In her foreword to Dr. Gail Parker’s book, Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma, writer, yoga teacher and rest coach Octavia Raheem recounts a chilling fact. The coroner who examined Dr. Martin Luther King stated that, although he was only 39 when he was killed, Dr. King had the heart and cardiovascular system of someone in their 60s. “Who can calculate the ways that the stress and trauma of racism clog one’s arteries, creating blockages and inhibiting access to deeper inner movement?” Raheem writes.
We may not have led an ongoing, deeply dangerous movement for civil rights, but daily microaggressions, the constant barrage of racial aggression and violence in the news, and our own work for social justice – in whatever arena we may have chosen – take a heavy toll on our physical and mental health, whether we are conscious of it or not.
The physical and mental deterioration caused by intergenerational trauma and constant stress is called “weathering” and, not surprisingly, also has an adverse impact on Black maternal and infant mortality. According to Arlene Geronimus, who first coined the term to describe the constant stress of racism, weathering leads to premature biological aging and worse health outcomes due to higher cortisol levels in the body. These can lead to a range of health disparities, including higher levels of hypertension and other heart and artery diseases, among other effects. The deadly impacts of racial trauma affect Black Americans at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. And, according to Geronimus, it is a particularly American phenomenon.
As far back as 1903, W.E. B. Dubois alluded to this racial trauma when he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Racial trauma is now known to be transmitted from generation to generation and can show up as an increased predisposition to stress, substance abuse, heart disease, depression and diabetes.
While just reading about the existence of pervasive weathering and intergenerational trauma can be deeply stressful, there are ways to proactively protect and heal yourself from its deadliest effects. We spoke to psychologist, author and yoga therapist educator, Dr. Gail Parker about her effective approach to healing stress and trauma.
AM: What are your go-to techniques to process the violence that assaults us daily, both as microaggressions, in the news (most recently the killing of Tyre Nichols), and in other ways?
Dr. Gail: Start the day with a soothing enjoyable ritual that calms your nervous system and allows you to connect with your inner peace. When you are calm, disturbing events are less likely to derail you from the foundation of tranquility, inner peace, equilibrium, and mental clarity. We each must create our own ritual. You may have to experiment until you find what’s best for you, and that may take some time, but it’s worth the effort.
I’ll share what works for me. I begin every day in quiet and solitude. I get up earlier than everyone else in the family, which means I go to bed no later than 10 p.m. I do this so that I have time in the morning to sit in meditation, reflection, and contemplation with no interruptions. Afterward, I enjoy a cup of steaming hot coffee, while I read something that lifts my spirits. Then, I prepare a light breakfast of granola and Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit. I drink between 16 and 32 ounces of water, get dressed and go for a walk. I don’t respond to emails or texts until I return from my walk. This ritual is very supportive of me and is a wonderful way to begin my day.
I occupy myself with what brings me joy and surround myself with people that I love. I limit my time on social media, which I find to be more of a distraction than anything. I limit my exposure to television, including the news. I discovered that by doing this I learn everything I need to know about what’s going on in the world, but without someone else’s spin on the events of the day.
During the madness of COVID and ongoing racial violence, I wrote two books on how to process the trauma that we’re exposed to and how to protect one’s psyche in the midst of it all. My morning ritual supported me in being able to accomplish this. Ritual is a healing balm for me. I think it can be for others as well.
AM: What have you discovered, in the time since your book was published, that has expanded your understanding of the benefits of restorative yoga to address race-based stress and trauma?
Dr. Gail: I am a lifelong yoga practitioner. I’ve been practicing for over 50 years. Additionally, I’ve introduced my psychotherapy clients to restorative yoga and meditation as part of their therapeutic treatment. Restorative yoga is calming to the nervous system. It supports peace and tranquility. Without fail, clients who practiced regularly were better able to manage their stress and were able to successfully recover from trauma. I’ve experienced shifts in my own body, mind and spirit as a result of these practices. So, personal and professional experience plus rigorous study, including deep self-study, have expanded my understanding of the healing benefits of restorative yoga.
AM: What (if anything) gives you hope that things are or will get better?
Dr. Gail: We live in a culture of unaddressed and unhealed trauma, racial and otherwise. I know that as we begin to do the healing work of our individual and collective trauma, change is inevitable. It doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t happen quickly. Ritual, restorative yoga practices, and meditation aren’t techniques you pull out in the midst of a crisis. Utilizing ritual, restorative yoga, and meditation to support well-being and to heal from trauma are lifestyle practices that take intention, dedication, and commitment.
AM: What is one thing you want people to know about how to care for themselves when the world seems out of control?
Dr. Gail: When we make our well-being a priority, (self-care), and engage with caring communities (community care), we can manage even when everything around us seems to be spinning out of control. When we shift our focus from an external to an internal one, we can find the peace that passes understanding. When we operate from a place of peace, because we feel peaceful, we are powerful beyond measure.
AM: Anything else you want people to know?
Dr. Gail: In order to thrive we need to practice resting. Rest really is our superpower. We don’t have to wait until we have passed away to rest in peace. The time for that is now.