I don’t know which Black man needs to hear this, but your mental health matters.
Despite what the pressures of your peer group, personal aversions, and societal constructs may lead you to believe, seeing yourself and other Black men live, happy, healthy and whole lives is paramount and should be pursued no matter how challenging and no matter the costs. But, quiet as its kept, embarking on the journey to obtaining that positive lifestyle is one that starts in the mind first before it can be actualized into something tangible. And that sometimes means coming to terms with some uncomfortable issues and deep-seated traumas that may have previously kept you from moving forward.
However, thanks to a Chicago-based nonprofit known as The Healing CHI, that latter notion is exactly what they aim to help men sort through. Utilizing the healing powers of yoga, a practice more traditionally embraced by women, The Healing CHI—which came to fruition at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020—seeks to change and normalize the narrative around male vulnerability and healing to further reach their mission of elevating Black men and others in society. By hosting in-person and virtual yoga flow sessions, their hope is to “actively foster experiences and moments designed to fuel healing on an emotional and physical level.” Additionally, the non-profit also works to provide mental health resources to Black men through their Wellness Fund and curated healing experiences.
In conversation with The Root, cofounders Andrew Smith and Tristan Lewis discuss the work their non-profit, the unorthodox nature of using yoga and what they hope the future holds for the organization.
The Root: The Healing CHI was born at the height of the pandemic. What were each of you looking for personally when you both decided to start it?
Tristan Lewis: For me, what I was looking for personally was simply community. If you go back to 2020, a lot of our day-today interactions with friends and coworkers were diminished. I think when Drew and I started this organization, we realized we had a collective of guys who were interested in their own healing journeys but who were also interesting guys to be connected to in general. Multiple disciplines, from different parts of the country. So I think that the community aspect of what we started was really high for me.
Andrew Smith: I needed stillness. The pandemic for me was quiet but loud at the same time and there was a lot of chaos going on. The practice of yoga really settled my mind, it settled my body, it settled my soul. I had no idea that when we went into our first session, that was how I was gonna feel when I left it. Nor did some of the other men who participated that first time. That in and of itself was very interesting to me that I needed this practice more than I could’ve ever known. Adding on top of that, the community—I missed being around people and this fostered that environment. Not only could I be around men who looked like me but they were going through some of the same things I was. There was such a easy connection point in the thread that connected all of us that it just felt so natural and easy to even have some of these hard, difficult conversations.
TR: How radical, if at all, was it for you guys to choose yoga as your vehicle for healing as opposed to other “traditionally” male-centered/dominated activities?
TL: It was extremely radical. I think 2020 was the biggest set up for us, just the amount of tension we were dealing with with the pandemic, with the civil unrest that was happening across the nation. And then you add on top of that the micro-traumas that we were having personally being cooped up in the house and kind of tied away from our day-to-day routines. I think we were at a tension point and I think Drew and I realized we needed to offer something for the guys in our community to take a moment to be self-reflective, to be still. And what I found interesting was, even though yoga was the entry point into this wellness conversation and to address what was happening in the moment—when we started to build this community, guys started to go deeper in exploring other aspects of their mental health and well-being that preceded 2020. Well before 2020 came about. So I feel like this allowed guys to really dig deep below the surface.
AS: I don’t even think Tristan and I knew how radical it would be until after that first session. We didn’t know how guys were going to connect to it or if guys were going to be opposed to it. After that first session, we started reaching out to more people in our friend group and some of the responses that I personally got were like ‘yo that’s weird, I’m not into that. That ain’t for us, that ain’t for me.’ So, that’s when I started realizing yoga’s pretty polarizing to people who haven’t practiced it before. But on the flipside of that we also got such a great response that it kept us going and kept us sending out those invites and inviting people into the space. It didn’t deter us whatsoever but more than anything confirmed that we were on the right path.
TR: There’s often a lot of discourse about the absence of safe spaces for Black men to just sit, breathe, and honestly, feel and talk. In addition to the yoga aspect of the experience, what else is it about communing with your organization that contributes to the overall safe nature of your sessions?
TL: It’s modeling the behavior. I think that in our group chat, as simple as it seems, that’s where I feel like the most work has been done. We have a group chat of about 30 guys and in our chat, obviously as guys we talk about sports, music, we talk about pop culture. But we have some real conversations in there.
AS: For me I think that it’s the willingness of Tristan, myself and other people that we began with who were open into being vulnerable in the moment. I believe that there’s strength in our vulnerability because that allows other people to be vulnerable as well. And once we opened that door, conversations really started flowing. And through those conversations, friendships began and that’s what really helped cultivate our space and really gave us credibility as more people entered into it.
TR: When you think of The Healing CHI 5 years from now: what do you want it to look like and who do you want to continue serving?
TL: I would say our vision for The Healing five years from now is to grow deeper and wider with our impact. We want to see more men start their healing journey, we want to see more men say yes to wellness, yes to mental health. I think guys do a really good job already taking care of their physical selves but we want to see men take a more holistic approach to their mental health. I think for Drew and I, we would love to see if we could help spearhead a conversation across the nation, bigger than Chicago. I think that’s our mission, to democratize mental health and to make this flag known across the country.
AS: We just want to normalize the conversation. Five years from now, I hope that it’s normal for you to go to therapy. I hope it’s normal for you to enter into a yoga practice and there be a Black male teacher. I hope all of those things are normal so that when we’re walking into spaces, not only do we feel comfortable but we feel needed, we feel wanted. And it’s not abnormal and it’s commonplace for us to do so. We are constantly building out our plans, we started organically, we’re continuing to move that way. But we are starting to strategize and plan what the next couple years will look like for us because we know that we can be an impact in this space as far as it pertains to Black men and mental health.
And we know that we lead culture. So we know if we can prioritize our spot in this space, who knows what could end up happening. We hope to see these suicide rates drop, we hope to see an increase in Black men prioritizing their mental health.