Changa Bell founded the Black Male Yoga Initiative in 2015 to teach Black men and boys in the community the importance of holistic health
Credit: Courtesy Black Male Yoga Initiative

Changa Bell, of Baltimore, grew up watching his father do yoga, but he wasn’t very interested in the discipline throughout most of his life.

That all changed in the early 2000s when Bell began suffering from a heart condition that he says forced him to transform his lifestyle. With that, he turned to his father and decided to pick up yoga as he worked to improve his physical and mental health.

“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,” Bell, now 46, 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.”

With that, Bell began studying yoga and eventually became a certified instructor. But the dad of six didn’t stop there. He wanted to help fellow Black men in the Maryland area to find the healing he did through yoga. So, he founded the Black Male Yoga Initiative (BMYI) in 2015.

Credit: Courtesy Black Male Yoga Initiative

He says he decided to launch the organization specifically for Black men for several reasons.

“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.”

Bell says he founded the organization to teach Black men in the community about the importance of holistic health through yoga. His goal? To encourage more Black men to become certified yoga instructors.

Credit: Courtesy Black Male Yoga Initiative

“Black women were already coming to yoga in droves and improving their health statistically,” Bell says. “So I wanted to focus on men because we were dropping like flies, so to speak, and not focusing on health and being open to healing.”

Black 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, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported, citing the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. Black Americans are also at greater risk for societal circumstances that increase the risk of mental illness (like homelessness and exposure to violence).

Credit: Courtesy Black Male Yoga Initiative

There is a negative stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community, so very few seek help for such issues. Thus, Bell knew it wouldn’t be easy to persuade Black men (young and old) to attend his classes.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Bell laughs. “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.”

Credit: Courtesy Black Male Yoga Initiative

Now, dozens of men show up to the classes in Baltimore and Bell even travels around the country teaching and talking about the importance of holistic health. Soon, BMYI will hold four classes a week at five locations in the area. Bell says he’s excited to reach even more Black men and boys, as he’s seen a positive change in the people who already attend.

“I’ve seen changes in their emotions. 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!”

Bell and his BMYI team hope to eventually help at least 1,000 Black men become licensed yoga instructors.