Many people can say that yoga changed their lives, but for Changa Bell, yoga may have actually saved his.
When he was just 30 years old, Bell, now the founder of The Black Male Yoga Initiative (BMYI) and owner of the Sunlight & Yoga Holistic Wellness Center, was suffering from severe arrhythmia. He began practicing yoga and mindfulness as a way to cope with his diagnosis. After three or four weeks of healthy living and regular yoga practice, his heartbeat stabilized.
Grateful for what yoga had done for him, Bell received certification as an instructor in 2011, and it was then that his mission took shape.
“I was the only male in a class of 17 people when I got certified,” he says. “It was intimidating to me, and I didn’t want people, specifically black men, to not get the life-saving possibilities of yoga because they didn’t feel comfortable in a space with a bunch of strong, mostly white, mostly young women.”
So Bell started his nonprofit, BMYI, in 2015. The program is contracted through Living Classrooms and aims to give black men ages 16 to 65 a space to practice yoga, mindfulness, healthy living, and self-care, while certifying them as registered yoga teachers. Bell hopes that many of them will go on to teach and promote these practices in their own communities. The group meets once a week for eight weeks, alternating between yoga and mindfulness lessons.
Bell says that while he was drawn to yoga because of his heart ailment, some of the men are using yoga to deal with emotional trauma, too.
“It takes time for some of these guys to get to a place where they are vulnerable enough to talk about this trauma,” he says.
Bell hopes to expand BMYI in the coming years by establishing more partnerships locally and replicating his curriculum in other cities.
“If I could put out a call for help on a megaphone it would be for partnerships,” he says. “It comes down to who values this community. I just want the change to take place.”