As A Black Man, Here’s How Yoga Helped Save My Life
I’m grateful that my trials have led to my triumphs, and I thank yoga for helping me realize that.
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When I first learned about yoga, I was working in a gym in the suburbs of Baltimore County. I saw 20 to 30 white women (and a handful of men) walk through the gym barefoot. Each one had some kind of mat rolled under their arms. They went into the group fitness room, the lights were off, but candles were lit. The door closed. About 90 minutes later, I saw them all walk out, sweaty and still barefoot. No one said anything to any of us as they walked out of the gym. They looked exhausted, but happy. I thought I witnessed some kind of a weird sex cult practice, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.
So how did this weird, pretentious, all-white practice help save my life?
Perhaps you’ve heard this story before: Black kid from the inner city, raised by a single mother, father addicted to heroin, drops out of school, ends up dealing drugs. Sound familiar?
Well, this story isn’t so straightforward.
That same kid was moved to the suburbs and attended schools predominantly populated by white kids, and was forced to contend with racism, prejudice and cultural bias on a daily basis. He was ridiculed for being Black and mocked for the way he talked. At 11, he was placed in remedial english class due to perceived behavioral issues, not based on academic performance. As an adult, he endured a two-year addiction to prescription pills, survived an accidental overdose and two failed suicide attempts.
That Black kid was me!
So often we are told by society that our traumas and triggers are an immediate result of our own communities — that growing up around excessive violence and poverty is a predominant factor for many of our ongoing mental health struggles. Although there is some truth to that, our traumas aren’t so elementary.
As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I learned at an early age how to survive in extremely dangerous situations. I had been shot at before my teenage years. I saw men laying on the sidewalk, overdosing right in front of me while I walked to the corner store. But I struggled to conform to a system that I knew wasn’t designed for my immediate success.
In school, I watched as parents flooded the auditorium for school plays and lined up in the hallway to chaperone field trips, all while my mother worked three jobs to put food on the table and keep the lights on in our tiny one bedroom apartment. My father was absent — either in jail, or running the streets robbing dealers and getting high. Every day I was reminded of how different I was from the people that surrounded me.
My expressed disdain of my reality was often met with criticism and reprimand. My feelings were invalidated, while teachers and administrators looked at me as just another Black kid playing victim. They acted as if they’d done me a favor by allowing me to attend a school that I worked tirelessly to get into.
I grew hostile to a world that judged me based on my skin color, never acknowledging the mental and emotional suffering I was forced to contend with. It was as if my fate had been sealed by the same people I was told to look to for guidance. Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to understand that the labels that had been placed on me weren’t ones I was willing to accept. To some, I was the Black kid who talked too white. To others I was the urban kid who acted too Black. I didn’t fit into either environment, so I rebelled against both.
I became closed in, publicly arming myself with an f’ the world attitude to protect my vulnerability. I contemplated dropping out of school, but managed to graduate due to my mothers insistence. I attended college, but dropped out before the end of my second semester. I worked a string of random jobs before ending up dealing drugs in the streets of Baltimore City. After multiple attempts on my life, I left the drug game and ended up starting my first business.
By 26, I was running a successful business, had two kids and moved into an apartment in the northern suburbs of Baltimore County. The idea that I “made it” permeated every fiber of my being, but no matter how successful I thought I was, those old feelings of worthlessness and degradation persisted. They grew to become my only companions.
At any moment I’d begin to experience extreme chest pains and heart palpitations. It would be difficult for me to catch my breath. I’d have tingling sensations in my arms and hands, and the room would start spinning. It was terrifying. I thought I was having a heart attack, so I would often spend the night sleeping in my car in the parking lot of my neighborhood emergency room. This occurred every night for a little over a month before I sought help.
The stigma associated with mental health kept me from truly understanding the reason behind my feelings. I soon became a victim of a structure that was working perfectly to keep us uninformed and under control. I was officially diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and mild-severe major depressive disorder. Once again I found myself fighting to fit into a world that rejected anyone that was different.
I didn’t know about CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or any other complementary management approaches. I had never heard of GAD or panic disorder, and therefore accepted medication as my only treatment option. I spent the next two years fighting a battle that I never saw coming. The pills my doctor promised would cure my anxiety actually created a disease I was all too familiar with — addiction. I was no longer afraid of my anxiety, I was afraid of becoming my father.
Dependent on pills, it took years of substance abuse and the risk of losing my children before I decided it was time for a change. My doctor played to role of my dealer, and I had no one to turn to. I was embarrassed by my addiction, so I didn’t share my struggles with anyone. I didn’t know where to start, but knew I needed to do something drastic. I made the conscious decision to take my health into my own hands.
While I was beginning my pursuit of a lifelong journey toward health and healing, it became obvious that yoga and I were destined to meet again. It seemed like everywhere I looked, yoga had a compelling presence. I decided to find out what it wanted with me, and started watching YouTube videos and practicing in my living room.
I soon learned that yoga was not just for rich white women and it wasn't a sex cult. It was for all people, and it was actually created thousands of years ago by Black and brown people. Similar to the stigma of mental health, yoga has been stereotyped to exclude people of color from experiencing the health benefits associated with the practice, and part of my mission today is to break that stereotype.
Since I started a consistent practice, yoga has taught me a lot about myself and has helped me break through the many walls of complexity that make up my life. I slowly weaned myself off of pills and became much better at managing my anxiety and depression. When I step onto my mat, I am exposed, not for the world to see, but for me to privately evaluate. It is there that I am the most honest with myself.
Yoga is not about the perfect pose or how flexible I am. Yoga is about how I show up in the world, for myself, for my kids, for my fiance and for others around me. My practice helped me realize that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional — understanding that the problem isn’t the presence of discomfort, but rather my reaction to it is what gives it power.
Although yoga helps calm the negative thoughts in my head, yoga is not my cure. It does not make me perfect. I still worry about relapsing, questioning my will to continue fighting. The truth is, I am still an addict and I still have an anxiety and panic disorder, and no amount of sun salutations or pranayama breaths can remedy that, but it helps. I still have to work daily to remain sober and not allow my disorder or disease to consume my life. Some days are better than others, but my lifestyle has enabled me to accept my flaws, while embracing my infirmity.
I don’t want to sell you on the idea that yoga made my life perfect, because it didn’t. What helps is that I no longer classify myself by my weaknesses. I’m grateful that my trials have led to my triumphs, and I thank yoga for helping me realize that.
Quentin Vennie is a celebrated speaker, entrepreneur and author of the best selling memoir, 'Strong in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Addiction' and 'Redemption Through Wellness'.