by Nick deMarsh, photo by Janice Christensen
Jessica Vega Gonzalez hails from Los Angeles. She arrived in Milwaukee after signing up to work with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps. When she was assigned to work in Milwaukee, she could not have located Milwaukee on a map. She had never been to the Midwest and as Jess says, she “knew nothing about this place.”
Jess first moved to Riverwest when she arrived in Milwaukee two years ago. She moved into the Capuchin Volunteer House. In the middle of her year of service, the Capuchin house moved to 27th and Highland. Even after moving out of Riverwest, “The Healing Corner (Locust and Fratney), specifically the Riverwest Yogashala kept pulling me back,” Jess explained.
Jess moved back to Riverwest a month ago. “I feel like my life has been here anyway. I’ve been at the [Riverwest] Yogashala pretty much as long as I’ve been in Milwaukee.”
Jess started teaching at the Riverwest Yogashala last year. At that time members and teachers learned the shocking news that Peggy Hong, the charismatic leader of the Yogashala, would be moving to Detroit. Coinciding with Peggy’s departure, several other long time teachers also decided to leave Milwaukee.
Committed Yogashala members decided to step up and carry the torch of their predecessors. Jess remembers, “A bunch of us went through a very intensive training with Peggy.” Jess is one of only two teachers who continue to teach at the Riverwest Yogashala, among the cadre that originally underwent the intensive training a year ago.
Jess currently teaches one class. The Womyn of Color Multi-level class. It embodies Jess’s commitment to preserve the founding mission of the Riverwest Yogashala. The Yogashala’s mission to foster diversity is one its most unique aspects. For Jess, the Womyn of Color class is important to make the Yogashala, and Iyengar Yoga generally, more accessible. She explains, “The stereotype of skinny white women doing yoga makes it seem inaccessible to others. There are so many benefits – physical, and spiritual – that everyone could use.” She further explains the need for her class as a place of healing in a broader sense, saying, “Womyn of color’s relationships to their body is different because of institutional racism and sexism. People who continuously live through that can come [to the Yogashala] and get what they need.”
Jess points out the incompatibility of the stereotypical practitioner being a white female with the reality that yoga comes from India. As she says, “yoga comes from brown people.” In addition to breaking down barriers between yoga and all people, Jess views her class as an opportunity to deconstruct other ideas reinforced by our society. In this way she wants the class “to honor people much more deeply than how the system is set up right now.”
Some other critical elements of the class are that it is a safe space for queer folks and muslim womyn. As Jess points out, “You can’t address one ‘ism without addressing others as well.”
Jess also strives to make the class more engaging than most yoga classes. She explains her embrace of discussion and laughter during class saying, “you can’t be too loud,” and, “please interrupt.” Jess strives to remove the commodification of the class with a rule that money does not trade hands. It is a $5 class but also a gift class. The reason is that “some people who have gifts don’t earn money for those gifts.” She emphasizes that “yoga is a sacred practice.” In this way she is working to move away from the commodification of yoga and increasing its accessibility.
Jess’s life experience influences the way that she teaches her class. “The sequences that I do are very supportive and restorative,” she says. This is important beyond the physical support in the yoga studio because, “there’s not enough support for womyn of color out there.”
Jess sees her practice as a way to not only open the Yogashala, but Riverwest more generally. As the neighborhood changes she is aware that gentrification continues to challenge the diversity of our community. She values her role at the Yogashala as a teacher and board member, because it is an opportunity to maintain and grow leadership of womyn of color in organizations throughout Riverwest.
Jess references Grace Lee Boggs, saying that she “imagines the Yogashala being on the front end of our human (r)evolution of how our world is changing anyway. We’re in a process where our former structures are failing us. The Yogashala is a place where we can heal the wounds that have been passed onto us. It is a place where we can talk about racism and heteronormativity openly.” Recognizing that we will stumble in this process she wants the Yogashala to be a place where we “see color and make mistakes.” In the process she hopes that “we can envision what life can be like in abundance, where community can really be built and thrive. This is a real hope. A place where anger is honored, where people who have been on the bottom end of these ‘isms can breathe more deeply. Where we can lovingly challenge ourselves to grow our souls and be a part of the quiet revolution.”
Jess is also a musician. “The Quiet Revolution” happens to be the name of a new song she has written. She plays in the Universal Love Band and also in a subsection of the band, Universal Love Healing Music.
Her philosophy guides her music as well. She believes that “Music, like Yoga, is sacred.” She sees many musicians get upset about the commodification of it. “When you’re playing you’re putting a lot of energy out there. It’s frustrating for that to be commodified. The Universal Love Healing Music brings music to people who need it the most, they have a lot going on and really enjoy it, such as adult daycares. She explains that “When we commodify the sacred, we devalue it and make it inaccessible to people.” The day of our interview she performed at a residential building for disabled people. She remembers that “when we played, a womyn began crying because it reminded her of her friend who passed away who played music.” The experience “is nourishing to have music freely given and freely received.”
The Universal Love Band just finished recording a new CD. They will be opening for Mali Blues on December 14 at Club Timbuktu. They will also be having a community gift, CD release party soon. The exact date and location is not yet determined, but they are in discussion with several Riverwest locations.
If You Go:
Riverwest Yogashala, 731 E. Locust
by Nick deMarsh, photo by Janice Christensen