Danielle Espiritu: Teacher, Warrior, Healer

I believe in peace and love, but no more
than I believe in resistance and justice
– all elements must be present
to thrive.

A born and raised New Yorker living in NYC, a dying breed. My parents knew each other from their hometown in the Philippines – Taytay, Rizal. They reconnected in NY.


I grew up in a very standard Filipino American home where doing well in school was above all else. At the same time, both my parents really supported and nurtured my love of art from when I was very young. My mom tells a childhood story of mine often of how she would buy me dolls and things alike, but all I wanted to do was to draw, rip up paper and make things. My mom and dad pushed me to do well in school but they never tried to deter me from what they saw I loved, whether or not it coincided with their own vision for me.

My dad was the cool calm parent, but also very stern. From a young age I was really opinionated and argumentative. When I would debate with him about something I vividly remember him saying to me, “Good. I’m glad you’re arguing with me. Whenever you don’t agree with something, always ask why.” In contrast, my mom was much more emotional, but just as argumentative as I was. She was strict and conservative, and was very firm in everything she said. Even so, she allowed me to have dialogue with her on things I questioned and disagreed with. She would tell me, “You’re so lucky we can talk like this. I could never ask my nanay ‘why’ when I was growing up.” And I know that to be true with both my parents’ upbringings. They grew up in a time and place where you do what you’re told, no questions asked. For them to give my brother and I that space to ask why and express our thoughts and opinions, I’m so grateful.

 

Growing up I battled between living to check things off my list, or the list I believed my parents wanted me to follow. I graduated high school and went on to study Physical Therapy (medical field, high job demand, good salary – an Asian parent’s dream). A year or so later, I pursued what I had always dreamt of doing, becoming a fashion designer. 10 years later, I quit my design job to travel and become a yoga instructor. All of which, at every step, fall and triumph, my parents supported me (with a list of questions and plan B and C discussions of course).

 

I didn’t see it when I was younger, and I think it’s only in the past few years that it’s become so clear. My parents wanted me to work hard and make good decisions, and they wanted me to do those things while doing what I love and makes me happy. I see their influence in me everyday. I work hard. I fight for what I want and what I believe in. I question what doesn’t seem right. I relentlessly pursue what I love with passion, courage and discipline. I’m strong and assertive, but also gentle and soft. My parents gave me these qualities. Their passion and dream was to give my brother and me the freedom to see and achieve ours.


Transitioning from being a fashion designer to becoming a yoga instructor was a humbling experience. I started over in a world I knew I wanted to be a part of but was a newcomer all over again and was struggling to find communities and networks that resonated with whom I was and what kind of teacher and practitioner I wanted to be. For years the fashion industry disheartened me and beat me down. I was using my skills and passion for an industry that conflicted my own personal values. I was creating for an industry that promoted consumerism, waste, and superficial standards. After a while, to counter my day job, I worked with nonprofit organizations on the side any way I could. I freelanced with start-ups whose visions and values were aligned with my own. It became clear I had to do make moves.

 

I offer that backstory because my passion has always been to make things. When I started teaching yoga I felt like I had to let go of that part of me. As I continued on my new path as a teacher and healer, things would come up where I had to go back to design. It was still so much of who I was and I realized, design wasn’t what I needed to let go of; it was what I had been creating that needed to change.

 

When I was studying yoga in Rishikesh India, I had a numerology reading. What called out across the board was creativity. It’s my tool, my way to communicate anything and everything. That has stayed with me since. One of my final assignments of my training was to create a workshop. Mine was Creativity and Yoga. I guided my classmates through an illustration, led them through a yoga sequence, and then ended with another guided illustration. To close the workshop, we sat in a circle and discussed the differences between the two drawings pre and post yoga. The exchanges and revelations were incredible. My favorite sharing from a classmate was her expressing that she was an awful artist. She couldn’t wait to put her first illustration away, but the second one after yoga, just as awful she told us, but now she wanted everyone to see it and didn’t care how awful she or anyone thought it was. That spoke so deeply to me. It revealed the immediate affect of yoga and inspired me to continue on the path of combining yoga and creativity.

As a yoga teacher and healer,
my mission is to share the ancient
tradition and wisdom with anyone
who is called to it.

As a yoga teacher and healer, my mission is to share the ancient tradition and wisdom with anyone who is called to it. My teachers in India and their teachers and all who came before them, walk with me and hold me in every class I teach, with every person I touch. Their teachings have come from lineages so deep. I’m in constant awe of it. Each lesson continues to unfold, expand and heal me. When I teach, I imagine them listening to my words, watching me move and guide my students. I speak every word with them in mind and spirit, honoring their sacred teachings.

I have only just begun to deepen my
understanding and knowledge of my own
ancestors, but I know that the argumentative,
opinionated, passionate, healer, warrior
and freedom fighter in me, comes from them.

I have only just begun to deepen my understanding and knowledge of my own ancestors, but I know that the argumentative, opinionated, passionate, healer, warrior and freedom fighter in me, comes from them. I know that their struggle, their blood and strength, exists in my entire being. They make me whole. They fought and carried so many burdens for me to be here. They too are present in my words and actions as a teacher and healer. I believe in peace and love, but no more than I believe in resistance and justice – all elements must be present to thrive. In learning more about their struggle, and our traditions and rituals that our colonizers forced us to forget, I honor them. The age-old question holds true – how do we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we came from?

 

Recently, I met a Pinay healer well versed in indigenous healing practices. She works as a nurse and resides here in New York in Queens. We had a great conversation about being a healer here in the states. She shared how often in her line of work nurses forget what they know and are capable of beyond their medical tools and supplies. They’ve become so disconnected with the innate healer within. I spoke of the practices I learned about in India, Yoga, Bodywork and Ayurveda. We discussed how healing practices in India and the Philippines all come from the same foundation. I really look forward to talking with her more and learning from her.

 

I was told that when I was younger, I spoke fluent Tagalog. When I started going to school, my Tagalog would bleed into my English so at home, my parents began speaking to me primarily in English.

I was really proud. It was empowering
and exciting for me to know my Tagalog
had never left me.

In 2013 I spent a little over two months traveling the Philippines, primarily our more remote islands. It was the first time I had traveled by myself in my motherland, no parents or any family to help me find my way or speak on my (American) behalf. Being far from the city (Manila) where everyone speaks English, I had to speak my native tongue. I remember Tagalog words coming out of my mouth that I didn’t know I knew. I would have a conversation in Tagalog (grammatically incorrect I’m sure), then step away thinking, “How do I know those words?” I was really proud. It was empowering and exciting for me to know my Tagalog had never left me.

 

That’s similar to how I feel about the rise of holistic healing, rituals and practices. Pre-colonial Philippines was very Animistic. But similar to my story about my Tagalog always being there no matter how long it’d been dormant, as is our traditions. They are alive within us waiting for us to remember. I see so many of our brothers and sisters seeking this knowledge and trying to remember what, for so many, has been lost. I feel us, as a people, strengthening and lifting each other in the struggle to find out who we are and the stories of our land. It’s inspires me. I haven’t met them all but I can feel our strength and unity in our search for our truth.

 

During my travels in the Philippines, island life cast its spell on me. I loved everything about it. The simplicity, the peace, the community, doing things the old way, appreciating doing nothing, quiet, stillness, ritual and tradition. It’s hard not to see why island life and yoga wouldn’t go well together. I went on a tour called Tao Expedition, a four day five night boat tour of the Palawan islands between the main lands of El Nido and Coron. I loved it so much and befriended the crew that I traveled with them on this tour three times. During the trip we would stop at different villages to buy food and snacks, talk to the natives and explore the land. So much of Tao Expedition’s initiative is to bring resources and skills to the islands. We toured the schools and farms they built, and met the people they worked with to bring sustainability to the communities. Many nights a family on an island hosted us. We would eat, drink, and sing with them (because don’t ever doubt that karaoke is always a few steps away anywhere you are in the Philippines). In between each trip I would have a few days in between to explore the main lands and recharge. I think about that time often. When I say that, I think most people would assume I’m thinking of the beautiful beaches and starry skies. But when I think about that time, I think about how little we needed, how little the people needed to be happy. I think about how all the food we ate was grown and prepared with love, intention and connection to the land. I think about how we all came together and instantly united in our commonalities. I think about how connected the people of those islands were to everything they did, everything said. And I think about how disconnected so many of us are. For me island life isn’t about drinking out of a coconut and lying on the beach all day. It’s about the connection and understanding of the land, to the water, to the people. That to me is the biggest difference between East and West mentality. The gap is so wide between comfort and privilege, and honor and connection.

 

A short yoga sequence I always recommend is the sun salutation. I remember my asana teacher in India telling us that just repeating the sun salutation a few times a day is a strong practice in itself. He taught us that repetition brings discipline.

I teach to share with others the ancient
wisdom and practices that I have learned,
and to pass on the tools they need to heal
themselves.

The reasons why I started practicing and teaching yoga are so different from the reasons I practice and teach now. I started both for a way out. I wanted to escape the life I was living. Now I practice to learn and love the life I have. I practice to connect with and heal myself in the deepest capacity with acceptance and compassion. I teach to share with others the ancient wisdom and practices that I have learned, and to pass on the tools they need to heal themselves. If I were to give advice to others, I would tell them to be open to everything and to also check their motives. I would tell them to learn yoga as it was meant to be learned, and to carry that sacred wisdom and tradition with honor and gratitude. I would tell them as teachers, we are bearers of that tradition and it’s our responsibility to preserve it. And I would tell them to put themselves into their teaching and practice as well, not only as a yogi and healer, but also who they are, their roots, and their experiences. What makes each teacher and healer unique is our stories and how we weave them into our art. We’re all at different stages of our healing journeys. Had someone given me that advice when I first started practicing and teaching, genuinely engaging with me and opening that dialogue, I think a lot of my choices along the way would’ve been different. That guidance at the very beginning when the seeds are first being planted is essential.