Mental illnesses don’t discriminate, but some people have a higher risk because of critical factors like social and economic inequality.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African Americans are 10 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress than other groups. That’s why Changa Bell of Baltimore, Maryland is dedicating his life to making healing more accessible to his peers.'
Growing up, Changa experienced how black men are expected to be pinnacles of masculinity despite whatever inner turmoil they feel, so even though his father was a yogi, he never expected yoga to become his greatest passion.
“I was raised in the ’80s, and yoga was totally not the cool things to do,” Changa told People. But when he learned he had a serious heart condition in the early 2000s, he knew he needed to make a major lifestyle change. So out went heavy drinking and smoking and in came yoga.
Changa quickly got hooked on the healthy practice. He even became a certified instructor, but he wanted to do more to share what had helped him open up. He especially wanted to create a place where black men in Maryland could find healing and a sense of community.
“Black men in particular were being isolated by the yoga community,” Changa told GMA. “We’re marketed as over-sexualized, hyper-violent, hyper-masculine. I wanted to make … a huge welcome sign that said, ‘You’re welcome here and come and heal.'”
So he founded the Black Male Yoga Initiative. At first, getting men to show up for sessions proved quite difficult, but Changa knew it was “a work in progress.” And he was absolutely right! Now dozens attend his classes, and Changa can already see the positive effects.
“I’ve seen changes in their emotions,” he said. “They’ve talked to us about changes in their home life, in terms of literally being ‘different people.'” He added, “Sometimes their wives will come in and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep on doing it!'”
Changa ultimately hopes to empower at least 1,000 other black men to become licensed yoga instructors, and he’s well on his way. Patron Ibrahim Auguste said, “Trauma is deeply intertwined in our existence. We get to express it here.”
In the meantime, Changa is traveling around the country to share his wisdom and spread his passion to as many people as possible.
BMYI plans to expand to four classes a week at five locations around Baltimore, which hopefully means even more people will experience acceptance and healing. Way to make a difference in your community, Changa!
Learn more about the initiative in the video below, and share to spread the word!