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Hillary Lopes: Being unapologetically yourself

Photography by Scott Griffin.

Hillary Lopes is an activist, community leader, and yoga teacher. She is full of life and shares it with others. She speaks clearly and boldly in support of what she believes and the truth she knows. Hillary is an advisor for Setu and plays a large role in guiding the way Setu creates and supports community. We’re excited to share our conversation with her!

Hillary thank you for taking time to talk with Setu! Let’s jump in. I know you danced, and professionally at that, but when did you find yoga? What brought you to yoga? What were your first impressions?

I was dancing professionally at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. It must have been 2008 when the idea of yoga started to come into my world, because I had a knee injury. It was really minor but enough to take me out of ballet and into physical therapy for four months. That was during my second season with DTH. Then someone was like, ‘Oh go to yoga. It’ll be easy —  gentle low-impact good for your body.’ And I was like okay [ laughs].

I was terrified before that of gaining weight because I was a ballet dancer. I was like, ‘I need to move.’ Yoga then made more and more sense and I ended up going into a class. My boyfriend at the time had a year pass [to a gym] that he had gotten in a gift bag. It was a year membership and [they had] Pilates, and Core Fusion. So I was like, ‘I will use it, thank you.’ And I took the yoga class there and remember stepping into a room with no mirrors but I knew I was going to move – like move my body – but not have to watch myself. I was at the first class and was like, ‘Oh, this actually feels right or feels different.’ It felt better for a lack of a different word. That was my first entry point in.

I was like ‘I can kinda dig not looking at myself.’ You don’t fully realize it – I was 21, and had been dancing since I was 12. Before that I was a professional gymnast. In gymnastics, there are no mirrors per se but you’re watching  the playback of all of your routines and there is a mirror in one part of the gym. I had spent my whole life watching myself and letting other people watch me and that was called competition or it was a show or performance. I had learned how to perform and yoga for me is the undoing of me performing.



How soon after that did you start teaching? What inspired you to make that leap?

Really soon after, actually. I want to say a year, because I did my training the summer of 2010.  [But] it could have been six months.


What drew you to teaching yoga versus just practicing?

I could instantly feel how different I felt by experiencing [yoga]. It’s almost in my nature, when I have something that’s great to me, even if it’s like, ‘oh my God this muffin is amazing,’ I’m going to share. People will say, ‘your sweater is so cute and your earrings.’ If I know where I got them from, cool, go get the same thing, no stress. That’s something I’ve grown into or just how I operate. So [with yoga] there was an element of like, ‘oh this is so great.’

All of the teachers with the exception of [my first one] were mainly white women – very few men even. It was almost natural for me to take on a challenge of ‘I can do this. I can teach. Sure, why not?’ When you don’t see yourself, it’s easy to pick three things – not do it at all, do it and just be comfortable with always being in the class and not leading, or completely use that to drive you to put on the other hats and see how that goes.


Seeing and experiencing the work you do, It seems like there is a core of activism in you and I wasn’t sure if that came before yoga or where it came from.

I’d say I have a lot of ways to look at this answer. As you went on, I was like ‘oh, core of activism before or after?’ My father was born in 1937 and his history is my history, but it’s my history in a different way – it’s my family. Hearing him talk about being at the March on Washington and [how] he helped Reverend Jesse Jackson with his presidential campaign – these are not things I just read in an article, my father who is very much still alive and well, has been saying [these things] since I was little.



Where did he grow up?

Providence Rhode Island — both him and Mom. As Cape Verdeans which is Portuguese and West African – our culture. There was always a strong identifying force, specifically from my dad. In his years of business he has made it a strong position to employ my people. I grew up in this even though I grew up so fucking privileged in Providence, Rhode Island on the East Side in a neighborhood full of Jewish people and us. 

There was an element from when I was younger of ‘yes, you have this and yes, you might always have this. Or continue to know that this isn’t all there is.’ I look back now in my 30s and I’m like, ‘oh yeah, that stuff did something huge to me.’ I could easily have gone down many other paths, still can, where it’s more about me me me me me. I’m happy that’s not where I’m at.

If I consider that a foundation and if we’re going to bring it back to yoga now, well it’s the same fucking shit – excuse all of my language. It’s the same and it’s unfortunate. I don’t know why we’re pretending we don’t know what history is. That’s what makes me upset. We’re here, great. We’re in New York, awesome. We’re in America. This is a land that was stolen. It has been set up legally to have white people succeed and everyone that doesn’t look like them to fail. I don’t need to say anything else, it comes down to the smallest and to the largest [things] – where your child can go to school, where you can rent and can get a loan, to something seemingly benign, like who’s your yoga teacher at 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.



I see you bringing activism to your practice. You’ve done events with Kerri Kelly, and you’re obviously doing stuff with Setu. You also mentioned that you have a foundation you’re starting. Can you share more about that?

This is where I have to insert the lovely Trina Morris as well – dear sister friend, yoga teacher, and just overall amazing human. We get together because we do a lot of work together and saving of lives for each other. During one of our [get togethers] she was hearing me and trying to help me get clear on my next steps in yoga and in life. We were having dinner and she was like, ‘oh, it’s a foundation.’ [She continued] ‘You can’t keep waiting for the perfect nonprofit organization to hire you. You can’t keep betting on this dream position to be available for you to apply to.’ If I think back to even just my history of work, yeah, it doesn’t at all play out that way. She said ‘ you’re the one running something because you can’t keep waiting for someone else to try to run what it is, you know you want to do.’ From there it kind of like snowballed into a scholarship foundation at its core. I love taking money and have [it] make a more sincere impact.

This [foundation] forced me to think about my idea of wellness, what [the] word means and what [it] means for other people, but specifically what does that mean for a person of color. A woman of color. A man of color. People of color. What does it take for them to keep themselves [well]? The working name of this is Blackswell. The S is an anchor unifying and connecting Black to well. It’s also got a really big other piece of my heart about water and the idea of a swell and a well of water – how we need to keep ourselves filled to a certain capacity in order to have anything to share.

Blackswell, [the word] gets my point very crisply across of ‘don’t fuck with me. I know I’m black. Thank you very much.’ And I’m digging deep into my own person to figure out where I can align myself moving forward with this close to me.



Is there a particular moment in your life that was powerful or moving in the realm of activism?

Closely related into my yoga community world, Kerri Kelly – her introducing me to Reverend angel kyodo williams was huge and massive a few years ago. And it felt –we joked about it – it felt like the classic ‘you’re black, she’s black, you guys have to meet because I love you both.’ (That happens. You just have to know that’s going to happen.) But I’m really happy that happened.

On one of her think tank retreats at the Watershed Center, I met Reverend angel and I brought Trina with me. I was like, ‘oh you can be versed in your practice.’ For angel it is Zen Buddhism. She’s also a yoga teacher and an author. She’s figuring out constantly how to be unapologetically herself, stay true to what she believes, educate people and let them hold their own stuff.


Thank you Hillary!