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Stress

Healing Racial Trauma Through the Koshas

Harboring aches, pains, or anxiety after experiencing microaggressions or glancing at your newsfeed? Yoga therapist Nazaahah Amin shares why race-based traumatic stress finds a home in your body and mind—and how yoga can help alleviate it.

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One afternoon as I was facilitating a private yoga therapy session, my client, a 40-year-old community organizer who had come to my yoga studio as a refuge from the outside world. Seated on her mat, she lowered her gaze and slowly shook her head as tears fell. “I’m just tired. I’m tired of having to bite my tongue and change what I say around them. I’m tired of having to filter my voice so I won’t hurt them,” she said, sharing an accumulation of microaggressions she had experienced at work. “My sleep is messed up. My neck always hurts. I’m just done.” 

As a yoga therapist based in Baltimore City, I often hear these sentiments from my clients, mostly Black women who are experiencing on a biopsychosocial-spiritual level the daily pangs of racist interactions with white coworkers, acquaintances, law enforcement, and strangers. For many of my clients, the harmful effects of racial bias are showing up as physical pain, mental health strains, or spiritual crises.

It is also my daily lived experience. I am a Black woman, yoga therapist, and yoga teacher in a field that is predominantly populated by slim, white women. Whether from students, fellow instructors, or studio owners, I have seen that even in this “healing community” systemic racism rears its ugly head. I saw it in my early years of teaching, when students would be surprised as I moved my brown body to the front of the room to instruct the class. Their bugged-out eyes showed their shock that a Black woman would be leading the class. One brash student looked me up and down afterwards and said, “Wow, you’re so articulate. Are you sure you’re from Baltimore?” The anger started to rise from my chest and into my throat; even though it was a blatant display of racism, I didn’t want to portray the unfortunate moniker of Angry Black Woman, so I swallowed it back down. 

Comments like these, while seemingly insignificant, affect your mind, body, and spirit, and tap into a traumatic history. 

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The Deep Roots of Racial Trauma 

The last year has been historic, bringing on a racial reckoning in America. Only now—amidst a pandemic disproportionately impacting Black communities, last summer’s uprisings stemming from the murders of Breonna Taylor (sign the petition to arrest her killers), George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, and the recent insurrection at the Capitol—that many white people are confronting the white supremacy and systemic inequalities that plague this country However, COVID-19 is not the biggest pandemic in our communities; it simply unearthed the epidemic that has existed for centuries. 

Racial trauma is not new to the African-American community—it began in the 1600s, when many of our ancestors were first kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to U.S. shores. Today, this ancestral trauma is compounded by systemic inequalities experienced in the Black community. 

Take my hometown of Baltimore, for instance. In a city that is over 65% African-American, we are still the minority when it comes to accessing proper quality of life. We experience inequities in healthcare, employment, incarcerations, and housing. Further, the June 2020 national uprisings retriggered the traumas from the 2015 uprisings that occurred after police killed Freddie Gray. Five years later, the country is still experiencing the same senseless killings and injustices that result in trauma within Black and other marginalized communities.

With every injustice, we still feel the pangs of our ancestors’ oppression through our DNA; while we have adapted to survive, and even thrive, ancestral trauma also significantly impacts our overall well-being, according to Dr. Joy DeGruy, researcher and author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.*

There’s a term psychologists use to describe the mental and emotional anguish spurred by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes: Race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), or racial trauma, can manifest as hypervigilance, dysregulated nervous system, and increased fears and anxiety. 

What my client experienced at work and what Black people experience every day in Baltimore and beyond can cause heightened levels of stress, frustration, nagging physical pains and depression. All added up, you have a community that experiences emotional and physical stress and trauma like no other.

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Healing Racial Trauma Through Yoga

There’s still so much work to be done systematically, but individually we must take care of ourselves. The practice of yoga can help acknowledge, process, and heal these race-based traumas. In particular, to help facilitate this work with my clients, I use the framework of panchamaya kosha (pancha meaning five; kosha meaning sheath).

Described in a sacred Tantric text called Taittiriya Upanishads, the koshas are five layers of our being that are interconnected and embedded in one another and surround our soul. From gross to subtle the five sheaths are Annamaya (Physical Body), Pranamaya (Energetic/Breath Body), Manomaya (Mental/Emotional Body), Vijnanamaya (Witness Mind-Body), and Anandamaya (Bliss Body). 

This is the framework I used with my client. First, even just talking about her experiences in a safe space with a yoga therapist like me, who could relate, helped her feel unburdened. The more she shared and felt heard, the more her shoulders released. Then, we worked on releasing tension and strengthening her spine, which in turn helped her feel more confident and authentically express herself in her work environment.  

We will now explore how racial trauma manifests in each sheath. From there, you’ll receive yoga practices and rituals you can incorporate into your day to help alleviate those manifestations.

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How Racial Trauma Shows Up in the Koshas

When you experience RBST, it’s important to first pause and recognize how the trauma is manifesting in your life and on which koshic level. This is not easy to determine, but stillness and intention can help to cultivate that awareness. Here are some ways you can begin to recognize it.

Annamaya Kosha (Physical Body) 

The physical sheath comprises every part of your physical body, including your limbs, internal organs, and musculoskeletal systems.

How racial trauma may manifest:

  • Tense shoulders and tight rhomboids from constantly being on guard
  • Elevated blood pressure from watching the news and scrolling through social media 
  • Rapid heartbeat from a constantly active sympathetic nervous system from attacks, such as microaggressions, codeswitching, and racial profiling. 

Pranamaya Kosha (Energetic/Breath Body)

The energetic sheath includes the function of breathing and your energy levels.

How racial trauma may manifest:

  • When processing grief from traumatic experiences, the breath is often contracted and shallow. This can result in anxiety or exacerbate existing respiratory problems, such as asthma and COPD.
  • Constant awareness of how you’re perceived by white people and fears of being “too much” decreases vyana vayu (outward-radiating air), an energetic life force, which constrains your expression and signals that should take up less space. (When vyana vayu is fully expressed, you feel full, whole, and authentic.)
  • Quality of sleep is disturbed, resulting in insomnia, fatigue, and disrupted sleep patterns. 

Manomaya Kosha (Mental/Emotional Body)

The mental sheath reflects your thoughts and feelings.

How racial trauma may manifest:

  • Anxiety, ruminations, or racing thoughts. (“How should I show up to be accepted by white people? Will me or my child be killed next? What is going to happen to my neighborhood? Will racism and oppression ever end?”)
  • Anger at the injustices and microaggressions.
  • Depression over not being seen and heard. 
  • Deep grief for what your ancestors experienced and their pain still living within you.
  • Frustration and/or stress about having to be the voice of Black people and placate and educate white people.

Vijnanamaya Kosha (Witness Mind-Body)

The witness sheath illuminates how you perceive yourself in the eyes of others.

How racial trauma may manifest:

  • Seeing yourself and your community the way white people see you—as inferior, incompetent, violent, lazy, angry, or a threat.
  • Disconnection from a Higher Power, or even disbelief in a Creator… ‘cause why would they allow these injustices to occur?

 

Anandamaya Kosha: Bliss Body

The bliss sheath reveals how you connect with and experience joy and pleasure.

How racial trauma may manifest:

  • Disconnection from things that once brought you joy. 
  • Feeling guilt for experiencing or expressing joy while so many in your community are suffering.
  • Seeing joy as pointless because it’s short-lived and the next injustice is impending. 
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Restorative Practices to Help Alleviate Race-Based Traumatic Stress  

While racial trauma in this country will be ever-present in the foreseeable future, we can use our yoga practices to bring us some ease. When we are able to regularly incorporate these practices into our lives, we begin to fortify the next generation of Black people. There is a substantial amount of work to be done, but the following koshic practices can help ensure that the trauma doesn’t continue to penetrate our communities, nation, and the world.

1. Body Scan 

Focus: Annamaya, Manomaya 

  • From a comfortable seated or reclined position, take 3 deep breaths in and out of your nose. Without moving your body, bring your focus to your physical body.
  • Inhale and bring awareness to the following parts of your body and then slowly exhale: your head, right eye, left eye, nose, mouth, right ear, and left ear.
  • Move the awareness down to your chest, belly, arms, and hands.
  • Continue that awareness to the lower half of your body pausing at each part: right hip, thigh, knee, shin, calf, ankle, top of foot, all toes, sole of foot, heel and all parts of the left side.

2. Constructive Rest 

Focus: Annamaya, Manomaya, Pranamaya

  • Lay down on your back on the floor and place your legs on a chair or the side of a bed.
  • Place your arms out to the side and slowly inhale and exhale.
  • Stay in this position for 12 breaths or as long as you wish. 

3. Svasti Mudra (Gesture of Well-Being)

Focus: Manomaya, Pranamaya, Vijnanamaya

  • Sit up tall, cross your forearms at your chest (right arm closest to chest). Palms press away from you facing the sides. Relax the shoulders and take a deep breath in.
  • Notice the connection of your arms against your body and bring to mind hurts, anger, or negativity.
  • Notice how you feel and any tension that arises.
  • Make fists with your hands, take another deep breath in, and as you sharply exhale, quickly uncross your arms out to your side while releasing the thoughts and tension.

4. Visualize your ancestors being happy with you and your choices 

Focus: Vijnanamaya

  • Close your eyes, and as you take 3 deep breaths in and out, visualize an ancestor.
  • Envision their face, smell, clothing, everything you remember about them.
  • Now, imagine they are sitting right in front of you and smiling at all the wonderful life choices you have made. Feel how proud they are of you as a Black person in this world.
  • As you inhale, imagine they envelop you in a warm hug; as you exhale, slowly open your eyes.

5. Joy List 

Focus: Anandamaya, Manomaya

  • Write a list of 10 things that bring your joy. You can do it in your notes app, journal, or even on sticky notes.
  • When you are frustrated by racist experiences, choose one thing from your list to do to reconnect you with joy.

6. Breath of Joy to Release Anger 

Focus: Annamaya, Manomaya

  • While in a standing position, inhale, and raise your hands up toward the sky.
  • Exhale, releasing hands out wide to the side. 
  • Inhale again, raising your hands up. 
  • Quickly lower your hands and forward fold as you exhale out a loud grunt.
  • Repeat 3 times.

7. Waterfall Dirga Breath 

Focus: Manomaya

  • While in a standing or seated position, close your eyes or lower your gaze and imagine you are standing firmly on the ground
  • Inhaling deep into your low belly, and visualize water moving up the front of your body.
  • Hold your breath for two counts and imagine the water pauses at the crown of your head.
  • As you exhale, imagine the water flowing down your head, neck, and back as it washes away your fears, anger, and doubts.
  • Repeat twice, first breathing into your ribs and then your collarbone, and starting the water flows in those positions both times.

8. Cultivating sangha with other Black people to share experiences in a safe space

Focus: Anandamaya

  • Seek out community with other Black people at your job or through virtual or in-person meetups.
  • Find a yoga session taught by a fellow Black person and attend regularly.
  • Volunteer with your neighborhood organizations to reconnect with the beauty of your community.
  • Look at social media accounts and websites displaying and affirming beautiful, bold, Black people. 

 

Nazaahah Amin
Photo Credit: Jill Fannon

Meet Nazaahah

Nazaahah Amin, MS, C-IAYT, eRYT, YACEP is a certified yoga therapist and advanced yoga teacher and the owner of Ama Wellness, a yoga therapy studio in West Baltimore. She holds a Master of Science in Yoga Therapy from Maryland University of Integrative Health and facilitates yoga therapy sessions to address intergenerational trauma in Black women in Baltimore City.

 

Want to learn more practices and rituals to take care of yourself?

Join Yoga for Self-Care with Pamela Stokes Eggleston and Amina Naru. (Bonus: Nazaahah also appears a guest speaker.) In six weeks, you’ll learn how to create sustainable habits and rituals so you feel nourished and cultivate the energy to give back to your community. Learn more and sign up here.