Since her Peloton debut in May of 2020, Chelsea Jackson Roberts, Ph.D., has become one of the most sought-after yoga instructors on the app. Using a mixture of hip-hop, R&B, classical, gospel, house, and funk-themed classes, the Dayton, OH native guides Peloton users across the globe, in the weekly practice of feeling connected with the body and the breath as they “root down and rise up.” With many leaving her classes feeling more grounded and anchored than they were when they started, it’s easy to see how the former Lululemon Global Ambassador and two-time Yoga Journal cover star has made such an impact. While her background as a third-grade school teacher and founder of Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp lends to her influence, her journey to becoming a world-renowned celebrity yoga instructor was not met without tragedy.
Following the sudden death of her best friend to gun violence, Chelsea says that it was yoga that helped her to confront the trauma of losing someone so close, so abruptly. Yoga empowered her to open up and embrace how her body showed up. Over time, the practice went from stretching on a mat to becoming a lifestyle, and one that she even integrated into her third-grade classrooms to help her students cope with their traumas as well.
In this interview with xoNecole, Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts discusses how yoga can be used to heal from traumatic experiences, ways to remain grounded, and how yoga has set the tone for other areas of her life.
xoNecole: What made you decide to start practicing yoga?
Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts: I first met yoga as a senior at Spelman College. But I never actually went into a yoga class because I was quite intimidated. It wasn't until I graduated, and started moving through my early adulthood that I began to practice.
I was a third-grade public school teacher in Atlanta and it was during that time, I tried my first yoga class. My understanding was completely physical. I thought it was only a workout and that I would burn some calories and sweat in my hot yoga class. It was later in life that I found out yoga was so much more.
I also started to go deeper into meditation, which supported me through the trauma of losing one of my closest friends and Spelman sisters to gun violence. So it was definitely a journey that evolved that started as a workout and later became an integrated lifestyle for me.
xoN: How did yoga help you to move past that trauma?
CJR: I don't know if I moved past it, or confronted it. When we go through trauma, our bodies naturally go through a 'fight, flight, or freeze' [response]. And more than anything, I think I was numb. I hadn't reached out to a therapist and this was the first time I had experienced trauma that abrupt and of that magnitude. When I was in those yoga classes, I remembered something happening that allowed me to really connect with how I felt in the moment. It allowed me to embrace my body and how it was showing up.
There were mirrors in the class that allowed me to look at myself, in my eyes, and I started wondering what would have happened if I went back to that first experience of practicing yoga and feeling really whole. And then I used that to confront and embrace the experience that my body, my heart, and my mind were going through. And honestly, the more that I practiced yoga, it opened me up and supported me to begin to talk about what I was experiencing.
I then sought professional help from a therapist. It helped me lean into my faith and my community. So I think that yoga more than anything was this tool that opened me up to so many other ways of supporting me through the trauma.
"When I was in those yoga classes, I remembered something happening that allowed me to really connect with how I felt in the moment. It allowed me to embrace my body and how it was showing up... And honestly, the more that I practiced yoga, it opened me up and supported me to begin to talk about what I was experiencing."
Courtesy of Peloton
xoN: In addition to yoga being a tool to open you up, what were some other benefits?
CJR: If you know yoga, it’s centered on the breath and a moment for us to pause to allow ourselves to take that deep inhale. To this day, I tell my students that even if they even have one minute of connected breath, you are practicing yoga. Yoga simply means to unite, to join, and to yoke. When you use the practice of yoga, you are essentially allowing yourself to feel fully connected to the body and the breath, so that when you move into the action in this world, you're coming from a more grounded and anchored place. And so those are some of the tools that I pulled from the practice for me to even navigate and articulate what I was experiencing through that trauma.
Even in my classroom, as a school teacher, it opened up how I showed up for my students who were also experiencing traumas. I was in a Title 1 school where the majority of the students lived below the poverty line, and there were moments they were struggling. So I began integrating some of what I learned in those yoga classes. That's when I started creating this trajectory of exploring yoga as a tool for communicating and learning, and even unlearning things in this life.
xoN: Given the traumatic events that have happened within the past few years and the overall trauma that Black women endure, what other ways can yoga be used to remain grounded?
CJR: I love this quote, and if you ever hear me speak about some of my teachers, I always say that James Baldwin is a teacher who–though I may not have met in the physical–has certainly influenced the lens that I use in this world. I always paraphrase this thought that he had which goes, “Once we understand our own suffering, we can then understand the suffering of others, and from that place, we can move deeper into love.” In my own lived experiences, unless I was able to confront that pain, that trauma of losing my best friend in my early adulthood, my life will be a lot different in how I interact with understanding the trauma that I would later experience and the trauma of other people.
For me, I think that yoga can be a tool to get us to be honest about who we are and the reality of why we are. And not blaming ourselves, even for some of the social inequities that we experienced in these bodies. Yoga helps me to seek out the truth. It helps me to look into my ancestry and read literature that contextualizes what it is that I'm experiencing right now.
There's a sacred text called, Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The first sutra talks about nonviolence and that's the first approach that I always encourage–especially for first-time yoga practitioners–to move through so that you're not hard on yourself and your yoga practice. Also, truth and integrity. If we integrated these ways of seeing the world and how we interact with each other, I think that we would have a lot less injustice and the traumatic events that we've seen in this world.
"Yoga simply means to unite, to join, and to yoke. When you use the practice of yoga, you are essentially allowing yourself to feel fully connected to the body and the breath, so that when you move into the action in this world, you're coming from a more grounded and anchored place."
Sara Haile Photography
Courtesy of Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts
xoN: You mentioned the social inequities that we experience in our bodies. And I know that oftentimes, bodily trauma can cause us to feel disconnected from ourselves. Have you ever felt disconnected from your body and how did yoga help you to repair that connection?
CJR: I have been very public and transparent about the loss that we experienced at the end of last year when I was pregnant for the first time. I felt really disconnected. It was a time when I really had to dig deeply into my yoga practice and not blame myself for what happened. But what I could do was embrace the fullness of my experience. And that's why I talk about it.
Yoga reminds us that this is a practice that we have to take one day at a time. And yeah, it has certainly helped me embrace the light and the dark, the suffering and the joy, that I often talk about in my classes. So I see yoga as this tool that–especially when we're going through hard things in our own bodies–gives us space to really breathe and take inventory of what it is that we have truly gone through. And over time, we’ll realize that we are quite amazing in the resilience that we have, and the hope.
Also, I want to say that how I teach yoga, I remind people to embrace the unique way that our bodies show up. To translate that off of the mat, I started to consider the unique ways that I could be a parent, had it not happened the way that I thought it would. So that means all of the different ways that you can parent in this world.
To me, in yoga, when I embrace it may be that I need to use a block or prop or a pillow to get into this posture. It may look different than the person next to me in my yoga class. And that's exactly how life is. It may not look identical to someone else's path, but we can celebrate those individual unique ways in order to see our collective union as we move through our life. I like to take those lessons off the mat and into my lived experiences too.
xoN: How has yoga helped to set the tone for other areas of your life?
CJR: When I announced that my husband, Shane, and I were expecting our first child, I was like all of my yoga classes and all of my practices have been for this moment right now. I know that my yoga practice will deeply impact how I show up as a mother. This is a role I've never played in my life, and I'm grateful that I have these tools that I can pull from. When I'm being pulled in different directions, or feeling overwhelmed–because I hear parenthood can be that way–I know that I have these tools to come back to be my anchor and support how my husband and I communicate. And essentially I know it's going to impact how we are as parents, living in this household together, and still working together.
Yoga has definitely influenced how I show up in the world and the voice that I use. If anybody is familiar with the work that I've done, they know that I'm also deeply committed to social justice and cultivating communities. We do that through our nonprofit, Red Clay Yoga.
As Yogis, we are peaceful. But we are also grounded in truth. We acknowledge that equity and equality are essential for harmony. So yoga has impacted and influenced how I show up with my voice in the world, for how I speak out against or in support of different social issues in this world as well.
"I know that my yoga practice will deeply impact how I show up as a mother. This is a role I've never played in my life, and I'm grateful that I have these tools that I can pull from. When I'm being pulled in different directions, or feeling overwhelmed–because I hear parenthood can be that way–I know that I have these tools to come back to be my anchor and support how my husband and I communicate."
Sara Haile Photography
Courtesy of Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts
xoN: I know that you are the first Black Lululemon global ambassador. And from there, you’ve gone on to become a Peloton yoga instructor. How was that transition?
CJR: And ironically, I'm the first Black Peloton yoga instructor. That's something that isn't necessarily voiced aloud. But in spaces where we are really visible, I think that it's important for us to know that we exist everywhere. And by “we,” I'm talking about Black folks, Black women, people of color, or however you see yourself not being elevated in spaces because of your background. It's been a tremendous honor to be that trailblazer in many ways and never forget the teachers who came before me.
So the pivot to being a Peloton instructor has certainly inspired others who may have never considered themselves Yogis. They may have seen themselves as athletes, but to see yourself as a Yogi can be quite intimidating because of the flexibility that’s articulated in pictures or magazines.
But I’m hoping that people come into my class because they felt the intention that I said and that we can all be welcome to this practice. That's why I rely on unexpected musical genres in yoga spaces. And being at Peloton has afforded me the ability to cast a wider net and get yoga out there even more.
For more information on Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts, visit Chelsea Loves Yoga.
Featured image by Sara Haile Photography