2020 has often been referred to as a year of “racial reckoning” as the longstanding systemic injustices endured by the Black community were magnified. News cycles and social media feeds were filled with a barrage of images that harrowingly illustrated the disregard for Black life.
For some, the inhumanity came as a shock. For many—especially within the African American community—the trauma stemming from the constantly visible brutality has sadly—and historically—been interwoven into our everyday lived experiences.
Amid chaos, many individuals looked inward to seek peace. Amongst them were Tristan Lewis and Andrew Smith, who founded The Healing, a nonprofit organization created to cultivate safe spaces for Black men to practice mindfulness through yoga.
Studies show the murders of unarmed Black men and women have had significant adverse effects on the mental health of African Americans. Further research revealed that the global health crisis’s disproportionate impact on people of color contributed to the rise of depression and anxiety amongst those in the Black community. While navigating two pandemics—COVID-19 and racial injustice—Lewis and Smith set out on a mission to empower Black men to reclaim their minds and bodies in a society where they are often policed.
Lewis—a native of Kansas City, Missouri—was exposed to examples of wellness at an early age. He recalls seeing his late mother rise before the sun to hit the gym and consume green smoothies as part of her daily routine. During his college years, Lewis sought therapy to unpack past experiences.
“I was that teenager for a long time who wore a poker face,” he told NewsOne. “It wasn’t until I got to college when I started to feel the pressures of holding on to things. Therapy changed my life. In becoming an advocate for it, I was able to help other men connected to me—who had similar experiences—navigate their own wellness and mental health journeys.”
For Smith—who grew up just outside of Chicago—his introduction to mindfulness came at 19 when he decided to try a yoga class at a local YMCA. Both men noted that overcoming the fear of vulnerability opened the door to their wellness journeys.
“As men—especially as Black men—we never want to be seen as weak,” Smith shared. “While growing up, I never really was able to express myself, whether it was a disappointment or hardship because I felt like it would be used as fuel to make fun of me. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized there’s so much power in being transparent. Transparency allows other people around you to also be vulnerable. It opens up the doorway.”
Mentally fatigued by all that transpired in 2020, Smith and Lewis—who connected through mutual friends—decided to host a yoga class for a small group of men from their local networking group as an outlet for self-care. “It definitely wore on me over time,” Lewis shared. “With the civil unrest and not having access to the systems of community that we were used to due to the pandemic. I felt like I wanted to escape, but there was really nowhere to go.”
What started as a casual meet-up planned through a group text evolved into something greater. They began hosting more yoga sessions led by Black instructors. With every session, the number of attendees substantially grew, reinforcing the fact that culturally responsive wellness spaces are needed.
After witnessing the impact of their efforts, Lewis and Smith decided to transform their community initiative into a grassroots nonprofit. Attracting individuals from the Chicago area and beyond, The Healing has served over 500 Black men between 25 and 38.
Smith says he hopes to use The Healing as an avenue to eradicate the stigma around seeking support for mental health within the Black community.
“When stepping into these spaces, we want to see somebody who looks like us, somebody who can speak to the experiences that we’ve had. It lowers our guard and creates a comfortability factor.”
Lewis—a Hampton University alum—says he believes changing the narrative starts with accessibility and hopes the nonprofit can serve as a vessel for democratizing mental wellness services.
“There are socioeconomic barriers that exist around therapy because of access to insurance,” he said. “There are alternative ways to approach the conversation of wellness. What we’re doing, through The Healing, is showing guys the power of normalizing having conversations with people in your community that you trust. This is a step to living a more holistic life.”
Cognizant of the lack of representation within the wellness space, the next step on both Smith and Lewis’ path involves becoming certified yoga instructors. Putting impact and growth at the forefront of The Healing’s mission, they aim to raise $100,000 to expand their reach nationally and provide no-cost yoga and mental health services for Black men around the country.
“We’re trying to lower the barrier of entry so that when a Black man walks into a yoga studio or wants to have a conversation about getting help, there are resources available to him,” said Smith.