Vanessa A. Williams is an accomplished dancer, actress and even a poetess, but few people really know the woman behind the name that’s shared by another famous Hollywood actress. The star of countless TV shows, movies and the hit Showtime series Soul Food (for which she snagged a NAACP Image Award) is also a devoted yogini, vegan, environmental steward, and works with the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers.
Yogi Times: When were you first introduced to your yoga practice?
Vanessa Williams: I had always had lower backache from dance injuries. My dancer friends were all going to chiropractors, so I started going to one, then someone suggested I take a yoga class. I remember the first yoga class I had I was like, “Oh my God—I will never have to go to the chiropractor again!” I felt literally like all my vertebrae lined up. I felt so much longer, so in alignment, so peaceful. The yoga instructor asked us to thank ourselves for bringing us to class, and I thought, “Oh wow, yeah, we’re honoring ourselves.” It was part of my whole quest as a spiritual seeker, and it just felt in alignment with all those kinds of things. Creating peace in myself to have those ripple effects to creating peace in the world.
YT: From that point you practiced regularly?
VW: I absolutely did. Even as I got pregnant, I was really grateful that I already had a practice so that my hip area was loosened and stretched, and as the practice changed to accommodate my growing body, I felt I couldn’t have gotten through my pregnancy without yoga class. My second pregnancy was even more strenuous because I was working that whole first trimester—where you are the weepiest and the most tired—and I was on the set for 12 to 16 hours a day and coming home and being able to do a practice. Even on the set, being able to do a pose that immediately brought relief—it was a godsend.
YT: So outside of the physical benefits of yoga, how has it affected other parts of your life?
VW: I think because yoga is a moving meditation, it becomes another tool for me to use when I feel out of sorts, out of balance, out of spirit. So that there is no separating body/mind, it’s a whole kind of practice and tool. So it’s another tool in my bag of tricks, when I want to remember who I am.
A few years ago I fell in love with chants. Everything is portal to remembering who you are. I tell my children, “Remember who you are, remember who you are.” Because they are, of course, much closer to remembering than us adults, who can get so displaced with who we really are. It’s really heaven having a practice.
YT: How did you get connected with the National Association of Black Yoga Teachers?
VW: Really interesting, they found me. I knew a number of yogis and yoga teachers through my practice, and one of my really good friends, who is also an amazing actress named Bonnie Turnpin, I remember her telling me about her teacher training. This other amazing woman, Krishna Kar, the woman who she was now training with, had a whole other approach, including fasting. I remember her talking about how Krishna, the founder of the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers, was also sort of a mother figure, and both Bonnie and I had lots of mothers when we were children, so she and I had that particular bond. There was another friend, a wonderful producer. Her teacher was also Krishna.
So maybe it was through both of those connections that Krishna contacted me and thought that we would be a good fit, because she was looking for a spokesperson for this amazing benefit and venture happening in April 2007 in Ghana. The yoga teachers from the association will go to Ghana and commune with the people and the yogis there. And it’s wonderful to have these Ghanian students see instructors that look like them, and that identification can be very powerful.
Out of the association there is also a wonderful program called Yoga for Youth, where teachers go into inner cities with troubled youths, and give our kids another tool to relieve stress and give them all the benefits of what yoga is. You know we’ve talked about the benefits, and they are particularly potent for people living in crisis and for children.
YT: How else are you living a holistic life? You’re vegan?
VW: My kids have still never had meat. Of course my husband and I have, growing up with an American diet. But I’ve been vegan for over 16 years, my husband for 20. My husband became vegan after having a life-threatening illness. So coupled with eating a vegan diet and changing his thoughts, those choices saved his life. Doctors told him he had six months to live with this rare blood disease he acquired from an operation for a clot. They gave him all these drugs to coagulate, and that led him to this rare disease. So we met after he had become a vegan. I had a vegan pregnancy. My children are completely vegan. In terms of how we deal with any kind of ailment, we consult our pediatrician, who has a holistic approach to medicine. And he was really candid with us about the whole question of whether to inoculate or not. We made the choice not to, because of our own research, and we had a really wonderful Bradley instructor who gave us lots of information on the subject, and it just didn’t make sense to us, especially with babies. In Japan, they wait until the child is at least three or four, to allow their bodies to develop and build immunities naturally. So we made those kind of decisions, and it was really great to have a pediatrician who supported that, and was really honest with us that there is risk both ways.
YT: How do you handle it when your kids go over to other people’s houses and they want to eat what their friends are eating?
VW: My kids don’t want to eat what their friends are eating. And what’s so beautiful is that there is a whole community of our friends and family that go to Whole Foods, and if they know my family is coming over, they will pick up vegan ice cream, etc. And you know, sometimes it’s not perfect, all the ingredients, but the effort is amazing. My husband is really good at discipline, and you can discipline your kids. They do what you say and what you do. And they get it.
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