Yoga as Healing for the Black Community
a Black yoga teacher discusses trauma, privilege, and problems in mainstream yoga
Over the course of my yoga practice, I sat in many classes and watched people pour their hearts out about how yoga saved their lives. As I watched their passion and relief, I could not help but think about my people, the Black community, and the atrocities they have faced and continue to face.
I thought about some of my friends from Philly who have seen their loved ones gunned down in the street with their own eyes. I thought about my community as a whole and the constant stress that comes with living under oppression. I thought about how much Black pain both past and present is ignored, denied, and minimized.
I wondered why it took me becoming a yoga instructor focused on trauma to realize how much my yoga and meditation practice had kept me grounded throughout everything I’ve experienced. Most of all, I wondered if yoga could be used as a tool for healing, why wasn’t it being brought into the communities who need it the most?
The Black community has and continues to be exposed to layers of trauma at an unparalleled rate. Some may hear the word trauma and automatically assume it does not apply to them, but as we’ll explore, it will become clear that untreated chronic stress can have the same effects as trauma. Regardless of the cause, trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope and return to a state of internal safety.
Types of Trauma
Two less commonly acknowledged and researched categorizations of trauma are systemic trauma and intergenerational trauma.
Systemic trauma is untreated chronic stress that is caused by living under oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.
The wear and tear on the body that occurs from experiencing chronic stress throughout a lifetime has been demonstrated in Bruce McEwen’s research on allostatic load. Within the Black community, particular groups—such as women and those who are also part of the LGBTQ community—face discrimination, harassment, and hate that is intensified by intersectionality.
Specifically, the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia collide to create a very dangerous world for Black transwomen to maneuver through. The Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 26 transgender people were murdered in 2018 and at least 18 more in 2019, the majority of whom were Black transwomen. These women were murdered by partners, acquaintances, and strangers, often due to transbias. The discrimination and hate of transgender people put them at higher risk for unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and forced sexwork. For some of us, the trauma begins even long before we are born.
Systemic trauma is untreated chronic stress that is caused by living under oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.
Dr. Arline Geronimus developed the weathering theory, which is “a physiological process that accelerates aging and increases vulnerability. It is spurred by chronic toxic stress exposure over the life course.” Her research found that the risk for low birth weight, preterm babies actually went up with age for Black moms in high-poverty areas. Meaning, while childbirth is typically safer for women in their twenties compared to teens, the opposite is true for Black moms in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Because of social inequality, high-poverty neighborhoods expose residents to several environmental stressors, such as poor air quality, poor access to healthy foods, overcrowding, and home decay. Dr. Geronimus revealed that these stressors outweigh the typical benefits of being a pregnant woman in her “prime” childbearing age range. Because a woman in her twenties living in a high poverty neighborhood will have experienced the environmental stressors of poverty for a longer period of time than a teenager, the cumulative exposure puts her at higher risk for a low birth weight baby than a teen mother.
This research highlights just how pervasive stress and trauma can be on the human mind and body.
Intergenerational trauma is the transmission of trauma symptoms from one generation to the next. Research has found that trauma can actually alter the genes that are passed down through not only one but two generations.
For example, a study found that the grandchildren of mice that were exposed to cherry blossom scent in conjunction with a shock, expressed the same hypervigilant response to their own first exposure to cherry blossom scent, even though they themselves didn’t experience a shock. The mice who received the shock developed enlarged regions of their brain for detecting the scent, and the grandchildren of those mice also had these altered brain structures. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense that tactics to ward off life-threatening danger would be passed from one generation to the next.
As descendants of African slaves and Jim Crow survivors, African Americans have a high likelihood of living with intergenerational trauma. Unfortunately, epigenetic research on intergenerational trauma transmission is still considerably new with a complicated methodology so a study on the descendants of African slaves has not yet been published.
Researchers have typically focused their studies on mice and descendants of Holocaust survivors, though more recently, a study was done on the grandchildren of Union army soldiers of the U.S. Civil War. It found that the sons of soldiers who were held as prisoners of war were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not imprisoned. The prisoners of war were said to be held in especially gruesome conditions. Given the research that has already been developed, it’s reasonable to presume that centuries of kidnapping, rape, torture, mutilation, branding, and forced labor could have an impact on African Americans.
In addition to the possibility of being impacted by intergenerational or systemic trauma, Black people, like everyone else, face the possibility of experiencing shock trauma and/or developmental trauma.
Shock trauma is a sudden event that happens too fast and too aggressively for the nervous system to process. There are particular types of shock trauma, though, that Black people are especially susceptible to, such as gun violence and police brutality.
The lack of gun reform in the United States has made it possible for gun violence to plague high-poverty Black neighborhoods for decades. Every time a Black person is killed, not only do they lose their life, but their loved ones and their communities are impacted by that sudden, violent death.
Although Black people only make up 13 percent of the population, they made up 25 percent of the 1,147 people who were killed by the police in 2017. And on top of the police brutality experienced and witnessed in their own communities, cell phone videos, body cams, and social media now expose Black people to an endless loop of videos of police violence from around the country.
Developmental trauma accrues from mis-attunement between a child and their primary caregiver. With mass incarceration, housing discrimination, food deserts, and high rates of poverty disproportionately impacting the Black community, it is understandable that Black children face developmental trauma at an alarming rate.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study revealed that 61 percent of African American children have at least one adverse childhood experience. Black children are most likely to experience economic hardship, death of a parent, and incarceration of a parent.
The Traumatized Body
These traumatic experiences have serious consequences. Research is beginning to explain how trauma not only impacts the mind, but the body as well.
When your body is able to successfully complete the fight, flight, or freeze response, stress hormones stop being released and your body begins to return to a state of calm. When you are physically held down or trapped in danger—like being detained in inhumane conditions at migrant detention camps or living in a neighborhood with high levels of gun violence, for example—the fight/flight/freeze response may be unable to reach completion and return you to a state of homeostasis. Instead, the brain continues to secrete stress hormones and fire off panicked electrical circuits even after the threat no longer exists.
If you live in a society where you are oppressed, however, the threat is never gone. For many Black people in America, this is the reality. The nervous system becomes hypervigilant to possible threats, often misinterpreting circumstances and unable to relish the present moment. You could compare it to the damage that occurs from stepping your foot on the gas pedal of a car that’s in park for weeks at a time.
In some cases, people become so overwhelmed by the constant alarms going off inside their bodies that they numb their internal awareness and struggle to experience, interpret, or express how they feel. It is not uncommon for someone who has experienced trauma to be unable to feel whole parts of their body.
Whether numb or unconscious to the internal rumbling, this continued state of stress can have very real effects on both the mind and body that are highly correlated with chronic medical conditions (such as cardiovascular/circulatory diseases, autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia).
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have also been found to have very low heart rate variability (HRV). HRV measures the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and a low HRV is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Yoga as Healing
So what can yoga do about all of these layers of trauma?
Studies have found that consistent yoga and meditation increase activity in the parts of the brain that run self-regulation, the ability to process stress, and return us to homeostasis.
After 20 weeks of yoga, women who had experienced extreme early trauma became able to increase their proprioception and ability to communicate internal feelings and emotions. Our breath, a key resource in yoga, can also be used as a tool to increase our heart rate variability and rewire our brains (as mentioned earlier, people with PTSD often have unusually low heart rate variabilities).
In a Harvard study, individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation had greater prefrontal cortex activity. (The prefrontal cortex is the conscious part of the brain that interprets what we experience and helps us exert control over the emotional brain.) Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and researchers also found that 10 weeks of yoga practice dramatically reduced PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any other medication or prior treatment.
The Importance of Trauma-Informed Practices
While the research supporting yoga and meditation’s ability to heal trauma is strong, all yoga classes are not created equal. On the contrary, some yoga classes can be very triggering and make people feel especially vulnerable. It’s essential to have trauma-informed teachers and practices to avoid doing more harm.
For example, in mainstream yoga classes, there are several directives that may make someone healing from trauma feel unsafe. Teachers will often tell their students to close their eyes at the beginning and/or the end of class, and for some students this may be calming, but for others, being unable to see their surroundings can be terribly frightening. When your body is constantly scanning for danger, closing your eyes can be a very overwhelming experience.
Similarly, teachers giving hands-on adjustments without consent is a common practice in mainstream yoga classes. But many students may find a stranger unexpectedly touching their body quite alarming, especially students who’ve been sexually assaulted or physically abused.
Using detailed verbal cues and mirroring as primary forms of adjustments are helpful tools for creating conditions of safety for students. Always requesting consent before touching a student is another important guideline to follow as a yoga teacher. Even if a student was open to their teacher touching them in a previous class, it does not mean they are open to it in every single class or several times in a class. For students who have been sexually violated or disenfranchised, having a teacher respect their jurisdiction over who gets to touch their body and when can be very empowering.
Ideally, a trauma-informed yoga class should not only be focused on not retraumatizing students but on exposing them to tools on the mat that can be utilized off the mat. Skills like approaching your body with curiosity and the understanding that feelings rise and fall can be critical in the everyday life of someone recovering from trauma. A trained teacher can provide prompts throughout class that encourage students to stay aware, curious, and compassionate toward their bodies and their emotional reactions. Simply reminding students to breathe out and notice what they feel can illuminate to them that their sensations fluctuate, their breath can be used as an anchor, and there is safety in curiosity.
Ideally, a trauma-informed yoga class should not only be focused on not retraumatizing students but on exposing them to tools on the mat that can be utilized off the mat.
Healing in Community
Healing does not occur in a vacuum—it is a communal experience, which is why yoga classes are a unique opportunity for both individual and cross-cultural healing.
In Dr. Geronimus' further studies on weathering, she was surprised to find that when comparing within racial groups, affluent Mexican Americans showed more weathering (were less healthy) compared to those living in poverty. Her colleague, Edna Virtuell Fuentes found that these affluent Mexican Americans had to leave their community to attain education and job opportunities, making it more difficult for them to deal with microaggressions and discrimination than for those who stayed within their community.
Similarly, yoga classes are typically majority white spaces. As a Black person, just entering a majority white yoga class alone can be uncomfortable because of systemic trauma and individual experiences with discrimination. Fortunately, creating safety in these spaces is not impossible, it just requires education and effort.
In order for yoga to be healing for the Black community, it’s imperative that the teachers leading yoga classes have an understanding of the challenges Black people face.
The majority of yoga classes are taught by white women who often are not informed about trauma or race relations. Standard yoga teacher training does not cover how trauma or oppression may influence a student’s practice, so it is up to the teachers to educate themselves.
As teachers, we are in a position of power and privilege so it is important we’re mindful of the language we use and the way we treat all of our students. Simply acknowledging your privilege and bringing a heightened level of empathy for the struggles students may be grappling with at any given time is a great first step. Understanding racial history and staying informed on social injustice in the United States is even better.
For studio owners, bolstering the support for Black trauma-informed yoga teachers, increasing representation of Black yoga teachers overall, and educating the teachers who already exist are all necessary strategies to better serve the Black community.
It is also important to state that yoga is by no means the only way to heal from trauma. In fact, talk therapy, somatic experiencing, and medication under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist could very well be used on its own or in conjunction with yoga and meditation.
The priority is to heal as individuals, a community, and a people.