There are several studies stating racism as a key factor to the increased physical and mental health disparities among Black people. As the stress elevates, it can intensify negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.
Zee Clarke, mindfulness and breathwork specialist, is the author of “Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing.” After investing 20 years of her career leading teams at Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley start-ups, she decided to call it quits after struggling with the microaggressions and the isolation of being the only Black woman in a predominately white, high-stakes, and demanding industry.
No matter how accomplished she was as a Harvard Business School-educated woman, it wasn’t enough to shield her from the stresses of corporate America.
In 2017, she packed her bags and traveled to India to embark on her journey in breathwork.
Breathwork is the basic idea of releasing toxins and stress when you breathe out and nourish your mind and body when you breathe in. This technique has been practiced for thousands of years and is deeply rooted in yoga.
Clarke is now a breathwork teacher and CEO of Reclaiming Flow, helping people of color manage imposter syndrome and stress while helping them heal, survive and thrive.
The Defender spoke with Clarke to learn about the best mindful breathing practices while being Black in corporate America and in society.
Defender: Let’s go back to the turning point for you working in corporate America. When did you feel it was time to go?
Clarke: I was working in corporate America. I was on the leadership team of my company, but the microaggressions and the racism were so bad that it started to affect my mental and physical health. People would say things like, “You’re only here because you are Black. You only got to this position because you’re a diversity hire.” I remember a moment when the white folks that reported to me went to HR and said that I was not complimenting them enough and I was aggressive. I’m sure they wouldn’t have said that to a white male boss if they had one.
All of this started to affect my mental health. I wasn’t sleeping at night. I had headaches all the time. It started to affect my physical health. At a certain point, my doctor said something’s got has to change. That’s when I took it to heart and I quit and went to India. I always say I did the Black girl version of “Eat, Pray, Love,” because I was mediating, doing yoga, and never felt better in my whole life. That’s why I do the work that I do to share these tools so other people can get their peace back.
Defender: Traveling to India was part of this experience. What was your “aha!” moment there?
Clarke: Breathwork was the most powerful thing I learned in India, because through the breath I could impact how I’m feeling. We can’t control what other people do, but we can control how we feel inside. By learning these mindfulness practices, these breathing practices to calm our nervous system, you could still have peace regardless of what is going on outside.
When you get off the plane in Delhi, it’s crazy. There is so much action and a lot of poverty and chaos. I realized you need to be able to have a sense of inner peace despite all of the challenges.
Defender: In your book you’ve meticulously curated breathwork practices for Black people in the workplace. What were some unhealthy coping mechanisms you used when you were in corporate America?
Clarke: In my book “Black People Breathe,” I talk about optimizing your morning and evening routines. How well are you spending your time? Are you being intentional? For example, my phone was my alarm clock. I would pick up my phone and snooze, snooze, snooze, snooze. Then, I would pick it up and I’d see an (Instagram) notification, and I’d start scrolling. Then I would check my work email and something would be triggering. I found myself lying in bed holding my phone, writing an angry email back before brushing my teeth. Very unhealthy habits. In the evenings, I’d be so exhausted that I’d pour myself a glass of wine, then another, maybe a third glass. I needed something to numb the pain of the day. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I was trying to keep up. It was in survival mode. In India (I learned that) there are practices that we can do that don’t even take that long. You could do something that just takes two minutes that could change your whole day.
Defender: What do microaggressions look like in the workplace? How do Black employees cope under these circumstances?
Clarke: I’ll give you an example. There is something called competency microaggression. That’s when people question our abilities, whether it’s the way we talk, “Oh you speak so well, How’d you learn to talk like that?” or people asking me to provide more evidence of what I say or what I do. “Where’s the backup research?” You constantly feel like you have to prove yourself. In my book, “Black People Breathe,” I have a chapter called, That’s Not My Name, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called the name of the other Black person, even though we look nothing alike. Stereotypes also come into play. Someone asked a friend of mine, “You’re a single mom, right?” Why did they assume that she was a single mom? Because she is a Black woman? These are very stressful.
What can you do when these things happen? When they happen, we get triggered. You might feel your shoulders tense up or something in your stomach or throat. That is your sympathetic nervous system kicking in. That is your fight, flight or freeze nervous system when under attack. In these cases, we are under attack. It’s a psychological sort of attack.
Defender: You highly recommend a practice called R.A.I.N. Why do you consider this to be a powerful practice for those experiencing tough times?
Clarke: Let’s start with this. I don’t know how you grew up, but in my household, when something hard happened, you swept it under the rug and kept it moving. R.A.I.N is a mindfulness practice that is powerful in helping us heal. If we don’t address these challenges, they say the issues are in the tissues. (The word) “disease” is Dis-Ease. We have all sorts of diseases, and physical health problems.
“R” stands for “Recognize how you feel.” Name the emotion. Maybe it’s anger or sadness. It takes away the charge.
“A” stands for “Allow it to be there.” Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you are feeling. It’s so easy for us to get mad at ourselves, feel guilty or be ashamed at the way we are feeling. Sweeping it under the rug doesn’t help.
“I” stands for “Investigate.” I like to focus on the body. How do you feel in your body? Is it tightness of the chest? Is it something in your neck? Say it out loud. Acknowledge it.
“N” is for “Nurture.” What can you do to feel better? Maybe you need a hug, or a cheerleader, a phone call, a walk outside. Be intentional and mindful about what you need to feel better.
Defender: What are three self-care tips Black people should start right now?
Clarke: One, have a solid foundation in terms of your daily routine. Two, make a list of all the things that help you feel restored. Lastly, I have a course coming out on Juneteenth called “Breathing Through Microaggressions and Racism.” I share what you can do when you experience different emotions. Learning the tools can be powerful in your day-to-day.