This is a short article that Deepak Chopra, M.D., and I wrote about an approach to teaching yoga and meditation to at-risk youths. We have been developing and implementing it in South East Queens for the past year within Life Camp, run by Erica Ford.
Special thanks to Connie Tomaino of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham for her help with the science behind music therapy.
Thirteen years ago, a man who went by the name of Black Just was shot and killed in South East Queens. He was killed trying to interrupt a retaliation killing – an assailant pulled a gun on his friend, and he jumped in between them, hoping to dissuade the man from pulling the trigger. It was his instinct, but his good intention tragically brought him into the pathway of the killer, and the bullet hit the wrong mark. Black Just left behind two young boys – Juquille, who was only six, and his brother, Jazzy, who was twelve. After the traumatic and unexpected death of their father, the two boys emotionally and psychologically shut down; they withdrew from playing with their friends, the elder boy from his studies at school, and they became empty shells of their former selves.
South Jamaica, Queens, is one of the most violent areas of New York. The homicide rate is considerably higher than other parts of the five boroughs; violence, drugs and poverty are rampant. At a recent school assembly of 100 kids, a speaker asked, how many of you have a friend or relative who has been shot? Almost every hand in the room went up. It is not uncommon for small children to be exposed to violent crimes in the streets, or in their apartment complexes – whether physical and verbal abuse among family members, or random shootings in their neighborhoods.
During the 1980’s in this area of Queens, the Hip-Hop movement was just taking birth. Rap music and scratching had reached critical mass, and a cultural movement that was based on music, fashion, language, poetry and style was rapidly developing. Black Just played a pivotal role in the Hip Hop movement by supporting and developing relationships with the artists, and gave the DJ’s a place to spin (he was later eulogized in song by artists who had made it big, such as the rapper NAS and 50 Cent). Emerging artists like RUN DMC, Salt ‘n Pepa, LL Cool J, Tupac Shakur and many others were experimenting and breaking new ground, and a woman named Erica Ford was right in the middle of the creation zone, and was friends with many of the artists, and Black Just. Violence in this world was rampant, and it was beginning to wear on her.
Erica wanted to bring a new code of street conduct to African American and Latino youth, and began working with gang members as early as 1987. Her engagement with activism eventually led her to work with Tupac Shakur in 1994, (he was shot dead two years later), and later with Hip-Hop mogul turned vegan/yogi/activist Russell Simmons in 1998. But after the tragic murder of Black Just in 1999, things began to solidify for Erica, and a new sense of urgency developed. She partnered with some of Black Just’s close friends and created Life Camp, a program to give young people a second chance. She had seen murder after murder, and felt helpless, frustrated and angry at the senseless behavior in her community – the complete waste of life, talent and love – it was all blood on the streets. By 2002 she had been to seventy-five funerals for seventy-five friends lost to gun and gang violence.
Life Camp grew into a non-profit that focused not only on violence prevention, but also provided empowerment opportunities for educationally, economically and socially disadvantaged youth. Through Erica’s tweets, her work was brought to my attention, and I soon became a supporter along with Russell Simmons. Erica’s vision of a violence free generation of kids prompted her to create unique initiatives – a forgiveness dinner for mother’s of murdered children; bringing ex-gang members into the projects to talk with the young gang members in the making, and bringing kids from different schools from NYC together in a special violence prevention program called the ‘100’ – a group of 75 kids and 25 parents who had all been exposed to violent crimes and gun violence. In 2011, Erica brought me out to Queens to meditate with the ‘100’ and I committed myself to working with the youths once per month, to see if teaching meditation could help with their transformation. Soon after this, yoga was added into the program, taught by Eddie Stern.
The meditation and yoga classes went surprisingly well, and there was a great willingness of the kids to participate. When the school year ended, it was decided to keep this aspect of the program going, and a group of young adults continued to meet each Monday to practice yoga, meditate, and read and discuss the writings of great leaders of peace movements such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Two great ideas grew out from the impactful school year and summer program. The first was Urban Yogis, a series of 13 videos produced by the Chopra Well, the Chopra family’s YouTube station. The videos highlighted the work of Life Camp, and as well the positive effects of yoga on incarcerated youth, sufferers of hypertension, kids transitioning out of foster care, as well as celebrities and artists.
The second idea was Hip-Hop yoga: to use culturally relevant music to help draw kids into a yoga practice. Using music with yoga is of course not new. There are many teachers who regularly use music to set mood and tone. There are classes taught that make copious use of top 40 and current music – and of course many teachers who remain purist, and whose classes are silent save for the sound of breathing. Hip-Hop Yoga would distinguish itself from the other music-based classes through the combination of original music with inspirational lyrics, all written by the kids based on their experiences in practice.
Music has historically been a unifying force in ancient and modern cultures around the world. National anthems are based on a collective display of pride and strength; shamanic songs are used to access the spiritual world; the ancient Vedic mantras are to this day chanted in groups, large and small, to reinforce a tonal pattern that purifies memory and allows access to pure consciousness. Popular music can set a tone for an entire generation, the songs we remember that define our coming of age, for example.
Music has the unique ability to stimulate tone, pattern, rhythm, meaning and memory in the brain, which are all attributes that contribute to whole brain and whole being functions. It is one of the few modes of incoming information that affects the whole brain, and helps the brain to hum at a coherent frequency – similar to meditation, which has been shown in many studies to cause the synapses of the brain fire in a coherent pattern. As well, music reinforces neural signal patterns, and is used in music therapy to create new memories based on positive associations.
When someone witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, neural pathways are damaged that lead to disassociation of body-mind-spirit, as was the case with Juquille and Jazzy after the death of their father. The fear that arises during a traumatic event triggers an intense sympathetic nervous system reaction of self-protection, and certain processes shut down, like the ability to feel love or empathy, and depression may ensue. Reactions to trauma have their physical correlation in the pre-frontal cortical area of the brain, an area sometimes called the CEO of the brain. This area is associated with organizing thoughts and problem solving, foreseeing consequences of behavior, strategies and planning, modulating emotion, and feeling compassion and empathy.
Memories of trauma are hardwired in the sub-cortical region – or sub-conscious area – of the brain, so even though the psychological effects of trauma are felt in the conscious mind, it is hard to articulate the discomfort, or necessarily even understand it, because the source, the hardwiring, is deep in the sub-conscious. Music can play an important role in healing trauma, through a rewiring of the neural pathways called neuro-plasticity. The creation of fresh neural pathways can bypass broken networks, through the imprinting of new memories that come from purposefully presented experiences. The prefrontal cortex forms a memory pattern that gets hard wired into the sub-conscious that then becomes our automatic response pattern. We can do this purposefully by associating music with positive experiences, which is in practice the main modality of music therapy, and has been shown successful in working with trauma victims, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, autism and stroke victims. Yoga and meditation are a type of self-directed neuro-plasticity, where we purposefully establish patterns of tranquility, self-awareness, reflection and compassion into our neural pathways.
But aside from the science based reasoning on music, we also wanted this to be fun.
Juquille happens to be a talented rap singer, and his friend Tyrell a talented composer. They began writing music for yoga, and Juquille began writing lyrics based on his experiences in the Embodied Peace program, and using the words of the great peace leaders that we studied over the summer. Setting it to yoga was easy, as the practice already was following a particular format based on Ashtanga Yoga. We made a video, and had regular practice sessions to see how to best formulate a class for kids who had never done yoga. The format we decided to use was to first teach the movements without music, to familiarize the students with the movement and breathe patterns, and then to repeat them again with the music. Each class finishes with a silent meditation and a body-scan relaxation, and discussion of the Seven Laws of Success – from one of my earlier book – which included as the larger part of a curriculum of self-awareness. The overall effect has been very positive. Juquille noted right away that his anger, which was previously a problem, was beginning to diminish. He could catch himself before he lashed out. Tyrell noted that he was able to see his thinking processes more clearly, and could stop and think for a moment before reacting to stressful situations.
In January, I invited the whole team to present Hip-Hop Yoga at a class that I teach each year at Columbia Business School. Juquille, Tyrell and Jaytuan (a new addition to the group) fielded questions at the end of the presentation, and among their answers came one of the greatest signs of their ongoing transformation. Juquille and Tyrell are seen as leaders in their community, and now some of their friends were asking them if they could come to yoga class, too. Instead of picking up a gun, some of these kids now want to pick up a yoga mat. They feel empowered by their newfound exploration of consciousness, of their minds, bodies, and sense of purpose.
Many of the kids in the schools that we have been working in are sorely out of touch with their bodies. They are incredibly tight, and this tightness has a direct correlation to tightness in the mind and emotions, too – but within just four to eight classes, they begin to see changes. The regularity of the movements quickly becomes familiar, and their bodies become flexible. The contemplation of the Laws of Success help create an inner mental space, and a reflective mind. This feeling of openness soon translates to change in behavior, and kids are very sensitive to this. Change in behavior creates a change in outcomes, and in Hip-Hop Yoga, this is truly what we are looking for – better outcomes for kids in violent areas, and perhaps, for kids everywhere.