UW Tacoma alumna Hien Hong, ’15, found stress while searching for peace. It was Hong’s senior year and she was finishing up her degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). She was also completing a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. “It wasn’t the happiest, most carefree time of my life,” she said.
Hong came to UW Tacoma from Highline College. While at Highline she took a political science course. “I had an amazing professor who turned out to be one of my mentors,” said Hong. The then-19-year-old decided she wanted to pursue a career in academia within the field of social sciences.
Hong grew up in Federal Way and didn’t spend much time in Tacoma. “Back then I always thought you went to Seattle to do something cool,” she said. Hong credits UW Tacoma for helping her get to know the Grit City. “The campus is small which made it easier to get to know people and build community,” she said. “Now I think of Tacoma as the cool place to be.”
Transformation is a big part of higher education. The process of learning and being exposed to new ways of seeing the world changes people. At some point in her journey, Hong decided she did not want to be a professor. “I just didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me,” she said.
Hong describes herself as an “anxious” student. She turned to yoga and meditation while in school to help her de-stress. Hong finished her training program and her degree in 2015. “I had always thought I would do something professionally with yoga and meditation later on in life,” she said.
Instead, Hong got involved with the yoga community in Tacoma. She started taking classes at a downtown non-profit studio. Hong eventually started volunteering at the facility. “They had a mentorship program where I got to co-teach alongside one of their teachers,” she said. “From there I got a spot on their studio schedule and that turned out to be my first regular teaching gig.”
Hong carved out a space for herself. She taught yoga classes at Annie Wright as well as at the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). About a year ago Hong started renting space in a studio when it wasn’t in use. “I decided to offer yoga to women of color and to the larger BIPOC community because I rarely saw them in yoga spaces,” she said. “Local studio owners that I talked to weren’t interested in more representation at the time.”
Representation has been an issue within the wellness community for some years now, but it took on a new sense of urgency following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. For a long time, yoga and meditation in the United States was presented as being for white men and women. “It’s important to remember that these practices originated in South Asia,” she said.
Hong sees a shift in yoga and meditation away from the internal to the external. “It’s not really sexy to sell spirituality, right?” she said. “‘Here is a membership to spirituality and your inner self’ -- that’s not what happens. What happens is, ‘Come to this yoga studio and get a yoga butt.’”
Hong doesn’t emphasize the physical aspects of yoga. Instead, she works to create a place for people to learn, free of judgment, and to say what is on their minds. “I think I’m offering something people of color need right now,” said Hong. “There is a lot of uncertainty and lots of trauma and people want to be in a space with a teacher who gets it.”
The pandemic forced Hong to be, pardon the pun, more flexible. She has taken to holding online classes and hosting small, in-person sessions with masks and social distancing, when allowed. Hong has also been recruited to help co-teach an online advanced yoga training course. “I’m not perfect at it (online teaching) but I’m learning,” she said. “But for me, the connection comes from offering a space where people can share what they need to share and can come as they are.”
(The video below, of a yoga session guided by Hien Hong, was produced in March by Tacoma Public Schools to support students while learning at home.)
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org