Yoga is a tool for self-acceptance and resistance for Kris Brown-Neville.
Brown-Neville, who uses they and them pronouns, began teaching yoga in October 2020 at Lotus Yoga Academy, located on Vine Street in downtown Winston-Salem. Around the same time, they got involved with the Triad Abolition Project, a local organization whose members aim to put an end to incarceration.
“I had always wanted to get more involved in activism work and had been in conversation with TAP,” they said. “It wasn’t until maybe two months ago that I said I’d love to get more involved in the community work. I didn’t know too much about the group, just that it was an avenue to get more involved with abolition work.”
Brown-Neville, who has been practicing yoga for two years, shared that the practice became a way to cope with trauma when their father John Neville died at the hands of Forsyth County Detention Center officers in Dec. 2019. This is what prompted them to think about abolition and how society views Black bodies.
“In the moment, I felt not only that somebody close to me was a death in a system that has failed Black people, but that I was just another Black body waiting to become a statistic,” Brown-Neville said. “I would always have to fight to be seen as equal.”
Yoga, which originated in south Asia, became popular among white Europeans when British and Portuguese colonizers learned the practice, according to an article by Kalamazoo College. Scholars credit Indian monk Swami Vivekananda with bringing yoga to the United States in the 1890s when he visited Europe and North America.
Now, Brown-Neville and others are decolonizing it.
Brown-Neville joined the healing and transformative justice group within TAP and worked with both TAP and Lotus Yoga to create Ahimsa & Abolition: An Abolitionist Yoga Workshop Series. The first session took place on July 14.
“My whole life I’ve had to be an extremely palatable minority to be worthy of acceptance,” they said. “In yoga, even though the community was pretty white, taking the practice and understanding it for myself healed a lot of how I looked at race in relation to my body. It healed a lot.”
The details of John Neville’s death became public the summer of 2020, not long after George Floyd’s death. This prompted Brown-Neville to get involved with TAP, whose members led an occupation of Bailey Park in July 2020.
Leaders demanded the city answer questions about Neville’s death, ban hogtie restraints, notify the public of all deaths and drop charges against protesters.
“They were here for us, to make us feel worthy,” Brown-Neville said of TAP. “That lit a fire for me, and I wanted to make other people feel worthy.”
According to Brown-Neville, ahimsa is the idea of harmlessness, or more accurately, non-harmfulness. It is about the intent of not causing harm and acting benevolent toward all.
“It’s taking non-harming and turning it into radical compassion,” they said. “This does still include the marching and the chanting and everything. I want the yoga itself to allow people to do the internal work, but also they can learn to radiate this message outside of themselves and into the communities.”
This should not be a hard task for the yogi, who radiates positivity. Brown-Neville, who wore rectangular glasses and a bright red sweater on a recent afternoon, smiles constantly and speaks compassionately about their community.
Through yoga, Brown-Neville said they want to create a space where people can learn and practice radical compassion.
“We’re holding each other’s hands here trying to create a compassionate space in our community,” Brown-Neville said. “It’s teaching people to first give themselves a safe space to release any stigma or chains or internal prisons and then resonating that message out into the community.”
In the future, they hope to continue working with TAP and advocating for historically marginalized communities. Their second session is going to allow attendees at the end to discuss what they felt during the time they spent meditating, including any harm, which Brown-Neville believes is an important next step to creating an inclusive culture. Really, they want others to be able to find the kind of acceptance for their bodies that they were able to find through the practice.
“My body is sacred and I should not keep myself in this prison of what the white gaze wants,” Brown-Neville said. “I’m allowed to see myself as enough and valuable. I deserve good things and I’m worthy of growth and prosperity and safety. These are rights that I have as a human being.”
To learn more Kris and their practice, follow them on Instagram at @jupitr.b or visit Lotus Yoga Academy at 525 Vine St Suite 215 in Winston-Salem.