"We started working with gang leaders and kids who had been in prison, and now, they're leaders of society," Dr. Chopra said on our ESSENCE Empowerment stage.

Britni Danielle
Jul, 05, 2015

They seem like an unlikely duo, but after Erica Ford, founder of LIFE, Camp Inc., a New York City non-profit, organized “Peace Week,” a friend suggested she meet Deepak Chopra.

At first, Ford bristled. “They were talking about all that spiritual stuff, and I was like ‘Yeah that’s good for rich white people over there, but I’m from the hood. I can’t relate to that.’”

Instead of giving Chopra the cold shoulder, Ford decided to test his commitment to her cause.

“I challenged him to come to the hood and do his work,” she admitted. “And he’s been coming to the hood ever since.”

Urban Yogis, a program that teaches young people in the Baisley Houses yoga, meditation, and conflict resolution, grew out of the pair’s partnership. But what happened next was amazing.

“We started working with gang leaders and kids who had been in prison, and now they’re leaders of society,” Chopra told the ESSENCE Festival crowd.

It wasn’t a complete drama free process, however. Because Urban Yogis takes place outdoors in the middle of the projects, some of the young people were being called “gay” and “punks” for participating. Thankfully, they didn’t let peer pressure stop them from improving their lives.

“They didn’t let it deter them, and now they’re yoga teachers in the neighborhood,” said Ford.

While the teens in Urban Yogis have transformed their own lives, the program is also having a positive effect on the neighborhood as well. 

“In our target areas we’ve had up to 308 days with no shootings where normally we’d have 17-20 shootings in the same timespan,” Ford explained. “So our work is working.”

It’s working so well in fact, Urban Yogis has expanded from three locations in South Jamaica, Queens to 17 sites around New York City, and Chopra and Ford want to take it nationwide.

“We’re becoming a disease of the good,” she said. “Instead of drinking 40s and smoking blunts on the corner, [kids] are doing yoga and talking about meditation.”

“It’s a slow process,” she admitted, “but we believe if we make this cool like we’ve made gangsta rap and thugging cool, then we will begin to change the narrative of what our kids can do.”