Over the past two years, I’ve been attending on average two yoga classes per week across the D.M.V. area. Initially I started practicing because I wanted to balance strength training with mobility to increase my form and lift heavier weights, then my practice transitioned from focusing on the physical benefits to digging deep into the spiritual ones.
I started working for a fitness apparel company, and part of my job involved sweating at a local studio at least once a week. I met talented coaches and teachers, visited yoga studios in the area, and was able to connect with people like me—people who practice mindfulness and self-care on a consistent basis, while also blasting Kendrick, Mos Def and Prince during a vinyasa flow.
I created a habit to continue to dig deeper into who I am by showing up on my mat when times were hard, when I felt trapped within my own mind, when I was trying to find my identity. Yoga has been the gateway to psychoanalyze myself and unlock personal barriers from within, which has helped me to live life unapologetically.
There’s one class that I regularly attend each week at Yoga Works in Pikesville, a suburb in Baltimore County. This studio is convenient, the staff feels like family, and I get to learn from some of the best (and hilarious) instructors in the area.
Keith starts each class by welcoming everyone:
Keith: Who has never taken a yoga class before?
New student: *raises hand*
Keith: What’s your name?
Keith: everyone say HI [name]. Why’d you come tonight?
NS: To relax!
Rest of class: laughs (not at, but with her).
Keith: laughs along…you’re in for a treat. you’ll LOVE savasana
Keith usually asks a new student which pose they’d like to start class with, and whatever they end up saying goes. He’s welcoming and all-encompassing each and every time.
It never ceases to amaze me that he’s able to compose on the fly, and is able to be attentive to each student whether they’ve taken his class 100 times or if it’s their first one. Intrigued by his style of teaching, and curious about how he’s able to cap out a class each and every week, I sat down with him recently to learn more about this remarkable human.
Keith attended one of the best private schools in Maryland, and if you’ve never spent time in Baltimore, there’s a common question that people ask when you first meet them. “What school did you go to?” Nine times out of ten, they’re referring to the high school you attended, not college, and depending on where you went, you may or may not have a follow up lunch date.
Because of this stigma, being in Baltimore may feel very niche-y, and sometimes not inclusive, but in his class everyone feels part of one family. There are former classmates of his, teachers and other mutual friends that attend his class, and although I didn’t attend his school nor know his teachers, I still manage be able to relate to his occasional tangents about life raised as a private school Baltimorean.
Initially, I thought he had been teaching for years, especially at this studio, because of how packed it was when I first attended his class last summer. In fact, Keith’s first class was in 2014.
Keith first heard of yoga from his mother’s books and pictures of people doing poses in the 70s. At this time, he was about 10 years old, doing what 10 year olds do—run around and be active. Nothing about reading these books or practicing a pose sounded appealing to him. Holding a tree pose wasn’t adventurous, nor was it fun, so he didn’t take the poses and essence of yoga seriously. As he got older, he continued to be active, mainly playing basketball, and pursued his passion of becoming a musician.
Life as a bass guitarist involved traveling the world, composing songs and absorbing himself in this industry based out of New York City. While balancing life on tour and still being active on the courts, he suffered from a back injury and with the help of a friend, he was reintroduced to yoga by way of DVDs. In the midst of traveling and playing hundreds of gigs a year, he’d bring his mat along with these videos and would practice in his hotel room.
While residing in Jersey City in his newly purchased condo during his last world tour in 2004, Keith learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He would spend a lot of time traveling back and forth between NYC, Jersey and Baltimore and as the months of traveling back and forth set in, he began questioning why he was even in New York.
“Why did I leave her in the first place when my home is here? My heart is here in Baltimore.”
Each time he’d travel home, he was able to be close to her, and see that she still continued her practice of gentle yoga after her chemotherapy sessions.
“I have a journal from that time. It’s amazing how much we talked about yoga. I’m amazed that we talked about it at all. All I remember was her saying ‘my teacher always says, when you do warrior pose, make it a fierce warrior.’ So that always stuck with me. But then, I look in the journal and I’m like… okay today we talked about shavasana, oh she can do eagle legs…I can’t even do eagle legs!”
Having these type of conversations with her was a big part of his life, something he looked forward to every time he came to Baltimore. Although he remembered that he practiced a lot, he didn’t realize how much this was part of his life, during the most turbulent moments. This practice became a habit, something that he was consciously aware he was doing, but unaware of the impact it had for him as a form of healing.
“The night she died, I went to bed at 10 o’clock, just exhausted. [Since] she had cancer, we saw the end coming but I didn’t really sleep that much in those last 24 hours. I passed the fuck out at 10 o’clock. I woke up at 4:30am, and according to my journal, I did yoga.”
Attempting to return to life as normal in NYC and Jersey, Keith continued to play music, but it wasn’t the same. He accepted music gigs mainly because they paid the bills, but eventually lost interest in performing songs that weren’t resonating with him in the way that it used to.
During the two-year span of finding out his mom had been diagnosed with cancer and up until the day she passed, Keith’s yoga practice became stronger. “I remember daydreaming about wanting to be a yoga teacher but I had no idea how to go about doing that and getting out of what I was currently doing as a musician. I mean, I had a mortgage to pay and everything else to deal with.”
His life got more complicated, in some ways as a direct result of the grief process, and it was hard for him to stop being the person that he was headed on the path to be.
“I didn’t know how to get out of this reputation of being an artist. Without being aware of it I was on autopilot. My head was there [in being a musician], but my heart wasn’t into it anymore, and eventually I ran out of gas. ”
Keith had lost his freedom to compose and write songs the way he wanted, and ultimately, as part of the process of getting out of the grieving stage, he left New York for Florida to move closer to his girlfriend at the time. Moving there to be with her became a way to change his life, yet when he moved he had no direction or plan.
“I had given up the identity as a New York musician, but I was still feeling like a musician and still living an unhealthy lifestyle in Florida. Drugs, alcohol, partying, et cetera.”
It wasn’t until he left Florida that he made a conscientious decision to zero out any connections to “Keith the musician.”
“I abandoned the concept of working towards being a successful musician, and just opened my mind and my heart to what speaks to me right now in this moment. Once I was able to disconnect from the attachment to being a musician, it was easier to just float, rise and start swimming into the person that I am today.”
When I asked him what his transition was like after he quit being a musician to where he is now, he described it as a similar story to Miles Davis, minus the whole junkie thing.
“This is what it’s going to be like. I’m going to go back and move in with my dad and clean everything out, and we’ll see what happens.”
The first step to come out of this grief stage and start anew, was to create this space to clear his body and mind and get rid of all attachments to his life as a partner and a musician.
He eliminated things that no longer served him to allow room for something new to come into his life, and with that came the practice of yoga and meditation, which is how he spent his time.
Six months after settling back home in Baltimore to create space for himself mentally, physically and spiritually, he decided to register for a class called Philosophy and Practice of Yoga at a local community college, which changed his life. During this same time, he reconnected with a high school friend who owned and operated Charm City Yoga (now part of the Yoga Works company).
They would hang out and he’d ask her about her yoga practice and what it was like being a business owner and yoga teacher, and she introduced him to a Yoga art exhibit in D.C. which changed Keith’s perspective about yoga moving forward.
“Ancient Indian Yoga art. That [exhibit] was it for me. I stopped viewing yoga as just a thing I wrote about in my journal, and started seeing it as something that I could identify with in my own unique way. I knew brothas practiced, but when I went to this exhibit, I mean…it wasn’t about the poses or skinny white girls doing yoga. There were all these old paintings from 500 years ago of these brown dudes sitting and just meditating! It was maybe 5% poses, but you can sense there was a lot of other spiritual stuff, going on. It’s not about the look, it’s not about the image, it’s not about the clothes. That shit spoke to me.”
Keith learned the value of becoming present, and in doing so was able to alleviate much of his grief and psychological suffering. He was able to detach from being a musician and the person he was in New York. Yoga and meditating specifically helped him become more aware of how he reacted to people around him, and led him to see the bigger picture of living life out of compassion versus animosity.
“I wasn’t a raging asshole before, but people knew not to piss me off back in the day. Yoga and meditation is now an overall lifestyle practice for me. I have a deeper awareness and reason to be softer with people. It’s more than just getting on my mat.”
Being reconnected with his high school friend and taking this course was his gateway into teaching yoga full-time. With a newfound sense of purpose and belonging, he is able to be his complete self while also helping and teaching others how to heal, and recognize their own light that shines within.
His biggest personal breakthrough that he’s had since he started teaching full-time has been cultivating the ability to care about people. He doesn’t care about the politics, race or any other factor that places someone in a box. Finding joy in people where he’s celebrating humanity is why he teaches.
Keith has taught more students in the span of his first eight months as an instructor, than any other teacher at Charm City and hasn’t stopped since.
When asked to describe his teaching style he responds with: “Rowdy and raw. My classes are designed to bring out the best in people. I want people to feel elevated, joyful, confident and unfuck-withable.”