Over the past year, the Black community has experienced much loss. Between the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ma’Khia Bryant to personal losses of friends and family, or even losing their jobs or homes – the feeling of grief struck us differently this year. In a world of stillness and not being able to be around loved ones as much as we’d like, our mental wellbeing required much more thoughtfulness. While a lot of us may not know where to start in our healing journey, fortunately, thought-leaders and experts in the Black community were available to guide us and provide a safe space for Black mental health.

Catherine Ekeleme, an instructor at inclusive mindfulness studio Open, discovered the power of yoga and mindfulness while working as a health educator in South Africa. Now, the movement and mindfulness educator serves as a leader of Open’s immersive experience and purposely structures her courses to mend the bridge between athleticism and the soul in order to guide her students to a better sense of self.

“Open was a really serendipitous thing,” she shared. After her initial meeting with the co-founder of Open thanks to a connection through a client, Ekeleme realized how much alignment there was between the studio and herself. When the idea of her relocating to California from Brooklyn came about, there wasn’t a doubt of hesitation in her body. “Sometimes you really just have to let life and the universe do the work on your behalf. In terms of what Black women can get from being a part of this community is the diversity and seeing a person with a different background and a different approach to how to do this thing called life.”

She continued, “We’re all connected in this same vision of making the world more open, having more compassion, growing this sense of self in space that is loving, aware and open to joy. We’re a mindfulness studio at the very heart of it.”

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, ESSENCE caught up with Ekeleme to discuss the importance of mindfulness for Black women, how yoga helps to tap into a better mental wellness state, and more. Check it out below!

How did your wellness routine shift once the pandemic started?

It crashed and it burned, and then I picked up the pieces. I would say in the first six months of COVID, it was really, really difficult because everything that I knew had just fallen away. I immediately stopped doing the work that I was doing every day and for the last three years. The gym is closed, I can’t see my clients, and I can’t go anywhere. At first I didn’t know what it was going to turn into; nobody knew. I was like, oh, I’m going to take two weeks off because I deserve it. I’m tired. But as we went along and I realized, because I’m so sensitive and so empathic, like I just was feeling what everyone was feeling, and feeling like I needed to show up? It was really hard.

I’ve been seeing the same students throughout this whole year of what we’ve been going through and showing up. They’ve told me, “It’s because you showed up,” and I really had to tell them, “No, it’s because you showed up and I could tell that you needed it.” That’s why I had to show up for myself, but it was really, really hard. I think I took a lot of tumbles in June, especially. To be honest with you, I cried a lot. It was a really hard time but showing up for other people is really what got me through. Moving on the mat, meditating and breathing – it’s transformative.

How did you practice digital wellness, and manage your social media intake and mental health simultaneously?

I’ve always been, by default, pretty good at that because there’s a little part of me that feels like social media is kind of weird and unnatural. Although I enjoy it and I’ve met really wonderful people through it, it’s not that natural for me to go into a place and be like, “Here are all the things that I’m doing.” That’s like something I had to learn.

One thing I’ll say is that I scroll until I feel like I need to stop, like when I get to that other hashtag and I start to feel myself get sad and heavy. I know that it’s time to stop and that’s when I go to my inner circle of Black female friends. For work and for fun, you got to get on social media and try to enjoy it but I always stop when I start to feel anxiety, when I start to feel like I’m not doing enough, or someone’s life is better than mine. I get off and sit with myself. If I need to process what I’ve seen, then I call my sisters.

What are some key practices of yoga that you’ve implemented into your day-to-day life that have helped you achieve a better mental wellness routine?

Intention setting is such a game-changer. I think what I like about yoga and the way that I share it is the nuance. I feel like people in the Black community can really appreciate the nuance – nuance of language, the nuance of fashion and expression, and the way that we say and see things with each other. It’s a nuance of setting an intention to feel a certain way or to just not feel the way that you’re feeling now. That mental piece is really key because yoga is about the mental.

There’s a lot of focus in the Western world around the physical Asana and doing these tricky things and transitions, which can be really fun. It’s also important to see what your body can do, but at the same time, the physical Asana is about preparing you to sit and receive your own spirit and meditation. It’s about that mind work and cultivating that sense of focus so that you don’t let all the distractions, everything that’s going on in the world, all of your hurt, pain, and trauma keep you stagnant.

Why is it so important for Black people to see themselves in the wellness, yoga, and breathwork space?

So that they know it’s for them too. I was that person. I was the only Black person in many yoga classes. I was the only Black person in schools growing up in the South, and just because you get used to it doesn’t mean that it feels okay. It’s never felt okay. We deserve to be a part of the wellness conversation because wellness is for everybody. It’s good to see. I went through a lot to get to where I am now to even be that person for other people, but I’m glad I went through what I went through because it allows me to connect in an authentic way.

You look up, you see someone and you maybe hear their story. You hear me share why breathwork means something to me or how I’ve used a certain pose to rehab from something. You go like, “Oh yeah, that’s a real person. She looks like me and she may have had a similar experience so I don’t have to feel alone in my interest in yoga, in my curiosity about breathwork. If I have questions, I feel more comfortable asking them to someone I feel like might get it, or get me.”

How can we make the conversation about racism as a public health issue more inclusive?

Being someone who has a master’s in public health and stepped away from that approach to wellness and community health, it’s a humanity issue. I would really love it if more conversations talked about what it means to be a human being and what people’s human experiences are. With me as a human, I feel “this” when you do “X,” and let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about our thoughts, our feelings, and let’s talk about those things instead of public health.

To be real, public health is really public health policy. Once you start getting into policies, red tape, and lobbying, we’re taking an issue and politicizing it. Then it goes on like this fan belt, and we have to wait until these certain checkpoints and the policy has gone through all these people and processes until we can make a move on it. That’s why I moved away from public health. I didn’t think I needed to help someone in Malawi, Africa. I didn’t need to draft a year-long approach to it. I would have to go there and talk; let’s go there and connect.

I would really love it if the diversification came from communities who were first open and willing to connect outside of policy and buzzwords, and willing to connect on like that human level. You breathe, I breathe. You got blood, I got blood. Let’s talk about how it feels to be a human and what it means when we feel hurt. The coping mechanisms we have and the things that might be healthier for us, whether you’re Black, white or Asian, or a she, them or they. That’s how I would want to use whatever influence I have to push that through.

What are some coping mechanisms you’d recommend for anybody from a marginalized or disenfranchised community who doesn’t feel seen or heard or is feeling triggered during this time?

It isn’t for everyone and I say that knowing that some people who have told me journaling or writing didn’t work for them, now write and journal. One thing I live by is that you got to hear yourself first before somebody else can hear you. You got to see yourself first before someone else can. Every day I get up out of the bed and I’m looking at my mirrored closet doors, and I’m speaking to myself in a way that’s loving. I’m seeing myself and choosing to find something that I love.

Believe me, some days it’s hard to do that, but it’s just the practice of doing that so I know when I have to show up for other people, I’ve already talked to myself in a loving way. I’ve already told myself that I’m okay, I’m worth it, or whatever it is I needed to hear that day. If I can’t do that, I try to write and journal, or write and make a gratitude list. I know not everybody has access to a computer to type, or pen and paper but say it out loud. Say your feelings so that you hear yourself. From hearing yourself, you can ask yourself, is that true? Is that dramatic or exaggerating? Or is that real for me?

How do you define mindfulness, and how is it integral to overall good mental wellness?

What’s coming into my awareness now, as I think about the word, is this ability to be in the present moment. It’s not reactive, it’s not defensive; it’s truly being. If you’re talking to me, I’m hearing your words. My mindful approach is to truly listen and hear them, to take in what you’re saying, let it fall over me, and be with it. Then respond from that place.

In terms of mental health, what mindfulness really allows you to do is be aware of yourself as you’re moving through as a self. If things are coming up, whether they’re happy, sad, or somewhere in between, you can check-in. When you are going through mental health issues, and I’ve had my fair share, you can feel so disempowered, like you don’t have access or you don’t have control over that downward spiral. Mindfulness really helps you take your power back. It puts you back in the driver’s seat of your life and adds in that sense of calm and peace and attention.

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