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‘I come to breathe’: In a time of stress, Black people looking to yoga for meditation, relief and healing

As Kendra Blackett-Dibinga headed to her yoga studio in Mount Vernon on the first day of the trial for the Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd two weeks ago, she spotted a Black man wearing a hoodie, emblazoned with big white letters: “I Can’t Breathe.” Those three words reinforced her purpose as a yoga instructor.

They were among the last utterances of Floyd, a Black man who died after the white officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nine minutes. That case, along with a string of other police killings of Black people in 2020, sparked months of protests, and wound up becoming a call to yoga practitioners like Blackett-Dibinga.

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She launched the “I Come to Breathe” campaign last fall at her studio, Bikram Yoga Works, which encourages its members to bring a friend or family member to live and virtual classes with free seven-day passes.

She and other yoga teachers and trainers across the country are tapping into the practice as a way to help Black people get a sense of reprieve during a time of isolation and civil unrest. Within the past year, teachers say they have seen an increasing number of Black men and women either practicing yoga or working to become instructors. In Philadelphia last fall, yoga teachers led sessions outdoors after protests. Other teachers have conducted classes to show people how to use yoga as a way to bring some healing to the community.

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The Baltimore yoga studio’s campaign started after Blackett-Dibinga, 43, who is Black, took her three children to a George Floyd protest at a park in Washington, D.C., where they live. She was struck by the chorus of protesters repeatedly shouting “I Can’t Breathe!”

“I could not bring myself to chant that,” said Blackett-Dibinga, who decided that night to use her teaching to encourage people to meditate, reflect and breathe. “I believe you speak things to existence.”

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, in front, leads a class at Bikram Yoga Works called "Drip't." Inspired by the signs at a Black Lives Matter protest saying "I Can't Breathe," Dibinga felt compelled to launch the "I Come to Breathe" campaign at her Mount Vernon studio. March 29, 2021
Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, in front, leads a class at Bikram Yoga Works called "Drip't." Inspired by the signs at a Black Lives Matter protest saying "I Can't Breathe," Dibinga felt compelled to launch the "I Come to Breathe" campaign at her Mount Vernon studio. March 29, 2021 (Amy Davis)

At her spacious Mount Vernon studio recently, eight people, a mix of Black, white and Latino yogis, most of them clad in “I come to breathe” T-shirts, stretched on brightly colored yoga mats. The hot yoga session, called “Drip’t” was focused on strength training, which helps build muscle by incorporating weights and resistance bands.

Blackett-Dibinga has two other studios, one in Washington and the other in Prince George’s County’s Riverdale Park, but the “I Come to Breathe” message, and the free passes, spread beyond the region via the studio’s virtual platform.

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“The campaign comes at a time not only with George Floyd but with everything that happened in 2020,” said Maisha McAllister, who has been teaching at the studio for the past two years.

The 41-year-old Black woman said that the idea of breathing being therapeutic is what drew her to the practice back in 2007. As an instructor, she wanted to share the healing effects yoga has to offer.

Roughly 94% of people who practice yoga do so for wellness reasons such as lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rate, according to a recent study.

“We need to breathe for the people who are oppressed and for the people who have COVID,” McAllister said.

In the months following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed in police encounters, the former first lady, Michelle Obama, shared on her podcast that she was experiencing “low grade” depression due to quarantine and racial tension. It’s a sentiment other Black Americans can relate to.

Vanessa Brown, 62, a retired Baltimore social worker who takes 12 classes a week at the yoga studio, said she appreciates the campaign because it is a time for empathy and understanding. Brown remembers the feeling of despair and isolation as a young Black girl, when riots against racism and police violence broke out in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. For days, she couldn’t go any farther than her porch steps.

Vanessa Brown, 62, of Hunting Ridge, works out in a class at Bikram Yoga Works in Mount Vernon called "Drip't." She has been a yoga practitioner for 40 years, and attends classes without charge at the studio through a work-study program. March 29, 2021
Vanessa Brown, 62, of Hunting Ridge, works out in a class at Bikram Yoga Works in Mount Vernon called "Drip't." She has been a yoga practitioner for 40 years, and attends classes without charge at the studio through a work-study program. March 29, 2021 (Amy Davis)

“My father was the only one who could go out and he had to have a pass,” Brown said. “The feeling of not being able to breathe has been throughout history.”

Veteran yoga instructors like Jana Long, who has practiced yoga for more than 50 years, said that although there are more Black people joining, yoga is not new to the Black community.

“In mainstream culture, our history is not shown unless it’s civil unrest,” said Long, executive director of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance in Baltimore.

She noted that civil rights activist Rosa Parks practiced yoga with her niece and nephew as a way of self-care, while Parks was living in Detroit. But Long said yoga is needed now more than ever.

“We are in a moment where people need a practice that brings them to a place of inner peace and stillness,” she said.

Stacey Holley, 41, works in human services and goes to the Bikram Yoga Works’ Mount Vernon studio at least six times a week. She said the campaign encourages her and fellow yogis to have deeper conversations and support for one another. She also said going to the studio helps with feelings of anxiety and helps her to release stress and breathe.

“African American people can’t breathe because we sometimes don’t know how to breathe,” Holley said. “The world is crazy.”

And in the last year, there seems to have been a sort of awakening.

In Philadelphia, one week after the death of George Floyd, Spirits Up! was launched as a six-day yoga and meditation protest in key historic squares across the city. The organization is now raising money for a permanent Black-centered healing space for those fighting on the front lines for Black lives, as well as those who have experienced systemic racial traumas.

Adriana Adelé, 32, who was tapped by the founder of Spirits Up! to lead one of the classes, said yoga can help everyone, especially during a time of the pandemic and racial injustice.

“But certainly, [for] Black and brown folks, yoga has been a refuge and a place for respite and a place to empower themselves,” Adelé said.

Blackett-Dibinga plans to conduct a similar outdoor event in Washington this spring.

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“I want to show Black and brown communities that we are more powerful than we think we are,” she said.

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Maisha McAllister, front, participates in a class called "Drip't" at Bikram Yoga, led by Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, right. Inspired by the signs at a Black Lives Matter protest saying "I Can't Breathe," Dibinga felt compelled to launch the "I Come to Breathe" campaign at her Mount Vernon studio. March 29, 2021
Maisha McAllister, front, participates in a class called "Drip't" at Bikram Yoga, led by Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, right. Inspired by the signs at a Black Lives Matter protest saying "I Can't Breathe," Dibinga felt compelled to launch the "I Come to Breathe" campaign at her Mount Vernon studio. March 29, 2021 (Amy Davis)

Last week, in a room set at 99 degrees with 30% humidity, Blackett-Dibinga led her class through a series of intense exercises from jumping jacks to resistance band crunches, all to the sound of pop and reggae music and the snaps of Blackett-Dibinga’s fingers. After each routine, she reminded her yogis to breathe deeply for about 10 seconds.

It’s an act that instructors hope their yogis will carry with them after they leave the studio.

“The heat actually helps with oxygen flow which will help you breathe better,” McAllister said. “When you leave the room, the air feels so much better, and you can appreciate it more.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner

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