Om, Sweet Om

Some blacks still claim they're too stressed to destress. One woman's slow release.

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The book also seeks, through its panoply of characters, to demonstrate the historic, social and cultural "commonalities" between blacks and Latin Americans.

In generational terms, I suppose it was inevitable that black Americans would find our way to yoga. Our earlier preferred methods of self-soothing, self-preservation (or self-medicating), have begun to work against us: Eating the rich, fatty food that sustained and comforted our grandparents and their grandparents, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and yes, bottling up the racism-inspired rage that we often felt; or exercising our bodies only fitfully, and without allowing for regular doses of quiet time, clearly has not worked for us. And do I have to point out that a lot of black athletes-with beautiful, high-performing bodies that reap, at the pro level,, extremely lucrative compensation-obviously require emotional and mental health "workouts" along with physical conditioning?

Moreover, you've read the awful morbidity statistics, and I have, too. Blacks have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, early infant mortality, cancer, etc., ad nauseum, than the general population. When I first began investigating blacks and mental health, in the mid-1990s, I learned that African Americans also experience negative symptoms from emotional and psychological stress-depression, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and homicide-much more acutely than just about any other ethnic group. Only Native Americans, unfortunately, have poorer rates than blacks in all these categories, raising the question of whether they, too, might benefit from a yoga intervention at the grassroots level. But I don't want to presume...

A well-known black medical doctor (who is also a psychiatrist), once told me: All the political and economic advances made by African Americans during the past 50 years will not ensure the success of our future generations-taking charge of our mental and physical health care, in that order, is the true key to our historic longevity. Plus, the pursuit of such, in and of itself, is spiritual.

Of course, for so many of us, getting the light bill paid, keeping the children in schools (and physically safe), making sure the job is secure, doesn't usually leave much time for "taking charge" of one's mental or even physical health. That those of us who have attained relatively comfortable income levels have begun seeking "alternative" methods of exercise and self-preservation perhaps points to a level of assimilation that is positive (as opposed to some of the more destructive varieties such as social isolation and the "crabs-in-a-barrel" syndrome outlined by Frantz Fanon and other black thinkers over the decades).

Ten years ago, I silently resisted the idea of yoga. But now I-and my former tennis-playing knees-am getting into it. I like being in a group where hardly anyone speaks but everyone manages to communicate how they are experiencing the "work;" where no one judges my stumbles and exhortations-or raises an eyebrow at my choice to not buy all the gear.

Seriously, I can't yet see myself striding along with one of those hippy-patterned, yoga mat bags that I often spy around my circuit in suburban Washington, D.C., slung over the shoulders of stay-at-home moms at the supermarket or occupying rear seats of the mini-vans or SUVs that they drive. The rubber mats provided by the center where I take classes are swell for my purposes.

At least, that is what I tell myself, at this point in time. The daily swirl of managing my life only allows for a once a week period of "centering," and the surprisingly strenuous, muscle-elongating contortions of yoga.

Right now, I'm simply enjoying familiarizing myself with the process, with learning that is self-perpetuating: The more you engage in yoga, the more insight you gain about how you make decisions. This is a rare opportunity in this era of mindless consuming and hyper-kinetic networking.
Anyway, apart from the much-needed relaxation I get from my weekly yoga class, I also see it as a metaphor, a way of kick-starting a vision I have of myself in the years to come, and for my children: In the moment, no matter your age, education, or income, you can stretch and extend yourself long enough, carefully enough and far enough. Repeat, until your fingertips connect to the future and the baton is safely passed.


Amy Alexander, the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is writing a book about race and media.