If you’re into yoga, then I’m sure you’re aware of the great mental and physical health benefits associated with the ancient Hindu practice. It decreases stress, relieves anxiety, fights depression, can improve heart health, and more. It is something that everyone, both men and women, is highly encouraged to participate in.
After suffering from a heart condition that he says forced him to transform his lifestyle, Changa Bell started to use yoga as a way to improve his physical and mental health. He grew up watching his father do yoga, but it wasn’t until he suffered a major health infraction that Bell turned to the yoga studio to “save his own life.”
“I was raised in the ’80s and yoga was totally not the cool things to do, but I always grew up having yoga as a part of my life,” the 46-year-old Baltimore native tells PEOPLE. “I had a major health infraction and I wanted to do better. I needed to turn my life around. I was in the yoga studio to save my own life.”
Bell began to take yoga seriously, eventually becoming a certified instructor. As a way to encourage fellow black men to find the same healing he did by practicing yoga, Changa Bell created the Black Male Yoga Initiative (BMYI) in 2015. He says one of the reasons he founded the organization was to create a space where black men didn’t feel out of place.
“A major factor was my own personal discomfort in yoga studios. I didn’t feel anybody cared about whether I was there or not. It seemed like I was being judged over my appearance and I didn’t fit the mold,” Bell admits. “I just didn’t want others to feel that way. And once I did indeed get myself better, I wanted to make sure other men didn’t feel the same way I did. I wanted to create a space where they could be themselves and be better.”
Within the last year or two, the conversation surrounding mental health in the black community has become a very hot topic. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health issues than the general population, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. We are also at greater risk for societal circumstances that increase the risk of mental illness, such as homelessness and exposure to violence. Bell admits that it’s not easy to persuade black men to take on yoga.
“It’s still a work in progress,” says Bell. “Getting men to follow you as a yogi is hard, so I have to model the lifestyle. I just try to stay centered and be who I am and that resonates with people. I show that it’s okay to love openly, it’s okay to love yourself. It’s really modeling this openness and ability to grow spiritually that I think really resonates.”
Since starting BMYI in 2015, Changa Bell has been able to encourage dozens of black men to attend his yoga classes and hopes to help at least 1,000 Black men become licensed yoga instructors.
According to PEOPLE, Bell now travels around the country teaching and talking about the importance of holistic health. The loved ones of those he has been able to reach says they’ve seen positive changes in their partners both mentally and physically.
“I’ve seen changes in their emotions,” Bell said. “They’ve talked to us about changes in their home life, in terms of literally being ‘different people.’ Sometimes their wives will come in and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep on doing it!’ Right now it’s been a lot of emotions, mood, and anger management changes for the positive!”