Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Black health matters: Understanding and implementing the key ... the tool

By Ness white

It's been all over the mainstream news: An offshoot of the Black Lives Matter organization, Black.Seed, shut down the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Martin Luther King Jr., Day. Their action was reportedly meant to be seen as a "strong, courageous stand in solidarity" with King's message of radical, non-violent protest.

What has been less reported -- or focused on -- is the message on the banner the protesters' cars were lined in front of. It read "Black health matters."

Upon reading this statement, it might seem obvious that black health would matter to activists who state that black lives matter. Health is a part of life, so naturally, it would be important. But when the BLM movement has been largely associated with police-related killings and brutality for more than a year, the statement that black health matters greatly expands the discussion.

For some readers, the discussion on black health might extend as far as pointing out the health disparities between blacks and the general U.S. population. These readers would be correct to name those disparities as studies and statistics have repeatedly done so over the past few years. Because of this, today's article will not delve deeply into said health disparities, but will focus instead on one way in which black health can be maximized.

The key

Rooftop yoga instructor and psychology student Markedia "Moka" Hinds recently told me that yoga -- a moving meditation -- allows her to be rejuvenated, livelier, and more balanced and centered. She added that while the exercise is physically and mentally beneficial, pushing her past her limitations, there is another important aspect of it.

"Awareness of breath is what's key to that whole experience," she said.

Talking more about breath awareness, Moka explained that we begin to breathe through our chests as we get older -- a completely normal anxiety-ridden response to the daily stresses we experience. However, we don't get much air -- or oxygen -- when breathing this way, and our years on Earth are greatly reduced. Babies, on the other hand, breathe through their bellies -- which is also considered diaphragmatic breathing, and a slower, calmer form of respiration.

Focusing on and being conscious of our breathing here and there throughout the day is helpful in slowing the pace of our thoughts, Moka said. It can be done anywhere, at any time and is accessible to anyone.

"Take a step back and breathe," she advised, adding that it is helpful particularly during emotionally charged situations. "As you practice awareness more, awareness becomes more natural.

"Come back to the breath."

Now, [what we can do] about those disparities

Remember those aforementioned health disparities? Well, here is where they come into play. Many of the health disparities black people experience are directly related to stress. High blood pressure, heart disease and asthma, for example, are all believed to be worsened by heightened stress levels.

How far will Black.Seed and, perhaps, other BLM offshoot groups go to promote black health? Will they incorporate breath awareness and breath work into their practices?

At the end of 2013, I wrote a graduate paper discussing the importance of breath as a tool for feminists of all races, classes and orientations to use against oppression. As the official BLM organization is a partially-feminist group, I believe what I wrote in that paper can apply and add to the movement.

"The breath has been directly linked to stress and stress has been directly linked to various oppressions," I wrote. "For example, according to the American Psychological Association, racism has been considered a contributor to stress among racial minorities, many of us unaware of the impacts such stress even has on our beings, given that we are even aware of the stress at all.

"These oppressions, steeped in fear, promote hate, death ... in not just the physical sense, but death to our mental, emotional, as well as spiritual planes of being. One way in which these oppressions continue their long-term effects on us is through stress, targeting the breath as a crucial ingredient of life.

"Considering its very nature as a life force driving our emotions, thoughts, [and] actions ... I offer a view of the breath as a tool that -- already in use -- we can wield to lessen the deadly effects oppression(s) has/have on our bodies, hearts, minds, [and] spirits, instead of exacerbating them."

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