Kerri Kelly: On being a catalyst
Kerri Kelly is a force of nature. She is a skilled yoga teacher, motivating students to effect change in their lives. She’s a fierce coach, whose ability to turn ideas into purpose and action is a gift. And she plays big; straddling the mindfulness and political worlds, so that the social change makers—the visionaries—she works with can mobilize and organize effectively.
I met Kerri in San Francisco at Yoga Tree Castro. I was her student and had no idea our paths would reconnect in such a meaningful way years later. The whole time I’ve known Kerri, I’ve experienced her contagious bright energy that uplifts the space around her. It was a inspiring to learn more about her social and political work for this interview. She is a reminder of the tangible ways yoga transcends our mat and gives us the tools to do real work in the world.
In your bio you talk about having a sports injury, 9/11 and yoga as a powerful source of healing. Could you share more about how you came to yoga and the progression of becoming a teacher?
I’ve always found yoga during my most broken moments in life, never during a time when I felt blissful. It’s always been when chaos has hit my life. The first time I found yoga was when I was impacted by injuries. I was an athlete all my life. In my 20s, I started looking to yoga to heal injuries that had disrupted my ability to move and feel good.
Yoga was in my life because I had sought it out for injuries, but the role it played in my life shifted after 9/11. I lost my stepdad who was a fireman. That was the first major disruption of my life and the path I had curated for myself. Yoga became my refuge. I would hit my mat and hysterically cry, feel, fall apart and put myself back together again. I didn’t know for what but I knew I had to turn to my mat every day to keep going. It put me back together in a way that made me curious about yoga. It inspired me to lean into yoga, take a teacher training, move across the country and dive into the world of teaching.
The next big wake-up call for me was when I recognized how the wellness industry was one of privilege. I was living in San Francisco. I would come out of yoga class in SOMA all blissed out and walk out of the studio into a village of homeless people, some literally on the stoop outside the building. I had a hard time reconciling how I could be all blissed out and transcended yet all of this was happening around me. That was when I started to bridge the role of social change in yoga and the role of yoga in social change.
I had a series of wake-up calls and discovered another dimension of the practice each time. I’ve been practicing for 17 years and it’s infinite — the possibility to grow, change and transform. Now I have the faith and the trust to lean into my practice all the time, no matter what I’m up against, going through, or how I’m changing. My practice doesn’t look the same all the time but it has the same impact on me — it allows me to keep going.
You’ve been Executive Director of Off the Mat, Into the World for several years, you founded Catalyst Collective and you also have CTZNWELL. I was reading through the testimonials on Catalyst Collective and people were saying “Kerri is the Catalyst.” It seems like that word comes up across all the descriptions of you I’ve seen. When did that word really surface? Did someone bring it up or did it just hit you?
I don’t know the origin of that word. All I know is through my experience at Off the Mat, Into the World, I discovered a love and purpose for bringing people up. I thrived off of investing in people’s greatness and I wanted to do that 24 hours a day for the rest of my life. That’s when I learned how to be a facilitator and a trainer. I launched this project called Springboard, which was an incubator project and found my superpower.
Somewhere along the way I came across this word, catalyst, and it was defined as “to bring forth into being,” which I loved. I loved that for myself because that’s a role I believe my yoga practice has played for me but it’s also the role people have played for me and my community.
There was something about that word, as purpose and practice for me, that felt authentic. For my own journey, to be catalyzed has been an ongoing work in progress. It’s been a privilege to be a steward of that process for other people as a yoga teacher, coach, organizer and movement leader. I get to be embodied in that role no matter where I am or who I’m working with because that’s my intention.
That’s really beautiful because it sounds like you’re looking for solutions. You are looking for a way to elevate everything — even your energy is lifting up.
Coming from the business world, I learned – Adrienne Brown talks about this in her book, Emergent Strategy –how to create a strategy and then contort myself into the thing I want to be. From this, I realized it’s about creating the condition for your most authentic self to emerge. It’s not about changing or perfecting oneself. For me, being a catalyst has become more about creating the conditions personally, collectively, systemically to help people thrive and be their best self — this is where CTZNWELL came from.
For example, I had to break my back to stop working out five days a week. I worked out five days a week until I was 38. Whether it was yoga, running or whatever, I was addicted to working out, until I couldn’t do it anymore. That was a real moment of contention for me, like a reckoning almost. I had to let go of my addiction to working out and be the same whole, energized, complete person I thought I was.
You do this incredible work through two organizations, Catalyst Collective and CTZNWELL. Can you tell us about these two different spaces and what you use them for?
As I mentioned before, I found my place as a catalyst, often of people, sometimes of organizations. I did some consulting with different companies on how they could create conditions for wellbeing within their company, and the way in which they were interacting with the world. At a certain point i realized there was only so much I could impact on an individual or institutional level and if I wanted to create collective change I had to start to work at a political level. I had to actually confront the systems of oppression, the real big barriers of wellbeing, that were in the way of people thriving. It felt limiting and inauthentic to only do the work at an individual level. CTZNWELL emerged out of the need to address these barriers.
[With CTZNWELL] we took on economic justice as the first wellness issue. We did it very deliberately because we wanted to make a point that eating healthy wasn’t going to change the big systemic problems that were playing out in our country. We had to identify what we needed to disrupt and dismantle in order to create a culture where everyone has access and agency to thrive the way that they want to.
CTZNWELL has been tackling that question for about four years now. We worked with Fight for $15. We’ve worked on immigrant rights with Make the Road, and other organizations. We’ve done food system reform. We’ve worked on voter disenfranchisement. We’ve worked on racial injustice and equity work every single day of that journey because so many of us who have the privilege of being well are white or have a specific location in society that enables access regardless of whether we earned it or not. Contending with privilege and systems of oppression have always been a part of our work no matter what issue we’re working on.
On the CTZNWELL website you have a “what we believe” section. How did you come up with this list of beliefs? Has it changed over time?
We actually call this our DNA: right, values, vision, narrative, theory of change. I didn’t come up with it. I brought together a group of leaders in the community, who I felt represented different aspects of the wellness world — social entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders, organizers, politicos. I asked “How do we create a DNA that represents the many voices of who we are becoming in this country?”
It was an incredible badass group of leaders. We all went away on retreat in Vacaville, California and spent three days talking about [what] the fundamental issues and values are that we want to center in this work. The thing that helped us get to this list was contemplating and interrogating each issue to ensure they were unequivocal human issues. To quote Reverend angel Kyodo Williams, compassion is not passive, it’s fucking fierce. She wouldn’t say it like that, but it is.
Over time we’ve tested these issues and values and they have barely changed. These feel rock solid and have been since the mold. I think if you don’t front-load DNA you run the risk of not knowing who you are, not being able to make decisions, people misunderstanding you. It gives us permission to join radical things without having to explain ourselves and helps create guardrails around integrity.
You provide ways for us – the public – to learn about these bigger issues around social inequity with your newsletter, WELLread, event with CTZNWELL and your social media posts. How do you suggest people use these resources and act on them?
The first point of entry is engaging with our content. With WELLread every week you get a rundown of the important news and ways to take action — lists on how to take care of yourself and your community. That’s a good place to start especially for people who are curious but maybe feel intimidated. We’re also coming out with a podcast, which is going to go deeper. We’ve interviewed people like Marianne Williamson, Reverend angel Kyodo Williams, Mark Gonzales, and Tarana Burke. It’s an incredible group of people.
The second thing is learning how to have productive and courageous conversations about hard things with people. We have a hard time moving forward, as we’re not good at staying in the room with one another. We’re not good at listening to each other. We’re not good at actually being in disagreement or conflict and staying in relationship.
If we do not change the house over, if we do not clean house in Washington, in our state legislatures, in our capitals and in our local schools, we’re going to have a hard time making change. Participating in democracy really matters. The idea that people think democracy, politics and civic engagement are separate from the practice is absurd to me. For me, the yoga practice is simply a way that we take care of ourselves and one another. Politics is just another system of that. It’s an extension of your practice. It’s radical because it takes your practice beyond the individual, beyond the self, and into relationship with other people. That to me is the greatest expression about this.
That’s definitely significant. And how do keep learning? What is your day to day, and how do you feel about the learning process?
I feel really humble in this process because I get served all the time. I’m grateful for that. I will think I know something and the universe reminds me I don’t. In fact, I have so much more to learn. I would say that the greatest source of learning for me is my relationships. When I allow myself to be vulnerable and authentic in deep relationships with other people, I learn the most about who I am, who they are, what’s needed and how to work together to co-create — how to aggregate our resources and our wisdom to do something that’s never been done before.
I do like book learning and teachers. I do learn from these but that has never been more powerful than having a misunderstanding or making a mistake. Being in relationship has taught me far more about who I am and what I need to learn. Relationship is like the great teacher for me. I surround myself with teachers who will hold me accountable, peers who will call me up when I need to be called up and people who won’t let me get away with anything. In journalism, it’s called the red team. They are fierce and I have to live up to that instead of surrounding myself with people who only sing my praises and flatter me. I want to be in [a] relationship with people who are going to be fierce truth tellers and who are going to be constantly conspiring for me to grow. That’s how I learn.
Who are five yoga teachers you recommend to the Setu community?