By Julianna Rennie
Pierce Freelon, a candidate in the Durham mayoral race, stepped inside the converted warehouse, slipped off his sneakers and unrolled his yoga mat.
The Freelon supporters greeted each other and sipped on caffeine-free vegan chai tea. The only indication that the event was a fundraiser for a political campaign was the “$10-20 recommended donation” sign propped beside the sign-in sheet.
When asked about the unconventional nature of the fundraiser, Freelon said, “This felt appropriate to me for a campaign event, because this is what Durham looks and smells and feels like.”
At 6:30 p.m., everyone shuffled back to their mats, which were arranged in a circle. In the middle of the circle, a collection of stones and bronze statues rested on top of a red tapestry decorated with an oriental design. Nina Be, one of four yoga instructors who led the class, explained that the spiritual objects “elevate the energy to support the practice.”
Carson Efird, a yoga instructor and orchestrator of the fundraiser, squatted beside the red tapestry as she introduced Freelon and described the fortuitous evolution of the night’s event, which only formally took shape when Efird struck up a conversation with Freelon at Dashi, a local ramen restaurant.
Although Efird recently felt “disenchanted” with local politics, she was following Freelon’s campaign closely and was excited to partner with him for this event. “That he sits at the noodle shop and listens to what this yoga teacher is saying to him and then actually manifests that into reality is incredibly validating,” she said.
Efird’s resolution to “bring the yoga community to [Freelon]” gained a magical quality when she realized the significance of the date, September 21. “Global Mala, UN International Peace Day, and fall equinox all fell tonight on the first day of early voting,” she said. “What synergy!”
“There couldn’t be a more potent time for us to be here,” she said to the class, eliciting whoops and animal calls from the enthused Durhamites perched on their yoga mats.
Then, Freelon took the floor. He shared a story about one Friday night when students involved with his black youth empowerment organization, Blackspace, spotted a lunar rainbow after they welcomed a homeless man into their creative exercise.
When Freelon returned to his mat, yoga instructor Patrice Graham stepped into the circle to lead the class in the sun salutation ritual. She demonstrated the movement, bowing, lowering her body totally flat on the ground and finally returning to a standing position with her hands together in front of her heart. Participants led by alternating instructors repeated the motion 54 times, in alignment with the traditional Global Mala practice.
Throughout the session, people were encouraged to look out at and connect with other people in the circle. Joshua Vincent, Freelon’s campaign manager, observed that the event was attended by “people from all walks of life, ranges of age, race, religion, sexuality.” He continued, “Every event that we’ve done has been the same way, just this cross-section of identities.”
Kerrington Jackson led the second section of sun salutations. During her instruction, she read “Rise Up,” a poem authored by 15-year-old Royce Mann, who advocated against modern racial injustices. Jackson told the class that she is excited about Freelon’s campaign and his ability to affect real change in Durham. “When I started researching him, my heart just rose up in my chest because he’s the person we’ve been waiting for,” she said.
Efird initiated the third section of repetitions, during which participants broke out singing along to Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.”
Be oversaw the final section. An older woman with short bleach blonde hair and tattoos on her arms and neck, Be supports the increasing politicization of yoga. A lifelong civil rights activist, she is also passionate about African-American political representation. “I think right now this country needs to be run by black folks for the next couple hundred years,” she said. “It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but that’s what I believe in my heart.”