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African Americans are creating their own mindfulness spaces

Owner Dana Smith leads a class at Spiritual Essence Yoga Studio on June 29 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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In the tiny Virginia town of soybean fields and no stoplights where Kimberly Matthews-Williams grew up, her Black church was family, and that felt really good — on Sundays. On her own later, as a student in D.C., something was missing, and she looked for a spiritual practice that felt to her like a connection to the universe, one she could carry into her every day, and began Buddhist chanting groups. There, she’d rarely see faces and bodies that looked like hers.

The past few years, with pandemic-stressed teens in her house and racism constantly reflected back in the national news, Matthews-Williams badly needed a change. In the fall of 2020, sitting in her home in Takoma Park, she googled “meditation for people of color.”

She took her first class the next day. Right away, “I exhaled. You know the first time you’re away from your family home and you come home and go: ‘Home,’” she said. “I literally was like: ‘This feels good.”

The boom of mindfulness everywhere from classrooms and gyms to mosques and offices in the past decade or so has slowly pulled in Americans far more diverse than the practitioners who began decades ago adopting practices like yoga, meditation and reiki that originated in Asia. Now Black practitioners are creating their own spaces, centered around their backgrounds and bodies and comfort.

Welcome to the era of African American mindfulness.

That can mean simply classes where teachers and students are mostly Black. It can mean spaces where people can raise issues like the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident or Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings and everyone understands why those may feel like deep challenges to inner peace. It can mean getting that some of your relatives think mindfulness puts the spiritual above God, or above the Black church. Or being on the mat next to a woman wearing a “yoga has curves” T-shirt.

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According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.3 percent of non-Hispanic Black Americans did yoga in 2017 and 13.5 percent meditated. The overall use of these practices is up sharply since 2012, when the CDC said the percent of Americans who did yoga went from 9.5 percent to 14.3 and meditation from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent.

Rhonda V. Magee, a University of San Francisco law professor who writes, leads workshops and teaches on the intersection of mindfulness and race, said mindfulness has been popularized and shaped for decades “through a White lens.”

“We’re opening up options for people and creating the kind of spaces that may not exist to serve us right now. With the rise in white supremacy and hate everywhere, it should surprise no one that many of us might feel comforted by affinity group space,” she said, using the term for people who share a common interest.

“It’s not about just creating re-segregation or re-Balkanizing the world with meditators at the lead. It’s instead about deepening our capacity to heal the wounds that we carry. So people of color don’t need to feel they are the victims of microaggression or worse. If you’re leading with the goal of minimizing suffering at the core of mindfulness and Buddhism, you want to create spaces where people can just feel safe.”

One focus for Magee has been integrating mindfulness into higher education and the legal field. Among the new mindfulness programs she’s seeing are those created for veterans, people with disabilities and the fat rights community.

Black people interviewed for this story came to mindfulness for different reasons. Some heard yoga or meditation could help them with unhealthy stress. Others were drawn by core philosophical ideas including seeing divinity in oneself, and the power of paying intense, quality attention.

“In church I felt really good on Sunday, and my Monday I was like …” Matthews-Williams said and trailed off into a silent pause. “With my mindfulness practice it’s not getting to a place, it’s being where I am, carrying it with me at all times.”

Matthews-Williams, 55, who works in human resources policy for the federal government, is part of Heart Refuge Mindfulness Community, a D.C.-based program founded in 2019. It started with regular in-person classes but went online during the pandemic. Heart Refuge was founded by Ayesha Ali, 68, and Rashid Hughes, 33, who have both been active in other majority White practice groups and retreat centers but decided something else was needed.

“This is harmful. There’s just a sense of disconnect; we’re not watching the same movie the same way,” is how Hughes described it.

Ali grew up in D.C., where her grandfather was a deacon at the historic Third Baptist in Shaw. She explored ideas including Science of Mind, an early 1990s philosophy, as well as the Nation of Islam, Sufism and Orthodox Islam. She started practicing mainstream Western mindfulness more than 15 years ago but felt alienated by what she saw as an emphasis on quiet — a type attainable through privileged means such as the ability to get to rural centers or studio spaces and time inaccessible to many Americans. She felt the experience of non-White practitioners was not understood or shared.

She joined with Hughes, who grew up playing trumpet and piano in church in Richmond, and came to D.C. to attend Howard University in 2006 where he studied music and went on to the divinity school. He became a Baptist pastor but began feeling separate from the concept of “God” he understood and began exploring Buddhist mindfulness, including the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” a classic text by the famous late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, that emphasizes the shared teachings of compassion and love.

He traveled to the Philippines and Korea and around 2014, he quit the Christian ministry to begin training and tutoring in mindfulness.

“What mindfulness gave me was this capacity to get to know myself for myself in a way that was grounded in kindness and a deep acceptance of who I was. I was a minister and a student of theology and I was feeling separate from God. Mindfulness practice was the tool, the means, that helped me to begin to ask myself: Who am I and what does it mean to be human? Before that my focus was to acquire and reach God outside of me. This practice invited me to look at myself and be considerate of how I’m looking.”

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Juneous A Pettijohn’s path into mindfulness came through holistic wellness and yoga, in 2008. Raised Baptist, Pettijohn eventually balanced mindfulness work with church, and attends Unity Church, which is a Christian denomination that emphasizes spiritualism and universalism.

He knew Hughes and Ali through mainstream mindfulness classes in the D.C. and joined them because they center his experience as a non-White person.

The classes include acknowledgment of ancestors “we know and that are unknown,” Heart Refuge’s website says, and our “individual and collective lineage of joy and suffering, of power and pain.” It says it offers “an inter-generational understanding of the importance of embodied mindfulness practices for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.”

Another model of mindfulness that aims to be extra sensitive to the needs of non-White people is in Upper Marlboro, where Dana Smith has been teaching yoga and mindfulness and training teachers full-time since 2006 when she ran the operation out of her basement. She has since trained about 500 teachers, including many of the Black-led studios around Prince George’s.

Smith’s Spiritual Essence Yoga is an oasis of pastels and high ceilings in a typical brick and concrete suburban strip mall. Smith, Sanskrit words are placed over rooms that offer reiki and sound healing, or a place to sit with crystals and tea, or practice yoga. Almost all students are not White, mostly African American.

Smith, a 46-year-old mother of three, sought out yoga online in 2001, when she was grieving a friend lost in the Sept. 11 attacks, facing a pregnancy on her own and rising blood pressure. She began driving an hour each way to classes in Dupont Circle, where she remembers people being kind but emphasized in a way that “felt like a petri dish.”

She began teaching classes in her basement, but was sensitive to her parents, who are strict Christians, and many of the African Americans she knew who ranged from hostile to those who simply said: “I don’t see any Black people. I don’t feel safe.”

Twenty years later, Smith’s classes and center are meant to be welcoming to all and completely universal, not focusing on race. Teachers trained there simply talk about the importance of representation, of seeing people of color and of different sizes and shapes.

A recent class of eight students included one White person.

“I can see myself on her site, and that is helpful, because our bodies are built differently,” said Niki Newman-Brown, 43, an instructional director for Prince George’s County schools. She said there has been a gradual increase of curiosity and trust in yoga from the church set. Mindfulness teachers have also worked to find inviting ways to disarm.

“Things I’ve said that once offended people of faith, like ‘I need to meditate on that’ — it used to offend and now it doesn’t. Once people get a little more understanding, it starts cross over.”

Newman-Brown said she never felt out of place in majority White classes but have heard other people of color say they felt unwelcome or unseen.

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Ali said being with people of different backgrounds remains essential to her, in addition to Heart Refuge, because it’s what she believes.

“It’s the reason I’m still in White spaces. If you look at the whole thing from a Buddhist perspective, the ‘delusion of separation’ — a core Buddhist issue — is the cause of harm,” she said of a Buddhist teaching that disconnection from other humans and other life-forms is a kind of poison.

Alexis Braswell, 24, began practicing and studying with Smith a year ago. Her father had recently passed away and she was struggling with trying to figure out how to transform and find herself. While she sees mindfulness practices as still taboo among some people, she found herself googling “yoga classes near me.”

After one of her first few classes, she found herself crying, with a feeling of “deep release.”

In addition to working for the FDA and teaching gymnastics to toddlers and parents, she is studying to be a teacher and the value of a majority-Black space is representation.

“Being the healer that Dana has been able to be, and to teach and offer community, and seeing someone who looks like me and I can be like them,” she said, encourages her to be a healer.

This story has been updated.

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