Can Breathing Help Heal Black Racial Trauma?

Credit: Illustration by Liz Courquet-Lesaulnier via Zee Clarke

by Joseph Williams

It’s something we do from our first moments of life until the moment we die. We do it some 17,000 times a day, without having to think about it. In fact, you’re doing it — breathing — right now, while reading this very sentence. 

Yet wellness expert Zee Clarke believes that this simple act, when done intentionally using specific rhythms and techniques, holds the key to relieving stress, lowering anxiety, and promoting healing from racial trauma — especially the invisible, day-to-day strain of being Black in America.  

Clarke is such a believer in the power of breathing techniques that, years ago, after returning from an eye-opening vacation in India, she quit her fast-paced, stress-filled job in the corporate world to immerse herself in ancient practices and rituals that slow life down. Now, she is encouraging Black people to adopt those methods, borrowed from yoga and meditation, to improve their own physical and mental health. 

“It’s so important for Black people to use these tools in our daily lives,” says Clarke, a Harvard University-educated MBA who has worked in the high-pressure world of Silicon Valley alongside tech CEOs. She preaches the gospel of “mindfulness and breathwork for BIPOC communities to reclaim our flow at work and in life,” according to her website.

Indeed, science backs up her faith in mindfulness and breathing as a health-giving superpower that can counter the insidious effects of systemic racism.  

“These practices, which are free, and can be done anytime, anywhere, can be so powerful in helping our community.” – ZEE CLARKE

“Researchers at leading institutions like Harvard and Columbia University found that racism causes chronic stress, resulting in higher rates of both heart disease and high blood pressure in African-Americans,” Clarke says. “It also causes mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Every time we face a moment of racial trauma, whether it’s a big or small event, our fight or flight response kicks in. Stress hormones run through the body, affecting both our mental and physical well-being.”

Studies show that taking a few moments for deep breathing “can lower your blood pressure, reduce stress, lower anxiety levels, and improve mental health,” she says. “When we breathe, it stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which counters that fight or flight response.” 

And there’s an additional benefit: unlike prescription drugs or doctor copays, the health benefits of what Clarke calls “slow living” cost just a few minutes of time. 

“These practices, which are free, and can be done anytime, anywhere, can be so powerful in helping our community,” she says. They provide the tools to “not just cope with [racist harm] in the moment when they happen, but also heal from them afterwards,” Clarke says. “Yet, most folks in our community have never heard of it.” 

She aims to change it through her new book, ”Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing,” which focuses on breathwork and mindfulness for people of color. This spring, Clarke launched an online course called Breathing Through Microaggressions and Racism.

For Clarke, adopting a lifestyle centered on mindfulness and breathing was a matter of survival. 

The way Black people are treated in this country is killing us slowly — death by a thousand cuts. – ZEE CLARKE

The persistent sexism and racism in the mostly-white corporate world put “my mental and physical health in the gutter,” Clarke says, to the degree that her doctor all but ordered a vacation. Research on the health effects of chronic stress led her to consider meditation, which in turn led her to India and the mindfulness community. 

Not long after returning to the U.S., Clarke quit her job and began studying mindfulness full-time. During her studies, she says, “I couldn’t help but notice the connections with the health conditions in the Black community,” including studies linking institutional racism to chronic ailments like hypertension, heart disease, depression, and obesity. 

“The way Black people are treated in this country is killing us slowly — death by a thousand cuts,” she says. “Dr. Martin Luther King was 39 when he passed, but the autopsy said he had the heart of a 60-year-old. And recent studies show that Black women are aging at a much faster rate than white women.”

While mindfulness can conjure up images of mostly-white spaces — tie-dyed hippies in a commune, or white women in a yoga studio, sitting cross-legged on a mat — Clarke says the practice is for everyone, and doesn’t take more than a few minutes a day. Deep breathing for just a few minutes, or taking a stroll outside in pleasant weather, is enough to make a measurable difference in one’s frame of mind and, in turn, their health.

“These micro-self-care moments can be super powerful, and can change your whole day,” Clarke says. “You’ll be more productive, and you’ll be in a better mood.” 

Ultimately, “racism is a public health issue,” Clarke says, noting that healing from racism begins with defining the problem. “Rather than wait for the world to change, we need to take our health into our own hands. I believe the breath can help us do just that!”

This story was produced in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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