Action and protest are getting a lot of press these days (rightly so), but that forward movement wouldn’t be possible without its counterpart, stillness and preparation.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” said badass activist Audre Lorde in her collection of essays A Burst of Light. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
The goals behind Meditate to Wellness—a two-part retreat designed to bring together women of color to practice breathwork and meditation—weren’t advertised as overtly political. The goal, first and foremost, was to introduce women to specific health-improving tools. But it’s impossible not to see the connection between a healthy body, a healthy mind, and the strength to resist: Dominique Drakeford, a spokesperson for the event, positioned the retreat as an antidote to the 2017 elections—“with so much going on,” she told me, “we wanted to interrupt people’s everyday, the hustle and bustle.” And with the second Sunday of the retreat falling on inauguration weekend, she knew people would be looking for a little stress relief. “It’s definitely needed for folks in the community!” Drakeford explained.
The retreat, which took place at Clinton Hill’s El Noel Wellness Center, is the result of a collaboration between Leslie Carrington, founder of Holistic City Life, Kathleen Booker, a breathing technician (the “Jedi of Calm”), Abi Ishola, founder of Beyond Classically Beautiful (a gorgeous, carefully-curated multi-media platform), and The Manhattan Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
Abi Ishola, Leslie Carrington, and Kathleen Booker.
For Leslie Carrington, meditation is a daily practice—she spends 15-20 minutes meditation in the morning and at night. “It helps keep me grounded and present,” she says. “Without meditation I would be all over the place, riddled with anxiety and insomnia. As a woman of color, meditation keeps me connected to God/Spirit.” She insists that if more people meditated, there would be less violence and hate.
Why women of color? Well, women of all backgrounds were welcomed, but in a wellness space dominated by Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and the overwhelmingly white Well+Good and Mind Body Green, designing classes and retreats that specifically welcome women of color is a necessary piece of the puzzle.
Carrington wanted to provide women of color a space to explore meditation and breathwork in a safe and non-judgemental setting—El Noel Wellness Center is all that, plus an oasis of beauty and calm. The first session focused on letting go of things that no longer served. “We can all agree that there are people, experiences, feelings, etc. that we’d rather not bring into 2017,” says Carrington. The first step, then, is to let go of old ways of being and anything that’s holding us back emotionally.
The second session took advantage of the newly created space and filled it with goodness and positivity. Think: affirmations. Carrington explains, “we affirm that we are all here to do great things in the world. Connecting to the breath enhances our clarity and focus to get things done.”
The breathing technician, Kathleen Booker, is of course a huge proponent of breathing-as-healing, and of meditation. I asked her how the sessions went. “So much healing and transformation took place last Sunday!!!” she exclaimed. “The women were ready to let go of stress, tension, anxiety. The feedback I got from every woman was how relaxed she felt. One woman expressed her thanks—she said, ‘I never relax, and this is the first time I have been so calm in years!’”
Booker has been teaching and practicing the art of breathing for over fifteen years. When asked why she thinks women of color in particular can benefit from meditation and breathwork, she gets really excited. “OMG absolutely!” she said, pleased to expound on her favorite subject. “We have the highest rate of blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The breath targets all of that and more for healing! In addition, black women tend to put ourselves last, if it all.” She continues, “The breath puts us in our hearts, we become heart-centered… from that point we make choices for our highest and great good, enhancing our immune systems, learning to say a loving “no”, and so much more.”
Kathleen Booker, breathwork specialist.
To underline the medical benefits of the session, a trained medical team from nearby Sunrise Cornell Medical Group were there to take vital screening prior to and directly after the meditation sessions.
Dr. Sonia Banks is a licensed clinical psychologist and the president (for the second time) of the Manhattan Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a collaborator on the event. She attended both sessions and, like everyone else, fell in love with Kathleen’s approach. “She skillfully shaved us,” says Banks, “which is funny because Kathleen is also shaved!” (Booker sports a beautiful shaved head.) “And by that I mean she took the cooties off of us—she took the weight off. She clarified and cleared the room, and encouraged us all to go a little deeper, to travel through our bodies.”
Banks hopes to include Booker in another event in partnership with Mt. Sinai Medical Center this May. Because, she explains, “if you can’t get into your breath, if you can’t manage your oxygen, you can’t really manage anyone or anything else.”
All images: Dominique Drakeford