Yoga saved his life—now this teacher is using it to help heal his community
Changa Bell founded the Black Male Yoga Initiative to promote health and wellness for boys and men of color.
It’s not an understatement to say that yoga saved my life.
Growing up, my father was an avid yogi and tried to impart yoga’s wisdom and benefits to me. But as I grew into a man, yoga and mindfulness fell further and further down my priority list. Years ago, I was suffering from a life-threatening heart condition and on my way to needing a pacemaker.
During one visit to the hospital, where my heart mysteriously stopped, I was feeling weak, scared to sleep, and scared to die. After being awake for 30 hours straight, I said an earnest prayer and lifted my life up to God, promising that if I woke up the next morning, I’d dedicate my life to positive change—after first changing myself. I’m here writing this now, so you know how that turned out. I stopped drinking, developed a daily yoga practice, and today, there is no pacemaker, nor a trace of the heart condition that came close to taking my life.
Black males in my community and other communities across America face incredible pressures, from avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline, to providing for their families, despite often precarious employment, to avoiding potentially fatal interactions with police. They tend to have disproportionately high incidences of hypertension, diabetes, and ADHD. I know from experience that yoga and mindfulness techniques can mean the difference between life and death for these men. That’s why I created the Black Male Yoga Initiative (BMYI).
Through workshops, retreats and community partnerships, BMYI trains black men of all ages to become certified yoga teachers, encouraging them to go out and use what they’ve learned to help heal their communities. The seeds for what would eventually become BMYI were planted when I began teaching these skills to juvenile offenders and foster kids. The way they responded when yoga gave them a safe space to be vulnerable was nothing short of incredible.
The need for this work stems from our collective pain. Black males are the ancestors of stolen “cargo,” people historically dehumanized and reduced to assets through slavery. Today, that same dehumanization proliferates in the form of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and the prison industrial complex. Men and boys of African ancestry, many of whom have grown up in disrupted families, have no specific country to call “home,” just a symbolic continent from which all peoples are said to have come. Simply acknowledging “black” as a priority and calling on black people as a welcome presence is something community leaders can do to increase positive outcomes. That’s the change we’re seeking with the Black Male Yoga Initiative—and so far, the results have been life-altering.
By adopting these new, but ancient methods and practices for living, we’re fostering efficacy at every level: spiritual, emotional, intellectual and biological. Yoga and mindfulness are a journey of self-actualization that leads to personal agency and self-empowerment. The ripple effects lead to improved outcomes for the community in the form of healthy, productive and positive individuals, living lives of peace and calm. The Black Male Yoga Initiative’s goal is to certify 1,000 black men, aged 16-65, as yogis by 2023.
It has been gratifying to have our work recognized and to garner support in scaling BMYI. Shortly after launching, we received $10,000 in funding from BMe, an innovation network that invests in community-building social enterprises. Last year, I was selected, alongside 14 other social entrepreneurs addressing America’s most pressing social issues, to participate in the first U.S. version of Red Bull Amaphiko Academy in Baltimore. It was there that I was paired with a mentor whose advice has been instrumental to helping me scale the Black Male Yoga Initiative through an open-source approach, encouraging the men we certify to go on to certify others.
Once the Black Male Yoga Initiative is securely funded for the foreseeable future, I’m looking forward to writing more—I recently wrote a book called Affirmations for Dads—and doing more human development and transformation consulting for executives and athletes. In my ideal world, black men embracing yoga isn’t so much a novelty as it is the norm.