Yoga instructor and Toolbox Yoga Studio owner Nomzamo Mji had a potent and successful stint in the legal field before transitioning into the wellness industry. She started her legal career in the South African constitutional court where she clerked for Justice O'Regan. In a remarkably speedy fashion she proceeded to practice as an advocate. Reflecting back on that time, she told YOGICOMM in a recent conversation that she enjoyed "the restorative aspects of law, it's ability to solve problems and create life - changing impacts for people. She spoke of her love for the idea of justice and the potential to facilitate just outcomes. What she did not enjoy, however, was the "stress and imbalanced lifestyle that came with practice." By her early thirties she jumped ship and decided to forgo the professionalism and prestige of her position for a new lifestyle that resonated more deeply with her ethics and priorities: "I was disillusioned by the difference between law and justice."
The courage it takes to make such a move should not be under-estimated. What lies at the heart of this courage is her willingness to listen to her intuition: "I made the move because I reached a point where I didn't recognise myself anymore and felt like my law practice was consuming everything. I knew I could always return and I was emboldened by yoga's message of ongoing renewal. I left to pursue a writing project with my grandmother but ended up finding self - acceptance for myself through deepening my yoga practice."
YOGICOMM founder (NB) was intrigued to understand this transition in lifestyle Nomzamo (NM) underwent, and what underlies the exciting Toolbox Yoga Studio concept that has emerged from it. Here is a snippet from the rest of their conversation:
NB: Why did you and your sister decide to open a yoga studio specifically? Do you think being a yoga teacher full time and freelancing in this capacity (ie. not owning your own studio) is financially viable?
NM: When Sizwe and I started practicing together at the Bikram studio in Illovo (yes, our yoga journey started with Bikram!) we always joked about owning a studio one day. I think the idea of creating a space where we could share something we both resonated with so strongly intrigued us. I always imagined it a lot later in life.
We weren't specifically looking to open a space when The Toolbox found us. It came at a time in our lives when we were both at a crossroads. And it made sense for both of us to take this leap and return back home to Durban.
I have also practiced at many types of spaces and have not always felt visible or welcome by my teachers or fellow students. It also felt odd to me to be practicing places where I couldn't relate to the attitudes or outlooks of the people around me. This didn't gel with my understanding of yoga and there was a yearning to create a place that did. While yoga is the main activity at the Toolbox, we are happy to be hosting dance classes, workshops, to have hosted a mini retreat and are always happy to host events which are connected to wellness.
I think freelancing might be more financially viable because it doesn't come with rent and other financial obligations that come with property management. I think that once you own a space you have to constantly think of different income streams to support the classes. Classes alone cannot keep a studio afloat. We knew this before we went into it and it is part of the push to keep expanding our offering.
NB: Where do you and Toolbox Yoga Studio place yourself on the scale of yoga ‘affordability?’ Why?
I don't think that yoga is something that should be unattainable for the vast majority of people.
We have practiced in different types of yoga spaces - commercial and non - commercial. From community donation classes, ashrams, home garden studios as well as trendy, upmarket spaces. We see our positioning in the middle of the scale. We want to offer the value of ashram pricing which allows for yoga to become part of your monthly budget while balancing the investments we make to create a well - maintained, soothing space and fairly compensate ourselves and teachers for what we do. Charging for yoga always comes with some anxiety. It is a gift that you want everyone to access. But we take great comfort in the reminder that yoga does not have to be practiced in studios. It is available to anyone who can breath without any fancy equipment. I also think it's important to charge appropriately in different contexts. A class for a company in a workplace session is not the same as a classfor township youth. One always has to keep in mind who they want to reach and understand what the means of that community is.
We are also aware that there is a finite number of people that can make it to a studio in a suburb. The Toolbox has wheels! After a year of growing our roots and marking our spot on the Durban map, we are super keen to get out more and teach in more communities. We are in many conversations about youth programs and wellness initiatives with broad reach and impact. Year 2 is definitely about amplifying now that we feel more confident in what the Toolbox stands for.
NB: It would seem as thought there is a significant part of yoga culture right now that is pretty exclusive. Exclusive in terms of pricing, in terms of geographic accessibility and in terms of what is projected as an accepted yoga body-type. Do you resonate with the expectation that yoga is a universal practice for everyone? How do you navigate your way through contemporary yoga culture?
NM: We believe strongly in inclusion rather than exclusion. The founding principle of The Toolbox is that yoga is for every body (pun intended). You don’t have to be deep, alternative, thin, flexible or eat kale to come to the Toolbox. We want people to feel that they can come as they are.
Yoga shouldn't be something you strive to be good enough to do. I think some of the contemporary yoga images of skinny, bendy, white womencreates the effect that people who don't fit into that category don't feel that yoga is for them. They don't feel that they are worthy enough intheir current state to practice because they can't wear a crop topand keep it all in and their converted study doesn't look quite as good as an island sunset backdrop. These images are alienating.
We navigate this morass by holding true to our belief that the practice is ultimately about bending the mind and not the body. With this belief and our own experiences and body shapes in mind, we consistently aim to teach our students about the philosophy behind the yoga so that they are expanding their minds as they create space in their bodies.
NB: The Toolbox has been hosting some fantastic ‘mindfulness’ initiatives. What is mindful yoga to you and how does one (practically speaking now!) achieve this in the everyday?
NM: If one is speaking about yoga as a broad holistic life science that cultivates awareness and attentiveness, mindfulness is an integral aspect. It is training your mind to rest its awareness on one thing/activity at a time - a process of to be with what is and to notice and make peace with the urges to criticise what we observe. I think that there is a lot of praise for multitasking but I find this far easier than undivided attention. Our attention is always split. In yoga classes, we work on engaging breath to enable us to be with all the sensations that our practice evokes. The movement prepares our body for meditation, a key mindfulness practice. One achieves mindfulness by deciding it is a quality that they want to introduce into their lives and then committing to practice. Every single thing can be done mindfully. Once you have a taste/sense of what it feels like through classes, it becomes far easier to develop this awareness in other areas of life. Whether you are brushing your teeth, making your breakfast, painting your nails - you can try to become fully involved with that particular activity. And if not, at least the awareness to know when you are distracted.
NB: The Toolbox, to me, seems to have a fresh and modern approach to yoga. How do you achieve this as a studio owner? I ask this because the term ‘The Toolbox’ itself denotes to something hands-on - a useful thing for most people to use for DIY (this speaks to independence and self-empowerment). There is nothing pseudo-spiritual or culturally dubious about a DIY toolbox! I like it - tell us about your thinking here?
NM: We see yoga as a comprehensive toolkit to navigate life. In our own lives, in different moments, it has provided us with tools that we could access to tune ourselves up. We connect strongly with Sadhguru's idea of inner engineering.
A human organism is a complicated piece of machinery that doesn't come with a manual. We pick up tools along the way to figure out how we work and (if we’re diligent) how to live our best lives. We need tools and understanding to be able to unlock our full potential, to fix parts when they are broken and to fine tune parts that need tweaking, whether on a physical or emotional level. We want the toolbox to be a space where people can come and find different tools to assist them in their wellness journey.
We are products of our time and want to share tips, ideas and approaches that we relate to. We see yoga as a practice which facilitates self - expression. We also want to self - express through the space where we share yoga. We see that there seems to be a cookie cutter approach to how yoga is packaged and this limits its reach. Our offerings are a reflection of our outlook and our commitment to inclusiveness. The more relatable we are, the more that people can feel that they too can participate and benefit from yoga.
The Toolbox has an array of enriching initiatives and events outside of their usual yoga class schedule. Here are some highlights:
1) Community Classes by donation; First Friday of every month (by donation).
2) Film Screenings (The Toolbox hosts the Black Filmmakers Film Festival every second community class).
3) Gardening and Mosaic Fridays
4) Desire Map Workshop - we will be hosting Jessica Uys on Sat 4 November 2017
6) End of Year Holiday party - 9 December 2017: A market day with different independent creatives showcasing their creations.