Ancient cultures, particularly those of the East, have a long history of understanding the power and importance of breath and energy. This tradition dates back thousands of years to ancient Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other spiritual paths. It has been believed that breath, or "prana," is the life force that sustains all living things.
In recent years, the power of breath has also become increasingly popular in Western culture. Things such as yoga and meditation classes have been popping up worldwide, with people drawn to their holistic approaches and benefits. Breathwork is also becoming more widely used for various purposes, such as stress relief, healing trauma and physical illness, and even peak performance.
With the growing awareness of how mindfulness and breathwork can create greater clarity and well-being, Zee Clarke, author of Black People Breathe, has become a leader in helping people of color understand the power of these practices. A Harvard MBA, Zee has gone from leading teams at Fortune 500 companies to teaching mindfulness and breathwork to address the racism and microaggressions that people of color experience, which was the catalyst in her career pivot.
In an interview with Clarke, I asked, “How did you go from Harvard MBA working in Silicon Valley to now getting into more of the holistic space of breathwork, mindfulness, and sound healing?”
Clarke replied, “I have one word to answer that question, and that word is burnout. Burnout is real, and it happens to a lot of people. But for me and my experiences being a black woman in corporate America, being a black woman in Silicon Valley, came with a lot of stress and chronic stress, particularly due to microaggressions.
I was experiencing microaggressions on a daily basis, people questioning my competence, people being surprised at how I speak. I was banging my head against not the glass ceiling but the concrete ceiling, which is the term used to describe the experience of women of color because that ceiling almost feels like it's not breakable. And so, at a certain point, I was climbing the corporate ladder. I was on the leadership team.
From the outside, it looked like I was doing great. I was “successful.” And yet inside, I was so stressed. I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't eating. I felt like nothing that I did was good enough. So, I worked nights. I worked weekends. And ultimately, that led to a breakdown in my physical health. It led to a breakdown in my mental health. And my doctors were like, something's got to change. And so, I took that seriously because I was not okay. And I quit my job, and I took a pause in my career, and I went to India.
I joke that I did the black girl version of Eat, Pray, Love. I was meditating, I was doing yoga. And that's where I became a sound healer, and I learned all of these tools to heal myself because I was not okay.”
While Clarke was in India learning ancient holistic healing practices, she said, “I had never felt so good in my entire life. And I was like, ‘Wait, this is a secret that so many people need to know.’ And that's why I feel so passionately to share these tools with others, particularly people of color because we experienced so many challenges on a daily basis, and we need the tools to feel better because of the health outcomes as a result of how we're treated are pretty, pretty stark.”
Racism, like other negative prejudices, results in a toxic exchange of emotional energy. Rooted in false or misguided beliefs, particularly when raised to think of certain people as dangerous or threatening, this imposed fear and distrust can quickly evolve into hatred and lead to hostile behaviors, remarks, and intentions toward those perceived as different. These negative interactions can lead to profound psychological effects, such as stress, anxiety, depression, and fear, and increased risks of physical ailments like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and more in the person being targeted or accused.
As we spoke, Clarke shared several of her own troubling racist encounters, including physical threats, racial slurs, and wrongful interrogation by police. However, what may surprise you is that it doesn’t take extreme hostility to cause a serious decline in well-being. As with many things in life, the “little” things add up.
In the case of prejudice, these jabs, or “microaggressions,” can lead one to marinate in a state of stress, anger, isolation, and other strong emotions. Examples of microaggressions in relation to race might be:
Asking someone where they are “really” from.
Making assumptions about a person's ability based on their race.
Touching someone’s hair or skin without permission.
Belittling certain cultural practices and customs.
Assuming all people of a particular race share the same traits, habits, and values.
Being dismissive of cultures, religions, and experiences different from your own.
Focusing on race when interacting with people of color in any situation.
Making assumptions about someone's socio-economic status based on physical appearance or name.
Refusing to acknowledge how racism has impacted people’s lives and experiences.
Clarke says, “I don't even like the term microaggression because micro makes it seem really small. But the fact that microaggressions led to my own personal burnout and, like mental health, the breakdown of physical health.”
Ensuring we have the emotional intelligence, specifically awareness and the ability to self-regulate, is critical to both preventing and being able to transmute trauma of any kind. That is a key objective in Clarke’s book—resilience and well-being in the face of adversity.
When I ask Clarke, “Why did you write the book,” she explains, “I wrote this book because I was tired of hearing. ‘I can't breathe.’
I can't breathe was everywhere. It was on the news. There was constant footage of police brutality. And I found that every time I heard a news story or saw any footage, I stopped breathing. I literally would stop. ... And what I realized was that in these moments, it was so important for me to breathe, because what I learned in India is that breathing can have such a powerful impact on your well-being and how you feel.
I often talk about breath as medicine because just as you take Advil when you have a headache or antihistamines when you have allergies, there is a breathing technique that you can do based on how you're feeling,” says Clarke.
Numerous data show that deep and mindful breathing is a powerful tool for improving physical and mental well-being. It works by activating the body's natural relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system) which has been proven to reduce stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve digestion and circulation, boost energy levels, regulate hormones, promote mindfulness, improve immunity, and enhance creativity and focus.
Breathing can also help you access deeper states of consciousness, allowing you to reach higher levels of insight while making decisions or problem-solving. In essence, deep breathing helps oxygenate the cells in the body, allowing them to function at their optimal level resulting in better overall health and well-being. And in extreme circumstances, breathing may be the tool that helps you remain calm so you can stay safe and alive.
Clarke continues, “And that’s why I'm so passionate about breathing because you can do it without going anywhere. You can do it without paying any money. … And there are many different types of breathing that we can go into, depending on what we’re feeling. …
Every chapter in Black People Breathe addresses something that happens to black people. I then offer a tool that you can use if and when that happens to you. For example, I have a chapter called Shopping While Black, where I talk about racial profiling, and I share a story of how a grocery store employee called the police and said that I stole deli meat. …”
Hearing Clarke share her life experiences, and day-to-day encounters with racism was astonishing. The unfortunate truth is that for racism and any forms of prejudice to be eradicated, it is crucial that every single individual acknowledges its existence and actively works towards its alleviation. Laws alone cannot end injustice; the underlying causes must also be addressed because, as Clarke also expressed, individuals who commit such acts are often deeply traumatized and follow a false narrative that leads to these acts.
Awareness is critical. Black People Breath is an essential book for people of color and their allies alike, as it raises awareness about the importance of combatting prejudice. It also stresses the significance of returning to one's breath when confronted with stressful situations. Zee Clarke’s book releases March 14th, 2023, and can be found at your local Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, or any book retailer.
To learn more about Zee Clarke and her work, visit www.ZeeClarke.com.