DENVER — Beverly Grant spent years juggling many roles before yoga helped her restore her balance.
When not doting over her three children, she hosted her public affairs talk radio show, attended community meetings or handed out cups of juice at her roving Mo’ Betta Green MarketPlace farmers market, which has brought local, fresh foods and produce to this city’s food deserts for more than a decade.
Her busy schedule came to an abrupt halt on July 1, 2018, when her youngest son, Reese, 17, was fatally stabbed outside a Denver restaurant. He’d just graduated from high school and was weeks from starting at the University of Northern Colorado.
“It’s literally a shock to your system,” Grant, 58, said of the grief that flooded her. “You feel physical pain and it affects your conscious and unconscious functioning. Your ability to breathe is impaired. Focus and concentration are sporadic at best. You are not the same person that you were before.”
In the midst of debilitating loss, Grant said it was practicing yoga and meditation daily that helped provide some semblance of peace and balance. She had previously done yoga videos at home but didn’t get certified as an instructor until just before her son’s death.
Yoga then continued to be a grounding force when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. The lockdown orders in Colorado sent her back to long days of isolation at home, where she was the sole caregiver for her special-needs daughter and father. Then, in April, her 84-year-old mother died unexpectedly of natural causes. “I’ve been doing the best that I can with facing my new reality,” said Grant.
As a Black woman, she believes yoga can help other people of color, who she said disproportionately share the experience of debilitating trauma and grief — exacerbated today by such disparities as who’s most at risk of COVID-19 and the racialized distress from ongoing police brutality such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
While the country still needs much work to heal itself, she wants more people of color to try yoga to help their health. She said the ancient practice, which began in India more than 5,000 years ago and has historical ties to ancient Africa, is the perfect platform to help cope with the unique stressors caused by daily microaggressions and discrimination.
“It helps you feel more empowered to deal with many situations that are beyond your control,” said Grant.
She teaches yoga with Satya Yoga Cooperative, a Denver-based group operated by people of color that was launched in June 2019, inspired partly by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. The co-op’s mission: Offer yoga to members of diverse communities to help them deal with trauma and grief before it shows up in their bodies as mental health conditions, pain and chronic disease.
“When I think about racism, I think about stress and how much stress causes illness in the body,” said Satya founder Lakshmi Nair, who grew up in a Hindu family in Aurora, Colorado. “We believe that yoga is medicine that has the power to heal.”
Satya’s efforts are part of a growing movement to diversify yoga nationwide. From the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance to new Trap Yoga classes that incorporate the popular Southern hip-hop music style to the Yoga Green Book online directory that helps Black yoga-seekers find classes, change appears to be happening. According to National Health Interview Survey data, the percentage of non-Hispanic Black adults who reported practicing yoga jumped from 2.5% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2017.
Nair seeks to plant the seeds for more: The co-op is trying to make classes more accessible and affordable for people of color. It offers many classes on a “pay what you can” model, with $10 suggested donations per session. Satya also hosts two intensive yoga instructor training sessions for people of color per year, with hopes to offer more, in an effort to diversify the pool of yoga providers.
A Unique, Healing Experience
Blacks and Latinos consistently top national health disparities lists, with elevated risks for obesity and chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer, which has made them more susceptible to contracting and dying of COVID-19. They also face an elevated risk for depression and other mental health conditions.
Yoga is obviously not a panacea for racism, but it has shown positive results in helping people manage stress, and as a complement to therapeutic work on trauma.
Satya co-op member Taliah Abdullah, 48, said stress brought on by a toxic work environment and family problems inspired her to finally attend classes. The effect was so life-changing that she enrolled in Satya’s teacher training.
“I didn’t know I needed this, but it’s really changed my life for the better,” she said. “I feel like now I have the tools and the toolbox that I need to better navigate the world as a woman of color.”
At a Saturday morning class Grant led before the pandemic hit, five Latina and Black women and a lone Black man sat atop colorful yoga mats in a half-circle around Grant with smoke billowing around them from a copal-scented incense stick.
Grant spoke in hushed tones during the hourlong session, leading them through cat-cow, downward dog and boat poses. The theme was more spiritual than physical, more relaxing than vigorous, as illustrated by the mantra she used to begin the class: “We are resilient, we are grounded, we are complete. And the spirit of love is in me.”
First-time attendee Ramon Gabrielof-Parish, 42, a Black professor at Naropa University in Boulder, became so relaxed that at one point he began snoring. He said that after an exhausting week he appreciated the serene vibe.
Sarah Naomi Jones, 37, who graduated from Satya’s training, said the co-op provides a safe space to bond, vent and heal — a very different vibe from predominately white yoga spaces where many people of color often feel unwelcome. She said she felt that icy reception when, as a Black yoga newbie, she attended an intensive yoga class mostly filled with white attendees.
“When I walked in, it was kind of like, ‘What are you doing here?’” recalled Jones. “The spiritual component was totally missing. It wasn’t about healing. It felt like everyone was there just to show off how much more stretchier they were than another person.”
Moving Forward in New World
Denver-based Black yogi Tyrone Beverly, 39, said the growth of yoga among people of color is a sign of yearning for more inclusivity in the practice. His nonprofit, Im’Unique, regularly hosts “Breakin’ Bread, Breakin’ Barriers” yoga sessions with a diverse mix of attendees followed by a meal and discussion on topics such as police brutality, racism and mass incarceration.
“We believe that yoga is a great unifier that brings people together,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, Beverly has moved all his events and classes online for the foreseeable future as a safety precaution. Satya took a brief hiatus of in-person classes, Grant said, but now offers some classes outdoors in parks in addition to daily online classes. Grant said that during the pandemic, even online classes could make a difference for individuals.
“That’s the beauty of yoga,” Grant said. “It can be done in a group. It can be done individually. It can be done virtually and, most importantly, it can be done at your own pace.”
In 2005, a documentary called Into Great Silence was released, which portrayed life in a monastery in the French Alps. The director Philip Groening spent months living with the monks, where after a few weeks of silence and solitude, he developed a new sense of awareness.
The quietness and inactivity of the monastic way of life had an awakening effect on him. He began to live wholly in the present, and seemingly mundane objects became intensely real and beautiful.
At the moment, during lockdown, we may not be living like monks, but we are certainly living restricted lives. Some of us may find the lack of hustle and bustle unsettling. We’re so accustomed to background white noise that when it ceases we may feel uneasy.
Quietness and solitude can also expose us to discord in our minds, which start to chatter away, creating a sense of disturbance. Negative thoughts and feelings emerge – especially during uncertain times, when there are urgent and real concerns about job security, family members and financial stability.
But as I show in my book Back To Sanity, once we get used to living more slowly, quietness can sometimes be strangely therapeutic, and help us cope with difficult moments.
The positive aspects of confinement
And while many of us are understandably finding our present predicament extremely challenging, I believe we can learn something from retreat techniques which might help.
Of course, this may not be possible for everyone. People who live in isolated or crowded conditions or who are in turbulent relationships may find it much harder. It’s partly a question of temperament too. People who are naturally introverted and reclusive will find the lockdown easier to deal with than people who are more extroverted.
But there are certain practices we can try to follow which will help us to learn from retreats how to better deal with the changed lives we are leading. Here are five tips:
Acceptance. If you keep thinking about how great your life was before the lockdown, and about how awful it is now, then you will feel frustrated and unhappy. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard is: “If you can’t change a situation, stop resisting it. Just accept it.” So tell yourself that this is the way things are, that this is your life for the time being. Don’t fight the situation – embrace and accept it.
Live in the present. Don’t think too much about the past or the future. Just live from moment to moment, taking each day as it comes. Pay attention to your experience on a moment to moment basis. Be mindful. Look out of your window or go into your garden (if you have one) and look around slowly, paying attention to everything which comes into your range of vision. Do the same when you go out shopping or for exercise, and when you eat.
Appreciate the small things. This is the time to appreciate the things in our lives which we are normally too busy to notice. It’s the time to appreciate food and drink, the natural world around us, the sky, the stars and the people who are close to us. Above all, we should feel gratitude for life itself.
Trust yourself. One thing my psychology research has taught me is that human beings are much stronger than we think. There are reserves of resilience inside us which we only become aware of when we are challenged or face difficulties. Even if you think you can’t cope with a situation, you will be surprised to find that you can.
Reframe the situation. It’s not going to last forever, and it may be a long time before anything like it happens again. Don’t think of the lockdown as imprisonment – think of it as a spiritual retreat. Some people go on meditation retreats or yoga holidays to feel rejuvenated. Now many of us are on an enforced retreat from our normal hectic, stressful lives.
In my role as a psychologist, I have become aware of the therapeutic power of these practices. At the end of this period of retreat, we may return to our normal lives feeling more human. We may become more centred in the present, and less focused on the future. We may become more aware of the beauty of our surroundings, rather than giving all our attention to tasks and activities.
Instead of losing ourselves in our roles and responsibilities, we may become attuned to our authentic selves. And rather than looking for happiness outside us, by buying and doing things, we may find a simple contentment emerges naturally just from being.
“Black people don’t commit suicide. That’s a white thing.”
Who said that? That is a false statement. Blacks suffer from mental illness just like their white counterparts. In fact, when you think of everyday stressors, systematic-racism such as police brutality, education and health care gaps, and sexism that impacts black women, blacks are more likely to be at risk for developing a mental condition.
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and this is a perfect time to shed light on what many deem a nonexistent problem. Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder, bulimia, ADHD, OCD and social anxiety are examples of mental illnesses that people battle daily. In the black community, many choose not to acknowledge mental illness as a sickness. Diseases such as diabetes and cancer are accepted as normal and natural, but what so many fail to realize is that blacks are no different than any other race when it comes to these illnesses. We are not exempt from mental illness.
While some experience mental illness only once in their life (depending on the illness, environment, life stressors, and genetics), others battle mental illness for the rest of their lives. Some of us think that we do not have a problem and truly believe that everyone else is the issue. Unfortunately, these myths and illusions force us to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Mental illness affects “everyday functional” people and it is not limited to the homeless man talking to himself. It impacts a person’s emotions, perception, and behaviors.
As a person with major depression and generalized anxiety disorders, the comments said to me have been heartbreaking and mind-blowing because it prevented me from seeking help. I thought that I was making it up in my head even though I didn’t feel well for years. Finally diagnosed at 25, my doctor stated that the illness started around the age of 13. Can you imagine having cancer without being diagnosed for over 10 years? You would die. Well, I can tell you that I was dying on the inside and it led to multiple suicide attempts. My illness can get so debilitating. At one point, it stopped me from doing basic things such as going to work, talking, eating and showering.
Here are some of the myths that we must stop saying!
Myth #1: Only white people commit suicide.
Fact: According to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013 and the rate among white children committing suicide declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys. While whites still have highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have significantly grown over the past decade. Unfortunately, black youth are killing themselves more frequently than their elders. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24 and a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years in the United States.
Myth #2: Medication doesn’t work and/or they make you feel worse.
Fact: Medication is necessary for some individuals in their mental recovery. While they are NOT cures for mental illness, they are vital for treating the symptoms. Some may need medication for the rest of their lives (depending on the illness) and others only need it for a specific time. Nonetheless, medication is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean the person is crazy. It is no different from taking medication for high blood pressure or insulin for diabetes. Just like the body gets sick, the brain gets sick too, if you don’t take care of it. And no, this is not to say that everyone with a mental illness will need medication, but it is an invaluable help to many.
Myth #3: Black people don’t go to therapy.
Fact: Though there has been a deep-rooted stigma about seeking therapy, Blacks are increasingly seeking therapy for mental illness. Therapy is great whether you have a mental illness or not. Therapy helps you to work on yourself, dissect problems, face fears and overcome obstacles such as breakups, loss of a loved one, financial challenges, self-image issues, abuse, etc. As mentioned previously, blacks deal with oppression daily and therapy can help us work through it. Those who are still hesitant to try therapy can look into other ways of getting help. The support of a life coach has also been shown to be beneficial for many.
Myth #4: You can pray it away.
Fact: As a Christian, I have seen God perform miracles in my life. But when you say to a person “just pray,” you are assuming that they are not praying and dismissing how they feel, challenging the sincerity of their faith, and most likely preventing them from getting treatment. You would not say “just pray” to a person who broke a leg. You would tell them to go to the doctor for an x-ray and cast. We must treat mental illness the same. God also gives us resources to use on earth and sometimes that may be therapy and medication when a person is battling a mental illness.
Damian Waters is a marriage and family therapist in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he serves predominantly African American clients. On the issue of the stigma surrounding blacks seeking therapy, he says, “There’s some shame and embarrassment. You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”
As a way to honor those with mental illness, please think before you speak, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment. Mental illness is just as serious as any other disease and those affected by it should not be judged or outcast. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not a character flaw, or a white people problem.
Can you think of other myths surrounding Blacks and mental illness? Share them below along with your thoughts on putting the myths to rest once and for all.
This article was originally published on ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
WASHINGTON — Last week, when he decided to protest, William Smith, 27, used a red marker to write a message on the back of a flattened cardboard box: “Kill Racism, Not Me.”
As he stood alone, somber, he thought about George Floyd, a fellow black man whom he’d watched die on video as a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck eight days earlier. “Seeing the life leave his body was finally the last straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” he said.
But he also thought about people he knew, a handful of them, who died after catching the new coronavirus. “They were living in impoverished areas. Couldn’t get proper treatment. Lived in crowded conditions, so social distancing was hard to do. And they were still forced to go to work and be put in harm’s way.”
When speaking out against the loss of black lives, it is tough to separate those who die at the hands of police from those who die in a pandemic that has laid bare the structural racism baked into the American health system. Floyd himself had tested positive for the coronavirus. Eighteen black protesters interviewed by ProPublica were well aware that black lives were being lost to the virus at more than twice the rate of others, and that societal barriers have compounded for generations to put them at higher risk.
It was fueling their desire to protest and their anxiety about joining the crowd. But they flocked to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, one day after peaceful protesters there were tear-gassed so that President Donald Trump could hold up a bible for a photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church. There were tanks on the streets, along with a battalion of federal agents, military troops and police. Many of the protesters said they were willing to sacrifice their bodies, either to violence or the virus, to be heard.
In front of the White House stood Caleb Jordan, who turns 21 on Saturday. He showed up with an overstuffed backpack to make sure his 62-year-old grandmother, Carolyn Jackson, had enough water to drink and a hoodie to protect her arms in case of violence. “I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to her,” he said. Some people had on masks. Some did not. Some pulled their masks down to talk or breathe. “I’m not comfortable with that,” he said. She’s got a chronic lung condition, and he had been so worried about her catching the coronavirus in the past few months that he wouldn’t hug her. But then she mentioned that she drove by the protests on Sunday, and immediately he asked, “Why didn’t you take me?”
He had been losing sleep over what he was seeing in social media and on TV, having nightmares in which he was fighting a “real-Jim-Crow-looking white guy in a white button-down shirt, black tie, sleeves rolled up.” His mom told him he was fighting racism. “It’s like obstacle after obstacle,” he said. “If it’s not police beating us up, it’s us dying in a hospital from the pandemic. I’m tired of being tired. I’m so tired, I can’t sleep.” It was something he continued thinking about until he couldn’t help himself, sending a text at 3 a.m. asking his grandmother if they could attend together. “I thought about it and said, ‘This is a teachable moment,’ ” she recalled.
So Jackson took the day off from her job as an accountant at a hospice organization and put on some peace sign earrings and a T-shirt from the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. On the car ride into the city, her grandson asked about her struggles with race. She explained what it’s like being a professional black woman with over 30 years experience who still feels overlooked for opportunities because of questions about her qualifications. Her awareness of being treated differently dates back to how her white paternal grandmother favored her lighter-skinned cousins. She found solace in her black maternal grandmother, who would comb her hair while she sat between her legs. Jackson wants her grandson to feel that kind of comfort from her.
That desire extends to her mission to help the black community understand palliative care is an option that can offer dignity and support at the end of life. “Because when people hear hospice, their hands go up and they say, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’” She’s also heard that resistance when it comes to getting tested for the coronavirus; she has gotten tested twice and plans to get tested again. She feared being exposed on Tuesday, but being here with her grandson was too important to miss. “We internalized a lot with my generation,” she said, “but I think it’s important for him to see this.”
N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” blared from a nearby speaker outside St. John’s Episcopal Church until an interfaith group of men and women bowed their heads and began to pray. Among them was Timothy Freeman, pastor at Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, who wore a brightly colored kente cloth-inspired mask, its vibrant yellows and reds standing in stark contrast to his ministerial black suit and white clerical collar.
Freeman, 42, knows eight people who have been diagnosed with the virus; one died. For two weeks, a sick friend had a fever and could barely move from fatigue but refused to get tested, running through all the scenarios of what might happen if he had it: What if he wound up isolated in an ICU with no one to advocate at his bedside? Another sick friend worried an ambulance would take him to a hospital that he didn’t trust. These conversations, the pastor said, are always infused with an awareness of the medical system’s record of neglect and abuse of black people, from dismissing their pain to using their bodies for research without consent. The virus has forced this all top of mind.
A licensed occupational therapist for 19 years who spent a decade managing a skilled rehab facility, Freeman said he has seen racial disparities in health care firsthand and that access to adequate insurance coverage is crucial. “I have seen diagnostic tests not performed … and hospitalizations cut extremely short — or not happen at all — because of insurance.” COVID-19 is affecting black and brown people in disproportionate numbers, “and not just because we’re black and brown, but because of the social and economic conditions people are forced to live in,” he said.
“All of it comes together. What happened with George Floyd publicized to the world the experience that we live,” he said. “It’s a conglomeration of everything.”
A block away from the prayer group, Elizabeth Tsehai, 53, drove slowly in her BMW SUV, honking her horn, as federal agents in riot gear began to march past the crowd just behind her. She had a Black Lives Matter T-shirt displayed on the dashboard and a bike rack on the top of her car that she joked made her look like the “caricature of a soccer mom.”
She stopped her car on the road and remained there as protesters to her left took a knee. There was some heckling from the crowd but no one was in anybody’s face. A Secret Service agent warned her to move. Her response: “Arrest me. I can’t breathe!” Agents then pulled her from her car and to the ground and handcuffed her. “I didn’t resist because I know they just arrest you for resisting arrest,” she said. “But the minute they pulled me up on my feet, I was talking all kinds of trash.”
Her car was left unlocked in the middle of the street, where it was protected by protesters. She was questioned and released. She said agents told her they were afraid she was going to hit protesters because people have been using their cars as weapons. They told her to move it and leave. The Secret Service did not respond to questions about this incident.
“Ordinarily, I would not get involved,” Tsehai said. But George Floyd’s death was enraging, as were “all of the things that came before it.”
All of the things.
How a white nurse looked her up and down when she arrived at the hospital to give birth to her son and sneered, “Can we help you?”
How her brothers, who live in Minneapolis, recount being pulled over by police for driving while black.
How a black man couldn’t watch birds in Central Park last week without having the police called on him.
“The pandemic is hitting black people hard and exposing these structural inequalities,” she said. “Then on top of that, you get Amy Cooper … weaponizing her white privilege at a time when he might end up in jail, where infection is rife.
“But when they manhandled protesters who were peaceful, that was a bridge too far,” said Tsehai, who grew up in Ethiopia under an authoritarian regime during a period known as Red Terror. She didn’t know life without a curfew until she moved to the United States to attend Georgetown University 35 years ago.
“Moments like this are quite unusual,” she said. They can also inspire change, a message she shared with her children, ages 12 and 14, when recounting her ordeal with them. “I want these children to live in a different world. It’s not enough to read about it and get outraged and talk about it at the dinner table. Silence makes you complicit.”
To fight the spread of coronavirus, government officials have asked Americans to swallow a hard pill: Stay away from each other.
In times of societal stress, such a demand runs counter to what evolution has hard-wired people to do: Seek out and support each other as families, friends and communities. We yearn to huddle together. The warmth of our breath and bodies, of holding hands and hugging, of talking and listening, is a primary source of soothing. These connections are pivotal for responding to and maximizing our survival in times of stress.
But as with any pill, there are side effects. As psychologicalscientists at the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection, our lab studies social connectedness, why it is important and how to maximize its benefits. Our clinical and research experiences help us understand the side effects of social distancing and suggest strategies for addressing them.
For those who must be quarantined because they are infected with the virus, this research has one important implication: Depriving the sick of social connection and physical closeness unfortunately may make it harder for them to defeat infection. For example, lonely college students respond more weakly to influenza vaccinations than do non-lonely students.
There are other costs. Loneliness makes people feel more vulnerable and anxious in social interactions. An official mandate to socially distance and isolate may increase what psychologists call intergroup anxiety, the natural threat and distrust people feel when interacting with those who are different.
While social distancing and isolation are in effect, there are things everyone can do to mitigate their downsides.
Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them however you can. Let people know how much you care about them. While live human connection is best, a phone call, with a real voice, is better than text, and a videochat is better than a phone call.
We believe such social technology-faciliated connections will aid all of us in staying as healthy as possible during this time. Although research on this is not comprehensive, we think it’s valuable to use social technology to mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation for those who are sick.
What you say when connecting also matters. If you are stressed and upset, talking about your feelings can help. You may or may not feel better, but you will feel less alone. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of sharing, resist the impulse to dismiss, debate or tell the other person not to worry. Your task is to listen and convey that you understand their feelings and accept them. This process – one person sharing something vulnerable, and the other responding with understanding and care – is the basic dance step of good, close relationships.
Human touch is also vital for well-being. If you are distancing with people who are close to you and healthy, don’t forget the positive impact of a gentle hug, or holding someone’s hand. Safe, mutually consenting physical touch leads to the release of oxytocin. Sometimes called the “love hormone,” oxytocin helps regulate your fight or flight system and calms your body in times of stress.
Other actions can help boost your and others’ well-being as you’re adapting to a world of social distancing.
Embrace others, figuratively. Be aware of your tendency to circle the wagons around your group. Importantly, even though it doesn’t always feel this way, you’re not born with a fixed group that you trust and fixed groups that you distrust. These feelings and associations are flexible and change with context. Imagine, for example, who feels safe and familiar to you when at work versus at a family dinner versus at a football game. Now is the time to expand how you define your group identities. This is a global pandemic. Human beings are in, the coronavirus is out.
Be generous. The practical side of this idea of expanding your identities is an encouragement to be generous, broadly speaking. Giving to others in times of need not only helps the recipient, it enhances the giver’s well-being, too. If you feel compelled to go to the grocery store to stock up on toilet paper, consider checking in with people you know who are more vulnerable and see what they might need. Give them some of that toilet paper. Help others around you, including neighbors you may not know well, people with whom you don’t usually feel a sense of kinship and people experiencing homelessness. Doing so combats the impulse to build walls. It puts you in touch with the better angels of your nature, and gives these angels voice and purpose.
Finally, remember to breathe. In this moment, with all the stress and anxiety, many people feel overwhelmed and disconnected. But you’re still here and those around you are in this chaos with you, too. A few conscious, gentle breaths can restore that connection, slow your mind and give you clarity, at least for a moment or two.
This coronavirus crisis may not end soon. Things may get worse. As people hunker down, the negative side effects of social distancing and isolation will shift and evolve. What feels manageable today may not feel manageable tomorrow.
As psychologists, we are concerned that the lack of social connections, increased stress, disruptions and losses of livelihoods and routines will tip some people toward depression. We are concerned about increased family conflict as people are forced to navigate unusual amounts of time together, many in confined spaces.
Flexibility is adaptive. Building a foundation of healthy coping, maintaining awareness of the side effects of our necessary societal changes, and staying connected to our values and to each other are imperative. Human beings have great capacity for empathy and caring in times of suffering. Maintaining social distance doesn’t need to change that.
Being healthy is pretty simple, but most people in the United States find it pretty hard. And for an African American, it’s over-the-top hard. Not only is the struggle of getting healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle embedded in the culture, but there are sometimes actual physical and financial obstacles to overall health.
There are many things in life that are simple and hard. Like staying committed to your spouse. It’s simple. Just stay faithful to one person for the rest of your life. It’s hard because there are all kinds of ups and downs you go through.
Alongside various temptations, you will also lose that euphoric feeling you had when you first met. That’s what makes it hard for the long haul.
Following Jesus seems simple. Jesus is to be the Ruler and number one priority in your life.
Sounds simple, right? It is but it’s also hard to do it. It means you have to deny yourself. Who wants to do that?
It means that you have to trust someone you cannot see. That’s a pretty high expectation, and if you have ever tried it, it’s extremely difficult.
Application is Key
The simple part about being healthy is summed up in a maxim from Michael Pollan, the author of TheOmnivore’s Dilemma andFood Rules: “Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants.” It can also be summed up in the overall guideline of staying active. That seems simple enough but even in the overall culture, it is a tall order. Folks who try often get buried in a mountain of guilt over late-night binges and how that occasional donut in the morning becomes habitual.
There seems to be no end to the people telling us that we need to eat better and stay active. The problem is not more information but application.
Usually where application fails is when we try to break ourselves from our normal routine. It’s all about habits. Habits are what shape our lives.
In his book the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says that habits can be broken down into three basic steps.
First, there is a cue or the trigger that tells our brains that we need to do something. The next step is the routine, which is the behavior that leads to the reward. The next step is the reward that reinforces the habit.
This is something he has labeled the habit loop.
Breaking Old Habits
It seems simple to break a habit then. All we need to do is recognize our cues. Then we can choose alternate behaviors that lead to a different reward.
The problem comes when your whole culture is made up of cues that go against the habit you are trying to break. That’s when the mountain of unhealthiness seems insurmountable.
At that point, you have to choose between your cultural identity and your personal well-being. What do I mean by that?
It’s Sunday afternoon at Big Mama’s house and everyone is famished after spending hours at church. Big Mama’s table is full of all kinds of things that are detrimental to your health: creamy mac and cheese. Fried chicken. Chocolate cake.
The only thing that’s decent is the collared greens and those have been overcooked with ham hocks. So the health factor is reduced.
What do you do? Do you skip the meal? You’re hungry and after all, you don’t want to disappoint Big Mama. Plus your family has been eating this way for years.
Besides that not only has your family been eating this way but millions of African American families have been eating this way. It’s embedded in your culture.
You begin to remember that time when your unusual cousin from California came and ate a salad the whole week and everyone ridiculed her and said she had been hanging around white folks too much.
You don’t want to be thought of as betraying your race. So you reach for the fried chicken. It’s only right.
Limited Time and Resources
How about the many African Americans who are single moms? You don’t have time to cook healthy meals for the kids. You are just trying to make it through the day and get some peace once they are finally put to bed.
So what do you do? You give them the quickest and easiest thing.
Most of the time the quickest and easiest thing is also the unhealthiest. It is loaded with sodium and sugar. It is targeted to parents and children and has been tested and refined to produce a bliss point.
I learned about this concept from the book by Michael Moss titled Salt Sugar Fat
The bliss point is the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that will get people craving for more. You don’t want to hear this but you’ve been had.
The food companies are deliberately making you unhealthy so they can make a profit from your lack of time to cook healthy meals for your family.
What if you did choose to live healthy in spite of the inconvenience of cultural identity and time? You still may face other challenges.
Let’s say you decided to follow Michael Pollan’s food maxim of eating real food and mostly plants. The economics are against you. Real food just costs more.
When you’re faced with feeding your family with the amount of money for food in your budget you have to make some choices. If it doesn’t add up you will buy the junk. And then you’re pulled back into the cycle.
There is also the existence of food deserts that totally trump eating healthy. A food desert is a swath of a usually urban community that does not have a grocery store.
There is no access to healthy food and families resort to buying food from the corner store which is usually processed and packaged. No fresh fruits or vegetables in sight.
If you are part of the 23.5 million people (mostly African American and Latino) in the United States who live in a food desert, this is a huge obstacle.
Let’s Talk Money
How about if you said that you wanted to stay active? You want to get a gym membership. That’s going to cost. You also have a family to take care of and a job to go to. You have to find time to squeeze it in.
Not only that but when most of your friends are not active then you won’t be active. Jim Rohn, the popular self-help guru, is often quoted as saying “You are the average of the five people you most spend time with.”
When it comes to being active, most black people don’t hang around other active black people. Watching sports on TV doesn’t count.
This is the essence of the struggle many black people face when it comes to health. On the surface, it seems like the struggle that anyone who wants to make a major change faces.
In many ways it is. What makes it unique is the cultural factors surrounding health.
For most African Americans eating processed, cheap, nutrient-absent foods and sitting on the couch watching reality shows has become a way of life.
Gathering around the table to consume salt, sugar, and fat in copious amounts has become the symbol of what it means to be family.
History of Soul Food
Don’t get me wrong. I love soul food. I think that the distinct flavor of the cuisine that we grew up with is worth having once in a while but I also believe that some of the ingredients have gone the way of just wowing the taste buds instead of delivering the sustenance we need.
He recalls the meals that his Ma’ Dear made in Tennessee and how they were organic and contained ingredients from the garden. It is important to note that we didn’t always eat like this.
So what happened? Corporate America happened. Concern for profit became more important than concern for humans.
In the 1960s, Soul Food became a hit and the recipes became more dangerous to our health. We have come to equate soul food with the fare showcased in the episode of the Boondocks about the “itis.”
You know, that feeling you get after a big meal and you just want to fall over and go to sleep.
TV or play video games on the couch are not what we are designed to do.
It’s a way of life I’ve seen played out in too many homes. Personally, I’ve tried to break away from it. I do it in fits and starts.
Some leafy greens here. Some HIIT workouts there. Then sooner or later the holidays come. That’s when the temptation levels are the highest.
My mind has two thoughts battling each other. The first thought is to not give in and pursue my highest ideals. The second one is that I’m not only missing out on the stimulation of my taste buds but the community that I’m a part of.
Most African Americans are a part of the church. It would seem that this makes things even worse. When church people get together, they eat.
And they don’t just eat but they eat good (or bad depending on your point of view). Treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit seems to only apply to sex, smoking, and drinking in the church world. Packaged foods and large meals get a free pass.
I can remember when I was a strict vegan for six months in college. I was filled with energy and it was mostly from the food that I was eating and not eating.
I felt like I was lighter than air. My mind was clear and I didn’t have any illnesses. Why did I stop? Family telling me I was eating rabbit food.
To put it simply I had no community to support me. And when it comes to food and many other lifestyle choices, the community always wins. That’s why for most African Americans, eating healthy is simple and hard at the same time.