Yogi Changa Bell on benefits of yoga; talks God and Black Male Yoga Initiative

Changa Bell (Photo: Courtesy)
Changa Bell (Photo: Courtesy)

Changa Bell has dedicated his life to educating, engaging and encouraging people to connect with their purpose and increase attention to self-care via holistic health practices. The road to this awareness was prompted by a life-saving diagnosis. During his film career, Bell began to feel an inner yearning to leave everything behind and retreat. He left NYC alone with his daughter and returned home to Baltimore to start anew but the subsequent 10 years were intense. Years of casual drinking, smoking and living unconsciously finally caught up to him. Doctors diagnosed that he would need a pacemaker to live. Never one to blindly comply, Bell said a life-altering prayer to God and began a rebirthing process that included family building, healing, silence, meditation, prayer, and yoga. He traveled the world: Prague, Vina Del Mar-Chile, Nigeria, Canada, London, Amsterdam, Budapest. He even sat atop a live volcano witnessing — then running — as hot magma erupted into the air.

As a Georgetown University Certified Health Coach and founder of both Sunlight and Yoga Holistic Wellness Center, executive director of the Black Male Yoga Initiative, he provides workshops, informational videos, retreats, books, private and group consulting to individuals and organizations that seek transformational change.

He never received a pacemaker. Here’s what Bell tells rolling out.

Tell us about your education and certifications.
I graduated The American University in Washington, D.C. with a BSBA in international marketing. As a wellness practitioner, I am certified in Health Coaching from Georgetown University, I am +RYT 200 Certified in Hatha Yoga and Patanjali Yoga. I have also taken Mindfulness instruction online from Duke University.

What inspired your career path as a yoga teacher?
In 2002 I suffered from mild heart failure. My heart would sporadically stop beating. Doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. I was hospitalized and under intense observation. I was scared to go to sleep but after 30 hours I finally had to submit. I said a very heartfelt prayer and let myself sleep with the promise that if I awakened I would change my lifestyle and dedicate my gifts to serve God. Later that night I was awakened by a nurse poking me like a baked turkey me to see if I were alive. The heart monitor alarm was chiming and I startled her when I spoke. I knew my heart had stopped again, although she did her best to assure me it must have been a “technical error.” I went back into that good night, I honestly had no more will to fight and had accepted whatever the “inevitable” would be. When I was awakened by the warmth of the sun on my face the next morning, I was extremely happy! I can provide the long version later … basically, I was released from the hospital on my own accord. I was not healed or well. I was on my own to recovery or perish.

Since my dad had always practiced yoga and led a holistic lifestyle, I modeled his practices until I achieved success. About a month later after “right” living and eating, my heart went back to beating “normal” and stopped malfunctioning. I have practiced and evangelized yoga and well living ever since. In 2014, I was offered to take over an ailing yoga studio and the rest is history.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your business?
I am an entrepreneur in the wellness industry. I teach yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. The most challenging aspect of yoga is that traditional, classical yoga is not commercially successful. I like to practice and promulgate the traditional form of yoga because it heals, augments and saves lives. It has been an uphill battle thus far to create an increased level of awareness in the African American community, as preventive health care is not a high priority or value. Health in the form of physical appearance is widely sought by the African American community, but not health and wellness in the form of balance, bliss, and equanimity.

Therefore, I need effective marketing and emotive advertising to shift the hearts and minds of my intended demographic. For example, styles of yoga like “hot yoga” is not yoga, it is an exercise program. Most yoga in gyms and commercial studios add to the stress and poor health habits of many in our community. Conversely, yoga is the development of mind, body, and emotional intelligence to come together as a more complete and spiritually unified human being. I feel that if given the chance to experience a more authentic and classic style of yoga, the health benefits of yoga would be realized in the mind-bodies of more people on the whole and specifically with African-Americans.

What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of the business?
The most rewarding part of working in the wellness industry are the success stories. Assisting people who were just like me, on the doorstep of death, to suddenly get up and walk away. No matter how big the ailment, how small the goal, helping other people feel empowered enough to make the changes they want to see in their own lives, makes me feel a part of something larger than myself or them. It makes me feel connected to God and purpose.

The benefits of doing yoga are many, but the most important outcome is awareness. The Bible calls it discernment. King Solomon prayed ardently for this gift of awareness, discernment, and when he received it he became the richest man in the land. Having awareness changes everything. It puts you in the driver’s seat and helps us as humans take full accountability for success and health in our lives.

What encouraged you to focus on men?
Put simply, Black males of all ages are dying prematurely over very solvable challenges. Anger management for youth dying in senseless violence, high blood pressure, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, ADHD, mental health issues and more. Not to mention the physical challenges of life such as arthritis, injuries from athletics and car accidents. All these challenges of life are ameliorated or completely prevented with a committed yoga practice. Women are very open to and benefit greatly from the practice of yoga its secondary and tertiary outcomes, so I wanted to be clear in my messaging so that men of color felt welcomed and would know from the outset that in our space their needs would be met and they could feel comfortable in an unknown and unfamiliar learning space.

What notable people have you worked with over the years?
I have worked with many Baltimore City and state of Maryland officials like Maryland State Delegate Jill Carter, and other private clients that I am obligated to keep their names anonymous. However, I am a 2015 Bme Community, Leader Award recipient. That Award is now called a Genius Award, but as a Bme Leader, I have led yoga sessions with prominent CEOs like notable footwear designer and Pensole CEO, D’Wayne Edwards, law enforcement officers of the Baltimore City Police Department, former NFL athletes like Aaron Maybin, and reputable actors like Lamman Rucker.

When you are not working, how do you spend your time?
When I am not working I am spending time with my wife and six children. We are a very tight family. I have been at the birth of all of my children. Assisted in three at-home births and delivered my youngest son, unassisted with only my wife. We homeschool all but one of the kids so we are a very close family. We enjoy watching movies, practicing yoga, walking, playing catch, cooking, creating, dancing, indoor gardening, telling jokes or working together. With the little personal time I get, I read, write practice yoga or rest.

Tell us about your program that teaches young men who have been incarcerated.
I created a nonprofit corporation, The Black Male Yoga Initiative. I have partnered with a local Baltimore program, Fresh Start, that serves young men who have been incarcerated or find themselves in and out of the juvenile justice system. The program used to also serve foster youth but the foster youth no longer participate. Nevertheless, the director of the program and I felt that the young men would benefit greatly from both mindfulness and yoga. Our first program was a huge success and ran for eight weeks until funding ran out. Our current cohort has funding for 13 weeks.

The young men visibly and behaviorally become different. We see anecdotal evidence in about three weeks from the start date. They are less angry, agitated and are more susceptible to being vulnerable. In addition, they become more interdependent and show a greater capacity for calm, peace and joy in their lives. In addition, I have recently partnered with several restaurants to help feed their bodies as well as their minds. This has been a huge hit as these are growing young men that have a great deal of responsibility for others so they are not always able to abundantly shower themselves with an excess of food, clothing etc.

In the near future, I hope to find a wearable fitness partner next so that I may record measurable outcomes where I hope to find evidence or decreased heart rate, improved sleep and increased “energy/exercise” by recording the data and comparing the pre-assessment data with data every eight weeks. Overall, BMYI’s intended goal is to have the young men complete the 200 hours needed to be certified and registered as yoga instructors with the Yoga Alliance. At present, we have our first young man, currently 18 years old, on track to graduate the BMYI Youth Development Program May 2018 as our first certified yoga teacher.

Where do you see yoga being in the next five years?
I see yoga reaching its peak in the general population in the next five years but growing rapidly in the African-American community at that time. There is already a host of unique and different communities of yogis of color. It is like hip-hop was in the 80’s and I think we have only seen a sliver of the surface of what yoga will become in the future for people of the diaspora. Kids of color are often of the cutting edge of innovation and creativity. I am super excited to see what they will do with spirituality, wellness, and yoga.

What does one have to do to gain all if the benefits of doing yoga?
With the physical practice of yoga, as with other physical activities, there are inherent dangers and one can sustain significant injury if not under the proper and vigilant guise of a knowledgeable teacher. However, there is literally a cornucopia of benefits that can be received from a dedicated and focused yoga practice. People gain whatever their bodies, lives, emotions and minds may be lacking. It is common to hear reports of increased energy, stamina, mobility, mental acuity, sexual performance, balance, intelligence, memory, happiness, health, improved relationships, blood detoxification, and sick people are able to rid themselves of disease. In addition, in many cases after a period of years of unwavering practice, people gain extra sensory awareness such as healing hands, clairvoyance, telepathic powers, increased hearing and more.

What other things that you do to continue to inspire others?
I inspire others through a weekly radio show on a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate on Morgan State University’s WEAA 88.9 FM. My program is titled The RelationSHIFT Experience. My show is about spiritual awakening and awareness. We use trending and not so trending topics to shift the awareness of the listeners’ most important relationship of all, the one with themselves. By group coaching and visceral example we are able to shift our listeners’ locus of control from external to internal. The result is a more engaged, educated and empowered person that begins to see the sovereignty of self and learns to become accountable for the outcomes in their lives. In addition, I life coach and speak at organizations and events on yoga, meditation, personal and professional shift, mindfulness, purpose driven living, self-realization, family development, community curation, professional development and more. I also host workshops and retreats to inspire and help transform lives. But mostly what I do to inspire others is to live by example and be active and present in the lives of my wife and children, not as a placeholder, or figurehead, but as a friend, father, partner and confidant.

How can people find out more about you and your business?
People can connect with me at www.changabell.com to retain life coaching services or to book me for presentation or speaking engagements. Also, people interested in shifting their consciousness may want to listen weekly to my radio show on www.changabell.com/reradioshow, streaming on weaa.org and podcasting weekly on iTunes as “The RelationSHIFT Experience.”  I am fairly consistent on social media and like to engage with people on Instagram and Twitter @changabell. Finally, the website for my yoga company is www.sunlightandyoga.com and information for my not-for-profit that serves Black men and boys is at www.bmyi.org.

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