It’s January, the time of year when news and social media feeds are crammed with ideas and proclamations about possibility— A New Year! A New You! All this talk of fresh starts and turning corners can be appealing when we feel stuck— in old habits, old thought patterns, old fears. But what do we lose when we try to leave the hard stuff behind without understanding what it all meant? At Tune Up Fitness, as we talked about kicking off 2021 with ideas about growth and opportunity, it felt like something was missing— we couldn’t talk about what’s next without honoring what happened before.
2020 was hard, and COVID-19 hit every corner of our global community. The loss is grueling to calculate on this scale because people said goodbye to so much— friends and family members they loved, jobs they needed, businesses they launched, schools they counted on for education and social engagement. How does it change us, individually and collectively, to live under constant threat of a potentially lethal virus? And with a vaccine and more treatment options on the horizon, what will it feel like to live with light at the end of the tunnel? Is “normal” possible? Is “normal” even the goal?
Contributor Suzanne Krowiak put these questions to an A-Team of experts to help us process what we’ve been through in 2020, and prepare for what’s next in 2021. Over the next two months, we’ll share conversations and insight with the best and brightest in brain science, respiratory function, movement health and adaptability, physical training and nutrition, entrepreneurship, and grief. They’ll share practical advice based on years of training and experience, giving us an exciting combination of big picture ideas and on-the-ground tips to make sense of it all and move forward with intention.
We’re kicking off week one with interviews with two dynamic women, Michelle Cassandra Johnson and Lashaun Dale. First up is Johnson, who helps us understand the importance of grief as a precursor to change, both individually and collectively.
Michelle Cassandra Johnson is an author, social justice activist, yoga teacher, and anti-racism trainer. Her first book, Skill in Action: Radicalizing Yoga to Create a Just World, explores how yoga practitioners and teachers can become agents of social change and justice. Her second book, Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief, will be released in July, and is a guide for being present for our grief while staying open hearted. Nobody escaped grief in 2020, including Johnson. Below is our conversation with her, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Suzanne Krowiak: Your second book, Finding Refuge: Heartwork for Healing Collective Grief, is coming out this summer, after a year that was full of grief for so many people. What was 2020 like for you?
Michelle Cassandra Johnson: I think it’s a year of grief for everyone, even if they don’t know it or aren’t able to connect with, talk about, or acknowledge it. I’ve been thinking about grief for a long time, but I’ve never experienced something like this pandemic where three thousand people are dying every day. I had an understanding of grief, particularly related to systemic oppression. And I was a therapist for 20 years, so I worked with people in their grief and response to trauma. But this year feels different because on a collective scale, we’ve never experienced anything like it, especially globally.
SK: I’ve heard you say before that we’re more than our body. And I wonder how you think about this year and what it’s meant for everyone to have to think so much about our bodies, and to live in fear of other people’s bodies during a global pandemic. Obviously, we live in a culture that’s pretty obsessed with the body anyway, but this feels different.
MCJ: I’m a yoga teacher and when I think about the body being more expansive, I think about the Bhagavad Gita story where the guide tells the warrior “You’re living a worldly life.” So I think about being a body in the world, connecting with other bodies and the natural world. The guide also says that we’re spiritual beings, aspiring to be something bigger. And I think about connecting to the larger self, which is how I think about the collective. You’re right, as a culture we are obsessed with the body, and that intersects with individualism and capitalism. We think about our individual bodies, not in relationship to other beings. And this lived experience some people have had of fearing for their lives because of COVID is a different orientation to their own bodies; their life could be taken away. But some of us, based on our identities, have been moving around the world, thinking and experiencing that all the time. So there’s an opportunity for us as a collective to think about what’s been happening to this collective body. What is our individual responsibility to one another and to the collective body? Fear is really constricting. The fear makes sense to me because people are dying, but what would happen if we actually remembered we’re part of a collective body?
SK: Yes, historically, whiteness alone often provided physical safety. With COVID, it’s a new experience for many white people—this fear of others in settings as common as the grocery store.
MCJ: Yes. In my work I talk about denial, and how dominant culture works overtime to make us forget and deny what’s happening. And COVID is like, “You actually can’t.” And white supremacy is like, “You can.” And the trans community is like, “Actually you need to pay attention.” So many alarm bells are going off, and I’ve never experienced a moment where they’re all going off at the same time in this intense way. I wish we didn’t have to learn this way. I wish people didn’t have to die for us to learn. But that’s been a theme throughout history. We forget, then something happens and we have to remember. Now there’s an opportunity for folks who have been less aware of how others move through the world. I’ve been moving through the world in a black body that’s visible. I’ve felt afraid before for my life because of my blackness, and how white folks and/or whiteness has treated me. So I think the opportunity is for people who’ve held more privilege or are more advantaged by the systems and institutions and dominant culture to remember that people are always walking around with this experience of being afraid. Not everyone and not all in the same way, but it’s not a new experience just because millions of people are feeling it now. It’s been present. The practice is to remember. What does it feel like to accidentally touch someone’s hand at a grocery store when we’re not supposed to be in connection? How does it feel when I want to tell someone to put on their mask, but I can’t because I’m afraid of how they’ll respond? What can we do to remember this experience so that we can show up in a different way in the world and for one another?
SK: What does that look like to remember this and use it moving forward?
MCJ: Well, my book really talks about the experience of collective grief and what happens when we don’t grieve. I think that culturally, at least in the US, we haven’t made space to grieve, and we haven’t made space to process trauma. We haven’t acknowledged racial trauma or the other traumas connected to systems. Some of us have, but I mean on a large scale. My belief is that part of the reason we’re here reckoning with this question of how we care for one another is because we haven’t actually acknowledged harm. We haven’t grieved. And we then perpetuate more trauma. On a large scale, it’s acknowledging the suffering that’s present— how we feel about it, how we’re perpetuating it, and what we need in response to it. And that includes making space to grieve instead of squashing our emotions and stuffing them down, which is what culture has taught me to do. I don’t know if we can heal if we don’t actually honor what we’ve lost. I don’t think we can.
SK: How do we make space to grieve?
MCJ: Historically, when we were part of tribes many of us engaged in ceremony and ritual. We grieved and celebrated in community, not in isolation. Things tried to disrupt that throughout history, over and over and over. We have the memory of what it’s like to be in community with one another, processing, feeling, grieving, holding, celebrating, birthing, dreaming. We have that knowledge on a cellular level. And I think we’re going to have to engage in those practices in community, less in isolation. That’s the tricky thing about now. People are having funerals over zoom, they’re dying alone instead of having their beloveds around them. I think people are doing the best they can right now, but when we’re able to connect, we need to be in ceremony with one another more.
SK: You talk and write a lot about the importance of ritual. Can you share some ways ritual has sustained you this last year?
MCJ: I’ve been a yoga practitioner for a long time, which was a main part of my practice and ritual. I’ve also been sitting in circles for a long time with people engaged in practice and ceremony and holding one another up. And about four years ago, I was making a huge transition. I was moving across the country, getting a divorce, and closing my clinical social work practice to work at an organization doing racial equity work. You know those stress tests where they have you check different boxes to see where your stress level is? Divorce, moving, career change— I was checking all the boxes. I was in crisis because I was experiencing so much loss. And while I had a practice and community, I needed something different in that moment. I started doing guided meditation. I prayed and wrote gratitude statements every day. I pulled cards, which wasn’t new, but I added it to a practice with different divination decks, and engaged other divination tools. I committed to engaging in ritual every morning to help me move through the moment. That continues, and it has really supported me. Although the rituals might shift, I do pray every day. I meditate. I usually pull a card and journal. I continue to write gratitude statements. I sit in front of my ancestor altar and ask for support. And that has deepened, particular now. What do I need to know from them at this time to move through? What wisdom can they offer? I live alone except for my dog, Jasper. I’m not seeing a lot of people physically, but I am meeting with some folks on Zoom to be in community and engage in ritual. Not for a meeting. But to ask “How are you? How’s your heart? What is needed right now?”
SK: What are some of the tough lessons we should remember most from this year?
MCJ: COVID has illuminated how we treat one another. And I’m thinking about the people who work in hospitals and clinics, or the people who don’t have an option to work from home like me. The essential workers that are directly helping people move through COVID, or transition and die because of COVID, which is not something I’m faced with everyday. I read the numbers, but I’m not actually in that space, or being overworked in that way without time to process trauma. How do we take care of them? And this is a quite different example, but this has illuminated how yoga teachers don’t have health insurance. Many yoga businesses are closing. I’m not trying to compare the trauma day-to-day, but I’m talking about what’s happening to people economically. Why don’t people have health insurance? Why don’t they have what they need? So I think that’s a lesson from this too. Making space to honor and process trauma, but also how do we want to take care of one another? There are some good examples throughout history of mutual aid and collective care.
SK: What might mutual aid and collective care look like today?
MCJ: There are folks who can’t get out and go to the grocery store, so getting groceries for them. There are folks who need mental health services because of what’s happening, so connecting them with mental health support. It means just checking on one another more. I could be in my home for days and not actually talk to another human. What does it actually mean to be checking on one another to make sure people have what they need to be okay? My mother is seventy-seven years old and would describe growing up in her community when everyone knew each other and parents talked to one another. If my mom did something at school, my grandmother knew about it before my mother got home. My Papa was a farmer. They were very poor but they have pigs and animals. They would process them and each part of the community would get something. We’ve moved so far away from that as a culture.
SK: Your new book, Finding Refuge: Heartwork for Healing Collective Grief, comes out in July. Can you tell me about it?
MCJ: It’s structured like the first book I wrote, Skill in Action, with different sections and practices after each section. Some of the practices are meditation, some are rituals, some are journaling, some may feel more like spells. So I’ve invited in a lot of different divination practices, all focused on grief. Each chapter is a different story of my experience of grief, and then it’s scaled to the collective. My mother almost died twice last year. That’s the first chapter. She moved through the healthcare system, and my heart was broken because of how she was treated. So what does this treatment mean for the collective? The invitation is for people to acknowledge the ways in which we haven’t grieved and to make more space for heartbreak and healing. It’s not an invitation to stay in heartbreak in a way that makes us stagnant, but to acknowledge that we’re not alone in our heartbreak. There’s actually something going on systemically that needs attention. The purpose is healing and collective care.
Understanding Grief Exercise
Michelle Cassandra Johnson dives deeper into the topic of collective grief with different guests every month on her podcast, Finding Refuge. If you don’t know where to start to understand your own grief after this difficult year, she recommends getting a journal and reflecting on the following questions:
- What grief are you holding in your heart at this time?
- How is what you are holding in your heart affecting your mind? Body? Heart? Spirit?
Naming what you’re grieving and identifying how it sits in your body can be the first step in your healing process.
Up next is Lashaun Dale, a consultant and pioneer in wellness and group fitness. Dale is a teacher, writer, mentor, and trend spotter who’s been at the highest corporate levels of content creation and marketing at companies like Equinox and 24 Hour Fitness. She works with businesses and brands to expand their reach and anticipate the next big things in consumer demand. As large gyms, small studios, and independent instructors reel from the fallout of the pandemic, she sees opportunities to transform businesses and careers. We talked with her about the things wellness professionals can do to recover and come out stronger in 2021. The conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Suzanne Krowiak: You have such a long, accomplished history in the fitness business. What’s it been like to watch gyms and studios of all scope and sizes weather COVID-19?
Lashaun Dale: The interesting thing about the moment is yes, our particular execution of health and fitness has been disrupted. We were obviously delivering face-to-face, in gyms and studios, and that shut down for most people. But at the same time, the entire universe opened up to offer our services to the world. That shifted very quickly. At that moment in March, we were literally asked to step up and broadcast whatever we had to offer to anyone that’s available and ready to listen. Not everybody did because there’s a learning gap there, but the opportunity to go direct-to-consumer and reach more people became available. At the same time, health became the number one consideration for everyone. The need for stress management, pain management, and health and wellness really went up. The demand for what we offer exploded in every setting. Not just in gyms and studios, but for the home, workplace, hospitals, churches— everyone is interested in what we can do to help people feel and live better in their bodies. So it’s a weird moment. We’re in this strife, but at the same time, the expansion of opportunities and channels available to us burst wide open.
SK: What were some of the biggest learning gaps for wellness professionals during that transition?
LD: In a big way, it’s about mindset. It’s one thing to go into a classroom and offer your services. That’s a particular skill set that takes courage, and a lifetime of learning and practice. And it can be hard to translate that through another medium because we have these ideas in our head about what we should look like and what the production quality should be. “I hate the sound of my voice” or “My background looks terrible.” We think we have to look like a news broadcast or the old fitness videos we used to watch. There’s a skill set for sure in terms of being able to translate your content through a phone to someone else’s device, but the expectations around it and the production quality didn’t matter in March. It was like, just show up, deliver, and be yourself. Don’t try to model yourself after some other personality. So I think there’s a big psychology gap because we think we don’t know how to do it, but it just means we have to figure it out. Whatever you don’t know how to do, it’s next on your to-do list. Don’t know how to connect your device? You can figure it out with Google. Don’t have the right equipment? You can order that from Best Buy or Amazon. And there isn’t a lot of equipment that you need. Just be willing to learn what you don’t know, just like when you became an instructor. If you need to tighten up your cueing so it translates better across a device, then that’s something you practice. You teach and then reteach, just like you would in a classroom setting. Virtual studio setup and marketing are things that are learnable. You’ve already done the hard work to be able to teach someone how to get out of pain in their body. That’s much more challenging than figuring out how to broadcast from New York to California.
SK: That makes sense, but at the same time, some small studio owners report getting client feedback wondering why they don’t have fancy virtual backdrops like Peloton or SoulCycle. It can feel like a lost cause to compete with that level of corporate money.
LD: We can’t compete with that. And we shouldn’t because there are already people in the marketplace doing that. And that’s awesome, but look at what they’re offering. They’re speaking to the mainstream, but we have the ability to help people solve a specific problem. People came to your class for a reason and that’s what you need to give to them, just like you would in a classroom setting. Show up and teach something of value and it will connect with exactly who needs to hear it. So, yes, be mindful about your background and do whatever you can, but don’t let that be a reason not to start. Just do it, and then look at it and evaluate it. Share it with someone you trust. “What would you change about this? Am I getting my points across? How can I do it better?” Don’t use it as a reason not to engage because that’s what a lot of people did. They were too afraid because it wasn’t perfect and didn’t compete with Peloton or Apple or SoulCycle. So they didn’t step into the market and now they’re suffering. Ten months later, they could have been a lot further along in the process.
SK: When this is all over, will gyms and studios that were used to high volume, in person classes need to keep offering the robust online content they had to create to survive the pandemic?
LD: Totally. We were moving in this direction anyway. The digital transformation was already underway, and this just accelerated it. Instead of having another eighteen months to get into position, you need to be able to broadcast tomorrow. The consumer wants access to what they want, when they want it, where they’re at, and whatever mood they’re in, no matter what. And that’s not going to go away. But it is going to become more of a hybrid, which is good news for us. We get to deliver what we offer through different mediums. And maybe it’s not video that you should do. Maybe your content is a blog, plus pictures. There are many ways to do it, and you get to be creative. Look at best practices, then figure out the best way to deliver your particular genius in the classroom. You don’t have to follow someone else’s model. You will have built the hybrid, and it will make your in-person experiences a premium. People are already craving to get together. They want contact and touch. Everyone’s lonely. So the moment that’s possible, there will be a swell of demand and we need to be ready to onboard them in a way that gets them closer to their goal. Take care of them now, so that when they do come back into class it’s not like starting over. Give them programs along the way so they don’t lose all of the work you did with them before.
SK: You have a reputation for spotting trends very early. What do you think gyms and studios should be prepared for on the other side of this that they may not be thinking about right now, since so many are in survival mode?
LD: I think this moment has finally cemented the fact that regenerative practices like meditation, rolling, self-massage, breath work, postural work, pain management, self care— all of that stuff we used to call soft medicine— it’s not considered soft anymore. I can’t imagine any club coming back into the fold and putting that stuff in the periphery again. If you think of the programming mix at any club, even a yoga studio, it was 70% hardcore— conditioning, cardio, kickboxing. Maybe there was 5- 10% on the schedule for restorative practices. Even in a yoga studio, if you look at the schedule it would be something like 70% vinyasa and 30% restorative practice. It took years to get conscious movement into the mainstream conversation, but it’s here now. I can’t imagine it’s going away. And that’s good news. So, understanding that humans want to be fascinated by novel things, how do we package it in a way that’s new and different, even if we’ve been teaching it for 15 years? How do we language it in a way that makes it seem fresh all the time, and keeps people— including the gyms and the media— intrigued? The second thing is energy practices. They’re stepping straight into the mainstream, and that’s been a long time coming. So you want to think about energy medicine and energy psychology. Things like EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) tapping, breath work, and other esoteric techniques that we don’t necessarily teach in the studio every day but are building, and the mainstream is ready for those practices to become more viable. So I think that’s a big opportunity.
SK: What impact do you think all of this will have on price models? Will clients expect to pay less for memberships if it’s a digital experience?
LD: I think it’s going to be interesting because it flipped a little bit. For a while the actual live fitness experience had become a commodity. And then when it went away during COVID, it flipped. It’s almost like digital access made it a commodity. So I think it’s too early to tell. Obviously some big players just stepped in and challenged the marketplace, specifically Apple at $9.99 per month, and I haven’t seen how the market will adapt to that yet. I think January is going to be a big way for us to know. But I think the biggest opportunity is bundling. How can you bundle what you offer? If you’re going to offer a digital service, how could you add value with a distinctive offering that’s not really happening in the market? I think that’s really exciting. And think about who you can collaborate with. Don’t limit it to traditional fitness players, because there isn’t a company, no matter how big or small, or a church or local community college that doesn’t need a wellness solution. So open your mind and think of where you can plug your work in. Because everyone’s looking for a solution, and it’s typically outside of the fitness industry where they’ve got dollars to pay.
SK: So, even if they’re not studio owners, do you recommend individual instructors reach out to these kinds of local businesses and organizations to start a conversation about bringing their service there?
LD: Yes. Because the talent is the value, the talent is where the gold is. You are the solution, whether it’s a gym or whatever, it’s about the talent. What do you have to bring? If you’re already with a brand, courtesy and etiquette is to reach out to them first. “I have this idea, are you guys open to it?” And maybe don’t give your full idea, but find out what the opportunities are. Go where you are first and try to take care of the people that take care of you. That’s just good human practices. But the more you get your work out there the more name recognition you’ll have, and that’s going to add value to where you teach. And this does bring us to the concept that we all need to think about— how we are defining ourselves? What is our brand, and how are we showing up in the online space? Because you do need a digital footprint. Whether it’s just your social sites or a website, people need a way to find you, and once they do, you need to offer them something. Whether it’s signing up for a newsletter buying a product. Give them something to do.
SK: Do you think people need traditional websites anymore?
LD: I do think you need some sort of landing solution. There are so many options. If you don’t want your own website, you could have a medium blog. But it’s important for people to be able to find you. I personally think it’s more secure to have a website and build your own newsletter and mailing list than to rely on social sites because they change so much.
SK: If someone’s been piecemealing things together in 2020, just trying to white knuckle it through the pandemic, what is the first thing you recommend they do in January to start the year off on a different path?
LD: It’s important that we don’t wait. We were all kind of waiting and watching, thinking that Superman’s coming to the rescue. That’s not our role in the world. Our role is to be part of the solution. There’s always something you can do today that can make you stronger, or help somebody else be in a stronger, better position. So stop waiting is step number one. And step number two is to realize we’re not alone. It’s an American trait to think that we have to solve everything. But actually, the more we speak with others, the more we understand that there’s another person across the street that’s having the same struggle, and there’s another one in that city over there. As we come together, we can create a different solution so that we don’t have to solve each thing by ourselves. The more we talk about these issues, the more we talk about our struggles, the more we share our vulnerabilities, the more solutions we’ll have to get past it. Come together with like-minded individuals who have the same problem. Or maybe there are others that have a problem you have a solution for. Create a virtual community now, because there is an answer for everything. And things will continue to change. This might resolve, then something new might come. People go through these struggles on an individual level every day across the world and we’re just now seeing it as a collective. Come together and then get busy. There’s something you can do and you need to be open-minded. It might not be the thing that you thought it would look like, but just start.
The 4×4 Exercise
Grab a journal, and write down these three questions:
- Name three things you wanted that didn’t happen in 2020.
- Name three things you didn’t want that did happen in 2020.
- Name three things that were unexpected in 2020, but you’re glad they happened.
Once you’ve answered all three questions, ask yourself these follow up questions for each one:
- What did you learn?
Mine for the transitional lesson or evaluate how you are different as a result.
- What can you teach others as a result of this?
Create something with this knowledge; a sequence, workshop, meditation, or short talk.
- What is the message or takeaway in a nutshell?
Write a headline, and put something out into the world; a post, podcast, or video.
- Who can you serve or engage with this new message?
Spend five minutes each day on outreach or engagement with no ask or expectation or request in return.
This will deliver twelve possibilities to put out into the world.
Do all of them or pick a few and build on that.
Next week in our series COVID Changed Our Collective Brains, Hearts, and Businesses. Now What?, we’ll talk brain and breath. How has a year of living in the spectre of COVID-19 affected our brain function and respiratory health?
Brain health coach and cognitive fitness trainer Ryan Glatt of the Pacific Neuroscience Center says our brain adapts to its environment, and not always in a good way. “We might call it a COVID concussion,” says Glatt. “There’s not a physical striking of the head, but our brain activity has been modulated suboptimally by our environment, not too dissimilar from how a concussion might work. Because of that, we have to rehabilitate. And how do we rehabilitate? We make a plan.”
And Dr. Belisa Vranich, psychologist and author of Breathing For Warriors, says our misunderstanding of the keys to respiratory health made us more vulnerable to the coronavirus. “The pandemic hit us harder because our breathing was so dysfunctional,” says Vranich. “I know that’s a really serious thing to say, but most of the breathing mechanics we have are bad. We’re not using our diaphragm, we’re not ventilating our lungs efficiently. If we get a virus it’s going to be worse, because we were dysfunctional breathers to start with.”
Glatt and Vranich will share advice on taking better care of our brains and breathing muscles in 2021. Subscribe to our email list to get the article delivered to your inbox first.