Changa Bell (front), founder of the Black Male Yoga Initiative, with students
Courtesy of Changa Bell

Imagine a small, sustainable farm in western Maryland, a safe space where black men come together to heal and connect with themselves. They are trained to become certified yoga instructors and are educated and empowered to go out and use what they have learned about the practice of yoga to change and empower their own communities.

Changa Bell acknowledges, with a bit of a chuckle, that the idea might sound a bit “hippie.” But Bell is determined to see it through. He believes in and has witnessed firsthand yoga's transformative power not only over himself but also over the young people he has already started to work with as the founder of the Sunlight & Yoga Holistic Wellness Center and the Black Male Yoga Initiative.

You see, yoga, Bell says, saved his life.

Changa Bell assists a student with a variation of Scorpion pose.
Courtesy of Changa Bell

About 14 years ago, the then-30-year-old was well on his way to needing a pacemaker. Inexplicably, his heart would just stop beating while he was midconversation. No one—not doctors or cardiologists—could figure out what was going on.

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While at the hospital, after realizing his potential fate, Bell stayed awake for about 30 hours, afraid to go to sleep. He whispered a prayer to God, promising to live a life of dedicated service if he could get through this experience. That same night, his heart monitor went off and the nurse was unable to get a reading. The nurse poked Bell, thinking that he might be dead, and almost screamed out loud when he responded.

Bell, knowing that his path was clear, smiled. He was committed to change.

BMYI Vice President Masi Ngidi-Brown (front, left) and instructor Brian Anthony Furr (back, left), with the Fresh Start Program, pose in Warrior II with students.
Courtesy of Changa Bell

Bell started concentrating on a holistic lifestyle. He returned to the roots of yoga, which his dad had modeled for him as a child. He started juicing and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking and drinking.

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One day his heart, which at that point still had moments were it stopped, returned to its normal rhythm just as inexplicably as it had changed before. Doctors were in awe.

And now, at the age of 44, Bell is healthier and happier than ever and looking to help the community and black men with the practice that saved him.

“That was the ‘aha’ moment for me,” Bell told The Root. “I want to do this for so many youngish and young men.”

With $10,000 given to him by the “superhero people” of the community-empowering organization Black Male Engagement, Bell officially founded BMYI in November 2015.

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“I created the BMYI out of the work that I began to do with foster kids and juvenile offenders. I notice that it was resonating really well with the teenagers, in particular the young men who didn’t really get a space to be vulnerable; never really felt, in their words, that they had a container to be open the way that yoga … allowed them to be,” Bell said. “[Yoga] gives us a tool to really work through these social problems we’re having right now.”

Students with the Black Male Yoga Initiative practice on a pier.
Courtesy of Changa Bell

“In addition, I’m 44 and … a lot of people in their 40s are just dying. They will be there one week; the next week they’re just gone from hypertension, heart disease, diabetes,” Bell added. “So I wanted to respond with yoga because it saved my life in terms of having me make a complete 180.”

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Bell’s dream soon expanded to include “the Om Space,” a place of spiritual retreat modeled after the Indian ashram. The small farm in western Maryland would be the perfect spot.

“[I thought], what if I could make them yoga teachers, give them the status of being an RYT-200 and remove them from their circumstances completely for a month, three months, six months, however much I can get funding for,” Bell said. “Maybe board them—up to 10 people—in an ashramlike setting, and when they leave, the theory is … that we change people, return them to their communities: Each one teach one.”

Bell is really targeting two demographics: 1) the 40-plus-year-old family man who is “knee-deep in bills and responsibility and has no idea what the word ‘self-care’ means and 2) “troubled” youths between the ages of 14 and 18.

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“If I can catch them at that time … if I can get in and sort of interweave into their moral fiber the principles of yoga and mindfulness, then I think I would have succeeded in creating an antibody for the way things are now,” he said of the teens.

Bell has started a GoFundMe page in order to make this vision a reality and to obtain a down payment for a mortgage to acquire the location for Om Space, about 15 to 30 minutes outside of Baltimore.

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“I want it to be a retreat space for peace. Peace of mind so that [black men and boys] can reset and rebuild their character,” he said.

Breanna Edwards is news editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.