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Breathing Is An Act of Liberation

It’s well documented that practicing breath control through yoga can help with the body’s stress response. However, for Black people living in America, the connection to breath is complex.

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When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, I remember looking at a link to the video footage, deciding whether to watch another Black man’s life be snubbed out before my very eyes.

I felt my own breath start to quicken as a scream of frustration lodged in my throat. I decided to step away from my computer for a few moments to find my own breath. It was just a simple 4-4-4 breathing exercise, one that I never fail to return to when I need to get grounded. I felt my breathing even out as my thoughts settled to be more reflective, rather than reactive.

Breathwork, or pranayama, is often touted as a great tool to help manage mental health, particularly in the yoga world. And not for nothing—it’s well documented that practicing breath control through yoga can help with the body’s stress response.

However, for Black people living in America, the connection to breath is complex. We are living in a time where Black breath is constantly and callously cut off due to violence at the hands of those who are meant to protect us. “I can’t breathe” has now become not only a rallying cry, but almost a plea, as we chant the names of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and too many others.

Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic that affects Black and brown folk at alarmingly disproportionate rates, marked by a virus known to cause potentially deadly breathing problems. Given all of this, the ability to breathe can be considered a blessing as we focus on our self-care, and a demand as we claim space to breathe in spite of all the systemic injustices at work.

“[Breathing] is almost an act of liberation, an act of taking control,” says Jerrelle Wilson, E-RYT 500, a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “We need to be in control of our breath.” When we are at the hands of someone more powerful, Wilson says, “It’s important for us to take our power back and take our control—and that starts with our own breath.”

This story is part of Yoga Journal’s Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health

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