Reclaiming black wellness

Ian Kiragu/Unsplash

Non-Western approaches to the healing journey

Wellness is a term that, despite its slipperiness, gets thrown around a lot. From its simpler beginnings as a definition for lifestyle tips and tweaks to support health and well-being, it has morphed into a trillion-dollar industry. According to the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute, the now $4.2 trillion wellness market grew over 10 percent just between 2015-17.

The wellness industrial complex, though, skews heavily toward the consumption of so-called “lifestyle” goods like pricey health food-fads and gentrified spiritual practices. Given the black community’s disproportionate struggles with illnesses like diabetes and hypertension and the ongoing effects of trauma, authentic wellness needs to be more engaging then chic milk alternatives.

“Wellness is your optimal functioning in a number of different areas, whether that’s your social life, your physical health, your occupational health, your spiritual health, and others,” says therapist Dr. Felicia Sy. 

She owns Wellness Ways, a South Minneapolis wellness center specializing in interrogative psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, and art expression. Wellness Ways promotes holistic health, using multiple disciplines to help clients work toward mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Individual and community health, notes Sy, is similarly contextual. 

“In the African American community, when you consider the historical strength of the black church, an individual idea of wellness just doesn’t make sense; we are well in relation to our community. There’s something called ‘healing justice’ and it is in opposition to white, Western, mainstream, allopathic medicine and all those things that give this really limited, often commodified definitions of wellness,” says Sy. 

True wellness provides solutions that meet people where they are. Traditional, spiritual practices that have been passed down for generations don’t need to be practiced in expensive studios.

“If you are a person of color or a person with a disability, if you have struggled on any of those social determinants of health, then those definitions of wellness don’t really fit. Healing justice is about reclaiming indigenous practices, reclaiming wellness in the community.

Depending on what community you come from — be it people of color, the disability community, the queer community — we’re going to create our own definitions of wellness in opposition to this commodified and Western approach,” says Sy. “And that’s what we are starting to see.”

Ancestral knowledge

Zedé Harut reclaims indigenous knowledge for her Holistic Heaux practice, drawing on African-derived healing traditions and astrology. As early as 15, Harut recognized she could be healthier and that those around — her, everyone — deal with daily physical pains, psychological trials, and spiritual tribulations. 

At the age when many get their driver’s permit and see the drive-through window from the driver’s seat for the first time, Harut switched to a plant-based diet and started working on healing herself and family members. This led to her career in holistic healing. 

Harut supplies holistic health consultations for a certain rate, but for clients of color she offers a sliding-scale fee or won’t charge anything at all. “I do healing for everyone,” she says, “but the sliding scale fee is for my people.”

Harut’s clients come to her for a variety of services. Some seek help for mental health or want to investigate a vegan diet. Others seek relief for ailments that conventional medicine has not relieved. 

Her approaches range, too. Say a client wishes to understand themselves and their roles in family and community, and how they can be a source of healing. Harut might use a combination of astrology and birth charts.

Harut recently hosted a community event that focused on what she calls “the war on black people’s health.” She points to Western medicine’s tendency to mistreat and misdiagnose black patients, as well as environmental factors such as lack of access to healthy food and time spent in nature. 

Harut credits elders of the African and African American communities for informing her of varying health impediments and remedies.

Diana Simumpande/Unsplash

Body systems in sync

William Easter has worked in hospitals, clinics and universities, but for years he has run his private physical therapy practice, Satori-Interrogative Physical Therapy, in South Minneapolis. Many of his clients, he says, come when they have exhausted every other possibility for relief. 

Easter’s method — the integrative manual therapy approach developed by Dr. Sharon Weiselfish-Giammatteo — is a holistic one that goes much deeper and broader than the workouts and icing typically associated with physical therapy. He promotes balance in the body as a prerequisite to healing. 

“Your body is comprised of systems, and they all work together,” says Easter. “And when one is off they’re all off.”

Sangodore Akinwale came to Easter because tension in her neck and shoulders was causing numbness in her hand. “To me, black wellness is spiritual and energetic work. This is Bill Easter’s sphere of expertise,” says Akinwale, adding that Easter’s work is helping her. “My experience is that he uses his heart, hands, intention, and tremendous training and experience to heal, remove blockages.”

“It is healing past traumas and existing harms,” Akinwale continues. “It is also healing through practicing life-sustaining and spirit-expanding tools. He gives us exercises, but he also gives us hope. This is the approach to wellness that all people need. And I think, especially black people, because, from my view and based on my research and experience, this is our ancestral approach.”

Joi Thomas, a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine at the Minneapolis healing center Red Cricket, believes that wellness is “not just about a functioning body but also having a happy spirit.” In acupuncture, very thin needles are inserted into various points in the body to balance energy flow. It is used for ailments running the gamut from symptoms of depression to the side-effects of chemotherapy. 

Thomas has described it as making space for healing. Chinese medicine, she says, “is all about learning how to live in a body and learning how to support that body because that body wants to support you in living a happier life.”

Sometimes just the fact of a practitioner being black is as important as the practice itself, says A.K. Wright, a client of Thomas. 

“To me, it is so important to have healers who are part of my healing journey who are black, black healers who recognize that I come with aches and pains from not simply bodily trauma but the trauma of living in the wake of quotidian racial terror,” said Wright. 

“In our sessions, I am able to speak openly and freely about what is happening in my life without the need to explain or educate my healer about why my healing is connected to my blackness.”