By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, [email protected]

I spent most of my birthday (July 1) weekend at a “no tech Yoga retreat” at the Bar-T Mountainside Summer Camp, in Urbana, Maryland.

For those who know me well, the sight of me at a Yoga retreat is an antithetical narrative; for decades I eschewed the practice of Yoga in favor of weight training (I’ve been lifting since I was 13), then I met my good Brother Changa Bell.

Bell’s story in many ways is a mythic one. In the early 2000’s, he was pursuing a career as a filmmaker, when a previously undiagnosed heart condition was revealed; Bell’s heart would inexplicably stop and then start beating again. “The doctor’s solution was to install a pacemaker,” Bell told me. Instead, he opted to dramatically alter his life. “I changed; stopped drinking, smoking weed, doing happy hours and stopped dating multiple women,” he added.

Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)

By the mid 2000’s, Bell seemed to be drowning in his own outsized ambition. He was pursuing multiple degrees; as a McNair Scholar in 2006, he sought an MA in Comparative Regional Studies (Latin America), an MBA in International Marketing and was a PhD candidate in Economics. But, the pressure of powerful personal issues, including his dying brother, a custody battle over his oldest child and a new marriage (his wife Devonna was two weeks pregnant), compelled Bell to release that prodigious academic load and forced him to delve deeper into spirit.

Ultimately, Yoga became a major part of his path to enlightenment (Bell recently completed another life changing chapter with a month-long trip to India). Today, he is a Yogi, life coach, spiritualist and owner of the Sunlight and Yoga studio on Falls Road in Northeast Baltimore and founder of the Black Male Yoga Initiative (BMYI). With BMYI, Bell’s mission is really ministry, bringing the benefits of Yoga’s physical and spiritual pursuits to young Black men from Baltimore who typically grapple with very challenging life experiences.

That brings us to this past weekend in Urbana. Bell and Devonna, his amazing wife invited me to this Yoga retreat and I didn’t really hesitate (although my only previous Yoga experience was with Bell at the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle retreat in Philadelphia last November). I thought it would be a cool way to spend my birthday, but it turned out to be so much more.

The Bell’s indefatigable and fiercely independent five children (ages 3-10), were ubiquitous. So were the dozen Black boys, ages three to 17, who were invited to participate on the retreat and accompanied by male mentors, there were also three women from Morgan State University’s School of Public Health who attended (which was free for all of us due to Bell’s generosity). The first morning started with Yoga at 6 a.m., later we zip lined through the woods, which included a harrowing obstacle course, there was swimming, followed by a restorative Yoga session, and we ended the day with an eye-opening (literally) night time hike through the woods (with no flashlights).

At the end of that day there were some tense moments when one of the older boys was vocally rebelling over giving up his cell phone. His behavior was corrected by Bell and the other men. But, maybe more importantly the young man who was acting out, was also counseled by one of the other older boys, a funny and charismatic 17-year old with a huge personality. It was the same boy, a natural leader who when we arrived at the camp and began the process of introducing ourselves, spoke openly and tearfully about how much he loved his mother. He spoke about how he knew he “was good” as long as he had her.

The next morning, the young man who had been disrespectful the night before came to breakfast with a brand new positive attitude as he entered the dining hall and loudly proclaimed to all who had assembled “good morning.”

I’m confident the no tech Yoga retreat was an amazing experience for those young men, I know it was for me. I’m also confident Bell’s desire to introduce the tenets of Yoga that probably saved his life to others, could save the lives of countless other Black boys and men.

What a beautiful weekend (which would not have been possible without the extraordinary work of Devonna Bell and Chrissy Hudson, Changa’s assistant).

For me personally, Bell facilitated an opportunity to stretch my body, mind and spirit in new ways at a critical crossroads in my life (I’m publishing my first book, Baltimore After Freddie Gray, among other things).

I am grateful.

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore Editor.