FLINT, Michigan—Daily life during a pandemic offers an array of unique challenges that can raise stressors of all kinds. There’s the fear of the unknown, like questions of job security, the health of loved ones, childcare, the reshuffling of personal finances, and the potential cabin fever of having to stay close to home.
Despite the discomfort, Crim Fitness Foundation mindfulness coordinator and founder of Black Girls Do Yoga, Canisha Bell, says that now is the time to focus on being in the present through everyday acts of mindfulness like yoga and meditation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that older people, health care providers, and those already experiencing mental health complications, are more sensitive to pandemic stressors. In turn, this can leave one's body even more vulnerable to overall health problems in the long-run. Solutions like taking a break from news coverage, a healthy diet, exercise, and starting a meditation practice are some ways that can take the edge off of the everyday stress of experiencing a pandemic.
Bell graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health Education from the University of Michigan-Flint before “mindfulness” was a mainstream concept. Now it has become a way she builds community at places like the Urban Renaissance’s, or online through her Facebook live Sunrise Meditations.
We spoke with Canisha Bell, 32, and mother of four, about her ten-year mindfulness journey, the science behind it, and tips on mindfulness activities to do at home with family to make everyone feel a little bit saner in these times of unpredictability.
Flintside: When did you start practicing mindfulness?
Canisha Bell: "The word mindfulness has been gaining popularity within the past few years. Honestly, the concept of mindfulness, the practice, the way in doing things "mindfully," I was introduced to about 10 years ago. But we didn’t call it mindfulness. I took a deeper dive and really began to practice mindfulness when I was hired at the Crim Fitness Foundation for their Mindfulness Initiative in 2017. I lead two of our community yoga sites as well as our first rotation and current sessions of community meditation where we partnered with Urban Renaissance Center and Joy Tabernacle of Civic Park. Of course now with COVID-19 all of this is canceled until further notice."
Flintside: Why is mindfulness called a "practice"?
Canisha Bell: "Mindfulness is called a practice because it isn't something that you just do. It's an embodiment, it's a way of being. You can bring mindfulness into every aspect of your life. You can be mindful while you're cooking, or driving, or having a conversation. Mindfulness is never-ending. So it becomes a practice, you can be mindful from the time you wake up, to the time you go to sleep."
Flintside: What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered that people have about mindfulness?
Canisha Bell: "Mindfulness is about having a blank mind. It's impossible for our minds to be blank, our minds are literally made to think, to wander. It is the awareness of noticing when our minds have begun to wander or ruminate. Mindfulness is the emotional regulation that comes with that awareness.
"When you're mindful you are happy all the time. This is absolutely not true, you can actually be mindful and mad, or mindful and frustrated, or sad, etc. But what mindfulness does is creates space and allows us to respond rather than react to whatever emotion we may be experiencing at that moment.
"Mindfulness is a religion. Mindfulness is about being present, and the awareness that arises from being present moment to moment. It's not a religion. With that being said, however, you can bring your mindfulness practice into whatever spiritual or religious beliefs you have. Many people say that it enhances their prayer life or spiritual experience.
"Mindfulness is a solve-all. This is absolutely not true. Mindfulness is just one key element...that [can] help with self-regulation, better focus, concentration, and decreased stress, anxiety, and depression."
Flintside: Do you have to experience anxiety, depression, or experience acute stress to practice mindfulness?
Canisha Bell: "You do not have to experience anxiety, depression, or acute stress to practice mindfulness, but mindfulness does improve self-regulation and decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. It's really all based on neuroscience.
"Mindfulness practices can help the body relax, which engages the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Our PNS helps our body return to homeostasis or our normal states after a stress response i.e. anxiety, depression, or acute stress.
"Mindfulness helps to quiet down the part of our brain (the amygdala) that detects what it thinks is dangerous. The amygdala doesn't know the difference if we're stressed because we're running late for work, having an anxious thought or being chased by a rabid dog. It's all the same to the amygdala, and it'll signal our body to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are only meant to last for about 20 minutes, these are the same hormones that could possibly get a mom to lift a car off of her child. But during times of anxiety, depression, acute and chronic stress our bodies are releasing these hormones, and over time it really causes damage to our cardiovascular systems. Mindfulness helps us to regulate the amygdala."
Flintside: What is Black Girls Do Yoga?
Canisha Bell: "Black Girls Do Yoga is an initiative I started in 2019 with a mission to welcome an inclusive atmosphere and empower, inspire and uplift all women and specifically women of color while inviting accessibility, comfortability, and inclusivity through holistic wellness of mind, body, and spirit.
"I started the initiative because once I got my certification as a yoga instructor, I noticed black women, in particular, saying that yoga wasn't for them, or that they were too this or too that to practice yoga. And there are so many black women practicing yoga, teaching yoga, but you wouldn't know because of what our society and mainstream media portrays as the women who practice yoga (typically extra bendy white women).
"And you don't typically see us. You don't typically see Black women, or Latina women, not even women of Indian or Asian descent, being represented when it comes to yoga magazines and websites but we're out here. I've been on quite a few mindfulness/meditation retreats to gain my certifications and many times I am the only person of color or the only African American there. It can be a lonely feeling. But really prompted me to start this initiative."
Canisha Bell leads a meditation at Ebenezer Ministries in April 2019.
Flintside: What aspects of the pandemic can make mindfulness difficult?
Canisha Bell: "Some aspects of the pandemic that can make mindfulness difficult are worrying about the future and fearing the unknown. It can take you out of the present moment. Being out of the present moment can create in us a sense of worry, anxiousness, and even panic when it comes to this pandemic. It's the uncertainty that arises and it's hard to take each moment as they come."
Flintside: Why is mindfulness important in times like these?
Canisha Bell: "In times like these, it's good to take each moment for what they are. To be here, to be present, to really check in on your thoughts and what you're allowing into your mind and spirit. Monitor what you are watching and listening too. Be sure to have someone to reach out to if you need to talk. Journal your feelings, allow yourself to feel the emotions you're going through and using grounding and anchoring techniques to help you get through them.
"Awareness is mindfulness. Notice if you're only taking in the negative things. Mindfully and intentionally seek out the positive, as Mr. Rogers said, "seek out the helpers." Take breaks from social media and the news. Many things that are on the news are things we cannot change cannot do anything about. And it's unfortunate and it weighs on us. Being in the present and the awareness that arises from that is checking in with yourself making accommodations, changes, etc. to what you need in that moment."
Flintside: What are some mindfulness rituals you have started instituting amidst the pandemic?
Canisha Bell: "Amidst this pandemic I've just been continuing my practice both of mindfulness and meditation/yoga. I've been using my presence and awareness to monitor how much news I'm taking in at any given time. I've been noticing who I'm listening to or following on social media. I've been checking in with my thoughts and being mindful of how certain things are making me feel. I understand that some things are beyond my control and while I can pray for people and send good vibes their way, there comes a point where I just disconnect. I give myself time to be intentionally present through meditation or yoga. Making sure that I laugh or watch and listen to things that are funny. I've intentionally focused on gratitude during meditation. I've been mindful of how my children are taking this in and how they feel about what's going on. Answering any questions they may have and comforting them."
Flintside: What are some mindfulness activities you suggest families can do together?
Canisha Bell: "There are so many things that families can do to practice mindfulness together. I can give you some examples I do with my own family, like recognizing the importance of quiet time. I went to a silent retreat about a year ago, it was 5 days of silent meditation and yoga. I decided to implement this in my household. Every evening about an hour before bedtime we have "silent time" the lights are dimmed and I usually have soft meditation music playing. No one talks during this time and they can do a silent activity, putting together a puzzle, reading a book, writing in a journal, meditating, etc. There is no talking during this time.
"Also "no tech" days. So we have no tech Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these days phones, tablets, laptops are off and put into a basket, no TV, the wifi is paused. This is intentional family days to spend time with each other.
"Another thing I can think of is "shower with love" days. Every Wednesday...we mark on the calendar who is getting "showered" that day. The person being showered sits in a chair and everyone else in the family showers them with love, telling them how awesome they are, complimenting them, we let them know what we appreciate about them.
We practice family yoga together. I'm a yoga instructor so I usually can lead the family in some meditation and yoga. But there are plenty of great YouTube videos as well."
Flintside: Who/what are some other mindfulness (resources) practitioners, locally or online, that people should look into?
Canisha Bell: "Locally: The Healing Strategist Felicia Johnson-McGee' M;nd Ya Mental Tawanna Anderson; STAY WOKE is an awesome book by Justin Michael Williams. Serenity House of Flint has awesome holistic healing options and is the best resource for people in addiction recovery. Crim Mindfulness offers Free community yoga and meditation, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) workshops, Mindfulness workshops on developing a personal practice and sharing the practice with youth. Apps: Liberate is a meditation app geared specifically for people of color. Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace are all great apps as well."
After the pandemic dims in seriousness, Bell hopes to continue mentoring at Southwestern Classical Academy—her alma mater— through her Black Girls do Yoga initiative as well as bring more “Christian-themed yoga” to her church, Ebenezer Ministries and lead meditations with paint-based entertainment organization Paint, Chalices, and Hues. To learn more about Bell’s mindfulness practice follow Black Girls Do Yoga on Facebook and visit the Crim Fitness Foundation page for listings of her guided meditations. Other inquiries can be sent by email to [email protected] or [email protected]