African American Mental Health Awareness Week
By Dianne Anderson
Breathe in cow, arch exhale cat. Push up to downward dog, release. Floor seated side twist always from the shoulders, never the low back. Relax.
Dat Yoga Dude, James Woods, often shares his experience of being a long time marriage and family therapist, teaching others how to deal with the pressure.
All the while, he was trying to rise above his own stress. Yoga was that pause.
“[It’s] That break where we’re not being slammed with racism, slammed with all the different oppression we face just walking around in the world. Close your eyes, breathe and just check in with yourself and be with your body,” said Woods.
The Black community is being pummeled with COVID, the distress of financial fallout on top of existing health issues and racialized pressures of life.
He said that yoga helps, especially as Black men try to cope with high blood pressure and serious health issues resulting from a constant fight for justice.
Woods holds a masters degree in clinical therapy, and has worked with clients for years, going into homes of mostly low-income Black and Brown communities, and was getting burned out. His supervisor recommended yoga.
“I was like Yoga? That’s for skinny white ladies, Black men don’t do yoga, but I decided to just try it,” he said.
Having played football through high school, he thought it could be a good workout. He was the only man in the studio.
“You start getting into the harder poses, downward dog, I started shaking and breathing hard. I looked around and I saw the older ladies breathing through it. That gave me the cue to just calm down and relax,” he said.
Taking time to be at peace in his body, and his skin, has been critical to surviving the damaging fight or flight response, particularly after the George Floyd murder and civil unrest. All the uncertainty tightens the mind, he said, which also needs to be stretched.
“Yoga is and has been a release valve for me. Walking around in a Black male body, we are constantly under a sense of threat that your life can be taken at any time. Looking at history, we see examples of that,” he said.
Slowly but surely, he is starting to see more interest in the community for yoga, particularly older Black men.
“They don’t want to end up like what they see, broken down mentally and physically. They say hey, I got to do something. My doctor told me about this,” he said.
Woods is also a member of the 100 Black Men of the Inland Empire and is based in Riverside. For the last ten years, he had worked with the San Bernardino and Riverside school district after-school programs, including social-emotional learning.
“A lot of students say yoga is the only time they have peace during the week because they go home, and it’s chaotic. It’s crazy outside, the teacher is yelling. I love being able to help find them some peace,” said Woods.
This month, Woods and several others participated in “Express Yourself Beautiful Black Man,” presented by the African American Family Wellness Advisory Group, and the African American Mental Health Coalition (AAMHC).
Linda Hart, the CEO/Founder of AAMHC, said any discussions about mental health issues must include access to social services and resources. People have lost their jobs, they’re being kicked out of their homes, and entire families risk homelessness.
“A lot of people are back on their rent, and a lot of people are not going back to work because the jobs are no longer there,” she said. “They just don’t have the kind of income they used to have.”
Hart offers regular community workshops, outreach worker trainings, and peer-led support groups.
She also crafted the original proposal for African American Mental Health Awareness Week, a statewide resolution passed in 2010 by former Assemblymember Wilma Amina Carter (D-Rialto) to raise awareness of mental health resources in the Black community.
One case she heard recently is a heartbreaking example of desperation that is becoming commonplace. One mother had lost her home, lost her kids, and ended up in a mental health facility.
“She got laid off, she fell behind on her rent, ended up losing her apartment, and then a shelter. They took her kids because many shelters are unsafe,” she said. “She ended up having a breakdown. Before that, she was fine. It’s enough to give you a breakdown.”
As a mental health professional, Hart said that she is seeing a spike in calls for support for depression and anxiety, but they can always call in her office to get help.
“We provide information and referrals, and [point clients] to the services through the Department of Behavioral Health. They can get what they need depending on where they live,” she said.
For more information, see www.datyogadude.com
To connect with Linda Hart and service, email firstname.lastname@example.org or www.theaamhc.org