Do we risk sacrificing our mental health by entering wellness spaces that have the potential to do violence to us as we attempt to do right by our bodies and minds?
CW: This article contains mentions of depression, anxiety, and Bipolar II
By Ravynn Stringfield
I have spent nearly eight years in battle with my own mind. Depression and I have faced off, then anxiety tagged in, and finally Bipolar II almost knocked me out. As a result, I have spent a lot of time developing my “Wellness Toolkit,” which is what I call my personalized list of coping mechanisms I can choose from to help me through panic attacks, hypomania, depressive spells, or even just bad days. Over the years, my wellness toolkit has come to include a lot of those wellness practices you see white suburban moms and blonde twenty-somethings doing on TV: meditation (group and solo), therapy (group and solo), bullet journaling/habit tracking, and most recently, yoga.
And for the things that require meeting up in groups, I am always the only Black person in the room.
I often ask myself why I bother to go to therapy when I find I have spent my entire session explaining why something was racist to my (well-meaning) white therapist when I really needed to talk about what and how it made me feel. I sometimes leave my meditation group seething after pointing out that some of us do not have the luxury of simply choosing not to engage with people who disrupt our peace because even choosing to turn our backs on a conflict could be the end of our lives. Yoga can sometimes trigger feelings of shame when I glance around the studio at the sea of skinny white girls as I try to wrap my arms around my big thigh, knowing that this practice could have never anticipated my big, Black body.
There is a narrative surrounding these wellness practices that promotes universality but the rooms and studios I have been in do not always reflect this. “Whiteness,” “thinness” and “wealth” are all implicit in their ideas of universality.
Financial impracticality is another concern of those who would consider pursuing wellness practices. Fitness and wellness bloggers and vloggers often remind people that finding the right yoga class, therapist or even medication can be a matter of trial and error. Not everyone has the ability to spend upwards of a hundred dollars or more, depending on your city, to figure out if you like yin or hatha.
The question becomes: are these practices worth it in spite of their co-opted, isolating and expensive pitfalls? Do we risk sacrificing our mental health by entering these spaces that have the potential to do violence to us as we attempt to do right by our bodies and minds? My answer is yes, but it is not without acknowledging the level of privilege I have to pursue wellness on a near-daily basis. I am a graduate student at a wealthy institution that has the funds to pour into a sparkling new Wellness Center. As a student with institution affiliation, I have access to free yoga classes and meditation groups, some counseling, psychiatric care, and a beautiful facility. This is not everyone’s experience.
Because so many people I know might want these wellness tools but would feel isolated in those rooms, I make it my priority to take what I can from these spaces and share it with anyone who wants to engage in these practices. I remain in these spaces because I am claiming my right to exist. I know that even staking this claim can be more than what many want to do. Having to fight for your humanity and care for your mind, body, and soul at the same time is counter-intuitive and requires some extreme mental gymnastics but I find that this is an act of resistance worth engaging in. You are valuable and you are worth investing in.
There are a few things that make committing to your wellness in the face of these difficulties a little easier. First, find an accountability partner. I got into yoga when a friend suggested it as an activity to do together a couple of times a week. Now I go with her, plus a few other times a week. Second, know that there are plenty of ways to engage in self-care that are cheap or free.99. My favorite thing to do is jot down things I’m grateful for in my journal as I move through the day and a nice twenty-minute walk with my dog can absolutely change my entire mood for the better. Third, if you find the spaces around you are not safe, create your own with friends in someone’s living room. You can find great (free) guided meditations and a variety of mindfulness techniques online.
None of these practices are perfect. But participating in these wellness practices have helped me shift my mindset about my mental illnesses from that of combat to one of tending a garden. In some seasons, my mental health may need more tending to than others. In some seasons, symptoms may be dormant. I now have tools to help me tend to my mental landscape, and that is invaluable.
Though these spaces never anticipated my big, Black body, I will make a place for myself because my body is worth it.
Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her dissertation research focuses on Black girls in new media narratives that are fantastic, futuristic and/or digital in nature. She’s also a new yogi and dog mom. You can find more of her writing at Black Youth Project and Black Girl Does Grad School, or follow her on twitter @RavynnKamia.