Bethany Ao The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The "Penn Program for Mindfulness" incorporates a blend of guided meditations, silent meditations and short meditations. In May, the program is offering an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, with teachings focused specifically for people of color learning about the practice for the first time.
Soon after Diana Yanez moved to Philadelphia from southern California in late 2018, she went online to search for meditation groups and classes that she could join. Yanez, a 33-year-old financial planner in South Philadelphia, has been meditating since 2016 and knew that it was something she wanted to continue in her new city.
That was how she stumbled across monthly meditation sessions for people of color at the Penn Program for Mindfulness.
“I wasn’t looking for something specifically for people of color, because I was used to a lot of diversity coming from southern California,” said Yanez, who identifies as a white Latina. “Whereas here in Philadelphia, a lot of my friends are white. As I became more settled in Philly, I started to realize that there was a lot less diversity. And then it became really helpful that the monthly meditation class was for people of color.”
Currently, sessions are held on the third Thursday of every month, and attendees pay what they can on a sliding scale. During the sessions, which have been virtual for the past year, Robin Hall, the operations manager of the program, uses a blend of guided meditations, silent meditations and short meditations. In May, the program is offering an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, with teachings focused specifically for people of color learning about the practice for the first time.
During the course, students work through stress, brought on by racism or otherwise, in a safe space where they can speak honestly to others with shared experiences.
The intensive training is meant to help people cope with stress, anxiety, depression and pain.
This kind of space is especially needed now as people grapple with complicated emotions after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday of the murder of George Floyd.
While many are relieved at the trial’s outcome, there is also heightened awareness that this is just the start of more work needed to achieve lasting change.
Meditation’s benefits have been well studied, but a preliminary study published in 2019 by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry specifically found meditation decreases the symptoms of distress and anxiety felt by people of color. And although many mindfulness practices are rooted in Asian religions and cultures, intensive sessions and retreats are often expensive, making them less accessible, Hall said.
When Hall, a Black woman, began practicing mindfulness 13 years ago, more often than not, she would be the only person of color in the room. Her experience inspired her to create monthly meditation sessions for Philadelphians of color, which she started in 2018. Since then, Hall has built a core following of 15 to 20 people who consistently attend the sessions. The number of attendees increased after the racial unrest last summer, she said.
“I also took the opportunity to add several impromptu sessions around particularly stressful events such as the killing of Daunte Wright and the November elections,” Hall said. “These one-off sessions were not only well attended, but they were also very intense and emotional.”
Meditating in spaces not specifically geared to people of color “is fine in the beginning,” Hall said. “But as you start coming into your own, you go to a deeper level, and that’s when it becomes more evident when there’s no diversity in the room. I personally wanted to see more color. I was exploring and searching for places with POC programming.”
Hall eventually attended a weeklong retreat for people of color through Insight Meditation Society, where she experienced a “different vibe and comfort level from day one.” When she came home and looked at a photo of her fellow attendees, Hall teared up. Her desire to experience what she did at the retreat led her to ask Penn about holding sessions for people of color.
It can be hard to be the only person of color in a meditation session, Hall said, because “relaxing and being yourself” can be more challenging. One of the reasons she lobbied for a separate eight-week stress reduction course for people of color was so they could talk about their stressors honestly. “It’s a different way to practice,” Hall said. “With the group I run monthly, there’s a comfort level that’s built in. Even as the facilitator, I feel it.” Lisa Dutton, a cancer survivor in her 60s who was treated at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, began practicing mindfulness after her physician recommended it in 2018. She liked the free two-hour introductory session she took, but wrote on her feedback form that she would get more out of sessions for people of color. “When I got a newsletter and saw that the POC monthly sessions were going on, I thought I would try that,” said Dutton, who lives in Lower Merion. “It has been a great experience independent of my stress because it’s truly a POC group … our group regularly has people who are Hispanic and Asian and at times we’ve had younger Black guys, as well as older people. It’s just a really good community feeling, almost like going to visit family members.” Dutton, a Black woman, said that these sessions were particularly helpful last year after George Floyd was murdered by police, because “tension and stress was so high along a racial line.” Decompressing and sharing honestly in a space that felt safe was wonderful, she said. “People are more comfortable saying what they really feel and what has them stressed,” Dutton said. “I just really have a sense of connecting to a warm community during the sessions.” Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in a moment without judgment, Hall said. This can help people process their stressful experiences because “it allows for space between [them] and the stressful event so [they] can look at it a little more objectively and take the time to respond to it, instead of automatically reacting to it like flying off the handle.” Lately, Yanez has been meditating for 15 to 20 minutes a day on her own in addition to the monthly group sessions. It helps her maintain a sense of stillness throughout the day, she said, and has been helpful during tense moments like when pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this year. “Racism and white supremacy is just so heartbreaking,” Yanez said. “We can’t address racism and trauma and pain through our intellect. We need to be able to have open-heartedness and spaciousness … pain is part of life and mindfulness and meditation helps me not hide from it.” Open sittings for people of color are held by the Penn Program for Mindfulness every third Thursday of the month. You can view the schedule at pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/find-a-program-or-service/mindfulness, or email Robin Hall at [email protected] ___ ©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.