During Minority Mental Health Month, breathwork coach Zee Clarke sits down with theGrio to discuss the benefits of breathwork for Black people.
If the term “breathwork” makes you roll your eyes — or even think, “That’s for white people” — you’re not alone. However, you may want to reconsider.
After 20 years in corporate America and Silicon Valley, with anxiety and stress levels to match, Zee Clarke needed a change. On her doctor’s orders, Clarke quit her high-stress job and traveled to India, where she discovered the transformative powers of breathwork, which has led to creative breakthroughs, less stress and communes with an ancestor she didn’t even know existed.
Now, Clarke coaches people and companies on how to harness the power of breathwork.
During Minority Mental Health Month and ahead of her first virtual psychedelic-like breathwork event on Sunday, “Roots,” Clarke sat down with theGrio to discuss the healing powers of breathwork, its benefits for Black people and how it can even connect you to your roots.
“Breathwork is breathing with intention,” she said. “It means that you are paying attention to your breath, and you’re breathing a certain way.”
Clarke explained there are many different breathing patterns and practices that can encourage various results, from reducing anxiety to transporting you into a scene from a past life. Much like the effects of psychedelic drugs, the type of breathwork Clarke specializes in is purported to open the subconscious mind.
“You never know what’s gonna happen. It’s all about how open you are to surrendering,” she said.
“Roots” will be the first time Clarke hosts a session with the goal of helping others journey through their subconscious to the source of their intuition and potential healing: their ancestors. Her inaugural session will work with the interacting brain regions that are active when a person is “not focused on the outside world.”
“This is where creativity lives. This is where unaddressed trauma lives and so much more,” she said. “What we do in a ‘Roots’ session is we access that subconscious.”
She added that her one-hour session will bridge the gap between the subconscious and the African ancestry traditions lying dormant in so many members of the African Diaspora.
The session has also been tailored to the Global Black experience, as expressed through her music selections. Clarke incorporates music by musicians of African descent, including West African drummers and current artists of today.
“The music takes you on a real journey. It’s not all slow and peaceful. It is meant to evoke emotions to help you get deep, deep, deep inside,” she said.
After gaining so much from her own experience of meeting an ancestor, a great-grandmother she wasn’t aware of, during a breathwork experience, Clarke wondered if more people would be open to the practice.
“It’s definitely a little bit out there,” she said. “You know, you say ‘psychedelics,’ and people are like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t do that’ or ’That’s for white people.’”
When she gets those reactions, Clarke likes to remind others that breathwork has roots in Black cultures worldwide. She noted how significant music is to many Black cultures and how breathing techniques are used in ceremonies in West Africa. Beyond that, the benefits of breathwork also abound for Black people.
Breathwork, whether through controlled and measured breathing or the more involved techniques Clarke speaks of, can help anyone in high-stress situations. The proper breathing techniques can keep a person calm, block anxiety and even help control one’s heart rate. For Black people, this could be particularly helpful because, as Clarke noted, we have some of the highest levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Clarke said this is primarily due to the amount of racism we often navigate, whether microaggressions at work, police brutality, or worse.
A 2018 study by the National Library of Medicine found correlations between mental health and racism. It also found 69% of Black adults reported having experienced at least one racist incident in their lifetime, while 61% reported experiencing racism daily.
Clarke sought out breathwork in the midst of the national reckoning surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020. She’s also used it in her arsenal to combat high-stress race-related situations. She recalled a peaceful protest in which she and a group of other violinists were playing in a park to protest the death of Elijah McCain, a violinist killed in 2019 by police in Aurora, Colorado. At some point, she said, the police descended upon the protest with riot gear. Clarke said breathwork got her through the moment.
“In that moment, I was using my breathing practices so I didn’t freak out or do something that would get me killed,” she said.
She said that incident was just one example of why breathwork exercises, like her upcoming “Roots” session, are so important. They are a way for Black people to not only relieve stress but gain skills to survive and begin to heal.
She added, “It was in these sorts of sessions, going into my subconscious, that I connected that I am here to help Black people heal from the experiences of racism, and thrive, despite those experiences of racism.”
She noted that for first-timers, it may not feel like anything is happening at first. Again, not that much unlike the experience of taking edibles or psychedelics for the first time. It’s the kind of experience you have to lean into, she says. Though she admitted, “Sometimes I’ve just fallen asleep, and nothing happened. Maybe [something] did. Or maybe I just needed rest.” Meanwhile, other times, she said she’s experienced orgasmic creative breakthroughs.
She added, “All this to say, we receive what we need at the time.”
Clarke’s “Roots” session is $22 for anyone over 18 years old who meets the health and physical requirements and will take place virtually on Sunday, July 16, at 5 pm (PT). For tickets and more information, check out zeeclarke.com.
Kay Wicker is a lifestyle writer for theGrio covering health, wellness, travel, beauty, fashion, and the myriad ways Black people live and enjoy their lives. She has previously created content for magazines, newspapers, and digital brands.
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