In the late 90s, a psychic told Nyota Nayo that her work would be centered around women. As a touring dancer for an Afro Brazilian and Egyptian Belly Dancing company, Nayo didn’t see how this prediction would unfold.
Now, 20 years later, a DONA trained doula, prenatal, hatha, vinyasa and Kemetic (Egyptian) certified yoga instructor, and a Brazilian Samba and Egyptian Belly Dance teacher, Nayo puts female empowerment at the base of all she does.
YogaCity NYC's Elysha Lenkin met with Nayo to hear how her path led to working with women.
Elysha Lenkin: How did you become interested in women’s wellness?
Nyota Nayo: I was always interested in women’s wellness because the dances that I do – belly dance and samba— all are womb dances. It’s women’s dance. And of course it’s different now, with show girls and all the theater—but the old style of the dance was core work. And I knew it helped women.
Also, my mother was an attorney, and some of her work involved domestic violence. She was a single mom, and she always made me know that as a woman you need to have your own focus, your own direction, and not to be afraid. I embodied that in everything I did – without even knowing it—in my dance and in yoga – the empowerment of women has always been at the core.
EL: How do you empower women in yoga?
NN: It’s about everything coming from the center-- from the womb, the empowerment. That’s what Sadie Nardini taught, when everything is strong in the core, everything is strong.
When I teach prenatal, I tell them – it all starts with you. How you’re going to birth this baby, and how you visualize this baby coming into the world. Also, I ask them to get clear on their purpose of the baby coming into the world. This really empowers them, especially the pregnant teens I teach.
EL: How were you first introduced to yoga?
NN: At age 9 through my mother who brought me to her yoga class. This was in the 70s and it was Hatha although they didn’t name it; they just called it yoga. I remember going to one of the classes, and the teacher gave me a mantra, a word of power. When I think back on it now, yoga gave me a lot of discipline and focus as a child.
EL: What was your first teaching job after getting certified at Integral Yoga Institute?
NN: When I first got certified, I taught as a volunteer in some shelters for the homeless, teenagers, and the gay and lesbian teenagers. I taught in places where it wasn’t accessible, and I told them it doesn’t matter what your past is; it matters where you are now, and what is possible for you now. The gay and lesbian teens said that (yoga) brought them a sense of peace and balance in their lives. And also a sense of acceptance— just of their own self and of their experience.
EL: Why did you volunteer?
NN: One of the things they said in our training, was it’s good to go out into the community and serve — so it was more about service for us as teachers. They told us to go to these places where they don’t have any mats, or blocks, and go teach the people so it can reach people that it otherwise wouldn’t reach.
Also, my mother got us out of the “ghetto” so I’ve lived in the community. I know the poverty. And I saw the need for yoga there. So I figured to give back, I’d go back to those places to teach.
EL: What’s the most important aspect of your teaching?
NN: As a teacher, I recognize that each person that comes before me has a path, and I am the servant to help them on their path--whatever that is, it may not even be yoga, but they’re in the class-- so as a servant I help them align with whatever they need to align with in their lives. Yoga is more than just doing the physical poses—it’s meditation, chanting, and breath work.
So my thing is to do what yoga was originally for—which is to connect with the divine. I tell my students that the basis of what they are doing – no matter what level they are at—is to make that union with the divine spirit. That’s the first and foremost. And that’s how I’m serving them – to bring them to that awareness.
EL: Can you tell me about your new role as The Women’s Wellness Director at Sweetwater Dance and Yoga?
NN: It’s for the new (non-profit) program at the center geared towards new moms (postpartum with babies up to a year) and pregnant women. Each week will be a different lecture or topic that will help them in their pregnancy and postpartum. One week I’ve got a lady coming in who will talk about herbs that can help them postpartum. One week we’ll do birth art so they can visually draw out how they’re feeling about their pregnancy. They’ll see a film on birthing. I’ll have someone come in to give a lecture on breastfeeding. There will be belly dancing where I can explain to them that this is a womb dance, and it represents how a woman gives birth. We’ll do yoga -- womb yoga-- with specific exercises to strengthen the womb, and to help them to relax. And we want to know what their concerns are so we’ll bring people in to help them with any concerns they may have.
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