Nomzamo Mji was one of the few black women advocates and was making a name for herself in South Africa’s legal fraternity. Her sister, Nosizwe Mji, was in New York City pursuing a career in fashion.Yet, in their drive and focus, the Mji sisters realised that they were neglecting their inner-selves. They took up yoga, and the practice soon became central to their lives, and they wanted to share it with other women. Together, they founded The Toolbox, a yoga studio in Durban that empowers women and communities on and off the mat. The Thread spoke to Nomzamo Mji about how she found balance in her life.
What made you take the risk by leaving a promising career in the legal profession to make the move into yoga – was there a specific moment that galvanised you into action or was it more of a leap of faith and yearning for something more?
Yoga wasn’t actually in the plans when I left my career as an advocate. I was writing a novel with my grandmother that I wanted to complete. I had been yearning for a sense of balance. I felt as if I was only developing the career aspect of my life and the other aspects were screaming for my attention. I fractured my ankle and that time of inaction gave me the space to think through my exit strategy. It had always seemed overwhelming till I mapped it out.
What was it about the practice of yoga that attracted you primarily?
I’ve always had a strong inner critic and been a bit of a perfectionist. Brene Brown’s definition of perfectionism has always resonated with me: performance, pleasing and proving. It was important to do and be the ‘right’ thing. The practice of yoga gave me refuge from that mindset and license to operate outside of the simplistic binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I learnt a language of self – acceptance, trust and built a new vocabulary. Yoga expanded my idea of what is possible within my body, my mind and the world. It has been a powerful tool for my personal transformation.
Our lives often trigger a flight or fight response. Yoga is a process of discovering another option.
What does it mean to you to live a balanced life?
Hmm, this is a tough one. There are so many ways for me to answer this. I’m not going to choose.
One: It means honouring all the different facets of my being. Knowing that my mind needs a functioning, healthy body and when these two are in alignment, it serves my spirit. It means not privileging one facet more than the other. My mental health is just as important as my physical which is just as critical as my spiritual health. When I respect the connection, I keep balance within sight. Sometimes that’s the best you can do. Keep balance within your line of vision, a goal to keep reaching for.
Two: A big part of balance for me has been about making peace with the duality of existence. Sometimes I am off and other times I am on. I think we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves when we expect ourselves to be the same all the time. I take great guidance from the moon on this one. She is always magical but goes through different phases. As women, we are not designed to be the same all the time. We should take guidance from our internal moon cycles on this. Take it easy during the luteal phase so that you can bust out during ovulation. A big part of balance is finding fluidity and flow amidst the changes.
Three: In my yoga teacher training my teacher referred to the spiritual journey as a pendulum. Sometimes you swing on the one side where you are sticking to all your rituals: meditating daily, eating the greens and journalling and then you swing to the other side where you don’t do anything that is good for you. As you come into balance, the gap between these extremes gets shorter and shorter. Balance is about the gradual process of operating more in the centre instead of in extreme modes.
What is your favourite aspect of yoga and why?
I have two favourite aspects.
One: It keeps teaching me how to work with what I got. It’s a way for me to grapple with what it means to live holistically and how to fulfil my human potential. It’s a manual for self – mastery.
Two: The physical and mental kick. I find the philosophy and the values very useful. As someone who likes to understand why, yogic philosophy offers considered thought around how to live a healthy life and elevate one’s existence. Yoga gives me a framework to wrestle with these questions while optimising my physical wellbeing. It’s a winning combo for me.
We wanted to create a space where people can easily connect with tools for wellbeing.
Practicing yoga still feels very alien or isolating to women of colour—how did you introduce yoga to women of colour?
There is nothing inherent in the technology of yoga that is alienating. I think that the dominant, mainstream packaging of yoga is what is alienating. This packaging is disconnected from the historical roots of yoga. It also confuses what the real work of yoga is about.Yoga is represented as the preserve of the skinny, super flexible, ever joyful, kale munching white woman.
Online, people are seen practicing yoga in idyllic settings with no apparent care in the world. In real life, yoga is sometimes offered in spaces where black women don’t feel comfortable or welcome. They feel disconnected from the community they practice amongst.
This is what spurred my sister and I to open The Toolbox, our own yoga studio. We wanted to create a space where people can easily connect with tools for wellbeing. It is important to us for women of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels feel welcome. We are constantly hearing stories of people’s yoga traumas – either going to a class where no one explained anything, where they couldn’t keep up or where they were pushed beyond what was safe for their bodies.
It is therefore critical to us to hold space in a way that feels warm and connected. We respect the courage it takes to show up on your mat and we aim to honour this act of courage by making the space as inclusive as possible. Our community at The Toolbox is diverse. Yoga is for everybody and it’s important for everyone to do the work of personal transformation if we are to see societal transformation.
We are gradually seeing more men and women of colour try out yoga. We think that it helps black people to see other black people flying the wellness flag. Some of our students felt safe enough to try because we are also black. Introducing yoga to the black community is an ongoing process of education. We have to counter the idea that yoga can’t be practiced by Christians.
We hope that as we continue, we will widen the pool of women of colour getting on their mats. Black women bear a disproportionate health burden and yoga offers tools to alleviate the sickness and restore balance.
Practicing yoga is about finding balance — physically, emotionally and spiritually — but how do we translate that to our everyday lives?
We don’t practice yoga to get better at yoga, we practice yoga to get better at life. This is the magic of a yoga practice. It doesn’t have to be confined to your mat. Once you learn the gift of awareness, you can translate this to all areas of your life.
We are in constant communication : sending and receiving signals from all the different operating centres throughout the body. We have the capability to process a lot of information at one time. When you have the awareness to tune in to a given moment – you can become present to what you feel in your body, what you feel in your heart and what you feel in your soul. This awareness can give you the guidance to know what to do in a given situation. You learn to harness the power of body, mind and soul to act with conscious intention.
Meditation is a practical tool to use in everyday life to keep fine tuning and developing the awareness.
A large part of yoga is also just about maintaining composure, or holding the pose. What can this aspect of yoga teach us about life beyond the yoga mat?
“You don’t only have the options of fight or flight. You can also stay, breathe and see what comes up,” is what my sister and co-founder Nosizwe Mji says.
Our lives often trigger a flight or fight response. We either want to flee from a difficult situation or stay and fight. Yoga is a process of discovering another option. Sometimes the wisest and most courageous thing you can do in a situation is to be fully present to it, without reacting or checking out. As we stay present to what comes up, we are more equipped to choose a reaction. We learn to act from choice rather than compulsion.
As we find stillness and composure, we can also become present to the impermanence of the emotions and factors that trigger us.
Do you think there is a trend towards people, especially women, trying to find more balance and wellness in their lives? More specifically, do you think we are witnessing a trend or more of a revolution where women are trying to define their own rules and boundaries –in their work environments; in their personal relationships and in their overall physical wellness?
Overall, I think the global health situation is making people reconsider what health means and who the best health care providers are. With the rise of chronic conditions such as cancer and lifestyle conditions such as diabetes, we are being forced to confront what is making us sick. We are being forced to grapple with the limitations of Western medicine. Illness is the biggest catalyst for the search towards balance and wellness.
I think that there are definitely trends that point towards women defining their own rules and boundaries. I recently read an article about the trends in Wellness Tourism. Wellness Tourism is one of the fastest growing segments in the Wellness economy today and women are the primary consumers in this category. This is in part because of a change in women’s spending power. We are also seeing more examples of ways of being a woman. More of our role models are queer and more of them make livelihoods from options that didn’t exist a decade ago.
At the same time, the global economic and political climate is seeing a clampdown on societal freedoms and a rise in right wing politics. With neo – liberalism, there is the feminisation of poverty and decreasing job security. These factors contribute to the unrelenting figures of gender -based violence and point away from a wellness revolution.
The momentum, the need and the impetus is there for a more wide reaching revolution. As we connect inwards, we find the tools to connect outwards. We need to keep our eyes on the personal work to balance ourselves out as well as the societal work to balance the broader scales. This is how we will witness the large scale healing revolution we all desperately crave.