The Philly Boricua providing free yoga to Latino communities
Amy Perez is a yoga teacher who makes yoga accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, and promotes the importance of health and wellness to communities of color.
When Amy Perez was a college undergrad, she went through a difficult and challenging period of time.
“There were a lot of personal things that were going on in my life, like family issues,” she said.
It was during that time that she found an elective yoga course, which she called “very therapeutic” for her as she looked for ways to cope with her emotions.
Fast forward several years later, and Perez endured a personal loss, during which she realized that the grieving process “was just not happening for me.”
“I’m very like, ‘on the go, keep working no matter what’ kind of person,” she added. “I never gave myself the opportunity to grieve.”
Tucking away her emotions started making Perez feel as if life had no purpose.
As someone who has always been very active and into fitness, Perez had gotten into doing jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts. However, while the striking and grappling mechanics of the sports served its purpose physically, she felt there was something missing.
After a friend’s recommendation to attend her yoga studio for a session, Perez felt almost a revelation.
“I go and the first day I’m there and my body is moving in these poses, I was like, ‘what is stirring up inside of me?,” she remembered.
A wave of emotion hit Perez, as she slowly started to find what had been missing.
The studio manager later asked Perez to join a teacher training, and even though at the time she had transitioned from yoga to striking, she decided to give it a try.
During the nearly seven-month training, Perez saw how yoga could have a positive impact on not only the body, but also the mind.
The experience at the teacher training catapulted Perez into her current career as a yoga instructor in four different organizations in Philadelphia and New York.
Perez started teaching yoga just before graduating from teacher training, initially to athletes and individuals in recovery or those who have lost someone in recovery.
Afterwards, she started teaching at Grace & Glory Yoga in Fishtown.
Perez’s yoga teachings are based on the Baptiste method, which focuses on asana poses, meditation and self-inquiries.
“The way that I teach, it’s really coming from my authentic self,” said Perez.
“There’s no script. There’s no right or wrong. I just walk in… and meet people where they’re at,” she added.
In addition to how much yoga has helped her personally, Perez’s entry into teaching it was also spurred by the 17 years she spent working in the Philadelphia School District as an English and alternative education teacher.
During her time at the District, Perez worked with students who were a couple years behind in high school credits, some who were teenage parents, and others who came from juvenile court or probation.
“All of that work that I did as an academic teacher, I felt what was missing was the social, emotional aspect,” Perez explained.
Therefore, every time she teaches, Perez said, she always thinks about the teens she’s come in contact with throughout the years.
Upon doing some research, Perez found Roots2Rise, a local nonprofit that offers classes that make yoga and meditation accessible to all.
“When I found that organization, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is where I need to be,’” she said.
Whereas some yoga studios charge about $150 a month, Roots2Rise is free and donation-based, aiming to make yoga more available to people of all ages, abilities and income levels.
“We’re like an open door policy, anyone and everyone can be a part of it,” said Perez, adding that she also teaches at the NYC Yoga Project, which offers the same services in the Sunset Park community in Brooklyn, during the weekends.
This policy is especially important in reaching Black and Brown communities, where mental health and wellness are often not openly discussed or easily accessible.
“When it comes to going to counseling, therapy, all that mental health stuff, there’s a stigma around it,” Perez said.
Based on her own experience growing up in a Puerto Rican household in Northeast Philadelphia, when she had a problem, the conversation would not be to talk to a therapist, but often the idea was simply, “You’ll be fine.”
Perez’s yoga teachings aim to help change that mindset and make people who grew up in a similar environment feel that seeking help is not a bad thing.
“When it comes to the work that I do, all of that [stigma] is removed. It’s actually rewiring a lot of that thought process,” she added. “That’s what yoga is about.”
Beyond the physical component, Perez really tries to hammer in the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of yoga in shaping a person’s overall health and wellness.
“My community needs this,” she said, noting the self-inquiries that allow her students to develop their inner, personal awareness.
Like so many others, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way Perez works.
Since the shutdown, Perez has been conducting her yoga teachings through social media and zoom.
“It was definitely a new way of teaching because in a space when you have physical bodies in front of you, I’m able to assist people and adjust them,” she said. “I’m able to literally see them and feel their energy.”
The quarantine has made teaching much different. However, while this new way of teaching has been challenging to adjust to, Perez has found a silver lining to the situation -- it’s allowed her to reach a larger radius of people.
Virtual teaching has helped Perez reach people of all ages, from all corners of the country - and even internationally - to share in the practice of yoga.
“It’s such an amazing platform to really expand out and get this practice as a tool out there right now,” said Perez.
During a pandemic, Perez said, it’s more important than ever to connect with others because of the slew of uncertainties that exist, the amount of loss, as well as the day-to-day attachments that are no longer afforded during this time.
“There’s still a community that you can create and there’s still a connection that we can create behind four walls,” said Perez.
“Isolation becomes a trigger for people… so creating a community, be it a virtual phone call, whatever it is… to talk about those things in a safe space is step one,” she added.
Health and wellness is, in large part, enhancing by communicating and having a community of people who can provide guidance or support.
When asked what her journey as a yoga instructor has taught her, Perez said that it’s changed her perspective on things and fortified the idea that everyone is essentially the same, but just with different experiences.
“I teach from that space,” she said. “It just created something different for me… I’m here to service, to really just help guide and lead people to really finding their powerful selves.”
“And that’s without me doing anything. It’s all their work, but just me there as a listener and as a soundboard,” she added.