Gerrae Simons Miller hit an emotional breaking point during the early stages of launching Mellow Massage — a business in East Falls that helps people of all hues and body types achieve harmony through massage, acupuncture, and yoga.
Although Simons Miller, 37, started with a small staff of eight back in 2008, she quickly felt the mounting stress of a never-ending to-do list: Managing staff. Securing funding. Developing a plan for growth. Organizing inventory. She worked her mind and body until she depleted her bandwidth.
So what did she do? She got acupuncture. And it slowed down her mind and eased tension in her body.
And her business has been growing. With a staff that has swelled to more than 30, and a membership of more than 400, the numbers imply a winning formula. Last year, Mellow Massage grossed more than $600,000 and is expected to gross $700,000 this year, with her 60-minute integrated massage driving sales. She credits her diverse staff of wellness specialists and her membership model — which ranges from $40 to $130 a month — for her continued growth.
Well before she opened Mellow Massage 11 years ago, Simons Miller was studying finance and English at Lehigh University, eager to snag a job to earn extra cash. With printed copies of her resume in hand, she took to the streets of Bethlehem, Pa., in search of her next gig.
Many people turned her away, but she caught a break at Healing Hands Massage Therapy Center as a receptionist. It was through working there that she fell in love with the wide variety of holistic practices.
As Simons Miller explored the ins and outs of the industry, she realized that there weren’t many people of color around, especially in leadership roles. She wondered why.
Despite — or perhaps because of — that lack of representation, Mellow Massage was created to appeal to people of all backgrounds by being intentionally inclusive in its marketing language and presentation.
Traditionally, yoga and other forms of wellness have been taboo for older generations of black people, according to Clara Whaley Perkins, a Philadelphia-based psychologist. Trauma is an inevitable part of the human experience, she said, but how trauma is treated, or coped with, is heavily influenced by culture.
One of the most pronounced barriers to black people receiving mental-health care is the lack of culturally competent providers, according to a 2017 report by the American Psychiatric Association. Black people often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care, the report found.
“A lot of western models of therapeutic interventions have not always attended to the needs of nonwhite people,” said Darnel L. Moore, author, activist, and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate. He noted that black patients may be subjected to microaggressions in treatment stemming from a practitioner’s own biases.
Philly-based yoga instructor Tiffany Goins recalled a time when she felt excluded during a yoga class. It was an unremarkable weeknight in September 2016, and Goins was excited about her yoga class in Newark, Del. When she arrived, she rolled out her lavender-colored yoga mat and began to follow her instructor’s lead.
At one point during the class, she positioned her body into a downward dog pose, planting her hands and feet to the ground while lifting her hips toward the ceiling. As she concentrated on her breath and the stretch in her hamstrings, she noticed the instructor adjusting small imperfections of her white classmates, one by one. But the instructor never touched Goins.
“It made me uncomfortable. Like I wasn’t worthy of being touched. That was a defining moment for me,” Goins said.
Historically, black people have taken refuge in religion for their mental-health needs, for better or worse.
“In general, the [black] church has always had to be more than simply a place to worship,” said Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Center City. “The church had to be the place where black people learned about politics and civic responsibility. … It’s been a place for empowerment for women. The church is one of the first places black women could exercise leadership.”
Tyler said that parishioners have approached him on the verge of a mental breakdown, in which case he refers them to a psychologist or psychiatrist, if necessary.
“This is beyond me praying for you,” Tyler said.
Simons Miller holds fast to the idea that wellness should be experienced by people of all ethnic backgrounds and religions. Patrons of Mellow Massage are welcomed by the herbaceous scents of essential oils and the sounds of Sade Adu, which impart a sense of calmness to the area. Two potted plants are seated at the entrance, right before a medium-sized desk where a receptionist sits.
“Mellow is for everybody," Simons Miller said. "I want people to feel comfortable and safe here.”
Video by staff videographer Raishad M. Hardnett.