classes everywhere, including the Allegheny County Jail, the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, Pitt’s University Graduate School of Public Health, the Kingsley Association, and the Ace Hotel. She also volunteers with the American Friends Service Program Committee and New Voices for Reproductive Health.

I was fortunate to interview Felicia on a Wednesday afternoon. She has a clear vision of what her classes and her teacher trainings entail. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.

On self-care and her volunteer work in Haiti

I learned that in order to be a good servant, your self-care has to be tip-top. You cannot be a good servant and be lacking. We all are lacking. I get that. We all fall short, but when I wake up in the morning, my restoration and rejuvenation has to be the first thing on my mind. Then I’m ready to be of service, and it was tested in Haiti.

I have a big phobia of rodents. We lived with a rat. I had to eat there and know that he was around. In the seven days we were there, there was an earthquake tremor that that shook the water tower which caused the water tower to overflow. Then we were in lockdown because there was a robbery at gunpoint right outside of our compound.

It was baptism by fire and I’m glad I was at the top of my health. I don’t want to serve again in that way in my life, this lifetime, because it was so intense, holding that space for such violence going on and disrespect. It was a hard space to be in, and then nature just doing what it does, but it was hard. It was hard to see you’re riding in a truck and have children come up to you like, “Please give me water,” and you know they’re dehydrated. But you can’t give water because if you give water, then you can create a riot. That child could die because you’re giving them water.

On “fixing” broken people

Felicia: We have all these programs, human service programs that “fix the people.” People aren’t broken. It’s our society. It’s humankind that’s broken.

Richard: Some teachers go in with that sort of attitude, “I’m going to fix you.”

F: It’s a deficit model, and that’s why my training focuses on people’s strengths. I’m not trying to make mini-me’s. That would be obnoxious.

R: You give that energy that you’re not trying to fix. There’s just this open space based in realness.

F It’s developing an authentic relationship. True, I’ve had these experiences and schooling, but what I’m doing is trying to connect to a human whose life experiences are so different than mine. The one place we can start that connection is where we’re both vulnerable, so I often self disclose that I’m a mama, and talk about the trials and tribulations of raising children as a single mom.

felicia bio pic

How the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond influenced her Antiracist Yoga philosophy

This two and a half day training blew my socks away. I couldn’t sit in my seat for long because of the words that were being spoken by Dustin Washington, the lead trainer. He’s an anti-racist organizer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I cried, I was nauseous, I was angry, I was happy, all in that span of two and a half days to hear words put to what I’d been feeling as a Black woman and living in this society. That’s when I first heard of internalized racial oppression; internalized racial superiority for white folk, and internalized racial inferiority for people of color and Black folks.

In that moment, that’s what I knew I was missing in my curriculum. New age is Native and Indigenous culture. What it was, was eastern philosophy that was often co-opted by white folk and remixed and then presented. These are philosophies that have been here that people have been practicing for thousands of years, and so I need to acknowledge that. The anti-racist framework had that piece for me as a Black woman.

So I’m a Black woman studying east Indian philosophy, and I would be remiss if I didn’t bring race into it. It’s definitely how the systems and institutions see me, and of course patriarchy and capitalism is all mixed in there, too, for this real strange Jell-O of horror. The anti-racist framework along with the trauma-informed piece is part of my education as a Masters in Elementary Education, and my integrative yoga practices. That’s who I am. I’m an integrative person. I have all these different skills, abilities, and practices. I can’t go anywhere without all of them coming with me, and so the undoing racism piece made my curriculum complete.

“Your benefit is someone else’s oppression”

F: [Redlining] was nationwide. That’s what made the ghettos. It’s so stark in the bigger cities like Chicago and New York City. White folks were given opportunities to get low-cost, low-interest [FHA] loans. Black folks are given vouchers for subsidized housing. I didn’t know that. Growing up here, that would’ve made things so much more clear, because I grew up thinking that Black folks were lazy and didn’t work as hard as white folks.

When you get a jump on your legacy, on wealth, it affects all of the generations. When Larimer was at its lowest population, it was poor Black folks who were living here because we didn’t have that same opportunity to get low-interest loans. We were kept out of that. Now with the gentrification of the area, white folks are moving back in because they want to be close to Google, Whole Foods and Target.

R: I live right behind the theological seminary, and I bought that house [in 2009] for 14 grand.

F: You’re part of the gentrification.

R: My house is worth more than 14 grand now.

F: Absolutely. Whose house was it before you bought it?

R: It was … What do they call them? Not sheriff’s sale.

F: Foreclosure?

R: It was a foreclosure.

F: Yeah. [A white friend] lives over here in East Liberty, really close to you and me, and she’s quite clear that she’s the first line of gentrifiers into the neighborhood. She was able to get a low-interest loan to rehab the house. She’s clear about that. She was like, “Wait a minute. Let me do what I can do to secure the housing of the Black folks around me,” as best as she could, knowing that the LGBTQ community was the first line, and then the artists, then white folks. It’s happening all over the country. It’s just being clear about your benefit is someone else’s oppression, and that we can stop it. This is a beast that’s moving. How can we resist in whatever way we can so there’s more equitable distribution? No one can answer that for anyone else.

On baselines

The justification of the incarceration rate was the one thing that really blew me away. Do you think Black people are more criminal? You really do believe that, even with all the mass shootings, you still aren’t scared of white men like you are scared of Black men. Black men aren’t killing white people, so you really need to be afraid of white men. That’s real. We got to look at why we don’t question that level of questioning. That’s why my self-reflective practice, Raja yoga, is a godsend for me.

R: It is the most yin of subjects because it’s so pervasive. It’s hard for me. One of the definitions of yin is “hidden.” My teacher [Tias Little] says everyone is walking around with a low level of unhappiness. It’s so ever-present you don’t know it’s there.

F: It becomes our baseline.

R: It becomes the baseline. His point of the meditation practice is, it’s like an archeological dig. You go below the baseline and you realize what’s actually there. What sociologists are working on now is that same archeological dig into the baseline. And if you dig deep enough, a whole bunch of bones come up.

F: I was at a reproductive justice summit a year ago. Sociologists are going back to the idea that Black people are inferior, people of color are inferior. And it’s like, “Oh my gosh. We’re revisiting this again,” because we’re not going deep. It’s not a deficit of the people. But if that’s your belief, if your baseline is that Black and Brown people are not as human as white folk, then that’s what you’re going to find. You’ve got to go beyond that. You’ve got to go down deeper, and I’m praying. I don’t believe we’re having this conversation again with a new generation of sociologists.

On the new generation learning the same lessons

I tell my revolutionary Black folks who came of age in the ’60s with the Black Panthers, that they dropped the ball on our children because they didn’t hand that baton down. When people don’t share what has come before and what they’ve experienced, then we’ll repeat history.

Parents didn’t share [what they experienced] with their children, because the parents didn’t have the factual knowledge. But I have faith in the young folk coming, the stuff they’re doing.

I really have to believe or I’m going to be psyching myself out. Because not all of us are going to get there, you know what I mean? I know that. But I really believe that humanity will be able to live a more humane existence than we’re living now. I have to believe that, and I do see it in the youth. I do see it with them. Yeah. I do.

felicia at childrens museum
Felicia during her artist-in-residency at the Children’s Museum

Felicia is a guest lecturer at the Frameworks 300 training this year. She is also guiding her 200-hour Antiracist Raja Yoga training, which starts in September. Information about Felicia and her work can be found on her website, YogaRoots On Location. Information about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond can be found at pisab.org.