A Breathwork Practitioner Making Space for Black Women to Feel Free
Since launching the organization Black Girls Breathing nearly five years ago, in October 2018, the Atlanta-based trauma- and grief-informed breathwork practitioner Jasmine Marie has reached tens of thousands of Black women around the world. Determined to make mental health resources accessible to them, she has pledged to impact one million Black women and girls by 2025 through her community and meditational breathwork. “I really do believe we’re allowing Black women to be seen and celebrated and feel safe in their bodies,” she says.
Here, she talks about her journey into breathwork and her specific approach to making space, as she puts it, “for as many Black women as possible to feel free within a ninety-minute timeframe.” For a bonus breathing exercise she recommends, listen along to the audio below.
Let’s begin with your path to breathwork, and to founding Black Girls Breathing. How did you get to where you are today, right now?
I never imagined in a million years I’d be doing this, to be honest. My path started at business school at N.Y.U. Stern, where after school you’re pretty much shuffled into a culture of working in investment banking, consulting, or accounting. I ended up working at Unilever afterwards, in hair care, in the beauty industry, and it was very fast-paced. Maybe it wasn’t a spoken rule in school, but it was understood that the common language to be successful is stress, and you just deal with it. That was just the underlying energy, being in that environment. I eventually tapped out. I was having physical reactions to my stress, always seeing the doctor. She would just be like, “This is stress. I can’t give you anything, I can’t prescribe anything. We could manage symptoms, but at the end of the day, this is all stress.”
That led me to breathwork. I was volunteering at a space that definitely helped me answer some of those quintessential questions about who I am, where I belong. I was in a nontraditional church in Harlem, FCBC, and my pastor’s personal breathwork practitioner was offering classes. So I showed up, and had the experience for the first time. The way I would describe it is as if my mind had space. There was finally space in my mind to just be. You know when things really feel claustrophobic, and there’s no space in your mind to even think or process or begin to navigate, mentally, whatever problems you’re dealing with? I finally felt like I had space. That experience stuck with me.
Once I left corporate and started my first business, which was a marketing firm, and was going through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, I kept breathwork with me. I navigated different personal obstacles—being in an abusive relationship, the things that you grow through, and you look back, and think, Wow, I can’t believe that was what that was, or you have these revelations and you’re awakening. Breathwork was always there for me. Breathwork was how I relearned my body.
It really was a very spiritual thing for me. I woke up one day and just heard my spirit saying, “You need to get trained in this.” So I did. In my last training session, it was, again, very spiritual, very intuitive for me, like: Oh, Black Girls Breathing. What would it be like for Black women who are chronically stressed—the demographic that experiences more physical diseases due to consistent chronic stress more than any other—what would it look like to bring this tool to this community? Breathwork, I would say, can be considered “luxe” wellness, right? When you begin to dig into the price points, I think things have gotten more accessible, but when I was starting, this really wasn’t an accessible tool. So I was like, How do I use my business background to figure out how to bring this to this community in an accessible way?
That’s how I got to breathwork. Who knew? I really wanted to [get] a tech sales job, to be completely honest, right before everything popped off. I was doing Black Girls Breathing on the side, and I was happy with that. But I wanted to get to another tech company and get equity, find my way to an I.P.O. and just do this on the side. But the work, essentially…. Some things you’re just purposed for—you know you’re meant for. That definitely describes my relationship to this work.
It’s almost like a calling.
Tell me about your approach to breathwork, generally or philosophically. How do you think about the particular practices you do?
I’ve really been able to connect this work to an intuitive wisdom. So, yes, you can take breathwork training, but when you form a certain relationship with the breath, it guides you. There have been times when I’ve dealt with grief, and I just listen to my body for whatever breathwork pattern I need or whatever I’m needing in the moment. Later on, I find out that this is a very specific type of breathwork, and I’m like, Oh, I didn’t know. That was just listening to my body. But I believe that everyone is already doing breathwork.
Down to my mission, and what I’d like to leave this earth having had an impact with, it’s using the breath to help people have a better relationship with their body. There are so many different tools that one can use to connect to themselves, but breathwork is my modality of choice. At the end of the day, if you can use breathwork to walk into a situation and say, I don’t feel safe, or be able to listen to that intuitive wisdom that says, Oh, this job isn’t a fit for you, or, Oh, this relationship, you’ve outgrown it—the very real themes that we’re all navigating in life. How can we better practice listening to our body and strengthening that relationship?
I said that everyone does breathwork; I really do believe it. We all inhale and exhale. I see the breath being just … it is. I don’t know if that makes sense. But it just is. We naturally do it. From my practice, I’ve learned so much working with different demographics. There are some rules of how I teach and how I train other facilitators, as we expand our work, on how to get people actually breathing. There are certain things I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in breathwork with counts. When you really work with different demographics and populations, those who are more right-brained, they have problems. If you introduce a breathwork sequence and you’re counting, the first thing that comes to mind is, Oh my gosh, my inhales didn’t last that long. What’s wrong with me? Am I doing this right? You go off, and that very notion keeps people from breathing. It kind of segues them more to listen to my instruction versus learning their own body.
We all have different lung capacities. Therefore, I don’t teach counts. Someone can arrive at a full inhale at two versus four. So it’s more about getting people to listen to how their body feels—what it feels like to take a full inhale and their lungs are full, and depleting their lungs with an exhale, and really teaching from a way that is body-centric and individual-centric, versus, Oh, I’ve been trained in something, and I’m pushing this knowledge down to you. So yeah, that’s how I’d describe my philosophy.
A big part of what you do, which you alluded to a bit earlier, connects to how the data shows that those most impacted by chronic stress are Black women.
There are the microaggressions. There’s the generational trauma, racism, sexism. And then stress shows up in all of these different ways: heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety. This is to say nothing of pollution and environmental racism, which leads to [higher] rates of respiratory disorders, such as lung disease, and asthma. It was only two years ago, in 2020 [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded in the fall of 2022], that the American Medical Association finally declared racism a public health crisis.
So I wanted to ask, what is your approach to focusing on healing and creating a space for Black women in particular? Ultimately, what you’re doing is creating a safe space for breathing.
Yeah, I would say you’re right, in that it’s a space for breathing. But I think the most impactful work, especially when you’re dealing with this demographic, where there are a lot of stigmas related to managing your mental health, is [when] it’s an opportunity to be seen. That’s the biggest thing that these women, when they come-—because you could get the recording, you don’t have to come to session—but it’s that community. For everyone, the biggest thing with mental health is it creates diseases and illnesses that are not visible to the eye. Compared to other things where people are drawn in—like, for instance, one who’s working through alcoholism—it’s one of those things where you come into a group and you witness each other, and you talk about your struggle, and you try to heal in that way. Mental illnesses are very isolating. The thoughts that people are thinking are: I’m alone, I’m crazy. So you have all this that you’re trying to navigate before you even get to a place of coming together to heal. There are so many barriers and stigmas that prevent that. With our work, I really do believe we’re allowing Black women to be seen and celebrated and feel safe in their bodies.
Something that’s carried me through the years is my grandmother, my living grandmother—we just celebrated her 90th birthday this past weekend—who was a sharecropper in Money, Mississippi, the same town where Emmett Till was killed. She left at the age of 15. When we really think about her, where she grew up, all the beliefs she had—all of that is stored in the body.
It really does. So I we’re not too many generations away from that reality. We’re still very much impacted by the effects of racism. In order for me to keep going in this work, something that really grounded me was that I do not believe that, in my lifetime, Black people will be free. So, knowing that, and trying to hold on to my hope of my work … and “Why bother”—it’s very easy to get into a sense of, Why bother? All you do is see stats and stories, day in and day out, that are so discouraging. But really allowing myself to know that and also attaching to the mission of, Okay, if that’s the case, then how do I allow and make space for as many Black women as possible to feel free within a ninety-minute timeframe? They won’t experience that outside of these doors, then here, they get to say they felt that way. That is my mission. When we gather, we bring Black women together.
You’ve made a pledge to support and impact one million Black women and girls by 2025. You often talk about breathing as a source of liberation. I was hoping here you might speak a bit about the accessibility aspect of what you do, and about this liberation idea.
I will say, there’s been a lot of critique in the wellness industry about lack of accessibility. To that same argument, I bring the lens of understanding that we operate in a capitalistic society. We can’t always fault the players that are forced to navigate—that all of us are forced to navigate—within these realms. We understand that there’s advocacy for completely throwing over entire systems. However, we’ve all been forced to try to make change within the system that we have. I never fault different companies for having to play within those capitalistic rules. I say this all the time: Accessibility isn’t easy.
I know I’m the right person for this, because I have a traditional business background, so I’ve been able to think in terms of, Okay, how do we tap in to corporations and different partners, to supplement that revenue stream of what we would have if we were charging regularly for our work? Really being able to navigate both worlds, it’s difficult, especially if you have a mission that’s targeted just for Black women. We see the stats, we see the VC dollars aren’t there for Black female founders. That’s if you’re a Black female founder and could have [something] like a software company. Could you imagine the availability of dollars for a Black female founded company that targeted other Black women and women of color? You can imagine what that path looks like there.
So it really does take some creativity to think about how we’ll sustain our work, and how we’ve been able to sustain our work [until] now. It’s really important to me that this work is accessible, but also, it’s hard. So I do not expect every player that comes into this to be able to have the lens that I do, or the experience that I do to make this work. To whom much is given, much is required. It’s definitely a lot. We came up with the vision of impacting one million Black women and girls, and we know it’s doable. We’re on track with our plans to hit that. Then, fingers crossed, we’ll just keep accelerating year after year, and hitting that number. I hope that we accomplish more than one million, to be honest. I hope we’re creating a movement.
Before we finish, I was hoping you might share a short, simple breathing exercise. Or even just a few inhale-exhales.
Yeah. Some grief care, or some breathwork for some grief care—one that I really, really love is this, inhale through the nose and exhale out of the mouth with a sigh. That auditory connection of hearing yourself release something in connection with the breath really is helpful.
I’ll demonstrate here. So you’re gonna inhale through the nose [inhales], filling your chest and [feeling your] diaphragm rise, and exhale out of the mouth with a sigh [exhales and sighs]. I’m gonna do a bigger sigh. Today was a lot. Inhale through the nose [inhales]. Exhale out of the mouth, with the sigh [exhales and sighs]. Inhale through the nose [inhales]. Exhale out of the mouth with the sigh [exhales and sighs]. And one more time—if you have a pillow, you can yell. The yelling is so good, just for release in the body. Inhale through the nose [inhales]. And exhale out of the mouth the sigh [exhales and sighs].
To close, what to you, Jasmine Marie, is the good life?
The good life, to me, is a life where my community feels free in this world, no matter where they go. The good life, to me personally, is one that’s filled with a lot of ease. Everything that my ancestors really couldn’t do. Out of ease, a lot of joy. A lot of the small, simple moments stacked onto each other with people you really care about, and love. It’s just a lot of laughter and smiling and just the big picture always in mind, and out of this rat race.
This interview was recorded on November 2, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.