The Collective STL is a 501(c)3 non-profit donation-based Yoga and Wellness Space located in the heart of Old North St. Louis, Missouri. Since 2018, this space has provided mental wellness through culturally aware, trauma-informed programming for healing. To listen to the full interview with Dr. Terry Harris— yoga teacher, educator, story-teller, and co-founder of The Collective STL— tune in to Home Practice with Halle: Yoga Tools for Every Body on your favorite podcast platform. Follow The Collective STL on social media at @thecollectivestl and https://www.thecollectivestl.org/, or check out The Collective STL on Youtube.
Halle: Hi everyone. I am joined today by yoga teacher, educator, storyteller, and entrepreneur-- Dr. Terry Harris of The Collective, St. Louis. Terry, thank you so much for being here today. Tell us a little bit about your story, and how you found your way to your yoga practice.
Terry: Definitely! I’m a storyteller, so you’re probably gonna have to cut me off [laughs]. I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I graduated college, majored in history, and started working in education. Really fell in love with young people and the whole business of teaching, learning, and listening to kids, and understanding that they come with all these unique things that are beautiful to sit with. At the same time, you see that young people are extremely stressed out. You also see teachers who are extremely stressed out. Mine was an unfortunate way to come to yoga. My first student that I met through a summer program, the student who got me into education, died. And, with that level of stress, that feeling like ‘woah, this is not okay,’ someone introduced yoga to me. I went to a class at the Jewish Community Center. Ever since then I’ve just been playing with it and moving through different styles of yoga. And I thought, ‘How can I become a yoga teacher so I can introduce this practice to young people, and the schools in the St. Louis area?’ Eventually, it turned into ‘How do I introduce this practice to Black people in St. Louis?’ That’s how I got here. We started The Collective three years ago.
From left to right are the co-founders and leaders of The Collective STL team: Dr. Terry Harris, Ericka Harris, Andrea Cox, Alonzo Nelson Jr., and Melinda Oliver. Photo Credit Caintography.
H: The Collective is a 501(c)(3), so it is a non-profit, donation-based Yoga and Wellness space in St. Louis, and the only one like it in the state of Missouri. Can you share a little more about what went into the vision of creating this studio, and if there was ever a decision between it being a for-profit versus a non-for-profit entity?
T: Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Here’s what we were very clear about: St. Louis, like many other places, is very segregated. There are layers of segregation. On the North side of St. Louis, almost 90% of the people who live there are Black people. You also have this deep level of poverty. And so, we were intentional about making sure that those individuals had access to yoga, and we also knew that they couldn’t pay $25 for a class. When you really sit back and think about money. . . in North St. Louis there are very few grocery stores, and people are receiving food from gas stations. When you think about the fact that there’s no healthy eating options, and that the air is very polluted, and there’s condemned buildings. . . when you think about what poverty looks like, this is the area. And then you’re going to ask those individuals to pay $25 for a practice that they don’t know anything about? No.
So, deciding to be a nonprofit was the easiest part about the business model. We wanted to make sure it was donation based because we wanted to introduce people to their breath. We wanted to re-introduce people to their bodies. We wanted to create a space where people can rest, where they didn’t have to worry about anything. The model has worked. We’ve been around for three years. We try to write a lot of grants, we have organizations who donate money because they like what we’re doing, and our people who practice with us are making sure that we have the money that we need to pay bills.
H: Besides income not being an obstacle or a barrier to wellness, what else would you describe as the goal or the mission of The Collective?
T: The mission of The Collective is to bring Health and Wellness to the Black community in the city of St. Louis—period. What does that look like? The three legs of The Collective, the three pillars that hold us up, are Space, Community, and Yoga. When we go out and we talk about The Collective, we always tell people it’s a love story in the making. It’s a love story of self, it’s a love story of community, it’s a love story of city. It’s truly a love story that is set in Health and Wellbeing. Every time I think about it, I smile—it brings joy to my heart to say that The Collective is a love story, because I know that is it. Our people know that it is.
When we go out and talk to people about The Collective, they may say, ‘I don’t know how to do yoga. I’ve never tried yoga.’ All these things about yoga! But then we simply ask, “Do you like welcoming space, a warm space? A space that feels good?” ‘Oh yeah, I love that.’ “Do you like to be in relationship with people, in community with people, hang out with your friends, and have good conversation?” ‘Oh yeah.’ “And food? Do you like food?” ‘Oh yeah, I love that.’ “Cool, come to The Collective because we do those two things, and THEN yoga.” Intentionally, yoga is last. Because we are trying to target a group that may have certain thoughts about yoga, and so it eradicates all those fears, and centers what we know all human beings love and need: relationships. We concentrate on those first two legs of Space and Community, and then you can try Yoga.
The Collective STL shows off their recently completed Manduka customization project as part of an effort to bring long-lasting, high-quality yoga gear to their community.
H: Let’s talk about the role of food at the studio.
T: At the end of every single yoga class, we always have fresh fruit and fresh veggies. We partner with a local farm, and they donate this fresh food. We give this to our students at the end of class, and anyone can take what they need. It’s true community, and it’s amazing to watch everyone trying vegetables that even I’ve never heard of before. People cut it up, try it, and come back and share recipes. We are very intentional—there are so many layers to The Collective. You don’t have access to healthy food in the area that we are in. You just don’t. One of our trainees is a farmer, and the farm is right around the corner from the studio. He introduced us to the right person, and it was like, “Here you go! Come to the farm and help out.” So, there are some members of The Collective that help work the farm, and that was it.
H: You also incorporate restorative justice and circles as part of the healing space. Can you share a little bit more about what those practices are?
T: Yes. Restorative justice, at the very basic level, is about two things: it’s about building relationships and repairing harm when harm is done. What does that look like from a yoga standpoint? There have been many yoga classes that I attended, paid my money, and no one talked to me. Not even a front-desk person. Took my money, and I was left to find my spot. And then you’re left with these assumptions, “Am I not supposed to be here? Is this an all-female class? Is this class only for advanced people?” That’s not building relationships, and I’m starting my practice with some level of harm. What does that feel like in my movements, in my body?
There are times when we start class in a circle, pass a talking piece, and share our emotional weather report. We hear all the voices in the room. You really get to know people. We are intentional to make sure we are not perpetuating harm to the community that we are trying to make sure is healed. There are spaces and organizations that say they are healing organizations, but their whole model and interaction is very much hurtful. We don’t want to do that. The very first concept we teach is a concept called Ubuntu, which is an African philosophy that means “I am because you are. You are because I am.” This is the basic level of restorative justice, if you ask me. It means that we are the same, that we are connected. There is no stronger relationship than that philosophy.
The Collective STL is about Health and Well-being, but it is also a love story of self, a love story of community, and a love story of city.
H: Tell me about the role of storytelling in your teaching style.
T: Maya Angelou said that there is no greater agony than an untold story. Every single one of us walks into yoga class with a story. We can see through your movement the story coming out. I incorporate historical things, or a quote, or someone may tell me something that I’ll share. Or I have other people tell stories, maybe end class five minutes early and ask if anyone has anything to share. We tell stories because stories are important. We tell stories as a way to honor ancestors. We tell stories because stories are a way to honor the people in the room. Stories are a way to bring light to folks. Stories are a way to remember that people always existed. It’s the memory of who we are, and it carries forward to where we are going. And, stories are really easy to remember and hold on to.
Dr. Terry Harris is a yoga teacher, educator, story-teller, and a co-founder of The Collective STL.
H: You’re also an educator—you’re the Director of Student Services for your school district, which includes counselors, social workers, educational equity, student health, etc. How do you incorporate mindfulness techniques into your educational curriculum?
T: Thank you so much for asking that—I think I’ve been working on this for the last few years, drip-drip-drip, and now we are finally at a point where it’s part of the culture. Yesterday was Monday. In my school district, we have Mindful Mondays. Because of COVID we are doing online learning, and I wanted to be very intentional about making sure students are not sitting at a computer for 50 minutes, taking a three-minute break, and then going on Zoom again for 50 more minutes. How do we take this time to create a mindful space? So there’s options: kids can participate in an online yoga class. Teachers can participate in an online yoga class. You can participate in a journaling activity. You can participate in Introduction to Mindfulness. It’s a whole list of mindful activities . . . kids need to be able to breathe and focus on their breath. We have to intentionally teach kids how to cope. Because if we teach kids how to cope in a K-12 setting, those kids have coping mechanisms for the college setting, and the business world. And then they have a mechanism for when they have kids, and when they start their family. It’s a circle. It starts with us.
H: What is your vision for the wellness world in general?
T: I want to remind people that yoga is a social justice practice. I think sometimes we forget that. We cannot eradicate or erase that aspect from it. We have to be very intentional and stand up to the fact that people are being oppressed, that people are not doing well. What can we do, on and off the mat to, ensure that this practice is living its true principles? That’s my call to action.
Dr. Terry Harris leads a yoga class at The Collective STL.
Written by: Halle Miroglotta.