InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week Dana Robinson, a 33-year-old yoga instructor and entrepreneur from Long Beach, shares.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
DANA: My name is Dana Robinson. My yogi name is Paramgeet Kaur [which means “lioness who sings songs to The Infinite”]. I am 33. I’m from Long Beach. I currently reside here in Long Beach. I started practicing yoga in 2003. I actually have a background in dance, the performing arts, and ethnic studies. I love everything culture. I also have an MBA in nonprofit management.
As I started this practice, I saw that there weren’t very many African American teachers. So I decided to become a yoga teacher because there was this very meaningful experience with my practice and I felt like it was something we could use in our community to get our people moving, get radiant, get bright, get connected, just start to enhance our human experience a little bit. So I did my teacher’s training in 2005 and became a certified kundalini yoga instructor as taught by Yogi Bhajan in 2006. Then I got my MBA and started a nonprofit in 2008 to create donation-based and free yoga classes for the community.
Right now I teach pretty much full-time. I teach at the Gay & Lesbian Center here in Long Beach. I have a donation-based class there. I also teach at a school called Free L.A. out of the Youth Justice Coalition. It’s basically a high school for youth that are in the juvenile justice system, either on house arrest or on probation. This is their physical activity. So I’m really honored to be teaching yoga full-time.
One new thing that’s kind of creeping in is I just made my drag king debut. [Laughs.] Yoga teacher by day and drag king by night.
ELIXHER: What’s your drag king name?
DANA: My drag king name is Pretty Boi Jerome.
ELIXHER: That’s awesome. You mentioned that you started a nonprofit in 2008. Can you tell us more about it?
DANA: Sure. The name that we incorporated it as is AXÉ L.A. Cultural Center. AXÉ [pronounced “ah-shay”] is the word from the African Diaspora meaning unconditional love and positive energy. Our mission is to promote yoga, martial arts and fitness to underserved communities throughout Los Angeles county. We want to go where people are inactive, take yoga to places where people may not have the money. Yoga is very expensive. Classes are about $17 per class. Sometimes in our communities we have to make a choice between do we eat or do we take this [money] and do something that could be perceived as a luxury.
I personally am of the belief that yoga is not a luxury; it’s a necessity to keep us healthy mentally, emotionally, physically and keep us connected. We’re taking the mission of this organization and really creating opportunities for people to practice where it may not be.
ELIXHER: Do you face challenges as far as people’s misconceptions of yoga in these communities and how do you overcome those?
DANA: All the time, particularly in the African American community. A lot of times I get questions about it being a religion. We use mantras, so we do chant in kundalini yoga. That’s sometimes awkward at first. How I approach it is [explain that] yoga is not a religion. Yoga means “yoke” or “union” with our divine self, so no matter what religion anyone is, practicing yoga is a way to strengthen that. I try to tell people that this is a practice to try to detoxify and de-stress the body so we can be more of who we are, be fully expressed, knowing the truth of our identities. If we’re holding onto too garbage or too much stress, we’re not thinking clearly and we present ourselves in ways that may not necessarily represent our highest self.
That’s usually how I approach it. Aside from that, I tell people just try it and if it rings true for you, it’s for you. It may not be for everyone, but if you were ever interested, I just invite people to give it a try. One of the things I do in my classes is speak about some of the techniques, for instance, why we may hold our hands in a certain posture. There is a physical science to each asana or yoga position that we’re in. I just try to give people as much information as they could possibly use to make informed decisions and let that speak for itself.
ELIXHER: How is your work at the Gay and Lesbian Center different from the work you do at your nonprofit and the high school?
DANA: It’s pretty much the same. I wanted to create a space that was specific to the queer community because we may have transgender [participants]. I want everybody to feel safe. That may not always be the case when we’re in a room that’s not designated as queer. It was important for me to create a space that is queer-identified and is open to allies. But the place is held with the understanding that this is where we can come together as a queer-identified community and develop ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically.
ELIXHER: What drew you to the craft?
DANA: My girlfriend at the time wanted me to take a yoga class with her and I was a dancer so I love being in my body. I figured I would try it and I hated it the first time I went. I did not get it. I didn’t like the mantras. It just felt kind of hippie and weird. [Laughs.] I had a bad taste in my mouth after the first class. The one thing that I enjoyed though was that the teacher played this meditation gong at the end. I also have a love and a passion and an affinity for music. The sound of the instrument made me want to come back just to hear it again.
So I went back a second time and actually listened to what was being said about the technology as we were practicing. I actually practiced the second time with my eyes closed and instead of me trying to show my teacher that I was flexible and had all this dance background, I focused on what I was doing and what was happening in my body and my mind. And it blew me away.
There’s this technique where we close our eyes and roll them up to the point just between our eyebrows. We call that the third eye and I remember holding my eyes there, holding the posture and breathing. They always say—and I thought this was stupid—you learn how to breathe in yoga. I’m like, what do you mean I learn how to breathe? I’m breathing. I’m here. But there was this breakthrough in my second class with holding my eye, the third eye. I learned as a teacher that you’re opening your pituitary gland and you’re making it secrete when you hold your eyes in that way. That creates a whole sort of blissful sensation in the body. That blissful sensation sort of took over and I literally felt high in the class and after. And I was like, whatever this is I’m gonna try it one more time. [Laughs.]
I tried it one more time and that same sensation came, but only bigger and I was hooked after that. I was intrigued; I didn’t know what it was about this thing. Later I learned when you get rid of the garbage, get rid of the toxins, get rid of the density of all the thoughts and stuff that we hold onto and don’t need, you get light, you feel good. It was a magical experience for me that second and third time around. I’ve been hooked ever since.
ELIXHER: Tell us about your drag debut.
DANA: My partner and I just made our debut last weekend. There’s a friend of ours that’s a producer and she produces these shows called BENT at Mr T’s Highland Park Bowl. They happen about every three months or so. We went out to BENT 7 just to support her and the show was amazing. It had an amateur drag king contest. The performances were phenomenal and I got the theatre itch again and was like, oh my god, I totally want to get up there. There were no Black drag kings. I wanted to represent and bring some kings of color up there.
I asked Richelle South, who is the producer of BENT, if I could perform. My girlfriend says, well, I want to perform and I just assumed that she’d do burlesque because that’s just a natural thing for her. But she decided to do drag. So last weekend was BENT 8. I decided not to perform but to support her in drag off stage. And she killed it. She got tips on her first time and that’s really rare. People were asking me, ‘Are you gonna get on stage?!’ We had real [facial] hair—mustaches, beards and goatees. We were well received and people were really grateful.
The last thing is I’m an entrepreneur and we established a company called Switch Drag and Burlesque. One of my passions is actually playwriting. I put that down too when I left the theatre. So being able to perform in drag has given me meaning for another play. It will take place during the Harlem Renaissance and it will be a story about passing—being a female passing as male. Both my partner and I are going to create the story and the roles for this.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
DANA: I seek my inspiration daily from music. I love sound and music. As a person, my grandmother inspires me so much. She doesn’t understand me a lot, especially being gay. We come from a whole different understanding of that. But she really respects that when I decide I’m gonna do something, I go for it with everything I have. She’s been very supportive of me pursuing my yoga career and pursuing all the artistic endeavors I’ve ever tried to do. She has stood by me and I have so much respect for her. She inspires me daily to keep doing what I do.
ELIXHER: Describe yourself in three words.
DANA: Tomboy. Femme. Creative.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
DANA: I don’t know what it is sometimes but after I befriend people they say, you seemed so intimidating at first. Then they get to know me and they see that my heart is so big and I’m just this big old cat. There’s a misconception that I may be a little reserved at first or intimidating, I guess. I don’t see it, but I kind of get that a lot. I wonder what that’s about sometimes.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
DANA: Choosing something that is not mainstream. I mean, yoga is mainstream, but not this type of yoga. It’s a different sort of technology. We dress in all white. We wear head coverings. So it’s not that sexy yoga that people are used to. It’s been challenging also to bring yoga to the Long Beach community. There’s a lot of, um, I wouldn’t call it racism; it’s something different. There’s a lot of cliqueness in this town even though I was born here. I’m a native but I still have a lot of barriers that come up against me in sharing this practice.
From what I understand, I’m probably the only Black yoga teacher in the realm of yoga teachers here in the community. I’ve been assaulted in my yoga studio by a yoga teacher once who I wouldn’t allow to take over the company and run it the way that she wanted to. That was a challenge to me because I had to handle that from the high road. I really felt that I was taken advantage of and I really did my best to be grateful in that situation. I think persevering and finding success as a yoga teacher now. I shut down my studio shortly after that drama. I’m teaching again at the Gay & Lesbian Center. It’s awesome because it’s a niche in this community that no one is utilizing. It’s been a blessing to just take that and build the community.
Just persevering and staying with it. There were times when I didn’t make any money, no one showed up to class. I chose this as a career so obviously I’ve got to make a living out of it. Staying the course and actually having a return, not just financially but also in the community’s development and growth too.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
DANA: I love Black people. I love our culture. I get really excited when I find people in the Black queer community that are fully self-expressed. It makes me really proud. I’m proud of my culture. I’m proud of my heritage. That includes my being queer. I love to see people who have come out on the other side of what could be the stigmatism in our African American or Black communities and come out healthy, come out happy, come out just doing their thing. Live up to that royal lineage. I get really proud because I know what it’s like. I love it.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the Black queer community?
DANA: I would like to see our community less mesmerized by heterosexual norms. I love dressing drag the way we do, sort of retro style, because I feel like we get stuck in what’s acceptable and what we’re supposed to do. It really annoys me when I see young lesbians adopting these heterosexual roles and the whole pants sagging I can’t stand…I really don’t like that. It’s just not fashionable. I would like to see our communities expressing more uniqueness by getting to know one’s self better and expressing that instead of what’s “acceptable” and “normal.”
ELIXHER: How do we begin addressing that?
DANA: I think being present in communities. Taking time to support our gay and lesbian centers and the people that come into the gay and lesbian centers. I volunteer at our gay and lesbian center because every time I go to the front desk there’s no Black person representing the gay and lesbian center. So if I were a youth and I were to walk in there, I’d make myself at home but I wouldn’t necessarily have access to someone that I could make a mentor. Not to say that I wouldn’t if they weren’t Black, but there’s a difference. I think we need to as Black queers be more involved in our youth activities and just be involved in the community. Not be afraid to push against the grain. There’s all sorts of cliqueness going on even within the gay community and the queer community. We have to not be afraid to address those things when they come up and keep building spaces for us to express ourselves even more and more.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Dana?
DANA: I’m really excited about this drag king thing. [Laughs.] I’m really, really excited. I have a natural knack for it. I enjoy expressing my masculine energy. I access both masculine and feminine energy in my daily activities. It’s nice to just express my boyish side. My natural style kind of blends the two and it’s nice to see where it goes in this drag king world. It’s been so well received. The next step is bringing those things to the screen. I would love to do independent film. I really want to help bring positive, affirmative images of queer Black people. I look forward to uplifting and celebrating our presence in film.