The first time I spoke with Terry Harris, he taught me the Masai warrior greeting that motivates him daily, “And how are the children?” I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. As the Co-founder of The Collective STL, a donation-based Yoga school that serves St. Louis’ Black community in the most segregated city in the US, Terry nurtures and sustains folks through Yoga, mindfulness, and community-building across age groups. Kara Stern sat down with Terry for a personal conversation about The Collective STL.
WITH: Could you tell us a little bit about your Yoga studio, The Collective STL, and the role it plays with respect to social justice in your community?
Terry: The Collective STL is truly a love story. It’s a love story for Black people. It’s a love story for Black people’s health and it’s a love story for Black people’s happiness and well-being. It’s also a love story for the city of St. Louis.
St. Louis is very segregated. You can literally be in one part of the city and feel that you are somewhere that’s not good, and then you can go to the other side of the city and feel like you are in a kingdom.
We also know that the people who are not doing well in St. Louis usually look a lot like the four people who created this organization, and as Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, you do better.”
W: Your organization has done some amazing things to help make Yoga more accessible to your community. Can you tell us more about how you achieved these goals?
T: The Collective STL has three main tenets: space, community, and Yoga.
We wanted to create a space that unapologetically centers the lives of Black people and Black culture, because we know what that means. For example, Black people tend to be very physical so when you walk in everyone is getting a hug. And if people who prefer not to be hugged, there’s a physical acknowledgement, be it a fist pump or a pat on the back. When you walk into our studio, it feels like a family reunion.
Our second focus is on building a community. If you have ever been to a Black church that is centered around music, and connecting, and having conversations, it feels like that. Our Yoga practice feels very familiar in that sense. After class we always have fresh fruit and vegetables because food causes people to linger. And when you’re lingering, you talk and when you talk, you get to know people. You’re in a relationship with people. And when you’re sharing relationships with people, you build community.
The third piece is the Yoga. When people say that they’ve never done Yoga, or can’t do Yoga, we encourage them to enter the space and just breathe. You know how to talk, and be in community, and you can breathe, so you don’t have to touch your toes, you can just breathe. And so that’s our story. We’ve been around for four years.
W: How is the work funded, from a financial standpoint?
T: Although Yoga has tremendous health benefits, both physical and mental, it is very expensive. A hot Yoga class is around $25 an hour, which is a lot to someone who might be making $10 an hour and has bills to pay.
The Collective STL is a donation-based Yoga studio. People pay what they can pay. If you can pay a dollar, or if you can pay twenty dollars, or if you can’t pay anything, we welcome anyone who wants to participate with love and openness.
W: It sounds like the access disparities to Yoga and meditation practices in St. Louis are extreme.
T: Yeah, I mean, it’s unbelievable. But in all fairness — because I know that this is a Yoga question — I have to talk about the other disparities before we get to Yoga, right? Because Yoga is a practice for some, but Yoga doesn’t literally feed you. Yoga isn’t air, it isn’t water. Yoga isn’t policing. Yoga isn’t finding a job. So, when we think about all of these disparities that exist in our city, people are bringing all of those disparities with them to the mat. There’s a lot of heaviness.
In North St. Louis, which is where our studio is, the 63106 zip code, there are no Yoga studios except for our studio. Why? Because Yoga has really morphed into this financial model and a business, which is totally great and cool. But in terms of serving a community, it doesn’t make financial sense for most people to open and operate a Yoga studio in North St. Louis.
Why? One reason is that people in this community don’t really have the money to pay for class. Another is that they probably don’t really understand what Yoga is. When these two reasons combine, they’re probably not going to come. These are all the things that people have said to us directly.
W: It sounds like you are meeting people where they are at and then offering them something that they can see if they like. That’s really so rare in the Yoga space, where people tend to be a bit precious about everything.
T: For us, Yoga is really just the sugar to help create community and empowerment. We can sequence with the best of them, but it’s not about that. We want people to go home and hug their kids and feel good about their lives. They can take control of their own Blackness and know that they matter. They can know that their existence is real and beautiful and joyful.
We’ve had people walk in from off the street because they see a room full of Black people moving around and having a good time and they want to join in. They come in wearing jeans and they stay because they feel connected to the community that is being built.
W: What’s next for The Collective STL?
T: The mission of the The Collective STL is to bring health and wellness to Black people in the city of St. Louis. That’s the mission, very simple.
If anyone wants to support, we just ask that they show up. That’s the best way to directly support our mission.
We are also going to be growing a program we started last year called “Just Breathe STL,” which is a family-friendly event that is taking place every Wednesday in June. There’s mindfulness, there’s coloring, there’s walking, there’s hiking, there’s juicing, there’s vegetables. There’s a kid’s corner. And then we end the day by listening to a live band.
Most importantly, we all leave happy because everyone deserves to breathe, deeply and fully.
About the author: Kara Stern is older than her brother, Eddie. So obviously she’s more important. She’s also a veteran educator, having taught in, been the director of, and headed schools for almost 30 years. She’s interviewed Terry on her YouTube show Snack-Size PD twice. Once on introducing restorative justice circles into schools and the classroom, and this interview on Yoga.